I’ve been watching this robin’s nest on the window ledge of our new house for the last 10 days and every day I’ve wanted to sketch it. I’ve seen the tiny hatchlings go from half naked and barely opening their eyes to spouting feathers to jockeying each other for position in an overcrowded nest. Still, day after day, more pressing chores related to moving here kept me from picking up a pencil. Then this morning, I decided to get off a quick sketch before going to work, lest I miss the chance. I spent about 15 minutes on this, during which time the bird on the right stood up, stretched its wings, and made a flying leap! What a sight! And what a perfect subject for the start of a new journal and the beginning of a new chapter of my life in a new (very old) house in New York State. Note: I did have a chance to paint newly hatched birds in this same nest in early June. Robins often raise two broods a year and the birds in today’s sketch are from the second brood. Robins incubate their eggs for 12-14 days and the young take about two weeks to fledge. Both males and females care for the young, feeding them worms, moths, and an assortment of other insects.
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.
Tangled in a thicket at the edge of a wooded wetland, the nest stood out like the prize it was for hiking on a cold winter day. As readers of this blog know by now, finding and painting nests is a recurring theme and a true pleasure for me. In fact, the subject of my first post was a nest. But this one is quite unique—almost two nests combined, it seems to me. It’s possible that a nest begun by one pair of birds was co-opted by another species, as sometimes happens; or that mice took over after the birds were finished and piled an enormous moss blanket on top of the woven base (though I saw no evidence of rodents). Either way, it’s a fine mystery and I’m happy to have it live on inside my sketchbook.
Click to view larger; “In the thin light of winter woods, we find the promise of next summer.”
If you have come across a nest similar to this or have ideas about what birds it may have belonged to, I’d love to hear about it. I can eliminate a lot of possibilities, but I’m stymied. The nest was 7 inches across with a 3 inch cup, constructed 5 feet off the ground at the edge of a wooded wetland in central Connecticut.
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.
This tree once stood on the shoreline of Hog Island in Maine, with a sweeping view of Muscongus Bay— not a bad place to raise successive generations of young birds. According to the US Forest Service, some 85 species of birds, including owls, woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, flycatchers, and swallows, nest in tree cavities. You might catch a glimpse of birds excavating a tree hole, or coming or going from one, but it’s rare, indeed, to see one from the inside. This old woodpecker hole was cut open after the tree fell, revealing the nest cavity inside. The sketch is much reduced from the real thing. The eggs of various birds that use nest cavities are painted actual size. Click to view larger.
When I was a kid, my grandmother used to play “hide the thimble” with my sisters and me. A variant of hide and seek, she’d hide a thimble or other small object in plain sight and we’d try to find it. The thrill of discovery fueled many rounds of play, until my grandmother’s hiding places (and likely her patience) were exhausted. Lately, I’m playing a similar game with birds. They hide their nests—often in plain sight— in ways that defy detection. Camouflaged eggs and nests and stealth behavior are critical to their strategy. A sharp eye and keen awareness are keys to mine. Still, I walked by this song sparrow nest many times before noticing it, tucked into grass and clover. As you can see, it was a beautiful find.
Song Sparrow Nest, 8×8”, watercolor, 2016. Click to view larger.
The painting was made from a photo, quickly snapped when I found the nest. I prefer painting from life, but leaving the nest undisturbed was critical in this case.
I anticipate spring’s arrival for most of February, March and April, eager for its fresh greens, new life, and abundant sketching opportunities. It arrives slowly at first, with skunk cabbage, red-winged blackbirds, and daffodils. But by mid-May, it takes off like a rocket and I can’t keep up. I’ve been sketching and painting in snatches of time—10 minutes here, half hour there—due to an especially hectic work and family schedule this month. Here are a few of those snatches:
Click to view larger
The carriage barn at the first home in America of artist John James Audubon in Mill Grove, PA. Click to view larger.
Robin’s nest on the visitor center porch at Weir Farm National Historic Site in Connecticut. Click to view larger.