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.
I headed into the woods last weekend to find mayapples in bloom. The flowers are hidden underneath large leaves, so sketching them required squatting at ground level. Within a few minutes, my knees sent me packing, which is, in part, why I only filled half the page with mayapples. I also wanted the white space as a place to rest the eyes and contemplate this thought on painting:
In painting, as in any art, persistent practice is not working on the object or the image or the performance alone, but rather, working on yourself, which is the constant behind all the “product” of your art. (From Learning to Look Carefully; the Art of John Morra by Ned Depew.)
Tips and Techniques– I painted this using negative painting techniques, and in trying to get deep darks to bring out the white flowers, I lost much of the light and transparency that I like to have in a painting. I would have preferred to convey a more dappled light, like that in the woods where mayapples grow. One way to avoid this is to select just a few colors — 3 or 4 — to work with for the entire painting. I started with just three, but they were too light to give me deep darks when mixed at full strength. So, I experimented with adding some dark staining colors, which gave me good darks, but began to muddy the page when added on top of the previous washes. In the process, however, I discovered why many artists have Phthalo Green (PG7) on their palette. It’s garish on its own, but when mixed with Transparent Pyrrole Orange (PO71) (and other reds) it produces a range of very nice dark greens. I plan to add these to my palette and continue seeing how they perform.
The glory days of springtime come fast and fleeting. Miss the trillium, and you have to wait a whole year to see it again. Migrating birds come, feed, and leave again while we sleep or work or are otherwise distracted. There never seems to be enough time in my spring; no way to capture it all before the symphony of greens gives way to summer. Still, I’ve managed some quick sketches in the woods and I was fortunate to be home when a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks showed up at the feeder.
It’s good to see this old sugar maple in our front yard wearing a mantle of greenery again. Moss covered and with new leaves unfolding, it’s tangled mass of old limbs drew me in. After an hour or so, the black flies drove me away.
Tips and Techniques– I started this as an ink drawing and worked until it was quite detailed. I could have, and maybe should have, left it there, with just a light wash of bright green for the leaves. I had that “fork in the road” feeling—not sure whether to add more color or let it be. Sometimes I walk away at that point, coming back later with greater clarity of direction. Sometimes I leap, follow a hunch, take the risk, and hope for the best. What do you do when you reach that fork in the road with a painting?
believer in shade
believer in silence and elegance believer in ferns
believer in patience
believer in the rain — W.S. Merwin (Empty Water)
How good to be out in the greening woods, despite the occasional rain and still cold spring day. Good to see ferns unfurling and mayapples reaching up out of last year’s leaves and a single ruby red trillium.
Tips and Techniques– My simple tip this week is to let observation and delight drive your sketching. Go out with no agenda and see what strikes you. I was drawn in by the variety of fiddleheads when I started looking more closely at them unfurling in the woods – some hairy, some smooth, some reddish-brown, others bright yellow-green. Had I gone out with a pre-planned idea of what I wanted to paint, I might never have seen them.
When art takes a backseat to the rest of my life, I find it helpful to use a grid. Setting up a framework of small squares in my journal allows me the flexibility to fill them as time allows over a period of days or weeks. I started this grid in March, knowing that a hectic schedule lay ahead. This grid started with a set of six squares per page but, as you can see, the squares can be combined vertically or horizontally to fit the subject at hand. I especially like how a grid page can capture so much of a day, week, or month in just a few small spaces.
Tips and Techniques: Set up a grid in pencil with evenly spaced squares and an even amount of white space between them. You don’t have to plan what will go in them. When you have a subject you want to sketch, choose a box and add it. If your subject is quite vertical or horizontal, combine boxes to suit the shape. You can combine as many boxes as you want, or none at all. I tend to skip around the page, based on the shapes, and outline each box at the end.
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.