Golden Hour

At 5 o’clock, the sun was already low on the horizon, casting a golden light that would blaze for a short while more and then vanish. After eight hours at my desk, I quickly closed my laptop, picked up my sketchbook, and headed to a nearby preserve to immerse myself in what remained of a perfect fall day. I didn’t walk far before being surrounded by the colors of the season. Dark trunks of old sugar maples cloaked in a perfect glory of yellow, orange, green, and russet lined the old carriage road that marks the boundary of the preserve. I wish I could have taken you along to see the display, but this sketch will have to do.

Tips and Techniques—Sometimes you only have an hour (or less), a perfectly golden hour, in which to make a mark on a page. Tackling a big subject like a line of trees and fall foliage wouldn’t typically be my go-to subject for such a short time. But because it was truly THE subject of the moment, I decided to take the leap. Eliminating the more complicated branches of this scene made it more doable—though I wish I had included just a little more height. I sketched in the trees in pencil and painted the colorful leaves and ground with a waterbrush while on the path. The impression of color and light seemed like the most important element to capture in the moment. Back at home, I added the dark trunks and shadows. The thin border and text were important finishing elements, containing the sketch and anchoring it in time and place.

The Intersection of Art and Nature

If you were to draw a Venn diagram of Art, nature, and exploration, the intersection of the three is exactly where I like to be. The exploration doesn’t have to be dramatic—and in my case it rarely is—but I love going out and seeing what’s happening outside and trying to capture it in my sketchbook with watercolor and a few words. I’m not looking for grand vistas as much as simple, everyday subjects that mark the changing seasons and comings and goings of creatures that exist in a world of their own. These small things not only ground me, but also make the world larger and more grand. This page illustrates some of my favorite tools of the trade at the intersection of Art and nature.

Tips and Techniques– Painting art supplies or common household objects is valuable practice for capturing different types of textures. This painting presented the challenge of painting plastic, metal, and wood, as well as the texture of the nest and markings on the eggs. In this case, I found that a few simple strokes worked better than lot of fussing. Paying attention to the edges of your subjects is also important. A clean edge is key to the object taking shape.

Fields of Summer

Back in May, I wrote a post about Gardens Wild and Planted, where I wondered whether the home gardener could create anything as lovely as a spring meadow. Here I am again at the end of summer wondering the same once more. I visited this field (and started this journal page) back in July and revisited it last week to see it again (and finish the sketch). My own garden is a fine mix of annuals and perennials, and it has provided plenty of good subject matter for sketching. But it cannot compare with the wilder open fields where an annual mowing is all that is needed to create an entire season of beauty.  

Tips and Techniques– This sketch is a composite of various flowers and grasses in the field. Rather than standing in one place where all of this was in view, I moved from flower to flower to fill the page. I often use this technique when outside because it allows me the freedom to roam freely, discovering and drawing as I go. I sketch directly with a black Micron 02 pen and I may or may not add watercolor on the spot. A small travel watercolor set and water brush work well, though I frequently add more layers of watercolor at home. The text and border come last. Hope you are enjoying some late summer wandering and sketching!

Starting at the Beginning

Despite the pandemic—and because of it—I’ve had a few recent opportunities to teach workshops. Whether masked and in person or via Zoom, I’m grateful to be able to spend quality time with people near and far who are eager to learn and grow. When I’m working with artists at all skill levels, I like to begin with some basic exercises and warm up sketches that get creative juices flowing and jump start a flow of pen on paper. We do blind contour drawing and very quick gestures and practice different ways to add watercolor to define spaces and make forms take shape. I love seeing what participants create with a few loose lines and a wash, and I love going back to basics myself. It’s a great reminder of the various elements that make for successful paintings, whether between the pages of a sketchbook or in a prestigious museum collection.

Traveling at Home

While we are at home day in and day out, I travel the same roads over and over. I add variations now and then, but mostly it’s the same loop past fields of soybeans and corn, past woodlots and overgrown meadows, past neatly trimmed front yards.

But as poet and farmer Wendell Berry writes, “Even in a country you know by heart, it’s hard to go the same way twice. The life of the going changes. The chances change and make a new way. Any tree or stone or bird can be the bud of a new direction.”

An old friend recently reminded me that traveling at home presents opportunities to turn the small and modest into the infinite and boundless. If only we are open to the journey.

Here are two takes on my recent travels at home.
Tips and Techniques– If you like making maps when you travel, why not create one to commemorate the places you travel every day? Add other elements from your daily experience to round out the page: a landscape view and a closeup or two are good ways to complement a map. You could also add a compass rose, title, or legend. 

The Day in the Life page is a specific assignment I do about once a year. The idea is to do a sketch every hour of the day, but no sketch should take more than five minutes. Not only is this good practice for working quickly but it is also a nice way to record the ordinary things and moments that fill your days.

Trumpeting Summer

A row of trumpet vines stretched along the old wall, forming a thick hedge of green and orange on the side of the road. I love the blossoms’ long tubular shape; a perfect fit for a hummingbird’s slender bill. I didn’t have a lot of time, but how could I pass them up? Like summer and hummingbirds, these blooms are fleeting.

Tips and Techniques– When doing a sketch or painting in my journal, I may only get as far as the drawing or a beginning layer of paint before time runs out. Such was the case with this, and after a week, I’ve only just managed to finish it. Good thing—I have several unfinished pages that are on the verge of going nowhere if I don’t get back to them. Do you find that If you wait too long, you lose interest or momentum, or just move on to something else? Lesson learned: start and finish before the moment gets away from you.

The Big Reveal

Big news! I’m thrilled to share that I have a book coming out in November, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook. The book is primarily intended for young people (9+) and aspires to help them look more closely at nature and capture what they discover with pencil, pen, and paint. I hope it invites kids to begin a lifelong journey of exploration and creative expression with ideas, tips, and plenty of space to draw.

This book has been a year in the making and it’s exciting to see it all come together from concept to completion. I deeply appreciate several fantastic early reviews from educators, nature journalers, and artists, including Cathy Johnson and John Muir Laws.

THE LAUNCH
In the next few months, I’ll give you a sneak peek inside The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook. I am also putting together a “launch team” to help me spread the word about the book. I would love you to be part of it. Here’s what’s involved:

Starting in mid-September, I’ll provide the launch team with a social media post once a month to share on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. If you are a blogger and would like to write a review, I can provide you with an advance copy. Once the book is available, I’ll be looking for people to write a brief review on Amazon. Reviews are key to having the search engine drive traffic to the book.

If you are interested in joining the launch team, let me know in the Comments section below. And, of course, I welcome you to buy a copy of The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook for the special young people in your life—or for yourself—when it comes out November 1.

The book is being published by Tumblehome Books, a small publisher with a big mission: inspiring kids to think critically, love learning, and become fascinated by science. It will also be available at Independent Booksellers and Amazon.

ONLINE CLASS NOTICE! The Artist Sketchbook, Tuesdays, August 18, 25, Sept. 1, 8
6-8pm Eastern / 3-5pm Pacific; Offered by the Winslow Art Center, Bainbridge Island, WA
Registration opens later today, 7/26.

Lessons from an Onion

Sometimes simple things teach us a lot. In this case, the lowly onion had much to say. I used it as a subject for my online class, The Artist’s Sketchbook, which I started teaching last week.

Lessons from an Onion
1. Pay attention to basic ingredients: lines, shapes, and values.
2. Don’t overlook commonplace subjects. The most beautiful is not always the most interesting.
3. Add layers. Layering transparent color adds depth.

Here’s the progression from start to finish. You can see how adding layers of watercolor and values from light to dark makes all the difference in bringing the loose lines and shapes of the initial drawing to life.

Note: The Artist Sketchbook, which runs through August 3, is currently full. Watch for future course announcements here or contact the Winslow Art Center.

In and Out of the Garden

When it’s 80-degrees with 90-percent humidity, sketching outside—or doing much of anything outside—is not easy. But flowers in full bloom don’t wait for ideal weather and I figured I shouldn’t either. Pen and sketchbook in hand, I found myself quickly wilted among the daisies. So, my afternoon became a dance between painting indoors and sketching outside, with welcome breaks in between until the page was complete. I can hardly wait for August!

Hatch Out!

The hardened frothy glob attached to a goldenrod stem has sat motionless in our garden since the day I found it and brought it home from the meadow back in January. No change. Nothing happening. I had nearly given up on it. And then, it happened. Hundreds of mini praying mantises emerged from the ootheca. They crowded around the opening, marched up and down the goldenrod stem, and one by one dropped from their home base and wandered into the garden. By evening, nearly all were gone.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen this phenomenon and it was pretty exciting. I hope they find the aphids that are feasting on my poppies and grow up to devour other insects in the garden. Come fall, I’d love to find an adult or two hiding among the sunflowers or laying a frothy glob of eggs for next spring.

Tips and Techniques– Don’t miss the moment! If ever there was a time to have a simple painting set up, this was it. I sat uncomfortably on the edge of a wooden raised garden bed in the noon-day sun, sketchbook and travel palette in hand. I painted as the nymphs emerged, which gave me a long time to watch them and to study the ootheca from different angles. My palette and paper dried too fast in the full sun and I found it challenging to get the right amount of water/paint ratio. Still, I have no regrets. Had I waited for a better set up or a better time of day or a better day, I would have missed it altogether.