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.

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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!

The Art of Discovery

I could paint the colorful planter of flowers on my porch or the stately trees in my yard, or the golden field nearby, and sometimes I wonder why I don’t. Instead, I’m drawn this week to what most people would consider far less beautiful—a mass of polypore fungus emerging from a red maple growing (and dying) along a stream. But a sense of discovery and curiosity has long been integral to my art. I love finding things and finding out about things, and then keeping those discoveries between the pages of my sketchbook.
Tips & Techniques– These fungi were strikingly white, but translating white objects onto white paper is tricky. Whites come to life when placed next to darks. I had to look at this group of fungi over and over to begin to see the subtle values and to pick out the mid-tones and darkest darks. When painting whites, keep looking at what’s next to your lightest areas; squint; and keep evaluating whether you’ve got a good range of values from light to dark on your paper.

Three for the Life List

On my recent boat excursion to Eastern Egg Rock in Maine, both luck and good timing were on my side. There, on this small, rocky island where puffins and terns nest, several razorbills sat on shore in full view. I have always wanted to see these sleek black and white puffin relatives, but because they breed on rocky cliffs in northeastern Canada, they are mostly spotted in winter or when migrating. The razorbill sighting alone would have made for a great day on the water, when we spied a common murre—another bird in the auk family that I had never seen—swimming nearby. Moments later, a fantastic northern gannet careened overhead, circled twice, and flew off out of view. The triple header made watching puffins seem almost ordinary. And, as you can see from my sketch, the poor black guillemot, the most common auk species in Maine, didn’t even make the page.