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.

Back to the Drawing Board

What a simple, extraordinary drawing tool a pencil is. Unpretentious. Inexpensive. Humble. Yet, the pencil still manages to be demanding. With no color to hide behind and no tricks up it’s sleeve, the pencil requires focus on line and value to bring subjects to life. Artists refer to “pencil miles” or “the thousand-hour pencil” for good reason. There’s no substitute for drawing practice. The pencil demands that you to put in your time.

Tips and Techniques– I went back to drawing this week because I was trying to gain efficiency in my lines when drawing birds. I wanted to try committing to memory bird shapes, features, and feather groups to make me more adept at sketching when in the field. I found working on blue jays particularly challenging because of the head crest, patterning, and shape of the beak. The most fun part of this page was painting the pencil itself, which seemed especially fitting given the jay-colored Staedtler pencils used (F and 2B).

Cool Beans! I’m thrilled to share the news that The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook has won a 2020 American Graphic Design Award from Graphic Design USA. From more than 10,000 entries, only a small handful of projects were selected as winners. Congratulations and many thanks to Kris Fitzgerald at 2K Design for her award-winning performance and creative excellence in helping bring the book to life!

On the Solstice

I might prefer sun, but it seems right for the solstice to be overcast and cold. I headed out with my sketchbook this afternoon when the temperatures climbed into the 20s to capture a glimpse of the shortest day. This old sugar maple, overlooking fields and evergreens, has seen its share of turns around the sun. It’s limbs stretched outward and upward from the frozen ground. Stark, against gray skies, it yet possessed a warmth about it that was inviting on this winter day. A solstice tree.


Tips and Techniques– If you prefer sketching plein air, but find temperatures in the teens and twenties a tad cold, you might try sketching in the car. I made this drawing from the comfort of my front seat, parked on the side of the road. Not ideal, but not bad either.

Return

Sometimes it’s February, sometimes March when the red-winged blackbirds return. Regardless, it’s a welcome and exuberant racket of wingbeats and squawking from the marshes and treetops. It doesn’t necessarily mean that spring is here; indeed, today, a flock swarmed over our yard and flew off just as it began to snow. But it means we’ve turned the corner: more light, more days above freezing than below, and more good things to come.

Tips and Techniques– I wanted to zoom in on the shapes of the birds in flight, rather than the details, and let some of the birds merge, the way they do in a flock. To do this, I used a loose wash of ultramarine and burnt sienna to create the black, and tried to drop in a bit of yellow and red before the birds got too dry. I like the way the red merged into the dark mix, creating a dusky purple on some of the wings. I suspect this would work better at a larger size, where you could really get some nice color variation and more mixing right on the paper.

January Birds

Subzero temperatures mean I’m inside, but birds are out in force at our feeders. They start at dawn and come and go or stay all day, eating as much as they can to fuel their survival against the cold. With this abundance of subjects, I have been focused on capturing bird shapes and postures with small, quick ink sketches. The beauty of this exercise is that you don’t invest in any one bird, you are simply training your eyes and hands to work together.

My second focus for the week has been owls, which I have not drawn much before. Barred owls have been calling in the stream-side woods next to our house for weeks. And we caught sight of a great horned owl nabbing a meal (likely a squirrel) near our feeders at dusk. Owls mate in January and February, so I expect to hear more activity in the coming weeks.

click to view larger

Tips and Techniques: I drew the owls from videos, which I tend to like because they convey a bird’s personality and movement better than still photos, yet you can pause and replay if needed. Try drawing directly in ink and not worrying whether you get everything right. Keep your eyes on the bird more than your paper and keep your pen moving. The painted owl is a small study I wanted to try to help me decide whether to do a larger painting. The proportions aren’t quite right, but the negative painting technique worked more or less as I had hoped.