Moving Through

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

White-throated sparrow; watercolor on Fabriano soft press paper, 5×7”

The Egg Case

Had I lived in the late-1800s, there’s a good chance I would have been a bird egg collector. Backyard collecting, exchanges, and sales were popular during the Victorian era, and I can see easily the appeal of amassing a collection to study and admire. But since collecting became illegal with the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 (thankfully!), I rely on museum collections for an occasional egg fix.

The Egg Case

I sketched this section of a much larger display at the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY. I only had about 30 minutes, so I sketched directly in pen and painted later at home, using a photo and reference books for the colors and patterns. If I were doing a careful painting, I would work in pencil first so that I could get the edges of each egg smooth and clean. But in this case, that kind of accuracy didn’t matter to me—I just wanted to have fun collecting on paper.

Celebrating One Year! On another note, it’s been year since I started I this blog and I want to thank you for following it! I began with a couple of posts on bird nests and eggs, so perhaps it’s fitting to come full circle and be back on that theme a year hence. I love hearing your thoughts, so keep on commenting…and share the blog as you see fit to widen its reach.

Salamander Rain

Every year, I wait for the first warm rainy night in April, excited as a kid anticipating Santa Claus. That’s because this is the night of the annual salamander migration. Under the cover of rainy darkness, salamanders come out of the forest en masse and crawl to wetlands and small ponds to breed. It’s the one night of the year when I get to see these ancient creatures doing what they have done for millions of years.

Salamanders 2015

Click to view larger

I recruit a team of hardy souls and go to a spot where a road bisects woods and wetland. Salamanders have no choice but to cross. The traffic is light, but even a few cars can cause a lot of carnage. Flashlights in hand, we patrol the road, look for small waggling objects, and deliver them quickly to the other side. We identify and count the species we see— Jefferson, spotted, four-toed, red-backed, plus spring peepers and wood frogs. On a good night, we may find 20 or more in an hour.

Except this year… the only salamanders I get to see are the ones on this page. That’s because there have been no steady early evening rains, only rain after midnight (and I’m not crazy enough to trade sleep for rain and amphibians). Salamanders have crossed into a new season, and I’ll have to wait a whole year to see them again.

Easter Eggs!

I had a wonderful opportunity to try my hand at decorating eggs using traditional Ukrainian methods last week and have been inspired ever since. It wasn’t just the intricate and beautiful designs that drew me in, but the incredible patience and focus required to make them. I spent 3.5 hours in the company of several friends decorating eggs and produced just two. Back at home, I decided to capture the experience and replicate the intricate egg patterns in my journal. The detailed eggs seemed to beg for a more elaborate border and lettering than I would typically do—but, I’m quite pleased with the end result.

Pysanka 2015

click to view larger

Pysanka 2015

Here are the eggs I made.

About Pysanka– This ancient art form dates back thousands of years and is steeped in legend and symbolism. Ukrainian eggs are made by writing with beeswax on the egg using a tool called a kistka. The patterns are made by adding successive layers of wax and dye. In the final stage, the egg is held close to a candle and the wax is slowly melted and rubbed off to reveal the beautiful pattern.

About replicating the eggs in watercolor– I started by lightly drawing the egg shape and then building up a couple of layers of watercolor to create a range of light and dark areas. This leaves the final egg with a bit of shine and starts to give the egg a dimensional appearance. I used Dr. Ph. Martin’s Hydrus watercolors for most of these eggs because I wanted an intense background color. Once the egg was fully dry, I added the designs using a fine white gel pen. I tested a number of white inks, pencils, and crayons to see if I could replicate the resist method used on the actual eggs, but none gave satisfactory results. Additional details were added to the orange eggs using paint. The trick is to add the design as if on a dimensional object, so the lines must follow the imaginary curves of the egg.

March, March, March

Every year it happens. I arrive at March needing so much more than the month can give. After a long winter, I am desperate to explore and draw and BE outside. I am desperate for the fuel of discovery and growth that sparks my creativity. March never delivers. It is too cold and too wet. I am tired of brown. I am tired of gray. The only thing to do is to forgive myself this artistic low point and wait.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I went back through my journals from the last few years to compare Marches. The pages are thin and mostly the same– each year a record of small gains: pussy willows in bud, the woodcock’s return, a wooly-bear caterpillar in the driveway. And though spring is behind this year, I am glad to have these pages to remind me that incremental progress will take us out of this March too.

After Audubon

Wings, skulls, feathers, skeletons, legs, specimens, live birds, bird paintings. I’ve got birds on the brain! To prepare for several upcoming workshops I am teaching on drawing birds, I’ve been brushing up on bird anatomy and biology, drawing skulls and bones, and watching and painting birds. Best of all, I made a trip to the New York Historical Society to see Audubon’s Aviary, John James Audubon’s original watercolors for the print edition of The Birds of America (1827–38), engraved by Robert Havell Jr.

Audubons Aviary

At the New York Historical Society, NYC

Though I’ve seen reproductions of Audubon’s engravings many times, I was thoroughly taken by the beauty and mastery of the original paintings. Audubon used a combination of graphite, watercolor, gouache, pastel, and glazing to create hundreds of life-sized birds, each one rendered in minute detail. Among my favorites was a simple painting of a male and female dark-eyed junco and a clay-colored sparrow, rendered with no background.

Back home, I decided to finish a small study of an Eastern Phoebe using the highly detailed approach that Audubon used in his paintings. I applied layers of very dry watercolor with the smallest brush in the arsenal— a size 0 — to complete the details. Thankfully, the phoebe is a very plain bird– I can hardly imagine painting intricate feather patterns on hundreds and hundreds of birds, as Audubon did.

Eastern Phoebe















Compare this sketch with the much looser painting (below) of a phoebe and nest that I did several weeks ago. In this painting, I was trying to convey subtleties of color and light, rather than paint every detail.

Eastern Phoebe and Nest

















Both styles have merit. I like knowing how birds are built; I like being detailed and accurate; but I also like the idea of jumping off from there, of letting some of the details go and allowing the wet paint to do the work. The later approach seems to be more evocative and engaging — and yet, just as elusive and hard to achieve as painting every feather.



I was initially drawn in by the fruit, but how could I resist the ungainly bird? It’s been 29 years since I went to New Zealand, tasted my first kiwi fruit, saw the national bird, and explored North and South Islands for nearly three months. I thought I’d get back there sooner, but the years and the miles have not allowed it. Isn’t it funny how a simple taste, smell, or touch can transport you to places and release memories from long ago? Is it any wonder that drawing (and eating) a kiwi after a prolonged winter and too much time close to home brought me nearly 10,000 miles to the other side of the globe?

10,000 Hours

Red breasted nuthatch

If the assertion that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at something is correct, I’ve got a long way to go before becoming really adept at painting birds. Still, I’ve spent a good amount of time this winter studying and sketching and painting birds, and it’s good to see some progress. Painting birds well requires watching them a lot, studying anatomy, closely observing specific features like wings, feet, and bills and, of course, practice. After doing a number of quick sketches of red-breasted nuthatches at my feeder, I used my drawings and several photo references for this more careful study. Now if I can just find a few thousand more hours…

(Fabriano soft press 140lb watercolor paper; reference photo by Mick Thompson, 2014)

Experimenting with Tufted Titmice

Tufted Titmouse

Click to view larger.

My journal proved a good place to experiment this week with tufted titmice, dark backgrounds, and text. These birds often visit my feeders in winter, providing good opportunities for study. I thought I would sketch a few birds in different poses as time allowed, but after painting the bird on the left, I decided to take a different approach. I wanted to add big text and see whether I could get a bird to perch on the letters. It’s a little tricky to substitute letters for branches, but the bird on the right seems fairly convincing. I also wanted to try a dark background, so I experimented with different shades of blue, making swatches on a test sheet and holding them next to the birds to see what worked best. In the end, this combination of ultramarine and burnt sienna with a bit of water sprayed into the wet paint created a nice wintry effect. The letters are the reverse color mix, with burnt sienna dominating and some blue floated in to add a little weight. My next step will be to try the same techniques in a more careful painting— stay tuned!

Collecting on Paper

I’m like a kid in a candy store when I step into the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, New York. Thirteen cherry and glass cases house more than 1,200 specimens of birds, 500 mounted mammals, and row upon row of insects, bird eggs, and nests.  The collection is life’s work of a single man: entrepreneur and naturalist Franklin Pember (1841-1924). I love capturing pieces of this collection in my journal—but where to begin is always a challenge.

Pember Museum 2015

Click to view larger

As I wander from case to case, I look for things that strike my interest and add objects to the page throughout the day. Everything is so incredible that it’s hard for me to choose. I started this page with the ruff chick in the lower right, and then added the moths, followed by the eggs, and dragonflies. Except for the ruff, I sketched directly in pen to eliminate fussing and added a layer of watercolor in the museum, before running out of time. Later at home, I finished painting and added the catalogue from 1883 from a photo. It was easier to do the lettering at my desk than standing over a glass case.

In the end, the page is a tribute to a fabulous day spent with one of my favorite collections.