For the last month, I’ve been watching a robin’s nest that sits on the sill of an eyebrow window at our house. I’ve been able to directly observe everything from four perfect eggs to four pathetic-looking naked chicks to four gaping mouths, begging for their parents to stuff them full of moths and worms. Last Sunday I made this ink sketch, added a bit of color on Monday night, and figured I finish the page later this week. But even when you count your chicks before and after they hatch, it doesn’t mean things will turn out well.
I expected to see four jostling chicks with feathers today and instead found a perfectly empty nest. I checked the calendar, checked my nest records, checked reference books, and checked again. Eleven days…just shy of the 14 to 16 days that it typically takes for nestling robins to fledge. My suspicion is that an owl made off with a nice meal. Although the birds were protected from ground predators, they were otherwise completely exposed, especially as they grew larger and began to overflow the bounds of the nest. It’s an unfortunate fate…unless, of course, you take the owl’s perspective.
Tips: If you are observing nesting birds, it’s a good idea to follow a birding code of conduct to make sure you don’t disturb the birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch program is a good place to learn and to contribute your findings.
Standing among sunlit dogwood blossoms is a treat: white petals bright against a backdrop of dappled greens, blue sky, and bird song. The moment would be perfect but for the gnats that bite the back of my neck while sketching. They force me to draw fast and loose and then retreat to the house. Still, when I look at this painting months or years from now, it will not be the insects I remember, but the long-awaited spring day and the blank sheet of paper bright with promise.
Among Dogwoods, 5×7″, watercolor on Fabriano 300lb cold press watercolor paper.
Tips and Techniques– I took advantage of negative painting techniques for this, starting with a wet in wet wash of phthalo blue, Hansa yellow medium, and quin rose over my pencil drawing. I left a lot of white for the flowers, but you can see that I wasn’t exact with every edge. Once dry, I proceeded to do a long series of varied washes to define to foliage and create a sense of depth. I find that this type of painting takes a while to develop, and doesn’t fully take shape until I add the darkest layers and final details (e.g., the moth, shadows, and red highlights on the flowers). I worked on it over the course of a week. Stepping away is not only important for letting the paint dry between layers, but helps me come back and see it fresh.
Here’s a second painting that I started that will give you a sense of what this looks like in the early stages. You can see where I’m just beginning to pick out the shapes from the pencil drawing. Patience is key!
I love finding myself at the intersection of art and nature. My passion for those two roads has led me to great places, wonderful people, and to beauty, insight, and mystery. Here, a simple fern in the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College has transported me half a world away to the rain forests of Malaysia. It has made me think about symbiotic relationships and to wish I had taken Latin. It has given me hours of artistic challenge and pleasure. And it has left me both grateful and eager for more.
(click to view larger; top: watercolor and ink in Stillman & Birn “Beta” sketchbook 8.5×11″. Bottom: watercolor on 140lb Fabriano cold press paper 8×10″)
Tips and Techniques: I began these two paintings at the Conservatory, knowing it would be fascinating to take two very different approaches. While layers of paint dried on one, I rotated to the other. I had the major shapes established at closing time and finished both at home. What’s interesting to me is how each conveys such a different part of my experience in the greenhouse: one about being surrounded by layers of greenery, the other about a particularly intriguing fern. So, if there is a lesson here, it may be to consider what you most want to capture or convey when you begin drawing or painting. In essence, What draws you in? And what techniques are best suited to sharing that?
What better time than the dead of winter to play with color? I recently bought a new paint tin from Schmincke (I really just wanted the tin, but decided to get it full instead of empty) and I also received six tubes of QoR watercolors from Golden to try. But before adding any new colors to my palette, I took time this week to test them. What follows is not a brand review, as much as a glimpse into the practice of being a painter.
I set about playing with various triads of primary colors with the goal of figuring out which ones looked promising for future paintings. This may sound simple, but given the huge range of colors that you can make from various reds, yellow, and blues, it quickly becomes a complex proposition. I tend to use a limited palette to create color harmonies, so it’s critical for me to have a sense of which combinations work best. After creating a huge mess of test sheets, I recorded the winning triads in my journal.
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I also needed a refresher on greens, so I created a green page, along with experiments using raw umber (a color I need to get to know better) with cobalt and ultramarine blue (nice blue-grays there, eh?).
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Finally, inspired by Mimi Robinson’s book Local Color, I decided to create a color palette to capture the landscape colors outside my window this morning. After the week’s riot of color mixing, I was quickly back to subdued hues—but at least I felt confident finding them in my paint box.
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Tips and Techniques– The important takeaway here is not to run out and buy a bunch of new paints or even to copy down the combinations I found most promising. Rather, it is to get to know the paints in your own palette. Taking the time to mix colors and figure out which combinations work best will pay huge dividends when you launch into a painting. You’ll gain confidence with color mixing, figure out your favorites, and take out little used paints that clutter your box or result in murky mixes. Start with red, yellow and blue mixes. But also try combinations of blues and browns, which will give you lots of lively and interesting grays.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep…”
Inspired by Robert Frost’s famous poem, I set out to capture a few favorite trees and darkening skies. I loved playing with the complexity of branches and shapes using the simplest of colors. There’s something about these deep blues that brings out the mystery and beauty of this time of year.
Tips & Techniques– These pieces started with at least six failed attempts to paint trees at night. I began by doing numerous small “test” paintings of silhouetted trees against various skies, but none proved evocative or beautiful. I was ready to throw in the towel when I hit on trying negative painting techniques and finally saw something interesting evolve. So, my tip this week: before investing a lot of time in a big painting, try a few small samples to work out the kinks and test colors. It’s also worth remembering—and I am especially in need of this – sometimes it takes a few failures to get to success. Keep painting!
It’s the perfect time of year for painting trees. Bare bones and branches, I like the unobstructed view, when limbs, bark, and shapes are revealed. This old maple in my front yard is interesting from almost any angle. I started mid-afternoon in glowing light but, because the sun faded quickly, it took me several days—and patience waiting for the right light again– to finish.
November Maple, 10″x14”, Watercolor on 140lb Arches cold press paper
You may notice robins in the yard or the first buds on the elms or daffodils ready to pop. But one of the best signs of the turning season for me is when the salamanders migrate. It happens on the first warm rainy night in spring. Sometimes it’s March, sometimes April. But when it rains all day and into the night, that’s the time when several species of salamanders come out from underground in the woods, where they spend most of their adult lives, and head to wetlands where they breed. If you happen to live someplace where roads intersect their habitat, you may see them in your headlight beams, or squished and stinking on an early morning jog. Or, if you’re like me, you pull on your rain gear and head out with a flashlight and help them cross the road.
I used to round up friends and kids to go out for the annual migration. One year I paid my sons a dime for every salamander and frog they found and I had to pony up two bucks each at the end of an hour. My kids are grown now, but when they see a rainy forecast they still text me to ask, Is this the night? Some new kids put up these fantastic signs — I hope they were out there during this week’s rains, soaking up one of the greatest rituals of spring.
Tips & Techniques- Don’t try to draw in the dark in the rain. Take a photo. I began this page with a pencil drawing compiled from two photos. I painted the yellow spots and used masking fluid to save them and some of the highlights. I then did a wet in wet wash of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre over the whole thing (the entire painting is just those three colors, with a touch of sap green and quin gold at the end). I used negative painting techniques for most of this, pulling out bits of leaves on the ground and the shapes of the salamanders.