Letterforms and birds are subjects that frequently turn up in my journals. At first, I simply matched bold words with their subjects, but more recently, I’ve tried to get birds to perch on letters. It’s not always easy to do. You’ve got to know a bit about the anatomy of bird feet, and find the right placement to support the bird and balance the page. Here’s a fun one that I did today— the lovely winter wren.
Here are a few sketches and paintings that give a sense of my progression with this over the years.
Tips and Techniques– Don’t shy away from learning to draw birds’ feet. You know you’re guilty if you are prone to hide this part of a bird’s anatomy behind leaves and branches. A simple Google search for “bird feet anatomy” will turn up lots of good diagrams and drawings for you to study and practice. If you have an opportunity to look at bird skins or mounted birds at a nature center or museum, take the time to sketch feet. It’s a sure way to improve your bird art.
I discovered this American redstart nest back in May. The birds laid four chestnut speckled eggs and by July they were gone. Now, with leaves falling and foliage dying back, I returned to the nest for another view. Still protected by thorns and a tangle of leaves, and a bit weather worn, the nest remains a thing of beauty: perfectly woven with bark and pine needles and threaded with strips of birch and spider webs. What better treasure could there be in the brambles?
Tips and Techniques: In the spirit of Inktober, I sketched this nest directly in ink using a dip pen and Calli jet black India waterproof ink. I added a lot of detail to the drawing before adding watercolor. To create a fully saturated variety of gold, green, and russet leaves, I painted four or five (or more) transparent layers of color, going from light to dark and finally to shadow tones. The moral of the story is not to stop too soon. You don’t want to overwork it, but if your layers are transparent, you can really build up rich and subtle color.
The weather in Ireland is notoriously changeable– sunny skies turn overcast and give way to misty rain within an hour’s time, and may just as quickly change back to clear blue, only to fill with rain again by day’s end. Unless, of course, it’s steadily raining, in which case, it will likely rain all day. This makes sketching in Ireland a bit of a challenge, but it also adds drama to already dramatic landscapes.
The sketch of Dunmore Head on the Dingle Peninsula is one of my favorites. I had seen this view in travel guides (in sun, of course), and its sheer cliffs, crashing surf, grazing sheep along the trail, and circling gannets made hiking here a grand experience. A break in the soaking fog gave me just enough time to put pen to paper.
We also had a stunningly beautiful morning in which to explore tide pools at White Strand beach just west of Cahersiveen Town on the Ring of Kerry. We saw all of these creatures (and more) but I didn’t paint them until later that day, indoors, when it was raining.
Tips and Techniques– If you are planning to sketch while traveling, jump in when something strikes you. Don’t wait for a better view or clearer skies. Don’t second guess whether the subject is worth it. Everything you put in your journal, no matter how small or seemingly mundane, adds something to the whole. I had a few moments of hesitation and regret the lost opportunities. Conversely, I’m glad I included small wildflowers and cups of tea and coffee, as these details would soon be lost if not recorded.
Two weeks ago, I flew to Ireland for the first time. I didn’t anticipate how profound it would feel to see the country my great grandmother left behind at age 16 for the promise of a better life in America. But as dawn broke from the airplane window and a patchwork of pastures spread out below, I saw connections stretching across miles and generations. The Irish lace that threaded through my childhood began here. It carried through my grandmother and great aunts; it spun stories, laid down values, forged friendships, and connected a large extended family.
Though I was traveling to Ireland for a conference and a week’s vacation, it felt like going home to a place I’d never been. My husband, son, and I spent our days exploring beaches and ruins, cities and towns, parks and cemeteries. It was an incredible journey. What follows is a first installment of sketches; I’ll post more in the coming days. Hope you enjoy the trip!
Tips and Techniques- The first rule of travel sketching is that there are no rules. Other than being committed to recording parts of your journey, you’re going to need to allow yourself maximum flexibility and a lot of room for sloppy, fast, imperfect sketches. I often drew on location and painted later. There was simply so much going on, so much to see, and so much time moving from place to place that there was rarely enough time for the kind of detailed and careful work that I prefer. I used both a graphic calligraphy pen and a size 03 Micron (both larger than I typically use) to try to restrict my tendency to fuss.
Imagine a week on an island off the coast of Maine. No cars, no stores, no streetlights…just good company, good food, starry skies, blue horizons, and long days spent almost entirely outside. These are the essentials for Arts and Birding, a week-long program I facilitate each year at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. Because I’m teaching, I don’t have time to complete much artwork of my own, but I did manage a few pages. And as always, I came away inspired to keep observing, sketching, and sharing my work with the wider world.
Notes:(Clockwise from top) It’s not all birds! We also explore and sketch coastal scenes, plants, and life in the watery realm between high and low tide; Hog Island has a great collection of bird specimens, including a drawer of bird eggs; Young osprey nesting on the island are banded by wildlife biologists each year. It makes for fast sketching, but it’s a thrill to see these birds up close; Just the essentials for a week of Arts and Birding.
Arts and Birding is open for both sketchers/painters and photographers. Here’s a few photos from the week taken by photography staff and participants.
Registration for Arts and Birding 2019 opens in October; the session often fills quickly. Stay tuned here.
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.
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/