There are many lovelier species than insects, but none, perhaps, so inexplicably diverse, strange, and – dare I suggest it – marvelous. Our annoyance with “pests,” of which there are many, and our fear of others easily prevent us from taking a closer look at insects. But how can we fail to marvel at these most successful members of the animal kingdom? No doubt, it is easier to wonder at a museum collection under glass, than to appreciate black flies in May. Still, I invite you to come gasp with me*, if only for a moment, at these incredible creatures.
*This phrase was inspired by the poem “Catelog of Unabashed Gratitude” by Ross Gay
Tips and Techniques– Drawing insects invites careful observation and study. Most are built of just three basic body parts—head, thorax, and abdomen. Wings and legs are attached to the thorax, when present. Variation on the theme is where the fun is. If sketching bugs is “not your thing,” I recommend starting with prettier species like butterflies and moths. They just may inspire you to move on to dragonflies, beetles and bees.
Several days ago, I got an unusual text-message from my son, asking how he might help a stunned Anna’s hummingbird that had struck his dorm window. Based on his description and a photo, it didn’t look good. The tiny jewel likely hit the glass at 30 miles per hour. Indeed, despite his best efforts, the bird died several hours later. Yesterday, I visited the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY, and decided to spend time among the hummingbirds in the collection. They, too, were quite dead…and nearly 150 years old. Despite their tattered appearance, specs of red, purple, gold and green flickered on their iridescent throats and backs. My lesson for the week is that, whether dying or dead, it’s hard to bring hummingbirds to life, but it is certainly worth trying.
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Last weekend, I cut the last of the frost-wilted flowers, fed the compost pile, and left a few flower heads for the birds. I thought the garden was finished for the season, until I took a second look at the blackened seed heads. They became the perfect subject for testing my new Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen. I love the way the pen glides over the paper—smooth and fine, not scratchy, just a pleasure to use. The ink is not permanent, so I can’t add watercolor to it, but the line quality is lovely. I’m almost looking forward to sketching what’s left of the dried tangle of runner beans.
I love going out along the roadside and seeing what’s there to sketch. I have yet to do it every month, but at some point I’ll have a nice record of the year. I bring just my journal and a pen, which gives me the ability to safely walk the weedy margins and sketch things that strike me as I go. I make color notes or take reference photos and paint later at home.
Tips and Techniques– Several of you have asked about my travel art supplies, so here you go! What you see above is what I typically bring, whether close to home or farther afield. These supplies fit in a plastic bag that I can tuck in my backpack or handbag, or in a dedicated sketch bag with a long shoulder strap that I sometimes carry. I love being able to do so much with a few basic supplies.
- Sketchbook: Stillman & Birn 5.5×8.5” Zeta or Beta
- Pens: Pigma Micron 02 and 005 black for sketching and text
- Pencil: Steadler F and kneaded eraser
- Brushes: Escoda Versatil Travel Brushes, size 2,6,8. A bigger brush for painting landscapes would be helpful for larger washes.
- Paint: Schmincke box with Windsor and Newton, Daniel Smith, and QoR paints
- Miscellaneous: Paper towels, clips for holding the pages, spray bottle for moistening paints, small water container
If you are looking to carry less on your next sketch outing, try paring down to only what fits in a large Ziploc bag. Lighten up and enjoy!
Monitoring birdhouses gives you a rare glimpse into the often hidden world of nesting birds. It allows an up-close look at nest materials, delicate eggs, and birds at work. I have just two boxes on my property; bluebirds occupy one and tree swallows have taken up the other. In the week ahead, the bluebird eggs will hatch and, hopefully, the swallows will begin laying eggs; and I will have a chance to watch it all unfold.
Tips and Techniques– I experimented this week with using watercolor loaded into a dip pen to write the text. Watercolor doesn’t perform as well as ink, but it certainly works, and it opens up a whole host of color options. If you want to try it, use a brush to create a pool of the color you want and then brush the watercolor onto the nib. You’ll have to reload frequently. Try starting with one color and then altering it with another to create color variation in the letters.
Find information on Nest Box Monitoring at NestWatch.
For the last month, I’ve been watching a robin’s nest that sits on the sill of an eyebrow window at our house. I’ve been able to directly observe everything from four perfect eggs to four pathetic-looking naked chicks to four gaping mouths, begging for their parents to stuff them full of moths and worms. Last Sunday I made this ink sketch, added a bit of color on Monday night, and figured I finish the page later this week. But even when you count your chicks before and after they hatch, it doesn’t mean things will turn out well.
I expected to see four jostling chicks with feathers today and instead found a perfectly empty nest. I checked the calendar, checked my nest records, checked reference books, and checked again. Eleven days…just shy of the 14 to 16 days that it typically takes for nestling robins to fledge. My suspicion is that an owl made off with a nice meal. Although the birds were protected from ground predators, they were otherwise completely exposed, especially as they grew larger and began to overflow the bounds of the nest. It’s an unfortunate fate…unless, of course, you take the owl’s perspective.
Tips: If you are observing nesting birds, it’s a good idea to follow a birding code of conduct to make sure you don’t disturb the birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch program is a good place to learn and to contribute your findings.