Time for a New Field Guide

Within the last few weeks, more than ten species of mushrooms have emerged in a grove of oaks in our yard and I’m only familiar with one of them. Mushroom identification is complicated and depends on a number of factors that I tend to forget from year to year: whether or not there are gills and how they are attached, the shape of the cap, the color of the spore print, color, habitat, season, and more. For now, looking more carefully and making sketches and field notes before these ephemeral species disappear is more valuable than knowing the names. But soon, it will be good to have a guide to fungi on my shelf.

Though I set out to paint these, I quickly decided to simplify and just use a mechanical pencil. It made it easier to move from one cluster to another and maximize limited sketching time.

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Making the Leap

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.

Garlic Scapes

I planted garlic for the first time last fall and it took me a while this spring to figure out where I had interspersed it among other bulbs and perennials. Then this! ….this fabulous showing of curling greenery in the garden! And although I am moving next week and will never see the harvest, at least I have this journal page – and the promise of next year in another garden.

Birds and Grids

How great it is to be sketching and painting outside again! Birds nesting, feeding, soaring, chattering, resting, flying up and landing again. Flowers blooming, waves breaking, wind blowing. It’s all good. With a wealth of possibilities before me on two recent hikes, I decided a grid would be the best way to quickly capture a variety of subjects and convey the flavor of the day.

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Tips and Techniques: Divide your page into equally-sized boxes with light pencil lines or dots in the corners of each box, but don’t limit yourself to the smallest size. Combine boxes to fit your subjects and go outside the lines if you like. I divided the pages above with eight small boxes each and decided on the right shape for each element as I went along. This technique will help your page come together no matter what combination you choose.

Spring Unfolding

When the world has been brown for months, the first emergence of green is a wonderful thing. Skunk cabbage has been unfurling for several weeks now and is a most welcome sight along woodland streams and wetlands. In late winter, it sends up a maroon-striped spadix, which encloses its unpleasant smelling flower, and then in early spring it unrolls bright green leaves. I recently spent a pleasant afternoon sketching on the edge of a wooded steam, enjoying dappled sun and birdsong, and feeling grateful for this one beautiful color.

Tips & Techniques– Deciding what to sketch is sometimes harder than actually sketching. Likewise, figuring out what you want your page to look once you’ve chosen a subject may seem daunting. Here are a couple of ways to get past the blank white page:

  • Option 1: Start with a couple of quick thumbnail sketches. These will help you figure out whether you like your subject enough to devote time to it and whether you think you can tackle it in the time you have. Thumbnails will also help you consider different approaches to page layout. They can help you map out where the lights, mid-tones, and darks are too, which will give you a road map for the full page version.
  • Option 2: Just begin! Rather than thinking you have to figure out everything before you start, consider that your sketching journey can begin with a single step. Make a mark. Make another. Keep looking, keep going until you feel satisfied with the page.
  • Option 3: Be thoughtful. Consider what drew you to sketch this particular subject. Think about it for a minute- was it the color? The light? The scene or object? The story? Your experience? When you have an answer, you’ll have a better idea of what to emphasize and how you want to approach the page.

Fast and Loose

Short on time but long on patience, I often need to quickly put pen to paper in my journal, get a first wash of color down, and then come back to finish later. The result is a journal full of sketches that took five minutes to start but five days to finish. I don’t really mind—working fast and loose has its merits. For one, my sketchbook would be empty if I waited until I had a big block of time for art. It has improved my hand-eye coordination. And it has kept in check my prior tendency to be slow, controlled, and precise.

Tips & Techniques– Practice a few 30 second, 1 minute, and 3 minute contour and semi-blind contour drawings with a fairly simple subject. Fruits and vegetables are perfect. Work in pencil or pen, but don’t erase. See if you can get most of your subject down in just a few minutes. Next add a loose and light wash of watercolor. Let it dry. Then repeat; add two or three more layers of paint to deepen the colors and add depth.

One trick to this method is to suspend judgment in the early stages. My sketches often look downright sloppy at the start, but I know that the watercolor will transform them. You can always tighten up as you progress, but it’s hard to make controlled sketches seem loose after the fact.
I introduced this technique with participants at a recent workshop on illustrated watercolor journaling that I offered at the Vermont Watercolor Society. Look how great this 1-minute sketch by one of the participants turned out with a just a couple of washes of watercolor.