Fortunate Find

How many mushrooms can claim to have multiple websites, several online forums, numerous books, and various t-shirts dedicated solely to singing their praises? If that isn’t enough, how about an annual festival? The answer: only one, the morel. I didn’t know this until I stumbled upon a sizable patch of morels in our back woods this week. I knew they were morels, but until I went looking for more information on their natural history, I had no idea that they were such a highly prized and elusive delicacy. Because they cannot be cultivated, morel aficionados scour the woods each spring, hoping conditions and their luck are just right to find a motherlode. If you are a morel lover, I wish I could send you the genuine article from my woods; instead, my sketch will have to do.

Text reads: “If there has been enough rain and if the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold, and if the winter has been neither too mild nor too severe, and if you are in the right place at the right time, you may find morels.” Tom Volk, Tom Volk’s Fungi

Spring Gems

When you think of spring, what colors come to mind? Though red is not typically on my list, there are several species that wear shades of ruby and garnet that sing out amidst spring’s palette of greens. I went looking for Jack-in-the-Pulpit in a nearby nature preserve and, though I found a few, it was the display of red trilliums on the forest floor that was in its full glory. The following day, the rose-breasted grosbeak, one of my favorite migratory birds, returned to our yard. The male’s beautiful deep red breast is a showstopper. That sent me looking for a few other red standouts to add to this page. How glad I am to capture this priceless display of spring gems!

Tips and Techniques– Once you start looking at color – or looking for a certain color – it’s amazing what you’ll find. Try this: pick your favorite spring color and devote a page of your sketchbook to as many things as you can find that are that color. The subtle variations will help you get to know your paints and give you valuable practice in color mixing.

New Life for an Old Post

An old and increasingly rotted split-rail fence lines the side of our driveway and, as long as you don’t look closely or lean on it, it adds character. Replacing the whole thing is “a project” which, as any homeowner can appreciate, means money, time, and labor. Alas, it’s staying put for now. This week I was delighted to spy a pair of chickadees excavating a nest cavity in one of the posts that no longer has a rail. They’d slip inside, hammer away at the soft interior, and come out with beak-fulls of wood chips. By today, the cavity looks about as deep and wide as they can go without breaking through the walls. I can’t wait to see what comes next and to continue working on this page as the story unfolds.

Tips and Techniques- When you know you have more to come to flesh out a page, it’s worthwhile to think through your layout. You don’t have to plan everything, but you need to give yourself options. Over the next few weeks, I hope to be able to add more to this page, including a nest with eggs, a second chickadee, and dates from excavation to fledging (if they make it that far). By putting everything on one side at the start, I’ve left a lot of room for what comes next. But I’ve also carried a touch of spring green across the page to create a connection right from the start. I look forward to sharing this with you as it progresses.

A Welcome Sight

Whether it’s their sweet song, colorful breast, or way of bobbing across the lawn, seeing robins in springtime is a welcome sight. They spend the winter in small flocks feeding on berries and sheltering in nearby woods, where they blend in well with russet-colored oaks leaves and gray bark. But as the grass begins to green, robins are frequenting my yard more often, probing the soft ground for worms and other insects. They are common birds, yes, but no less deserving of attention, gratitude, and a sketch.

Tips and Techniques– I enjoy doing sketchbook pages like this, where I pick a bird and study it in different postures. I always learn a lot, both in the pencil sketch stage and when painting. My goal is to get the essential shapes and features down, preferably without too much fuss, so that the sketch stays fresh. Repeating the same species forces me to look more carefully. Here’s what I think about: What makes a robin look like a robin (and not another bird of similar size)? How can I get at least a basic amount of information on the page while the bird is moving? How can I use a photo reference without simply copying a photo? How can I let the paint do more of the work—mixing and blending on the paper to add interest?

A Day at the Beach

When March feels like January and the urge to go outside and sketch no longer seems sane, I’m in trouble. I could use a change of scenery and fresh artistic inspiration, but, alas, there’s nowhere to go. So I’ve turned to my collection of beach finds to take me to warmer places and sunnier days. I like imagining whelks and horseshoe crabs crawling on sandy bottomed shores and blue mussels, sea stars, and urchins crammed into rocky cervices. Out there in the Atlantic, summer is just a dream away.   

Tips and Techniques– A collection like this is perfect for rainy days and times when you just want to practice. I decided to sketch directly in pen and use a size 12 round brush to keep this loose and spontaneous. Had I gone for a more precise approach, I’d still be working on it. When you sketch a collection, start with one of the largest objects first. Then add your second and third objects close to it. Build out from there. You can always tuck smaller items into tight spaces or fill gaps in the design.

Outside, Inside

It’s been mighty cold here this week— the temperature most days hasn’t crept out of the teens—decidedly not outdoor sketching weather. But I did manage a walk in snowy woods, where tracks of squirrels, deer, mice, and beaver gave away the presence of far heartier mammals. I also found this fine turkey feather, which was enough to get me started on this sketchbook page. This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, a global count and celebration of birds. I was happy to record 16 species this morning from the warmth of the kitchen, while the thermometer outside read -7 F.

Tips and Techniques– Here my top tips for painting bird feathers, which are trickier than you might think. Practice helps!

1. The Center Vane (Rachis)– Start with this line, keeping your edges clean and tapering from bottom to top. The rachis is cylindrical, not flat, and often casts a slight shadow, which can really make your feather look “right.”

2. Shape– Barbs extend out and upward from the center rachis. Though they are sometimes unlocked at the edge, there should not be gaps at the center; most feathers have crisp edges unless barbs are unlocked.

3. Bottom Barbs– Keep them delicate and downy; wet the paper first and drop paint into it.

4. Color– Even dark feathers are semi-transparent. Avoid overworking. The fewer strokes the better.

5. Shadow– Add if you want to help give dimension, but keep it light.

Note: Feathers are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Sketch them where you find them or return them to the field when you are finished.

Workshop this week! The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook
2/18/21, 5:30-7pm, FREE; ages 10+
Register:  Columbia Land Conservancy
If you like exploring nature or drawing or both, this session is for you! Ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from my new book to spark your curiosity. This session is especially suited to the 10+ old artist, explorer, or nature lover — and adults who have wanted to try nature journaling.

Keep Looking

You would think that finding the walnut-sized egg case of a praying mantis in a two-acre overgrown field would be like finding a needle in a haystack. And, indeed, it is. I walked deep into the field, following deer trails and battling thorns and waste-high goldenrod stems. I didn’t go out especially looking for the egg cases. I just needed to get out in the cold, to go wandering in a rare moment of sun, during this dark week in American history.

Finding hope in times of unimaginable tyranny and loss seems equally elusive.

But there, amidst a small grove of white pines, among matted goldenrod and tangled thorny wild roses, I spied it: one frothy egg case, and then another. In all, I found six.

So, my simple takeaway—as much for myself as for you: keep looking.

Upcoming Programs:

Technique Takeaway: Improving Your Sketchbook Layouts and Lettering
Friday 1/15/20, 2-3:30pm (PST)
 / 5-6:30pm (EST) $40
Register: Winslow Art Center
This program will offer approaches to thinking about page design and improving your sketchbook page layouts. We’ll also explore ways to add text as a graphic element, or simply as a way to capture additional information and meaning.

The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook
Thursday 1/21/21, 6-7 pm, FREE; ages 10+
Register: Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy
Ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from my new book to spark your curiosity. This session is especially suited to the 10+ year-old artist, explorer, or nature lover — and adults who have wanted to try nature journaling.

Top 5 Tips for Sketching Through the Winter

Outdoors is where the action is when you are a nature sketcher. Yet when the last leaves drop and cold weather sets in, even the best outdoor sketching habits can begin to wane. In years past, my sketchbook often went untouched for weeks in winter. But for the last several years, I have resolved to sketch both inside and out all winter long, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. I’m hoping my top tips will help you keep your sketching habit alive all winter long, too.

Simple subjects are perfect when sketching in cold weather.

1. Over dress, under pack.
It is possible, even fun, to sketch outside in winter. Wearing extra warm layers will give you extra time while sketching. But there is no point in taking a full sketch kit. Pare down to your sketchbook and your favorite pencil or pen.

2. Sketch outside, paint inside.
Even if you only spend 10 or 20 minutes outdoors, being outside will add freshness to your sketches and help you notice what’s happening in nature throughout the year. Snap a photo for color reference or make color notes on your page and paint when you return home. Working this way will help you simplify when painting and will also improve your color memory.

3. Don’t rule out the small stuff.
I used to think I should only paint important subjects or nature subjects or meaningful subjects. But once I gave up that notion, all sorts of possibilities presented themselves. There’s real value in sketching ordinary objects. Not only will this keep you going, but you’ll practice different textures and techniques without the pressure of trying to make a masterpiece. 

4. Seek shelter.
Use your car as a mobile studio. You’ll be able to go father to seek out new subjects, and you may even be able to add some color. Just refer to Tip 1 before heading out. Cars are cramped and still get cold. You can also sketch what’s outside your windows. Bird feeders, trees, shadows on snow, and skies make fine subjects.

5. Treat yourself.
No matter how disciplined your sketching practice, if you’re at all like me, you’ll get tired of sketching in the cold. Plan a trip to a local botanical garden, greenhouse, or museum in February. Buy flowers in March (or sooner, if needed).

Try setting a goal for yourself for sketching throughout the winter. Maybe it’s getting outside once a month or once when the temperature dips below 50-degrees (or 40 or 30!). Or consider just completing one sketch each month, or each week. Enjoy what you discover…It will be spring before you know it.

Thanks to everyone who came to my class on Sketching Through the Winter at Winslow Art Center!

Here are a few favorites from the winter archives.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hide and Seek

In springtime, birds tuck their nests into dense foliage and tangled vines. In fall, I try to find as many nests as I can. It is a game of hide and seek in which the birds always win. Still, I walk in woods and fields and along the roadside, taking new paths, looking from new angles, scanning the trees. I count every nest as a victory; a way to understand the place where I live and the creatures that inhabit it. Alas, it is no easy task. Though I think I am paying attention, here are two recent finds that prove otherwise. I walked past these two nests several times a week all summer and fall without seeing a thing.

Tips and Techniques– Most birds—and their eggs, feathers, and nests—are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The law ensures the sustainability of populations of all protected migratory bird species. Unless you have a permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, you should not collect these things. Instead, sketch them where you find them, take a photo, and leave them in place. In addition, seek out nature centers and natural history museums that have a permit. Their collections are invaluable to educators, researchers, students, and artists.

Nurturing a Sense of Wonder

I’m thrilled to share the news that my book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, is now available. Geared for ages 10+, it invites kids to begin a lifelong journey of nature exploration with ideas, tips, and plenty of space to sketch. Launching a book makes you think about the people and experiences that were critical to launching you— family, relatives, teachers, friends. People who believed in you; people who were hard on you; or, in my case, people who encouraged me not to hide my sketchbooks in a drawer.

My grandmother, more than anyone, is responsible for nurturing my creative tendencies and interest in the Arts. A painter herself, she praised my earliest attempts at drawing and painting. She enrolled me in a plein air painting class for adults when I was just entering high school (I was in WAY over my head). She displayed a clunky clay mask that I made in art class in her living room! She shared her curiosity and enthusiasm and nurtured that in me.

If there are young people in your life, think about ways to nurture their sense of wonder and creativity. If that means giving them The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, wonderful. Better still, add a box of colored pencils, and spend time together discovering how big and beautiful the world is if we only go outside to look.

TO ORDER
Use special discount code “nature25” and receive 25% off from 11/1 through 11/6 when you order from Tumblehome Books. Or order from your local bookseller with ISBN# 9781943431595, or at Amazon.

JOIN ME THIS WEEK ON ZOOM

Look, See, Sketch, 11/4, 5-5:45pm (EST) FREE
Register:
 Tumblehome Books
This Zoom session is for youth and adults alike who enjoy exploring nature or drawing or both. We’ll talk about The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, and you’ll have a chance to ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from the book to spark your curiosity.

Art Chat
11/5, 10am (PST)/1pm (EST) FREE

Register: Winslow Art Center
Come talk art and creativity with me and Winslow Art Center Director Martha Jordan.