While its customary to leave an outside light on at night for family or guests who are arriving late, I have taken to leaving a light on for an entirely different sort of guest. Each morning I am eager to discover who has come in the night to hang out on our back porch. We have had some exceptional visitors this week and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know who else lives in my neck of the woods.
Tips and Techniques– One of my goals with these moths was not to fuss too much, which is easy to do when faced with such detailed markings. I try to capture each moth with about three passes:
- I lay in the shape and “ground” color first with a wet wash, typically using two colors to get some variation. I begin directly with paint, rather than drawing first. I find that I can capture the basic shape this way with much greater speed. While one moth is drying, I start another and rotate among them.
- Next, I start to delineate the wings from the body and add the primary pattern of markings. The paint is less wet on this pass.
- On the third go around, I use a very dry brush to add remaining details. The antennae are last, as is identifying and labeling each one. This technique worked for all but the Polyphemus moth, which is ridiculously complex and took far more time than the others.
Dragonfly wings. Striped antennae. Subtle grays. A size 0 brush. There is beauty in these small things. But also in the thoughtfulness of a student entomologist who sent me part of her insect collection because she knew I would enjoy painting it. And I hope there is a measure of beauty returned when I send her the finished painting. (Click to view larger)
Tips and Techniques– If you are painting something very small like butterflies, moths, dragonflies and the like, pay attention to the edges of the wings and body. The cleaner and more precise you can be, the more realistic the finished painting will be, especially if you do not plan to add a shadow. Second, get yourself some very tiny brushes. I begin with loose washes to let the watercolor merge on the page, but I build up subtle layers and finish off with very dry brush details using size 0 and 1 brushes. Here’s a bit of the progression from start to finish:
ALSO: Registration for Arts and Birding at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine, July 7-12, 2019 opens tomorrow! Spaces tend to fill quickly, so don’t delay if you are hoping to attend (plus, there is an early bird discount)!
(Work in progress.) I started this page several weeks ago after we left our porch light on all night. In the morning, a treasure trove of moths clung to the walls of the house. Little by little, I’ve added to the collection. Cooler temperatures have slowed the show, but the giant crane fly was a nice find. There’s room for more…we’ll see what September brings. Click on the image to view larger.
Tips & Techniques– I started with a light pencil outline and then painted a miniature variegated wash on each moth to establish a ground color. Once that dried, I added several rounds of details, working from light to dark. The white moths needed a pale shadow to bring them out of the white paper. Although I started with a size 6 brush, it definitely helped to have some very small brushes in my arsenal. I finished these with a size 1 and 0.
A Victorian glass and cherry cabinet full of nests and eggs, collected in the late-1800s, stretches 15-feet from end to end at the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY. I’ve been going to the museum once a year for the last 10 years and I never tire of that case. The variety of the collection astounds me; I will never exhaust its sketching possibilities. I spent two hours absorbed the details of 125 year old nests before running out of time on my recent visit. If only the birds knew what a legacy they left.
My advice for sketching at a museum: check in upon arrival to introduce yourself and ask whether there are any restrictions. Keep your supplies contained—pencil, pen, and sketchbook with a small set of watercolors or colored pencils work well. Recognize when other museum goers, and especially kids, want to look at what you are observing. If you’re comfortable and people seem interested, invite them to have a look at your artwork. I’ve met a number of aspiring young artists in museums and always enjoy encouraging them.
The Pember Collection- A gallery of sketches dating to 2006 (click to view larger)
Nautilus, colored pencil, 8×10
If you love sketching or photographing birds and nature, want to improve your skills, and have a fun week exploring the beautiful rocky coast of Maine, check out Arts and Birding, a five-day workshop at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, June 11-16, 2017. I am the program director and one of the instructors and I guarantee a great experience! Beginners to advanced participants are welcome—we work in a very collaborative, positive atmosphere. Register by Dec. 20 using the “EARLYBIRD” discount and save $50. Get Details >
For years I’ve been fascinated by the work of artists who traveled with the great natural history expeditions of the 17-and-1800s. Those artists worked in the most extreme conditions and with the most exciting of assignments: to catalog the flora and fauna of newly discovered continents. Among my favorites are Maria Sibylla Merian, who exquisitely captured flowers and insects of Surinam (1699-1701), Sydney Parkinson, who crossed the Pacific with the Endeavor and left behind nearly 1,000 finished and unfinished botanical paintings and sketches upon his death at sea (1768-1771), and the prolific Henry Walter Bates, who filled notebook after notebook with insects of the Amazon (1848-1862).
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I’ve always wanted to do a page like this. I started during modest travels of my own, sketching in the cramped quarters of an airplane. I finished back at home, using specimens I had photographed at a natural history museum. No comparison to the working conditions of the masters, but a nod to those artists just the same. And if you’ve ever wondered how much variety you can get from different combinations of browns and blues, paint moths.
Henry Walter Bates, Insects of the Amazon
Henry Walter Bates, 1862
I’m like a kid in a candy store when I step into the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, New York. Thirteen cherry and glass cases house more than 1,200 specimens of birds, 500 mounted mammals, and row upon row of insects, bird eggs, and nests. The collection is life’s work of a single man: entrepreneur and naturalist Franklin Pember (1841-1924). I love capturing pieces of this collection in my journal—but where to begin is always a challenge.
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As I wander from case to case, I look for things that strike my interest and add objects to the page throughout the day. Everything is so incredible that it’s hard for me to choose. I started this page with the ruff chick in the lower right, and then added the moths, followed by the eggs, and dragonflies. Except for the ruff, I sketched directly in pen to eliminate fussing and added a layer of watercolor in the museum, before running out of time. Later at home, I finished painting and added the catalogue from 1883 from a photo. It was easier to do the lettering at my desk than standing over a glass case.
In the end, the page is a tribute to a fabulous day spent with one of my favorite collections.
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I was drawn to the golden orbs of the horsenettle while hiking last week in an old field on the edge of an orchard. Bright spots of yellow against faded, brown grasses and dried wildflowers, I decided to take a stem home to paint. Upon identification, I was not surprised to learn that the plant is invasive and unwanted, as are many plants that grow in the weedy margins of fields.
Still, I love the way the fruit drapes from the tendrilous vines and there is something ironic, yet masterful in a poisonous plant that protects itself with thorns. Once I painted the horsenettle, I wanted to round out the page with other undesirable beauties of fields and orchards. This trio of moths is found in the Northeast: the yellow-necked caterpillar moth is destructive to apple trees, the larval grapeleaf skeletonizer does just as its name implies, and the fall webworm caterpillar, while not particularly damaging, forms unsightly nests on tree limbs.