Ireland- Part 4: Odds and Ends

As my days in Ireland transitioned from vacation to work, my time for sketching and painting moved to finishing pages and writing notes and impressions. I added color to unfinished sketches; listed birds we saw; recorded our highlights. Yet what struck me most throughout my travels was how open and unpretentious the people I met were. From cab drivers to businesspeople to the President of Ireland himself (yes, I did get to meet him*), people were kind, friendly, and open to making a personal connection. There’s no way to capture that in a sketchbook. Still, that intangible part of traveling stays with you long after towns and countryside and grand vistas fade.

Thanks for coming along for my Ireland adventures. I’m now back to the home front, where the ordinary and extraordinary happenings of my own backyard will once again fill the pages of my sketchbook.

 

Tips & Techniques- Carving Stone with Watercolor
I loved the artistry of medieval stone cutters and wanted to capture some of it in my sketchbook. I found that using watercolor to carve stone is a fantastic exercise in seeing values. I highly recommend trying it if getting a good range of lights to darks is tricky for you. I used just two colors—ultramarine blue and burnt sienna for the limestone. Picking a simple palette means you won’t get lost in color and will focus only on value to create your sculpture. Here’s what to do: Choose a stone sculpture and render it in pencil. Then put a loose watercolor wash over the entire thing, letting the colors blend on the paper. Let it dry. Next paint medium values using small graded washes. Right away, your painting will start to come to life. Last, add dark areas and shadows. You might need to adjust as you go, making areas darker or putting in a bit of detail, but part of the beauty of this exercise is keeping the relative simplicity of the stone cutter’s original work. (Click to view larger.)

 

*My travels in Ireland preceded my attending the World Canals Conference in Athlone. President Michael D. Higgins gave the closing address and I was invited to a special reception, representing the Erie Canal and New York State.

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Ireland- Part 1

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.

 

Summer’s End

It always sneaks up too fast. Dark creeps in earlier each evening; the woods go silent; swallows gather on the power lines, then vanish. I was happy to fit in a final weekend at the ocean, where it was still plenty warm for one last swim. A row of kites fluttered overhead. Yellow primroses bloomed at the edge of the dunes. But flocks of sandpipers chasing the waves amidst late-season beach-goers were a sure tell of the season’s turning, as were the multitude of bright orange-red rose hips ripening in the sun. Summer’s end is here.

Tips and Techniques: When heading out to sketch, it’s helpful to think about what you can accomplish in the time you have. If you have 10 minutes, pick a 10-minute subject. This helps keep frustration in check, and you’ll avoid starting something you can’t finish or can’t capture sufficiently in the time you have. I’m fairly quick with drawing, but quite slow as a painter. I often choose subjects I can begin in the field and finish at later home, as was the case with the rose hips. Subjects like birds and trees take me longer to render well, so I don’t tackle them unless I have at least an hour. The more you work in the field the better you’ll become at picking subjects you can tackle well within the time you have.

Mushroom Explosion

Call me obsessed. I probably deserve it. I have spent nearly every evening this week painting nothing but mushrooms, buying field guides, making spore prints, and staying up late trying to identify my finds. In my defense, a treasure trove is growing before me– new species emerging each day under the grove of oaks that line our driveway. And I know that the intense humidity and rain that brings them out, all too quickly turns them to mush. In the end, my obsession stems from being astonished: I have recorded an impressive 26 different species in a single week: classic gilled mushrooms, large and colorful boletes, tiny coral fungi, and ringed polypores.

Consider this: several thousand species of mushrooms are found in the Northeast and upwards of 30,000 in North America. That’s more than all of the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and plants combined. I found identifying them challenging, even maddening, but I learned to look more keenly at key features in the process. It’s likely that I misidentified some and I didn’t gather enough information to even begin to identify others. If you spot one you know from this collection, drop me a note so I can look it up.

The world along the roadside

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. 

New Neighbors

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/

Nest Map

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.

click to view larger

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.