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/
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.
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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.
Isn’t it nice to think that Don Wentworth’s poem may be true?
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Today, just letting it be
Have a great weekend.
Ranunculus blooms in a riot of paint box reds and pinks. Brightening the countertop, they are perfect for April, when the Northeast is slowly greening, but I am impatient for more.
Tips and Techniques: Here’s a look at my basic kit:
- 2 Micron archival pens, black, 02 and 005
- 3 Escota Versatil travel watercolor brushes, sizes 2, 6, 12
- 2 Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils, F and 2B
- pencil sharpener
- Watercolors (Winsor Newton and Daniel Smith) in an altered Schmincke tin: cobalt blue, phthalo blue, ultramarine blue, indanthrone blue, phthalo green*, sap green, carmine red*, quin rose, alizarin crimson, pyrol orange, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw umber, yellow ochre, quin gold, aureolin yellow, lemon yellow*, Hansa yellow medium (*these colors are fairly new to me, so they’re still in the testing phase.)
- Small spray bottle for pre-wetting my paints, small jar with a lid for water
- Scrap piece of paper for testing colors
- Extra: Princeton Neptune 1/4-inch dagger brush (nice for the fine foliage of this flower)
Is April the new March? Or am I too impatiently, too desperately, seeking spring? I go in search of greenery each week—into woods and wetlands, along meadow paths—and I can say with confidence, and disappointment, that my palette remains largely ochre and brown and overcast blue. Still, there are a few buds, and the Eastern phoebe wagging its tail in the still-bare maple, a hint of green under last year’s grass, and daylight past seven. Hold on and wait, they remind me, just around the corner is renewal.
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Tips and Techniques: I’ve done a few posts about using a grid and, here again, this format proved adaptable and well suited for a hike at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, Maine. In advance of the hike, I divided this 2-page spread into 12 equal squares, using light pencil outlines for each box. Once in the field, I combined boxes based on the subjects at hand. It was just warm enough to draw and paint in the field, and I added the lettering and outlined each box when back inside. I like the way these small vignettes add up to covey my overall experience, much more so than had I done a single sketch.
I love finding myself at the intersection of art and nature. My passion for those two roads has led me to great places, wonderful people, and to beauty, insight, and mystery. Here, a simple fern in the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College has transported me half a world away to the rain forests of Malaysia. It has made me think about symbiotic relationships and to wish I had taken Latin. It has given me hours of artistic challenge and pleasure. And it has left me both grateful and eager for more.
(click to view larger; top: watercolor and ink in Stillman & Birn “Beta” sketchbook 8.5×11″. Bottom: watercolor on 140lb Fabriano cold press paper 8×10″)
Tips and Techniques: I began these two paintings at the Conservatory, knowing it would be fascinating to take two very different approaches. While layers of paint dried on one, I rotated to the other. I had the major shapes established at closing time and finished both at home. What’s interesting to me is how each conveys such a different part of my experience in the greenhouse: one about being surrounded by layers of greenery, the other about a particularly intriguing fern. So, if there is a lesson here, it may be to consider what you most want to capture or convey when you begin drawing or painting. In essence, What draws you in? And what techniques are best suited to sharing that?