No bigger than a small lemon, and with an equally yellow cap, the golden crowned kinglet is a tiny harbinger of spring. Never still for more than a few seconds, it flits busily among the trees, its high-pitched song easier to hear than the bird itself is to find. So I sit quietly, binoculars in hand, and wait. Soon enough, several appear—and disappear, and appear again, in a game of hide and seek that goes on for most of the afternoon. I can’t capture the movement, so I go for the lemon and the bird and the quiet instead, happy to keep this reminder of the day between these pages.
“Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet
but first you must have the quiet.
— Wendell Berry
Where to begin? Presented with 3,000 plants in every shade of green and every texture and pattern of leaves, choosing a subject was no small task at the Lyman Conservatory at the Botanic Garden of Smith College in Northhampton, Mass. I spent the day there sketching and generally getting a much needed green fix after months of winter browns. Here’s the first of the pieces I did there, an exotic pitcher plant native to Borneo.
Tips and Techniques: What could be better for practicing how to mix greens? Use house plants or find a greenhouse near you and see how many shades of green you can mix. I used primarily sap green with raw umber and quin rose for the pitcher plants, but burnt sienna made its way into the tops of the pitchers and a lighter mix of sap green and cobalt blue helped the leaves and vines in the background recede. Take care when using reds with greens—mixing the two when wet will give you nice browns, but if you want to keep the red tones, wait until the green has dried and then add a layer of red on top.
What began as a simple search for interesting props for my upcoming Sketching Nature workshop, led to a great illustration of how much there is to discover if we only look more closely. Among the things I collected were the dried stems of goldenrod, many of which had classic round goldenrod galls. But I soon discovered other deformities that I hadn’t noticed before: stunted stems with tufts of leaves at the tops, and elliptical-shaped growths on stems.
It turns out that more than 50 species of insects—mostly flies, midges, and wasps– lay their eggs on goldenrod stems. When the larvae hatch, they borrow into the stem, causing the plant to form a protective chamber around the growing grub. When the larvae transforms into an adult, it emerges from its hideaway and flies off. Sometimes woodpeckers drill into the gall for a meal, in which case, you’ll find a small hole in the gall. For the most part, the insects don’t harm the plant; though in the case of the bunch gall, they do stunt the growth of the stem, causing leaves to sprout at the top and curtailing the growth of flowers.
So, there you have it…a bit of natural history for your day and an invitation to go out and see what you can discover.
Tips & Techniques– Keep it simple! I wanted this page to illustrate how much you can do with a few simple things on a page and a limited amount of time. I drew everything directly in pen and shaded only the darkest areas. I added watercolor in three loose layers, using combinations of yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue. A bit of spatter near the dried flowers and the “goldenrod galls” text were my finishing touches.
After days of single digit temperatures, 18°F felt like it might be sort of manageable for sketching outside. And it was…more or less, given the challenge of sketching with gloves on and needing to work quickly to avoid frozen fingers and feet. Still, there is something fresh about working outside and I suspect this page will always bring to mind the chill of the setting sun and the unexpected sound of hundreds of geese overhead.
Today it is minus-4°F and I am not so brave. Happy New Year!
Tips & Techniques- Why not? Try making a very short foray outside this winter for a quick sketch. Don’t be too fussy about the subject– find something simple that you can capture in about three minutes and jump in. Keep your tools very basic too– a pen or pencil and sketchbook are all you need. I added watercolor later, and decided to try rubber stamps for a fun change of pace.
How does a naturalist-artist find herself painting Victorian dresses? I’m not sure, except that I found the fantastic fabrics and fine details of the new exhibit Well Dressed in Victorian Albany quite irresistible. The gowns in the collection of the Albany Institute of History & Art are so exquisite, they make perfect artistic subjects. Unfortunately, the museum didn’t allow watercolor in the gallery, so I was restricted to pencil and pen, and had to paint later…which took away a bit of the fun. Nevertheless, this was a valuable exercise. Painting drapery requires mastery of line, volume, form, and value. I went for a fairly graphic look, with bolder blacks for the darkest areas. Had I been able to paint initially, I probably would have skipped the bold lines in favor of more subtle watercolor.
I was particularly drawn to the incredible details of collars and cuffs. I wanted to see what I could suggest without painting every stitch of lace or embroidery.
Seasons unfold, pages evolve. That’s what happened here as I sketched a variety of fall fruits and seeds from the trees in our yard over the last few weeks. It’s all part of learning what’s here on the rural property we moved to in July. There are nice old sugar maples, red and white oaks, black walnuts, cottonwoods, birches, and white pines, with well-placed dogwood, pin cherry, and apple trees. There are many year’s worth of sketches in the trees alone…and you’ll see more in the future, I’m sure.
Tips & Techniques– Just as seasons evolve, your pages can too. While it can be nice to finish a page all at once, sometimes that just doesn’t work. Be patient. Do a little at a time, leave it, come back, and do more. Your most important decision is probably where to place the first object. Avoid the middle of the page, which tends to lead to a dull design and leaves only tight spaces around the center to fill. If you know you have a larger item (e.g., black walnuts vs. acorns), place it sooner than later. You can always find room for small things after the big ones are in place.