Today started unseasonably warm—an incredible 60-degrees—but slowly fell back into winter by nightfall. While the sun shone this afternoon and the temperature descended through the 50s, I wandered deep into the field. There, amidst matted goldenrod and thorny weeds, I had an unusually good find: several egg cases laid by praying mantises. Each one may contain as many as 400 tiny mantises. Like me, they will wait for a more lasting warmth, relying on spring to bring the field to life once again.
My yard is littered with walnuts, the driveway with acorns, the side yard with sugar maple keys. My desk, too, is nearly taken over by tree seeds of all shapes and sizes and in various states of decay. I have been collecting them for the past few weeks in order to make this painting. Collection pages are so much fun to do. Whether seeds or mushrooms or amphibians or moths, I enjoy learning about each species and about the group as a whole. And I enjoy the challenge of making the individual parts come together on paper. This piece is nearly done, but for labeling each of the tree seeds. What script to use is my final decision— as is figuring out what those three wiry balls on the right are (I know the rest—do you?)
The Hog Island Audubon Camp has an incredible lab with hundreds of specimens and bird study skins. What makes it extraordinary is that camp participants and staff have access to it all. Drawers of mothball-laden cabinets reveal many treasures: bird eggs, wings, feet, skulls, and whole birds. I love using the collection to study birds up close and to teach Arts and Birding participants about bird anatomy. This year, I chose two birds that are frequently heard but hard to see in the island’s spruce forest—hermit thrush and black throated green warbler—and used a combination of video and study skins to bring them to life on paper.
I also found the remains of a gull skeleton while hiking and made a careful study of the wing bones, which will serve as a useful reference for sketching living birds.
Tips and Techniques– If you want to improve your bird drawings, I highly recommend studying bird anatomy and feather structure, and looking at stuffed specimens or study skins. Many museums and nature centers have collections that you can request permission to look at. You’ll be able to see key features up close and sketch details that you can then incorporate into subsequent bird artwork.
Why is it that the first native wildflower to bloom each year in the Northeast gets so little fanfare or attention? Could it be its unappealing name– skunk cabbage? Or the fact you have to search for it in wetlands and bottomland forests or along damp streamsides in late-February and March? Or could it be that it doesn’t really signal the end of winter, able, as it is, to thrive when there is still snow on the ground?
Still, I think there is much to recommend skunk cabbage: it’s mottled deep maroon hood which conceals a pineapple-like flower head; it’s ability to generate its own heat; and, best of all, it’s bright green, tightly-rolled leaves that begin to unfurl in April. And now, having dug up a skunk cabbage to study it more closely, I would add to the list its massive root system, which anchors the plant deep in the ground. What more praiseworthy spring wildflower could there be?
Tips and Techniques– Follow your curiosity. Without it, I would not be out in the woods in February or studying the roots of skunk cabbage or painting many of the other subjects that intrigue me. Find what spark’s your interest and follow it.
A spark of red. Bold color after months of winter. Unfortunately, my poor bouquet of tulips drooped within hours of when I purchased it, and well before I had time to paint it. Alas, the grand wilt gave me the perfect opportunity to create this herbarium page inspired by Wendy Hollender’s wonderful book, Botanical Drawing in Color: A Basic Guide to Mastering Realistic Form and Naturalistic Color (2010). It turns out that Emily Dickinson, too, kept an herbarium. Her poem, numbered 978, conveys the essence of may be missed when you think you have another chance, another day, but don’t.
It bloomed and dropt, a Single Noon—
The Flower—distinct and Red—
I, passing, thought another Noon
Another in its stead…
Tips and Techniques– Precision, accuracy and beauty are the hallmarks of natural science illustration. Botanical illustrators like Wendy Hollender, who works in colored pencil and watercolor, provide great insight into techniques used to make highly accurate renderings. While a journal hardly needs to be so detailed, I find it instructive to paint this way on occasion. I began the tulip with a pencil drawing, followed by a very loose wash of watercolor. From there, I used an increasingly dry brush (sizes 2 and 0) to apply more layers of watercolor. Getting a full range of values from light to dark is essential to making the petals take shape.
Warblers: those ever elusive, but much beloved sprites of the tree tops; flitting about, dashing out and then back again, catching insects on the fly or just daring you to find them amidst the greenery. Capturing the yellow warbler on paper proved challenging, too. Perhaps it is because these perky little birds rarely sit still, so making them pose on paper seemed unnatural. Or maybe it’s that paint pales in comparison with the stunningly bright yellow of this warbler in sunshine. Nonetheless, #4 in my perching bird series is complete and, after several weeks of painting birds, I’m planning to turn my attention to other subjects for a while. (Click image to view larger.)
Tips and Techniques– Yellow can be a devilish color! It seems so light, yet, like other colors, there is a whole range of values from light to dark. Shadows on yellow are also tricky. They sometimes appear greenish or purple or gray. It’s easy to get murky laying shadows on yellow in watercolor. My advice when painting yellow (think daffodils, or lemons, or warblers), is to start lighter than you think. Leave the white of the paper for the brightest areas. Do a few washes to deepen values as needed. Experiment with different shadow tones on a separate test sheet– again, you may not need to go too dark to achieve variety and form.
Sketchers place a lot of emphasis on being about to work fast to quickly capture what they are seeing. I work with the same time pressures when working outside or when sketching on the go. However, I find the exact opposite is needed when I sit down to do a detailed painting. Then, there is no substitute for taking my time and working slowly and carefully. Here’s the third painting in my perching bird series. It took me several days of drawing in fits and starts to get the bird’s position the way I wanted it, and then I painted it over the course of a week, stopping to breath, observe, think through color choices, and take things one step at a time.
Tips and Techniques– Here are two images of the American robin in progress. You can see the underlying loose wash on the robin that helps make the colors interesting and lively. The initial wash on the gray back and head is a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. Second washes included more of the same mix, as well as washes of ultramarine with alizarin crimson to create purple tones. The breast began with burnt sienna, but later washes included a mix of aureolin yellow and pyrol scarlet, which gave it a warmer orange color. My choice to paint the word Robin in yellow ochre came after taking a hiatus in order to think through possibilities. I made some color swatches of other contenders before settling on ochre, but I think it makes a perfect complement to the eggs and the bird. (Click to view larger; sorry the image quality isn’t better)