There are many lovelier species than insects, but none, perhaps, so inexplicably diverse, strange, and – dare I suggest it – marvelous. Our annoyance with “pests,” of which there are many, and our fear of others easily prevent us from taking a closer look at insects. But how can we fail to marvel at these most successful members of the animal kingdom? No doubt, it is easier to wonder at a museum collection under glass, than to appreciate black flies in May. Still, I invite you to come gasp with me*, if only for a moment, at these incredible creatures.
*This phrase was inspired by the poem “Catelog of Unabashed Gratitude” by Ross Gay
Tips and Techniques– Drawing insects invites careful observation and study. Most are built of just three basic body parts—head, thorax, and abdomen. Wings and legs are attached to the thorax, when present. Variation on the theme is where the fun is. If sketching bugs is “not your thing,” I recommend starting with prettier species like butterflies and moths. They just may inspire you to move on to dragonflies, beetles and bees.
Several days ago, I got an unusual text-message from my son, asking how he might help a stunned Anna’s hummingbird that had struck his dorm window. Based on his description and a photo, it didn’t look good. The tiny jewel likely hit the glass at 30 miles per hour. Indeed, despite his best efforts, the bird died several hours later. Yesterday, I visited the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY, and decided to spend time among the hummingbirds in the collection. They, too, were quite dead…and nearly 150 years old. Despite their tattered appearance, specs of red, purple, gold and green flickered on their iridescent throats and backs. My lesson for the week is that, whether dying or dead, it’s hard to bring hummingbirds to life, but it is certainly worth trying.
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Today seemed like as good a day as any to switch things up and go all ink. This started with the notion to sketch random things on my desk, but the addition of the nests and a few insects from a very brief visit to the Pember Museum of Natural History rounds out the collection nicely. Art and nature…pretty much what is always on my desk.
I get up early to make the 1.5 hour drive to the small town of Granville, New York, not far from Vermont’s Green Mountains. Arriving just before 10am gives me just enough time to buy a coffee before the doors open at one of my favorite places to sketch: the Pember Museum of Natural History. I make this pilgrimage once a year and I’ve already decided where I’ll spend the next four hours: hovering over the glass and cherry cases of Victorian-era bird nests and eggs. The selection is fantastic: eggs of every size and pattern, from tiny cream-colored hummingbird eggs to the huge streaked egg of the extinct great auk, and rows of woven nests decorated with leaves, lichen, and moss. I’ve drawn a good number of them over the years, so I choose ones I’ve passed over previously, put pen to paper, and begin. Hours later at closing time, it’s just me and the lone curator left in the museum and I’m satisfied…though I already look forward to my return next year.
I sketched this trio of nests in detail using a Micron pen on Fabriano hot press watercolor paper and painted them later at home. I did a fourth in my journal— the nest of the sedge wren, posted last week.
Tips and Techniques: When drawing a nest, spend a few minutes really looking at how it’s made before beginning. There are often interesting bits of materials that you’ll want to highlight. Usually the weave gets tighter in the inner cup, which may also be lined with downy material or feathers. Consider that the bird has already created the masterpiece. Your job is to translate it onto paper. Keep your lines very loose as you start, following the weave of twigs, grasses, or pine needles around the cup-like shape. Once the basic structure and strands of material are roughed in, I typically use negative painting (or drawing) techniques to weave darker shapes and strands underneath lighter ones to develop the complex weave. Pay attention to values! Getting darks and shadows in place will really make your nest take shape.
I will be ordering prints of this painting for sale for $30 (includes mailing). If you would like to order a copy, please e-mail me at email@example.com. Prints are made on archival quality Hahnemuhle Museum Etching paper, 8”x10” and suitable for easy matting and framing.
I found this nest in the collection of the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY, where I spent the better part of a day sketching nests that have outlived their builders by more than a century. Somewhere in the weave of stems lies the faint echoes of a grassy wetland, the calls of birds and frogs, the mix of cool air and warm sunshine, of another springtime. I’ve never seen a sedge wren (also called the short-billed marsh wren), and this is as close as I may come. Can you imagine how such a small bird weaves a ball of a nest with nothing more than a beak?
Tips & Techniques– Include field notes in your journal to make it a good reference for what you discover and learn. When I first saw the label on this nest I didn’t know that there were two distinct marsh wren species: a short-billed and a long-billed. I had seen marsh wren nests that didn’t look quite like this, and a quick Google search explained why—the ones I’d seen were made by the long-billed marsh wren. These two species have different colored eggs, too: white versus mottled purplish brown. Art, discovery, and learning fit together beautifully for me in the pages of my journal. I hope you have opportunities to do the same!
A Victorian glass and cherry cabinet full of nests and eggs, collected in the late-1800s, stretches 15-feet from end to end at the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY. I’ve been going to the museum once a year for the last 10 years and I never tire of that case. The variety of the collection astounds me; I will never exhaust its sketching possibilities. I spent two hours absorbed the details of 125 year old nests before running out of time on my recent visit. If only the birds knew what a legacy they left.
My advice for sketching at a museum: check in upon arrival to introduce yourself and ask whether there are any restrictions. Keep your supplies contained—pencil, pen, and sketchbook with a small set of watercolors or colored pencils work well. Recognize when other museum goers, and especially kids, want to look at what you are observing. If you’re comfortable and people seem interested, invite them to have a look at your artwork. I’ve met a number of aspiring young artists in museums and always enjoy encouraging them.
The Pember Collection- A gallery of sketches dating to 2006 (click to view larger)
Nautilus. colored pencil. 8×10
If you love sketching or photographing birds and nature, want to improve your skills, and have a fun week exploring the beautiful rocky coast of Maine, check out Arts and Birding, a five-day workshop at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, June 11-16, 2017. I am the program director and one of the instructors and I guarantee a great experience! Beginners to advanced participants are welcome—we work in a very collaborative, positive atmosphere. Register by Dec. 20 using the “EARLYBIRD” discount and save $50. Get Details >
For years I’ve been fascinated by the work of artists who traveled with the great natural history expeditions of the 17-and-1800s. Those artists worked in the most extreme conditions and with the most exciting of assignments: to catalog the flora and fauna of newly discovered continents. Among my favorites are Maria Sibylla Merian, who exquisitely captured flowers and insects of Surinam (1699-1701), Sydney Parkinson, who crossed the Pacific with the Endeavor and left behind nearly 1,000 finished and unfinished botanical paintings and sketches upon his death at sea (1768-1771), and the prolific Henry Walter Bates, who filled notebook after notebook with insects of the Amazon (1848-1862).
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I’ve always wanted to do a page like this. I started during modest travels of my own, sketching in the cramped quarters of an airplane. I finished back at home, using specimens I had photographed at a natural history museum. No comparison to the working conditions of the masters, but a nod to those artists just the same. And if you’ve ever wondered how much variety you can get from different combinations of browns and blues, paint moths.
Henry Walter Bates, Insects of the Amazon
Henry Walter Bates, 1862