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.
When the world has been brown for months, the first emergence of green is a wonderful thing. Skunk cabbage has been unfurling for several weeks now and is a most welcome sight along woodland streams and wetlands. In late winter, it sends up a maroon-striped spadix, which encloses its unpleasant smelling flower, and then in early spring it unrolls bright green leaves. I recently spent a pleasant afternoon sketching on the edge of a wooded steam, enjoying dappled sun and birdsong, and feeling grateful for this one beautiful color.
Tips & Techniques– Deciding what to sketch is sometimes harder than actually sketching. Likewise, figuring out what you want your page to look once you’ve chosen a subject may seem daunting. Here are a couple of ways to get past the blank white page:
- Option 1: Start with a couple of quick thumbnail sketches. These will help you figure out whether you like your subject enough to devote time to it and whether you think you can tackle it in the time you have. Thumbnails will also help you consider different approaches to page layout. They can help you map out where the lights, mid-tones, and darks are too, which will give you a road map for the full page version.
- Option 2: Just begin! Rather than thinking you have to figure out everything before you start, consider that your sketching journey can begin with a single step. Make a mark. Make another. Keep looking, keep going until you feel satisfied with the page.
- Option 3: Be thoughtful. Consider what drew you to sketch this particular subject. Think about it for a minute- was it the color? The light? The scene or object? The story? Your experience? When you have an answer, you’ll have a better idea of what to emphasize and how you want to approach the page.
What is it that makes fossilized crinoids so compelling? Is it the artful way these delicate creatures came to rest at the bottom of the sea? Or the amazing transformation from living animal to rock, forever preserved, then heaved and eroded from the depths of time? Or is it the sheer success of this class of echinoderms as a survivor—living, reproducing, and dying over millions and millions of years to this very day in the depths of the oceans?
I discovered the fossilized Uintacrinus socialis, a floating crinoid species whose arms could reach three feet long, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut. I found the other beautiful specimens (depicted below) at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College in Massachusetts (Platycrinus and Dichocrinus sp.) and the Peabody Museum (Sea Lily).
Tips & Techniques– Studying the anatomy of creatures you’re interested in painting can make a world of difference. Not only will it help you get the drawing right, it will deepen your understanding and appreciation for the nature of the world. Drawing the anatomy of a crinoid helped me figure out what features to look for in the fossil specimens and to see the similarities between crinoids and their echinoderm relatives– sea stars and urchins.
The pages of Birds Worth Knowing, written by Neltje Blanchan and published in 1917 are yellowed and worn. With a classic old book feel and scent, they remind me of cheap paper tablets used by elementary students learning to write. As a scientific historian and nature writer, Blanchan’s work is descriptive and thorough. Still, it sits on my shelf, year after year, untouched. Giving renewed purpose to a page or two seemed fitting.
Tips & Techniques– I like to keep much of my day-to-day work in my artist journal. So when experimenting with different kinds of papers, I typically cut and paste them in. I sliced the pages cleanly out of the bird book with an Exacto knife and trimmed them slightly to fit my Stillman & Birn journal. I used permanent adhesive roller tape to bind the pages—it’s easy to use, clean, and flexible. Archival PVA adhesive also works well and might be best if you’re going to use gouache or acrylic paint on the page. Book pages are not well suited to watercolor.
The hardest thing about drawing on book pages is seeing your initial lines, which get lost in the type and toned paper. I needed to go over a few pencil lines in ink to better define and see them. Subjects that have strong values from white to black work especially well and the possibilities for marrying book text and images are endless. I intentionally left the jay and nest unfinished, as I wanted the page to have a sketchbook quality.
The marvel of bird eggs never escapes me. But painting them to perfection almost always proves elusive. I’ve been at it for years. I found these paintings done over the last 10 years in the back of my art file drawer this week and was reminded of the value of practice. Over and over, year after year, I learn, make mistakes, improve, try again. The trick with eggs is getting the edges clean and precise, while adding multiple layers of paint so that the egg takes shape. You can see that some of these made it and others didn’t. And the challenge of doing many eggs on a single page is that they all have to be right for the piece to work. So, I am curious– what’s your “egg?” What marvelous subject do you return to again and again in spite of difficulties and disappointments?
A month ago I posted a drawing of an enormous hornet’s nest that took both a considerable amount of time to draw, as well as space on my kitchen table while doing so. Shortly thereafter a friend suggested that I had drawn it upside down! The opening on a hornet’s nest is typically at the bottom which, apparently, helps keep rain out, and I had drawn it at the top. Solving the problem wasn’t a simple matter of turning the drawing around— the shading and composition simply didn’t hold up when the drawing was flipped. So, with reluctance, I went back to the drawing board, as they say, for another go.
Tips & Techniques: Although this piece took just about as long as the first one—15+ hours over the course of two weeks— I was able to take what I learned the last time and push the drawing further. The best part of doing a complex and subtle piece like this is that it forces you to really look at and replicate a full range of values from light to dark in order to get the object to take shape on paper. I used 2H, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, and 6B pencils.
Whether in black and white or color, I see artists struggle with values all the time. Failing to save the lights (in watercolor, the white of the paper) or being too timid to push the darks frequently leads to a flat drawing or painting. If that is something you have difficulty with, I recommend making a simple value scale with a variety of materials, including pencil, pen, and paint. Here’s a very simple scale, with just light, mid-tone, and dark. You could do a range of five or a full scale with many subtle tones to practice.
Keep the scale handy as a reference. Hold it up next to a drawing or painting you are working on and check whether you’ve got a good range of light to dark. If not, go back to your subject and look again. With practice, you’ll start to see and incorporate a full range with confidence.
A solitary half-dead dogwood and a tangled hedgerow of vines and shrubs is all the landscaping that came with our house when we bought it last September. It’s not much, as they say, but it’s home. And, it turns out, it’s home to a surprising variety of birds as well. They are attracted mainly to the bird feeders we hung from the dogwood, though the shelter of the hedgerow and a neighboring elm provide good cover, too. For the price of sunflower seed and suet cakes, I’m enjoying the show from my kitchen window.
Though my backyard count is just an informal tally, it has been a longstanding tradition to count birds at Christmas time. The nascent Audubon Society began a winter bird census in 1900. Today, Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this long-running census to assess the status of bird populations, and to help guide conservation action. Find out more: www.audubon.org/join-christmas-bird-count