A Prayer in Spring

Oh give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the spring of the year.

— Robert Frost

Under massive oaks and maples: dappled sunlight and hundreds of Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Oh give us pleasure in the flowers today. I had come to the woods feeling heavy-hearted, weary, needing spring. And give us not to think so far away as the uncertain harvest. How well Frost understood his time and ours. Drawing kept me in the moment; later it brought me pleasure again when finishing this page at home. Keep us here—all simply in the spring of the year.

Wishing you the pleasure of flowers.

Close Inspection

The first mowing of the season gave me a close look at our lawn, which any agronomer would tell you has issues. Fortunately, we live in the country where no one cares whether you are growing a monoculture of turf or a diverse mixture of grass and weeds. From a distance, it all looks green. The more I mowed the more curious I became. How many different plants could I find? Hence, this Field Guide to Things in the Lawn That Aren’t Grass.

Tips and Techniques– Follow your curiosity. You may not end up with a grand painting, but you will discover all sorts of fascinating things around you.

Surrounded by Magenta

After a winter of painting with brown and earth-toned pigments, it feels extravagant to use so much magenta. But this particular variety of magnolia had magnificently deep-colored blossoms and I found myself dipping into paint pans that I rarely use. With the tree in full bloom and fallen petals on the ground it was a delight to be surrounding by so much color.

Tips and Techniques– When you are using a strong color like quinacridone magenta, it helps to tone it down. I used yellow ochre and aureolin yellow, which produce some lovely warm shades of pink. Mixing with cobalt blue gave me cooler and darker tones for shaded areas. Test out the reds in your paint box. Red plus yellow doesn’t always give you orange, especially when using cooler reds like alizarin crimson or quinacridone rose. Red plus yellow can produce excellent flesh tones and subtle pinks.

The Lovely and the Lowly

I broke my home-bound suspension yesterday just to paint magnolias in bloom. I went to a nearby cemetery where I’d seen them previously. I was not disappointed; several large trees were in their full glory. Amidst the quiet of gravestones, their display was enjoyed only by birds and a few passersby.

Later at home, I inadvertently dug up an acorn just starting to sprout in my garden. Though lowly, it struck me that this unfolding life was as lovely as the magnolia. And, thankfully, right in my own backyard.

International Nature Journaling Week is coming up, June 1-7. The week aims to bring together a world-wide community to celebrate and document the beauty and diversity of the natural world. As a lead up, artists and bloggers are sharing their perspectives and artwork each week at NatureJournalingWeek.com. I am grateful to be featured this week with a blog post The Art of Discovery.”  

At Home

Being at home day after day (after day) is hard. I wear the gravity of our times like added weight. How grateful I am for our only visitors, who sing their way into spring with airy lightness. I leave my sketchbook by the window so I can draw birds at the feeder and take it with me on my post work rambles. So, today, I offer you a few birds from my yard in hopes that, for a brief moment, they might bring you the cheer that they have given me.
(Click to view larger: blue jays, goldfinches, bluebirds, palm warblers)

Tips and Techniques– For me, sketching birds from life feels a bit like entering a spinning jump rope. Even though the birds are moving, you have to jump in at some point and commit a pose to paper. Once I’ve done that, the bird has likely moved. So, I either wait until it strikes a similar pose or use binoculars to see markings in greater detail. Little by little, I add to the bird, paying particular attention to the beak and eye. I find that if you get those right, the rest of the bird, even if unfinished, is more convincing. Once the initial sketch is down, I use photos as reference for additional details. I sketched these with pencil (yes, I erased a lot) and colored pencil, with a bit of watercolor on the jays and bluebirds.

The Promise of Yellow

Sometimes, we just need yellow. Like when we’re waiting for spring greens to arrive after winter browns, or when the world has been turned upside down and we need a promise of hope. That’s when a burst of yellow forsythia or daffodils are just exactly right.
Click any image here to view larger.
Tips and Techniques– I love the way petals of forsythia blossoms seem to dance. There is a movement to them that is really fun to draw. But to draw every bloom could be too much. You want the burst of yellow, without so much crowding that you lose the dance. In this case, a spatter of paint added a touch of loose, uncontrolled color that complemented the flowers without overwhelming them.

  • A hard shake of a wet watercolor brush yields big drops (top left);
  • A stiff craft brush or old toothbrush flicked with your thumb results in a tighter concentration of marks (bottom);
  • An drop from an eye dropper about 10 inches above the paper gives big splashy drops.

If you don’t already use spatter in your painting, try it next time you want to enliven your subject or to achieve an effect that a controlled brush can’t.

And here’s more yellow just in case you need it.

Color Play: Brown

You would think that this time of year would be about green. But it’s not. It’s still so very brown here in upstate New York. Sure, we’ve had a few green shoots and buds, but the palette is overwhelmingly somber. I couldn’t bring myself to focus on any particular subject today, so I went outside and embraced brown in all its muted, worn-out, post-winter shades. The result is as much a useful lesson in nature’s variety as it is in color mixing.  

Tips and Techniques– You can make a wonderful variety of browns with just a few colors in your paint palette. My go-to favorites for dark browns and smoky grays are burnt sienna with ultramarine blue and burnt umber with ultramarine. I also like the subtlety of burnt sienna and cobalt blue. You can get some lovely warm browns with burnt sienna or burnt umber with alizarin crimson or quin gold. I also have both raw sienna and yellow ochre in my paint box. Although they seem very similar, yellow ochre leans yellow, while raw sienna leans brown, resulting in shades of green or gray when mixed with blues. If like me you are waiting for green, try some color play of your own.