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.
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.
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.