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.
You may notice robins in the yard or the first buds on the elms or daffodils ready to pop. But one of the best signs of the turning season for me is when the salamanders migrate. It happens on the first warm rainy night in spring. Sometimes it’s March, sometimes April. But when it rains all day and into the night, that’s the time when several species of salamanders come out from underground in the woods, where they spend most of their adult lives, and head to wetlands where they breed. If you happen to live someplace where roads intersect their habitat, you may see them in your headlight beams, or squished and stinking on an early morning jog. Or, if you’re like me, you pull on your rain gear and head out with a flashlight and help them cross the road.
I used to round up friends and kids to go out for the annual migration. One year I paid my sons a dime for every salamander and frog they found and I had to pony up two bucks each at the end of an hour. My kids are grown now, but when they see a rainy forecast they still text me to ask, Is this the night? Some new kids put up these fantastic signs — I hope they were out there during this week’s rains, soaking up one of the greatest rituals of spring. Tips & Techniques- Don’t try to draw in the dark in the rain. Take a photo. I began this page with a pencil drawing compiled from two photos. I painted the yellow spots and used masking fluid to save them and some of the highlights. I then did a wet in wet wash of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre over the whole thing (the entire painting is just those three colors, with a touch of sap green and quin gold at the end). I used negative painting techniques for most of this, pulling out bits of leaves on the ground and the shapes of the salamanders.
The woods are falling silent. Save for the call of jays and crows and the occasional chatter of chickadees and nuthatches, our songbirds have all flown to summer in the southern hemisphere. So, while it may seem odd to be painting yellow warblers in November, I am not quite ready to take up brown and blue paint and focus on winter birds just yet. This painting began in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, where I recently sketched yellow warblers perched in display cases. Back at home, I worked from those studies, a variety of photos, and a previous painting of dogwoods to create this piece…a bit of spring to tide us over the long winter ahead until these little beauties return.
Yellow Warbler (female), watercolor on Fabriano soft press 140lb paper, 6”x8”; click to view larger
Arts & Birding– If you like birds, nature, and art, and are looking for fun workshop to improve your skills in either sketching/painting or photography, join me in Maine next June 11-16 for Arts & Birding. This workshop takes place on a beautiful island on the Maine Coast at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. Registration is open and spaces are filling quickly. This is a wonderful place to invest in yourself and your art!
Many thanks to Discover WordPress for featuring Drawn In this week and thanks to all of you who signed on to follow me! Your enthusiasm, nice comments, and likes are terrific!
When I was a kid, my grandmother used to play “hide the thimble” with my sisters and me. A variant of hide and seek, she’d hide a thimble or other small object in plain sight and we’d try to find it. The thrill of discovery fueled many rounds of play, until my grandmother’s hiding places (and likely her patience) were exhausted. Lately, I’m playing a similar game with birds. They hide their nests—often in plain sight— in ways that defy detection. Camouflaged eggs and nests and stealth behavior are critical to their strategy. A sharp eye and keen awareness are keys to mine. Still, I walked by this song sparrow nest many times before noticing it, tucked into grass and clover. As you can see, it was a beautiful find.
Song Sparrow Nest, 8×8”, watercolor, 2016. Click to view larger.
The painting was made from a photo, quickly snapped when I found the nest. I prefer painting from life, but leaving the nest undisturbed was critical in this case.
I anticipate spring’s arrival for most of February, March and April, eager for its fresh greens, new life, and abundant sketching opportunities. It arrives slowly at first, with skunk cabbage, red-winged blackbirds, and daffodils. But by mid-May, it takes off like a rocket and I can’t keep up. I’ve been sketching and painting in snatches of time—10 minutes here, half hour there—due to an especially hectic work and family schedule this month. Here are a few of those snatches:
Click to view larger
The carriage barn at the first home in America of artist John James Audubon in Mill Grove, PA. Click to view larger.
Robin’s nest on the visitor center porch at Weir Farm National Historic Site in Connecticut. Click to view larger.
I’ve been creating a new perennial garden this week, which has left little time (or energy) for painting. Still, I had to sneak in a page of plants to record what’s going in the ground. I love taking the plants out of their containers and seeing the roots all wound round or tangled. I could get lost sketching them in detail, but then my garden would still be sitting in pots. So I am content (for now) to use my yard as an outdoor canvas, and to sketch with soil and plants instead of paint and paper, knowing that this garden will provide inspiration for many future paintings.