Opportunity knocked this week in the form of a pileated woodpecker that died on the roof outside my office window. Cause unknown. The chance to study and paint it lay before me – literally. How could I pass it up? Would you? There was only one thing to do: climb out the window, retrieve it and get sketching.
It’s quite a privilege to hold a bird like this in your hands, and just a bit grim. Keeping it without a permit would be a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so I worked on the page, took a few reference photos, and laid it to rest in some nearby woods.
Click to view larger. Sketches and text done with Micron pen 02 and 005 pens and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Beta journal.
What’s in a name? I was curious about the name “pileated,” so I did a little research and learned that it means having a crest covering the pileum, which is the top of a bird’s head from bill to nape. The word comes from the Latin word pileus, which was a brimless felt cap worn in ancient Greece.
There is a point when I am midway through a painting that I have to hold my breath and hope I don’t wreck it. That’s especially true when I’ve invested in a careful drawing as a base for the watercolor. So I’m especially pleased to come out the other side of this piece with a beautiful ending. (See last week’s post for the beginning.)
When I first decided to do a series of root vegetable paintings, I had no idea that it would take me so long to finish that the greens would have a chance to wilt, die, and then regrow. After choosing the beets and radishes I liked best, I stuck several rejected vegetables in water and set them aside on the back porch. Then the greens died on my working specimens and I couldn’t finish them. Two weeks later, I discovered new green shoots growing on my reserved vegetables and beautiful, delicate rootlets threading into the water. Re-inspired, I have been rooted to my desk ever since, painting beets and radishes and watching lovely greens unfurl.
The stems got a little blown out in the scanner.
Surrounded by beets and radishes.
And one more- quick and loose in the journal (and a little blown out in the scanner).
I probably shouldn’t have mentioned to the farmer that I was selecting carrots for “artistic purposes” when considering the most colorful and interesting bunch at the farmers market. But I thought it might be a compliment. Instead, I got a thinly veiled, perturbed look that suggested she hadn’t toiled all season long for me to paint her carrots. I dug myself in deeper trouble when I asked for advice on prolonging the freshness of the greens. I saw the eyes roll and quickly agreed to paint soon or refrigerate. Alas, I think this bunch was well worth the effort to grow and paint.
A note about colorful carrots: Carrots trace their roots to Afghanistan, where cultivation is believed to have begun sometime before the 900s. A diversity of colors was the norm as carrot cultivation spread to Europe and Asia. It wasn’t until the 1500s when the Dutch selectively bred and then popularized the orange carrot. Visit the virtual World Carrot Museum for tons of information, including a gallery of carrots in fine art.
En plein air sounds so much more savvy than painting outdoors. I suppose that’s why artists prefer the French expression, which literally translates “in the open air.” Regardless, working outside is my preferred way to draw and paint. Despite the challenges of sun or wind, changing light, occasional insects, and less than comfortable seating, I love the directness of capturing a scene live. I love the freshness of working on the spot. I love translating experience to paper.
I thoroughly enjoyed the luxury of spending nearly an entire day yesterday painting outside. If you are inclined to paint from photographs instead of en plein air, I highly recommend you give it a try!
I went out with a friend one evening this week to sketch at a beaver pond. The water was dark and still, trees were lay crossways in heaps where beaver had felled them, and a large mud lodge rose on the far shore. But what struck me most about the place was not the pond itself, but the beauty and intensity of bird song in the surrounding woods. Other than a pair of catbirds and the flash of the rose-breasted grosbeak as it darted into the trees, I saw no birds. But I’m good enough at birding by ear to identify the singers. I decided to try to capture the ethereal experience of hearing these birds in the darkening woods.
Seen, but silent were birds of Connecticut on display at Yale’s Peabody museum, where I enjoyed a brief visit on Friday. I had time to do a pencil sketch of these two vireos, which are commonly heard, but seldom seen.
Spring bird migration is at its peak. Every day new birds are arriving. Carried by countless wing beats and winds from the south they come—some to stay and some just to rest and feed before continuing on their journey north. Among my favorites: a single white-crowned sparrow that spent just a few hours in the yard, a rose-breasted grosbeak that stayed three days, and a small flock of white-throated sparrows that skulked in our gardens and under our feeders for nearly a week. Today, they are gone…replaced by the oriole that will nest in my neighbors yard, chimney swifts twittering overhead and, with luck, a warbler or two in the days to come.
White-throated sparrow; watercolor on Fabriano soft press paper, 5×7”