When March feels like January and the urge to go outside and sketch no longer seems sane, I’m in trouble. I could use a change of scenery and fresh artistic inspiration, but, alas, there’s nowhere to go. So I’ve turned to my collection of beach finds to take me to warmer places and sunnier days. I like imagining whelks and horseshoe crabs crawling on sandy bottomed shores and blue mussels, sea stars, and urchins crammed into rocky cervices. Out there in the Atlantic, summer is just a dream away.
Tips and Techniques– A collection like this is perfect for rainy days and times when you just want to practice. I decided to sketch directly in pen and use a size 12 round brush to keep this loose and spontaneous. Had I gone for a more precise approach, I’d still be working on it. When you sketch a collection, start with one of the largest objects first. Then add your second and third objects close to it. Build out from there. You can always tuck smaller items into tight spaces or fill gaps in the design.
“I suppose wisdom is to know one’s necessities and not live without them. And this huge silence, with the woods and the ocean together, and the air full of kelp and the sound of the fish hawk and the seagulls and nothing else seems to be something I parish and parch without.” —Margaret Wise Brown, who summered on Vinalhaven from 1938-1952 and authored children’s classics including Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny
The Maine coast is, for many, about lighthouses and lobsters, quaint harbor towns and deep blue-green waters. I like those things, too, but I am drawn to Maine’s rocky coast—and to its islands in particular—for their silent and majestic spruce forests and intimate rocky tidal pools. Here, worlds beyond my own cares open, anchored in the solidity of granite and the rhythm of tides. The cry of the osprey circling overhead, the croak of a heron in the gathering dusk, the occasional rumble of lobster boats are welcome sounds in an otherwise quiet September.
We filled our days with exploration and several exhilarating quarry swims. I tried to paint boats and buildings in my sketchbook but found I could not muster enough interest to do either with satisfaction. So here is my week in sketches and in the particulars that will sustain me until I return.
It’s not every day an editor needs illustrations of barnacles. It’s not every artist who could say, “Yes, I’ve drawn lots of barnacles.” So when an editor from PassageMaker Magazine contacted me so see if I might like to illustrate an article on barnacles and boats, how could I refuse? All those days I spent poking in low tide pools at the edge of the sea and sketching its inhabitants prepared me well for just such an assignment. It’s not every day that natural history, art, exploration, and financial reward come together for me in such a satisfying way. I’m really pleased that this turned out so well.
Barnacle study, 2011
Tips and Techniques– “Day after day, never fail to draw something which, however little it may be, will yet in the end be much,” advised Italian painter Cennino Cennini in 1390. Don’t wait for a grand subject for sketching practice. Look at the things around you and jump in. Even a lowly barnacle — small, ordinary, and ubiquitous — may prove more fascinating and beautiful than you realized.
The weather in Ireland is notoriously changeable– sunny skies turn overcast and give way to misty rain within an hour’s time, and may just as quickly change back to clear blue, only to fill with rain again by day’s end. Unless, of course, it’s steadily raining, in which case, it will likely rain all day. This makes sketching in Ireland a bit of a challenge, but it also adds drama to already dramatic landscapes.
The sketch of Dunmore Head on the Dingle Peninsula is one of my favorites. I had seen this view in travel guides (in sun, of course), and its sheer cliffs, crashing surf, grazing sheep along the trail, and circling gannets made hiking here a grand experience. A break in the soaking fog gave me just enough time to put pen to paper.
We also had a stunningly beautiful morning in which to explore tide pools at White Strand beach just west of Cahersiveen Town on the Ring of Kerry. We saw all of these creatures (and more) but I didn’t paint them until later that day, indoors, when it was raining.
Tips and Techniques– If you are planning to sketch while traveling, jump in when something strikes you. Don’t wait for a better view or clearer skies. Don’t second guess whether the subject is worth it. Everything you put in your journal, no matter how small or seemingly mundane, adds something to the whole. I had a few moments of hesitation and regret the lost opportunities. Conversely, I’m glad I included small wildflowers and cups of tea and coffee, as these details would soon be lost if not recorded.
“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the Earth are never alone or weary of life.” – Rachel Carson
I love the way small creatures find refuge in and on one another in the sea. Kelp, bryozoans, barnacles, mussels– life upon life, tangled and cemented together. Tossed up from the depths, it’s a pleasure to find these beauties within reach.
Upcoming Program: Drawn In
Sunday, October 23, 2016, 3pm, Free North Chatham Library, 4287 Rte. 203, North Chatham, New York
I will be giving a presentation of my artwork as part of the library’s Arts & Literature lecture series. Take a look inside my sketchbooks and at my natural history illustrations and discover a world of color, inspiration, and a few surprises.
I’ve just returned from a week in the Pacific Northwest—land of big trees, mountains, skies, water, and wilderness. I had the privilege of teaching a four day watercolor sketching workshop with an enthusiastic and talented group of artists from Anacortes, Washington. I’ll share a few lessons from the workshop here soon…but first, let’s start where so many of my travels begin: with a map. It has been 30 years since my last trip to the Northwest, so this painting helped me to get a good sense of the lay of the land.
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I had hoped to see some western bird species and was delighted that Anna’s hummingbirds were near daily visitors to the backyard where I stayed. I mainly saw the female, which is less colorful than the male, but no less interesting.
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Before the workshop began, I took two days to explore and hike. I painted this octopus from a video in anticipation (i.e. wishful thinking) of seeing one in a west coast tide pool. No luck; but I did see nearly a dozen egg yolk jellyfish, a fairly common west coast species, as well as other fascinating denizens of rocky tide pools in the Puget Sound.
For many years now, I’ve clamored over granite ledges, slippery seaweeds, and sharp barnacle-laden rocks to explore the watery realm of Maine’s tide pools. When the sea retreats at low tide, a world of strange and tenacious creatures is revealed. I go in search of spiny urchins, orange and green sea stars, feathery anemone, scampering hermit crabs and slow moving snails, tunicates, blue muscles, dog whelks, sponges, lurking crabs and, always, the unexpected. I bring my sketchbook and a pen and draw until the tide turns.
After this year’s adventure, I went back through my sketchbooks over the last 10 years to compare the drawings and the treasures found. Enjoy!
Though I work outdoors using a portable set of watercolors all the time, I realize that many people work almost exclusively indoors from photographs and a much larger set up. People often ask me how to get started working outside. Figuring out how to lighten the load is key; and once done, it opens all sorts of great possibilities for painting.
Immersed in drawing the tide pools of Maine’s rocky coast.
In preparation for my upcoming workshop, Arts and Birding, in Maine, I have been making a few small watercolor boxes for people to try. Here are a variety I’ve put together or revamped using standard half and full pans: Clockwise from left:
Windsor and Newton Cotman box, small mint tins in various stages of transformation (inside spray painted white and outside spray painted red), Prang watercolor tin revamped with full and half pans (this is my current box).
Do it yourself:
I ordered the plastic pans online for about .69 cents.They’re held in place with Scotch restickable strips for mounting. Figure about $10 to configure a box of 12, plus paint. I use Windsor and Newton and Daniel Smith tube paints to fill them. To really travel light, I bring just a waterproof pen, a waterbrush, and a couple of paper towels or a bandana to clean the tray and wipe the brush between colors.