Goldenrod Galls

What began as a simple search for interesting props for my upcoming Sketching Nature workshop, led to a great illustration of how much there is to discover if we only look more closely. Among the things I collected were the dried stems of goldenrod, many of which had classic round goldenrod galls. But I soon discovered other deformities that I hadn’t noticed before: stunted stems with tufts of leaves at the tops, and elliptical-shaped growths on stems.

It turns out that more than 50 species of insects—mostly flies, midges, and wasps– lay their eggs on goldenrod stems. When the larvae hatch, they borrow into the stem, causing the plant to form a protective chamber around the growing grub. When the larvae transforms into an adult, it emerges from its hideaway and flies off. Sometimes woodpeckers drill into the gall for a meal, in which case, you’ll find a small hole in the gall. For the most part, the insects don’t harm the plant; though in the case of the bunch gall, they do stunt the growth of the stem, causing leaves to sprout at the top and curtailing the growth of flowers.

So, there you have it…a bit of natural history for your day and an invitation to go out and see what you can discover.

Tips & Techniques– Keep it simple! I wanted this page to illustrate how much you can do with a few simple things on a page and a limited amount of time. I drew everything directly in pen and shaded only the darkest areas. I added watercolor in three loose layers, using combinations of yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue. A bit of spatter near the dried flowers and the “goldenrod galls” text were my finishing touches.

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Two Swallows

No turtle doves here this Christmas, and no partridge in a pear tree. Just two tree swallows and a bird house I’m giving as a gift. I started the first painting on traditional watercolor paper and then decided to paint a second to test drive the new Nova series toned paper from Stillman & Birn. Doing the paintings side by side gave me a perfect opportunity to compare papers while painting the same subject using the same materials and techniques. Which do you like for the gift?

Tips & Techniques: The toned paper is 150gsm and labeled suitable for dry media, light wash, and ink. I used white gouache for the breast and regular transparent watercolor for the rest and was surprised at how well the paper took the paint. It buckled only slightly, so I kept the watercolors on the dry side. In contrast, the painting on watercolor paper (Strathmore 400 series 140lb) enabled me to work a little wetter. Here, I let the white of the paper serve as my white and added only pale shadows on the breast. Though the colors are cleaner on the white paper, I like toned paper for the impact of subjects like this that have strong whites. I wish the Nova paper was a little heavier, but I like it enough that I may do a series of birds on it.

Bringing Hummingbirds to Life

The bird lay dead in my hand, a small and precious jewel given to me by a friend. Fully intact and still dressed in glittering green, it was a rare gift. I’d never held a hummingbird; never studied one so closely. An opportunity like this meant one thing: break out the magnifying glass, ruler, and pencil and get to work.

As an artist, I find observing dead birds enormously helpful when trying to bring them to life on paper. I love the ability to look closely at various features, to study proportions, and to look at feather patterns and feet. A bird in hand lets you see details that a photo and even live birds cannot— like the iridescent feathers on a hummingbird’s throat that appear black unless reflecting light or the length of the primary feathers. As you can see, I didn’t try to enliven my first sketches— these are strictly studies. The birds on the right take flight thanks to the motionless birds on the left (click to view larger).

The Hummingbird Gallery

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About Hummingbirds– Hummingbirds are pretty incredible creatures— they can fly forward, backward, and straight up and down, and buzz around at speeds up to 30 mph. Weighing in at just 3-4 grams, they never-the-less manage to fly more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico each year on their annual migrations from the US and Canada to Central America. There are more than 300 species in the world, twelve in the US, and only one, the ruby-throated hummingbird, in the eastern US. Journey North tracks its annual trek (as well as monarch butterflies and other creatures)…check out the journey.

Nest

I walked out and found the nest in the gravel driveway, not by the step as the poem says, but close enough.
Nest by Marianne Boruch

I walked out, and the nest
was already there by the step. Woven basket
of a saint
sent back to life as a bird
who proceeded to make
a mess of things. Wind
right through it, and any eggs
long vanished. But in my hand it was
intricate pleasure, even the thorny reeds
softened in the weave. And the fading
leaf mold, hardly
itself anymore, merely a trick
of light, if light
can be tricked. Deep in a life
is another life. I walked out, the nest
already by the step.

Poem copyright © 1996 by Marianne Boruch, whose most recent book of poetry is “Poems: New and Selected,” Oberlin College Press, 2004. 

Under the Porch Light

(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.

Time for a New Field Guide

Within the last few weeks, more than ten species of mushrooms have emerged in a grove of oaks in our yard and I’m only familiar with one of them. Mushroom identification is complicated and depends on a number of factors that I tend to forget from year to year: whether or not there are gills and how they are attached, the shape of the cap, the color of the spore print, color, habitat, season, and more. For now, looking more carefully and making sketches and field notes before these ephemeral species disappear is more valuable than knowing the names. But soon, it will be good to have a guide to fungi on my shelf.

Though I set out to paint these, I quickly decided to simplify and just use a mechanical pencil. It made it easier to move from one cluster to another and maximize limited sketching time.

Drawn to the Coast

It’s thrilling to see my artwork in print this week in an article I wrote and illustrated for Passagemaker Magazine (a magazine for boaters). Drawn to the Coast is an illustrated essay about being inspired by the Maine Coast. Going from concept sketches to full size watercolors to seeing how the magazine’s designer put it all together was one of the most exciting aspects of this assignment.

Let me take you behind the scenes to share some of that process. Click on the artwork to see the sequence full size.

An assignment like this stretches you as an artist and working through challenges definitely advances your skills. Some of you may remember my struggle a few months ago to paint clouds for the title spread, which was perhaps my greatest challenge. I drew upon years of journal sketches to do this piece, but painted everything in my studio over the course of about a month. Now, I can’t wait to get back to the real thing!