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.
Short on time but long on patience, I often need to quickly put pen to paper in my journal, get a first wash of color down, and then come back to finish later. The result is a journal full of sketches that took five minutes to start but five days to finish. I don’t really mind—working fast and loose has its merits. For one, my sketchbook would be empty if I waited until I had a big block of time for art. It has improved my hand-eye coordination. And it has kept in check my prior tendency to be slow, controlled, and precise.
Tips & Techniques– Practice a few 30 second, 1 minute, and 3 minute contour and semi-blind contour drawings with a fairly simple subject. Fruits and vegetables are perfect. Work in pencil or pen, but don’t erase. See if you can get most of your subject down in just a few minutes. Next add a loose and light wash of watercolor. Let it dry. Then repeat; add two or three more layers of paint to deepen the colors and add depth.
One trick to this method is to suspend judgment in the early stages. My sketches often look downright sloppy at the start, but I know that the watercolor will transform them. You can always tighten up as you progress, but it’s hard to make controlled sketches seem loose after the fact.
I introduced this technique with participants at a recent workshop on illustrated watercolor journaling that I offered at the Vermont Watercolor Society. Look how great this 1-minute sketch by one of the participants turned out with a just a couple of washes of watercolor.
Ever wonder what it’s like to go power cruising in southeastern Alaska—snaking your way through miles of evergreen coastline dotted with remote fishing villages? To be honest, I never have. I don’t even own a boat. So when I got an email asking whether I would illustrate an article on cruising and salmon fishing for PassageMaker magazine, I took a deep breath and enthusiastically accepted. Mind you, I didn’t get to actually go to Alaska. I just got to bring someone else’s travels to life in journal style illustrations for the article. The April issue hit the stands this week, and while I can’t show it to you in detail, I can give you a sneak preview.
Creating the illustrations was a fun challenge that involved sifting through lots of images of salmon, boats, and Alaskan coastline, thinking about what I might have put in my sketchbook had I actually gone to Alaska, and then creating paintings that would give a flavor of the region and what the author describes in the article. The designers pulled the paintings into Photoshop and merged them to suit the text and layout. I painted the image above to run across the bottom of the title page. What you’re seeing below are layout proofs.
Obsessive, distracting, challenging, fun. Sketching 100 people in a week has been a crazy ride. Instead of eyeing the artistic properties of carrots and beets in the supermarket, I found myself wishing I could draw the man with the waist-length gray beard or the woman in the colorful scarf. I became a spy in the coffee shop and at the library: casing the joints for subjects, finding seats where I could be unobtrusive, stealing glances, occasionally getting caught.
I’ve learned a lot in a week.
- The more you do, the better you get—with a major caveat. If you keep doing the same thing over and over, you’re just doing the same thing over and over. Taking time to learn (e.g., anatomy, technique, accuracy, etc.) or trying different materials can jump you to the next level. The combination of learning and practice is how you improve.
- Sometimes working from photos is a good thing. By stopping the action and giving yourself time, you can really study your subject. You can mess around, make mistakes, and clean them up. Your sketches might be less lively, but when you go back to working from life, you just might be more prepared.
- There’s no substitute for working from life.
- Studying the work of other artists—whether Masters in a museum or fellow sketchers online—opens up new doors of possibility.
- You are in the driver seat. Sketch what you love, but push the boundaries and take risks every now and then to see what you are capable of.
Click on any sketch to view larger and see notes. (See 1-50 here)
This challenge gave me plenty of opportunity to try different materials for the same subject. Here, I swapped my usual Micron 02 for the Platinum Carbon fountain pen. I like the line quality, but had to take care not to smudge the ink while it was drying.
Here’s where the numbers started to drive me and I lost sight of being thoughtful about what I wanted to do with this challenge. Bad move. With an hour to close and few people at the museum, I became reckless.
While I like the sketches of the security guards in this set, there little else I’m pleased with on these pages. I needed to remind myself to take charge again and focus on what I wanted to practice and learn. Good move.
I switched gears in a major way—working from a photo, I wanted to see if I could manage a more detailed portrait in watercolor. The subtleties of skin tones were well worth doing. (I think this should count as more than one.)
For my remaining sketches, I wanted to achieve a more accurate likeness of my subjects (which I did not achieve on 86-88, but did better on 89). These four were done with an inexpensive Pilot Varsity fountain pen with water soluble ink that bleeds beautifully for dramatic effects. I loved this pen for quick sketches with the simplest of washes.
An hour to closing time and 10 people to go, I was back to stalking subjects at the library. Working directly in pen, I managed to capture a decent likeness and suggest form with just two rounds of watercolor wash on most of these. I’ve come a long way from sketch #1.
What is the value of imperfection? I’ve been mulling over that question as it pertains to artwork for a few years and still, I don’t have a clear answer. I love the work of natural science illustrators, for whom accuracy, precision, and beauty are paramount. Yet each time my own artwork approaches that kind of perfection, it somehow seems to be missing something. Embracing imperfection, which, after all, is what so much of life is about, increasingly appeals to me. Letting go, accepting, and finding beauty are good lessons to learn on any journal page—and these lilies, way past their prime, were the perfect teacher.
Tips & Techniques– This piece takes advantage of secondary colors—orange, green, and a spot of purple—to create harmony. The strong black of the text, done with a Micron graphic pen, nearly overwhelms the lilies, but also makes a strong statement. I could go back with a thicker black outline on the flowers, but that would likely lead to overkill.
What is it that makes fossilized crinoids so compelling? Is it the artful way these delicate creatures came to rest at the bottom of the sea? Or the amazing transformation from living animal to rock, forever preserved, then heaved and eroded from the depths of time? Or is it the sheer success of this class of echinoderms as a survivor—living, reproducing, and dying over millions and millions of years to this very day in the depths of the oceans?
Click to view larger. Watercolor in Stillman & Birn Beta journal
I discovered the fossilized Uintacrinus socialis, a floating crinoid species whose arms could reach three feet long, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut. I found the other beautiful specimens (depicted below) at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College in Massachusetts (Platycrinus and Dichocrinus sp.) and the Peabody Museum (Sea Lily).
Tips & Techniques
– Studying the anatomy of creatures you’re interested in painting can make a world of difference. Not only will it help you get the drawing right, it will deepen your understanding and appreciation for the nature of the world. Drawing the anatomy of a crinoid helped me figure out what features to look for in the fossil specimens and to see the similarities between crinoids and their echinoderm relatives– sea stars and urchins.
Tangled in a thicket at the edge of a wooded wetland, the nest stood out like the prize it was for hiking on a cold winter day. As readers of this blog know by now, finding and painting nests is a recurring theme and a true pleasure for me. In fact, the subject of my first post was a nest. But this one is quite unique—almost two nests combined, it seems to me. It’s possible that a nest begun by one pair of birds was co-opted by another species, as sometimes happens; or that mice took over after the birds were finished and piled an enormous moss blanket on top of the woven base (though I saw no evidence of rodents). Either way, it’s a fine mystery and I’m happy to have it live on inside my sketchbook.
Click to view larger; “In the thin light of winter woods, we find the promise of next summer.”
If you have come across a nest similar to this or have ideas about what birds it may have belonged to, I’d love to hear about it. I can eliminate a lot of possibilities, but I’m stymied. The nest was 7 inches across with a 3 inch cup, constructed 5 feet off the ground at the edge of a wooded wetland in central Connecticut.