Last year I made several sketching forays out along the country road where I live. I’m curious to discover what’s in bloom and find that almost nothing is native to the Northeastern U.S. Still, I have to give these invaders credit. They have traveled across continents and persisted in harsh conditions, yet still offer beauty and color where few other species would survive.
Tips and Techniques– When I head out along the road, I typically bring only my sketchbook and a pen. There isn’t much traffic, but what comes along is moving fast, so I have to be ready to move quickly. I walk along until I find something in bloom, sketch it, and move on to find the next roadside flower, filling the page as I go. I make mental notes about color and sometimes snap a photo for reference as well. When I come home to paint, I’m not just coloring in spaces, I’m also thinking about the mood and feeling of the day. This walk was sunny and warm; hence the overlay of yellow to tie everything together.
Yesterday was the kind of day I’ve been waiting for since winter arrived unexpectedly in November. Temperatures climbed above freezing, which felt almost balmy, and I spent nearly the entire day outside. After the oak leaves were raked and the remaining daffodil bulbs planted, I headed into the fields and down the road with my sketchbook. Shriveled wild grapes, thorny tangles of multiflora rose hips, and climbing vines of bittersweet not yet eaten by birds offered a bit of brightness against bare branches and brown grasses. They seemed the perfects things to sketch to capture the day.
Tips and Techniques– If you want to sketch outside in cold weather, I suggest really paring down your supplies so that you have very little to carry or fuss with in the field. I bring only my sketchbook and a Micron pen. I don’t want to be pulling gloves on and off or organizing sketching supplies in the cold. I make mental notes of color or take a photo for reference, and paint once I’m home with a cup of tea in hand.
The treachery, at last, too late, is plain;
Bare are the places where the sweet flowers dwelt.
From November, by Helen Hunt Jackson
An early snow took me by surprise. Not that I hadn’t heard the forecast, just that I wasn’t ready to give up fall. The fields still held a bit of green, there were leaves yet to rake, and 20 daffodils to go in the ground. Alas, that was before. Now, the ground is white but for a scattering of russet oak leaves, and the season of browns and blues has begun.
Tips and Techniques: I have been doing a lot of illustration work lately, and although I could have done a detailed drawing of grasses and seed heads, I wanted to change gears and get at the patterns and layers of the field. I started by taping the edges with low tack artist tape, then drew the outlines of several seed pods and goldenrod galls I collected. I painted the entire page with a loose wash of burnt umber and ultramarine blue and let it dry. Then I painted successive layers of blue and brown, darkening the space between the shapes and adding new plant stalks to add depth.
Initially, I painted around the shapes, but later I used liquid masking fluid to reserve the lighter layers. Along the way, I added burnt sienna and quin gold to warm up the page. Once I was satisfied with the depth of color, I removed all the mask and added just a few details on some of the lightest seed heads. This technique requires patience as you wait for the washes to dry completely between layers; it helps to have a second project going at the same time!
Were it not for relentless deer flies and record-breaking heat, it might not have taken me four days to complete this page. But it is hard to sketch on the roadside under such circumstances, no matter how determined, and so, one flower at a time, the page grew. Still, sometimes it’s good not to rush a painting. It lets things evolve; insights emerge. What started as a simple painting of flowers grew into a recognition of how much of the world is at our very doorstep.
I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921): “The most precious things in life are near at hand, without money and without price. Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door. All that I ever had, and still have, may be yours by stretching forth your hand and taking it.”
Note: I will be taking a break from posting for the next week or two as I head to Maine to facilitate and teach the Arts & Birding workshop at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. It’s a fully immersive experience for me, and life on an island is better without phones, computers or social media.