Before it unfolds in a grand show of color and song, spring is all subtlety. I go looking for it first in wetlands. There, blackbirds returning from the south are greeted by last year’s matted cattails and the reddening stems of dogwood. The odor of skunk cabbage is pungent; its maroon streaked hoods emerge from the mud, hiding small flowers that feed newly awakened bees. I sketch skunk cabbage every year, but this time I also discovered a patch of scouring rush (Equisetum hyemale), a leafless, hollow-stemmed primitive plant that has survived since the mid-Devonian, 350 million years also.
High temperatures rose into the 60s this past week and a few trees began to bud. From a distance, there is a welcome hint of color in their branches. Up close: tiny flowers and catkins have dusted my desk with a fine yellow powder of pollen, my reward for bringing a few stems inside.
And so, I bring you the first blush of spring in New York, minus the pollen and the odor of skunk cabbage. (Click the images to view larger.)
I am excited to announce that I am offering a new Technique Takawayat the Winslow Art Center: Ink and Watercolor Basics for Sketchers, Friday, May 14, 2-3:30 PST / 5-6:30 EST. This session is virtual via Zoom, $40. Find out more and REGISTER HERE.
Yesterday was overcast and damp, but I went searching for signs of spring along the wooded streamside anyway. “If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year.” Leave it to Thoreau. His timeless wisdom relevant still. And as much of the world shuts down to stem the spread of coronavirus and my state braces for the worst to come, I need that swamp, that skunk cabbage, Thoreau’s insight more than ever. “See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”
Tips and Techniques– Which came first, skunk cabbage or Thoreau? I typically go out and sketch what I find outside and then follow up with research. I look up some natural history information about what I’ve drawn, and sometimes look for a relevant quote or poem. I’ve been thinking all week about the role of art in times of struggle, and about how to record and express some of what I’m feeling. Finding Thoreau’s quote, written in 1857, could not have been more fitting.
Why is it that the first native wildflower to bloom each year in the Northeast gets so little fanfare or attention? Could it be its unappealing name– skunk cabbage? Or the fact you have to search for it in wetlands and bottomland forests or along damp streamsides in late-February and March? Or could it be that it doesn’t really signal the end of winter, able, as it is, to thrive when there is still snow on the ground?
Still, I think there is much to recommend skunk cabbage: it’s mottled deep maroon hood which conceals a pineapple-like flower head; it’s ability to generate its own heat; and, best of all, it’s bright green, tightly-rolled leaves that begin to unfurl in April. And now, having dug up a skunk cabbage to study it more closely, I would add to the list its massive root system, which anchors the plant deep in the ground. What more praiseworthy spring wildflower could there be?
Tips and Techniques– Follow your curiosity. Without it, I would not be out in the woods in February or studying the roots of skunk cabbage or painting many of the other subjects that intrigue me. Find what spark’s your interest and follow it.
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.