Oh, the warm nights of late June and early July, when the spectacular light show of fireflies flashes through the fields! Not just one or two, but hundreds of luminescent beetles signaling to each other in the gathering dark. I caught a single firefly that made its way into the kitchen the other night and watched it flash its bioluminescent message for several hours. But how to capture it on paper? That artistic dilemma led me to throw out my usual arsenal of watercolor techniques and try something completely different. Patterns, color, and abstract firefly fun.
Tips and Techniques: I created this piece with masking fluid and a series of watercolor washes. First, I taped the area around the piece with blue painter’s tape to keep it contained, and sketched out the fireflies and grasses with a black Micron pen. After a wet wash of yellows and magenta, I masked the fireflies. Then began a slow process of layering darker washes, letting them dry, masking grasses, waiting for the mask to dry, and repeating. I probably did about six layers. Once I was satisfied that the blues were dark enough, I removed all the masking fluid and tape to reveal the finished piece. If I were to do it over (and I might), I would mask more yellow after the first wash for a bit more energetic glow.
Colors used: quin gold, aureolin yellow, quin magenta, dioxizine purple, phthalo blue, indrathrone blue, indigo.
I’ve been watching our newest neighbors as they take up residence in our yard. Bluebirds recently fledged from one of our nest boxes and a brief battle for the box was won by a pair of house wrens. There are not really four birds, as depicted, but I wanted to capture the pattern of the pair’s activities during the nest building stage. These poses were repeated over and over as I sketched. You’d think that would have made it easier, but wrens aren’t known for standing still. I switched between using binoculars and picking up the pencil to make the initial drawing, then added color later. I like the way the poses capture the some of the story of the wrens setting up house.
Tips and Techniques– I used a pale non-photo-blue pencil to make my initial sketches of the wrens. This gave me a chance to work on the postures before committing to ink. A regular pencil would have been fine, too, but the blue pencil is easy to erase and cover over with paint. It’s a handy tool for birds and other tricky subjects.
My second tip is for those of you who have nest boxes: be sure to monitor them. Open the box quickly about once a week to check on the nest, eggs, or young. This will give you a good idea of what species are using your boxes, whether they fledge successfully, and whether there are any problems. My bluebird nest became infested with ants and I was able to remove it once the birds fledged so that the box was clean for the next inhabitant. There’s good information about nest box monitoring and a code of conduct here: https://nestwatch.org/
Finding bird nests is something typically reserved for late autumn, when fallen leaves reveal summer’s hidden treasures. But I’ve been lucky this spring. Bluebirds and trees swallows took up residence in nest boxes we put up in April; a robin returned to a nest used last year on an upstairs window ledge; I spied a pair of cardinals making their nest in a hemlock bough; and, just last week, I caught sight of an American redstart as it landed and disappeared into a tangle of shrubbery at the edge of the woods– a tell that led me to discover its well concealed nest. I know there is a lot more nesting going on in the surrounding woods and field, but it may be autumn before I am able to add more to the map.
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Tips and Techniques– I love making maps and find that it is an excellent way to learn and record information. I made this one so I would have a reference for future years’ nesting activity on our property. I used Google Maps to sketch the aerial view– it’s a great tool for getting the basics of the landscape geography you want to record. Once I had the map laid out, I added the nest, using a photo of the actual nest so as not to disturb the birds. I had been hoping an egg or two would have already been laid, but because I was a bit too early, I decided to add the eggs for each bird as a separate element. I used the Princeton Field Guide Nest, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds by Paul Baicich and Colin Harrison as a reference, as well as an atypically oblong robin’s egg found abandoned near our driveway.
Isn’t it nice to think that Don Wentworth’s poem may be true?
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Today, just letting it be
Have a great weekend.
Each year we wait. We count the days, watch the weather, complain, wait longer. Our patience stretched thin by the cold and by gray skies that are slow to yield to clear blue. Then suddenly, at last, we are surrounded by green. I can never keep up; never find time enough sketch or paint it all. Still, this year as in the past, it is a pleasure to try.
Tips & Techniques– The window for capturing spring ephemeral wildflowers is very short– miss it and you have to wait a year. This page records some of what I saw during hikes on April 29 and May 6. The second walk was challenging because it was raining. Determined, I discovered that I could hold an umbrella and sketchbook in one hand and my pen in the other. It’s a new technique for me — not bad, but I’m not quite sure I’d recommend it.
Spring Gallery- It’s fun to look back at prior years and compare sketches and dates.
No bigger than a small lemon, and with an equally yellow cap, the golden crowned kinglet is a tiny harbinger of spring. Never still for more than a few seconds, it flits busily among the trees, its high-pitched song easier to hear than the bird itself is to find. So I sit quietly, binoculars in hand, and wait. Soon enough, several appear—and disappear, and appear again, in a game of hide and seek that goes on for most of the afternoon. I can’t capture the movement, so I go for the lemon and the bird and the quiet instead, happy to keep this reminder of the day between these pages.
“Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet
but first you must have the quiet.
— Wendell Berry
I love finding myself at the intersection of art and nature. My passion for those two roads has led me to great places, wonderful people, and to beauty, insight, and mystery. Here, a simple fern in the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College has transported me half a world away to the rain forests of Malaysia. It has made me think about symbiotic relationships and to wish I had taken Latin. It has given me hours of artistic challenge and pleasure. And it has left me both grateful and eager for more.
(click to view larger; top: watercolor and ink in Stillman & Birn “Beta” sketchbook 8.5×11″. Bottom: watercolor on 140lb Fabriano cold press paper 8×10″)
Tips and Techniques: I began these two paintings at the Conservatory, knowing it would be fascinating to take two very different approaches. While layers of paint dried on one, I rotated to the other. I had the major shapes established at closing time and finished both at home. What’s interesting to me is how each conveys such a different part of my experience in the greenhouse: one about being surrounded by layers of greenery, the other about a particularly intriguing fern. So, if there is a lesson here, it may be to consider what you most want to capture or convey when you begin drawing or painting. In essence, What draws you in? And what techniques are best suited to sharing that?