Victorian Finery

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.

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The Ripening Season

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.

Flyover

A small but vocal flock of Canada geese flies over our house every day now. They emerge from the tree line, calling to one another and, it seems, to anyone who will listen. I know better, but still, I hear them implore: look up! The maples will not be golden for long.

Tips & Techniques– Painting birds in flight is challenging—and it takes practice. It helps to study the anatomy of the wing so that you understand its major feather groups. It’s also important to have a general sense of perspective so that you can begin to see how the plane of each wing moves and how they align together. Even then, it’s not easy. In addition to time in the field, watch videos to study flight in slow motion. I made several pencil sketches and marked the angles between wings, head, and tail to try to get the proportion and position right before starting this page.

Church’s View

Painter Frederic Church (1826-1900) designed every detail of his exotic Persian mansion and expansive surrounding landscape as works of art. Every view overlooking New York’s Hudson River Valley– from every window, door, and balcony– is carefully planned and framed. Every facet of the landscape, including woodlands, open fields, lake, and carriage roads were planned or planted to offer quiet scenes and sweeping vistas no less grand than Church’s spectacular canvases. Olana, as Church named the property, is one of his greatest masterpieces.

It’s also intimidating as hell to paint. In part, that’s because the sky and sweeping views are so vast, and the house—both inside and out—is so full of architectural details. But it’s also Church’s stature as one of the 19th century’s most preeminent American painters that makes it hard not feel small, even foolish, when attempting to paint his view. I took a half hour on Church’s front step to try anyway, and made several smaller sketches from photos later. I much prefer the small stuff, and plan to stick to my own backyard for a while.

Much to do

What to do when your TO DO list is longer than the hours in a day? When “unpack office/studio” makes the list of chores necessary for settling into a new house, but doesn’t yet rise in priority? When painting walls takes precedent over painting watercolors? My solution: make a simple sketch and go wash the bedroom floor. Still, I can’t complain. I’m settling into a beautiful place and managed to take time to explore the stream and woodland that runs alongside and beyond the house. And I trust that there will be days—and years—ahead for putting more of this lovely place on paper.

 

Birds and Grids

How great it is to be sketching and painting outside again! Birds nesting, feeding, soaring, chattering, resting, flying up and landing again. Flowers blooming, waves breaking, wind blowing. It’s all good. With a wealth of possibilities before me on two recent hikes, I decided a grid would be the best way to quickly capture a variety of subjects and convey the flavor of the day.

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Tips and Techniques: Divide your page into equally-sized boxes with light pencil lines or dots in the corners of each box, but don’t limit yourself to the smallest size. Combine boxes to fit your subjects and go outside the lines if you like. I divided the pages above with eight small boxes each and decided on the right shape for each element as I went along. This technique will help your page come together no matter what combination you choose.