For two weeks now, poppies have been opening each day in our garden. Light and airy as ballet dancers, their moment center stage is short, but oh so lovely. I started this page when the first pink flower bloomed and added more as they opened— plant after plant, all pink. And then, a single red blossom opened. Outstanding in its singularity, it seemed the perfect punctuation to a page—and to a garden in need of a bit of diversity to really make it shine.
I did this second painting of poppies while visiting the garden at Olana State Historic Site. These bold, frilly-edged perennial poppies were in full late-day sun, which forced me to work quickly. I like the resulting freshness and fullness of this one.
Tips and Techniques– Notice the treatment of foliage in these two pieces. In the pink annual poppies, I decided to leave out the leaves to to showcase the simple grace of the stems and flowers. In contrast, putting in a suggestion of gray-green foliage offers a useful compliment to the red poppies at Olana. Remember that as an artist, you are also an editor. Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you have to paint it. Make choices about what’s in front of you to simplify and hone in on what you want to convey.
While its customary to leave an outside light on at night for family or guests who are arriving late, I have taken to leaving a light on for an entirely different sort of guest. Each morning I am eager to discover who has come in the night to hang out on our back porch. We have had some exceptional visitors this week and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know who else lives in my neck of the woods.
Tips and Techniques– One of my goals with these moths was not to fuss too much, which is easy to do when faced with such detailed markings. I try to capture each moth with about three passes:
- I lay in the shape and “ground” color first with a wet wash, typically using two colors to get some variation. I begin directly with paint, rather than drawing first. I find that I can capture the basic shape this way with much greater speed. While one moth is drying, I start another and rotate among them.
- Next, I start to delineate the wings from the body and add the primary pattern of markings. The paint is less wet on this pass.
- On the third go around, I use a very dry brush to add remaining details. The antennae are last, as is identifying and labeling each one. This technique worked for all but the Polyphemus moth, which is ridiculously complex and took far more time than the others.
A pop of red amidst a tangle of greens, scarlet runner beans wind their way to the top of the garden trellis, sending flowers to the sun and beans drooping toward the ground. Just a few months ago, they were a mere handful of purple and black streaked seeds. Now, they dare you to imagine that they were ever anything other than extraordinary. And so, I think that writer Robert Brault is onto something: If you’ve never experienced the joy of accomplishing more than you can imagine, plant a garden.
(Click to view larger.)
Tips and Techniques: Sometimes, the composition of a piece is sitting right in front of you, and sometimes you have do a bit of rearranging to make it work. I saw the central elements of this piece—the three main dangling beans and the diagonal vine with red flowers on the left side of the page—right on the trellis. But I needed to add flowers, leaves, beans and tendrils from several different runner beans to complete the composition. As an artist, don’t feel that you need to draw exactly (or only) what is in front of you. Give yourself creative latitude to move things around or eliminate something to create a stronger composition.
These are the days we long for in the dead of winter: light-filled, warm, colorful, vibrant. Glorious.
This painting began last fall when I had the idea to build an Art Garden in our yard. I didn’t want a garden that I would spent a lot of time working in, as much as a place I would enjoy being in. My chief criteria for what goes in the ground is that it must be something I want to paint. This has turned out to be an eclectic mix of vegetables and flowers—beets, radishes, and tomatoes are at home with sweet peas, poppies, scarlet runner beans, and sunflowers. Something new unfolds each week. And as you can see, it’s a pretty colorful place right now.
Tips and Techniques– I started by drawing zinnias and a few sweet peas but, after adding color, I quickly decided that the page was much too sparse. After all, August is all about abundance. So I went back and added more and more until the page was crowded with flowers. The lesson here is not to be afraid to pause when sketching to consider what drew you in and whether you have captured it. It may be a something particular about your subject or it could be a mood or feeling. Once you’ve got that in mind, finishing the drawing, or adding color or text often flows with ease.
When I left Hog Island Audubon Camp, I stopped along the winding road that leads away from the coast and back into town. There is a glorious field of lupine along the roadside that I never have time to stop at when I am arriving. Even though the flowers had faded, I didn’t want to let them go. The seedpods and grasses shone in the morning sun. I wasn’t yet ready to leave. This page marks the transition from Maine to New York, from two weeks of immersion on the coast to the longing for it that always comes afterward.
“Who can imagine my dear country’s dark woods, it’s vast Atlantic bays, it’s thousands of streams, lakes, and magnificent rivers? I wish that I could draw it all.”
–John James Audubon
I couldn’t agree more. During my art retreat on Hog Island in Maine I felt like I was hiking in the Cathedral of Nature. I was in awe of the island’s moss-carpeted forests, its milkweed fields alight with monarchs, and its waist-high ferns growing wherever storms had created openings to allow in more light. Osprey circled above the spruce spires, while hermit thrush, northern parula and black-throated green warblers echoed in the shadowy woods. I wished that I could draw it all.
Click any image to view larger.
Tips and Techniques– The greatest challenge to these paintings was undoubtedly mosquitoes. They own the Maine woods and bogs in summer. I stuck to sketching on trails close to the shore and had to skip drawing in the forest interior. The exception I made was to sketch in the bog. There, I worked directly in ink to capture the flowers and a few plants. Then I snapped a couple of photos and retreated to paint later in the comfort of my cabin. Some challenges are worth it.
It always sneaks up too fast. Dark creeps in earlier each evening; the woods go silent; swallows gather on the power lines, then vanish. I was happy to fit in a final weekend at the ocean, where it was still plenty warm for one last swim. A row of kites fluttered overhead. Yellow primroses bloomed at the edge of the dunes. But flocks of sandpipers chasing the waves amidst late-season beach-goers were a sure tell of the season’s turning, as were the multitude of bright orange-red rose hips ripening in the sun. Summer’s end is here.
Tips and Techniques: When heading out to sketch, it’s helpful to think about what you can accomplish in the time you have. If you have 10 minutes, pick a 10-minute subject. This helps keep frustration in check, and you’ll avoid starting something you can’t finish or can’t capture sufficiently in the time you have. I’m fairly quick with drawing, but quite slow as a painter. I often choose subjects I can begin in the field and finish at later home, as was the case with the rose hips. Subjects like birds and trees take me longer to render well, so I don’t tackle them unless I have at least an hour. The more you work in the field the better you’ll become at picking subjects you can tackle well within the time you have.
Call me obsessed. I probably deserve it. I have spent nearly every evening this week painting nothing but mushrooms, buying field guides, making spore prints, and staying up late trying to identify my finds. In my defense, a treasure trove is growing before me– new species emerging each day under the grove of oaks that line our driveway. And I know that the intense humidity and rain that brings them out, all too quickly turns them to mush. In the end, my obsession stems from being astonished: I have recorded an impressive 26 different species in a single week: classic gilled mushrooms, large and colorful boletes, tiny coral fungi, and ringed polypores.
Consider this: several thousand species of mushrooms are found in the Northeast and upwards of 30,000 in North America. That’s more than all of the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and plants combined. I found identifying them challenging, even maddening, but I learned to look more keenly at key features in the process. It’s likely that I misidentified some and I didn’t gather enough information to even begin to identify others. If you spot one you know from this collection, drop me a note so I can look it up.
It’s hard to exaggerate the extravagance of ripe peaches. Soft, striking, sweet, juicy…what fruits can rival them? Tomatoes, apples, eggplant, peppers? No match. Pears and cherries? Closer, but still second. Painting them is a pleasure, too. As is eating them, when the painting is done.
Tips and Techniques: First, I made it clear to my family, “Don’t eat the peaches until I paint them.” The previous three farmstand purchases disappeared before I had a chance at them. I started this as a simple ink sketch, and then painted multiple layers of Hansa yellow medium with quin rose, mixed with ultramarine blue for the darker skin. It’s important to let each layer dry thoroughly before adding the next. Building up layers allows the lighter tones to shine through, creating a more luminous effect than if you tried to get the color “right” in one go. I finished the page with a few details, spatter, and text (click the image to view larger).
Were it not for relentless deer flies and record-breaking heat, it might not have taken me four days to complete this page. But it is hard to sketch on the roadside under such circumstances, no matter how determined, and so, one flower at a time, the page grew. Still, sometimes it’s good not to rush a painting. It lets things evolve; insights emerge. What started as a simple painting of flowers grew into a recognition of how much of the world is at our very doorstep.
I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921): “The most precious things in life are near at hand, without money and without price. Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door. All that I ever had, and still have, may be yours by stretching forth your hand and taking it.”
Note: I will be taking a break from posting for the next week or two as I head to Maine to facilitate and teach the Arts & Birding workshop at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. It’s a fully immersive experience for me, and life on an island is better without phones, computers or social media.