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.
You may notice robins in the yard or the first buds on the elms or daffodils ready to pop. But one of the best signs of the turning season for me is when the salamanders migrate. It happens on the first warm rainy night in spring. Sometimes it’s March, sometimes April. But when it rains all day and into the night, that’s the time when several species of salamanders come out from underground in the woods, where they spend most of their adult lives, and head to wetlands where they breed. If you happen to live someplace where roads intersect their habitat, you may see them in your headlight beams, or squished and stinking on an early morning jog. Or, if you’re like me, you pull on your rain gear and head out with a flashlight and help them cross the road.
I used to round up friends and kids to go out for the annual migration. One year I paid my sons a dime for every salamander and frog they found and I had to pony up two bucks each at the end of an hour. My kids are grown now, but when they see a rainy forecast they still text me to ask, Is this the night? Some new kids put up these fantastic signs — I hope they were out there during this week’s rains, soaking up one of the greatest rituals of spring.
Tips & Techniques- Don’t try to draw in the dark in the rain. Take a photo. I began this page with a pencil drawing compiled from two photos. I painted the yellow spots and used masking fluid to save them and some of the highlights. I then did a wet in wet wash of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre over the whole thing (the entire painting is just those three colors, with a touch of sap green and quin gold at the end). I used negative painting techniques for most of this, pulling out bits of leaves on the ground and the shapes of the salamanders.
What is the value of imperfection? I’ve been mulling over that question as it pertains to artwork for a few years and still, I don’t have a clear answer. I love the work of natural science illustrators, for whom accuracy, precision, and beauty are paramount. Yet each time my own artwork approaches that kind of perfection, it somehow seems to be missing something. Embracing imperfection, which, after all, is what so much of life is about, increasingly appeals to me. Letting go, accepting, and finding beauty are good lessons to learn on any journal page—and these lilies, way past their prime, were the perfect teacher.
Tips & Techniques– This piece takes advantage of secondary colors—orange, green, and a spot of purple—to create harmony. The strong black of the text, done with a Micron graphic pen, nearly overwhelms the lilies, but also makes a strong statement. I could go back with a thicker black outline on the flowers, but that would likely lead to overkill.
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?
Click to view larger. Watercolor in Stillman & Birn Beta journal
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.
colored pencil; click to view larger
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.
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.
For the past two weeks I have been sharing my kitchen table with an enormous baldfaced hornet’s nest (a gift). I realize that this is a highly peculiar and unappetizing centerpiece, but there is simply no other place in my house that can accommodate it and a similarly oversized sketch pad. To be honest, I didn’t think we would be dining with it for more than a few days. The night I brought it in, I made two large, quick sketches and started a painting. But I wasn’t satisfied— the nest was more subtle, detailed and complex than I expected. Then one morning at breakfast, I saw more clearly how the nest was constructed, the patterns of the waved paper, how the lilac leaves where cemented in, how subtle shadows helped define each section. I decided to start again. Here’s the finished drawing. My table is now decorated for the holidays and the nest has been relegated to the garage— for later dissection and more art.
“The Centerpiece,” graphite on Strathmore 400 series drawing paper, 18”x24” (actual nest size 20”x10”). Click to view larger.
Though silent when I brought the nest in, I was still quite relieved to learn that baldfaced hornets live only one season and do not reuse their nests from year to year. Only fertilized queens overwinter (but not in the old nest) and emerge in spring to build a new nest and start a new colony. Baldfaced hornets build their nest by chewing old wood and mixing it with saliva to form a papery substance — which is rather astonishing when you think about such small creatures creating something of this size and complexity.