A Prayer in Spring

Oh give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the spring of the year.

— Robert Frost

Under massive oaks and maples: dappled sunlight and hundreds of Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Oh give us pleasure in the flowers today. I had come to the woods feeling heavy-hearted, weary, needing spring. And give us not to think so far away as the uncertain harvest. How well Frost understood his time and ours. Drawing kept me in the moment; later it brought me pleasure again when finishing this page at home. Keep us here—all simply in the spring of the year.

Wishing you the pleasure of flowers.

Surrounded by Magenta

After a winter of painting with brown and earth-toned pigments, it feels extravagant to use so much magenta. But this particular variety of magnolia had magnificently deep-colored blossoms and I found myself dipping into paint pans that I rarely use. With the tree in full bloom and fallen petals on the ground it was a delight to be surrounding by so much color.

Tips and Techniques– When you are using a strong color like quinacridone magenta, it helps to tone it down. I used yellow ochre and aureolin yellow, which produce some lovely warm shades of pink. Mixing with cobalt blue gave me cooler and darker tones for shaded areas. Test out the reds in your paint box. Red plus yellow doesn’t always give you orange, especially when using cooler reds like alizarin crimson or quinacridone rose. Red plus yellow can produce excellent flesh tones and subtle pinks.

The Lovely and the Lowly

I broke my home-bound suspension yesterday just to paint magnolias in bloom. I went to a nearby cemetery where I’d seen them previously. I was not disappointed; several large trees were in their full glory. Amidst the quiet of gravestones, their display was enjoyed only by birds and a few passersby.

Later at home, I inadvertently dug up an acorn just starting to sprout in my garden. Though lowly, it struck me that this unfolding life was as lovely as the magnolia. And, thankfully, right in my own backyard.

International Nature Journaling Week is coming up, June 1-7. The week aims to bring together a world-wide community to celebrate and document the beauty and diversity of the natural world. As a lead up, artists and bloggers are sharing their perspectives and artwork each week at NatureJournalingWeek.com. I am grateful to be featured this week with a blog post The Art of Discovery.”  

At Home

Being at home day after day (after day) is hard. I wear the gravity of our times like added weight. How grateful I am for our only visitors, who sing their way into spring with airy lightness. I leave my sketchbook by the window so I can draw birds at the feeder and take it with me on my post work rambles. So, today, I offer you a few birds from my yard in hopes that, for a brief moment, they might bring you the cheer that they have given me.
(Click to view larger: blue jays, goldfinches, bluebirds, palm warblers)

Tips and Techniques– For me, sketching birds from life feels a bit like entering a spinning jump rope. Even though the birds are moving, you have to jump in at some point and commit a pose to paper. Once I’ve done that, the bird has likely moved. So, I either wait until it strikes a similar pose or use binoculars to see markings in greater detail. Little by little, I add to the bird, paying particular attention to the beak and eye. I find that if you get those right, the rest of the bird, even if unfinished, is more convincing. Once the initial sketch is down, I use photos as reference for additional details. I sketched these with pencil (yes, I erased a lot) and colored pencil, with a bit of watercolor on the jays and bluebirds.

The Promise of Yellow

Sometimes, we just need yellow. Like when we’re waiting for spring greens to arrive after winter browns, or when the world has been turned upside down and we need a promise of hope. That’s when a burst of yellow forsythia or daffodils are just exactly right.
Click any image here to view larger.
Tips and Techniques– I love the way petals of forsythia blossoms seem to dance. There is a movement to them that is really fun to draw. But to draw every bloom could be too much. You want the burst of yellow, without so much crowding that you lose the dance. In this case, a spatter of paint added a touch of loose, uncontrolled color that complemented the flowers without overwhelming them.

  • A hard shake of a wet watercolor brush yields big drops (top left);
  • A stiff craft brush or old toothbrush flicked with your thumb results in a tighter concentration of marks (bottom);
  • An drop from an eye dropper about 10 inches above the paper gives big splashy drops.

If you don’t already use spatter in your painting, try it next time you want to enliven your subject or to achieve an effect that a controlled brush can’t.

And here’s more yellow just in case you need it.

Spring Arrivals

Early spring is underrated. The splashy colors of daffodils and tulips are still weeks away, as is the return of more prized migratory birds– warblers, tanagers, orioles. The woods, too, show only the slightest hint of green. And yet, despite temperatures that fluctuate between 20 and 55-degrees, between snow and sunshine, spring unfolds in myriad small ways each day. I keep a list of spring arrivals, marking the date and the species. I like to compare my lists from year to year, to anticipate what’s coming next, and to celebrate each small sign of the changing season. It’s not only the resplendent that deserves our applause.

Tips and Techniques– People often comment here about my page layouts, so I thought I’d use this page to try to shed some light on my process.

Picture yourself, faced with a blank page. Then someone hands you a most splendid scarlet mushroom, unearthed from rotting leaves near the wood pile. It goes on the page. You’ve never seen this mushroom before, so you look it up in a field guide and record information about it. Now the page is begun, but what next?

Several days later, while walking down the road, a flock of grackles sits perched on last year’s stubs of corn in the field. It’s the dried stalks as much as the birds that draw you in. They go on the page. Now you have two seemingly unrelated subjects to contend with. Hmmm.

The next day, it snows, bringing flocks of birds to the feeder. There’s no time to draw them, but you make a list. Two days later, its 50-degrees with wind from the south, a fairly good sign that there will be birds that take advantage of the tailwind and come north. They go on the list. Now the page seems to be saying something about early spring, but it needs something more to pull it together. Red maple! Blooming now, it’s just the thing to carry the color of the scarlet cup across the page, so you go in search of it and add a few blooms.

Finally, you add a title “Early Spring Arrivals” to solidify the theme. But there is still room for one more thing: you need to put yourself on the page. Why did you see these things? Because you are teleworking from home and taking more walks while COVID-19 transforms the world. That seems worth noting. And now the page is complete.

Prophet of Hope

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.