January Birds

Subzero temperatures mean I’m inside, but birds are out in force at our feeders. They start at dawn and come and go or stay all day, eating as much as they can to fuel their survival against the cold. With this abundance of subjects, I have been focused on capturing bird shapes and postures with small, quick ink sketches. The beauty of this exercise is that you don’t invest in any one bird, you are simply training your eyes and hands to work together.

My second focus for the week has been owls, which I have not drawn much before. Barred owls have been calling in the stream-side woods next to our house for weeks. And we caught sight of a great horned owl nabbing a meal (likely a squirrel) near our feeders at dusk. Owls mate in January and February, so I expect to hear more activity in the coming weeks.

click to view larger

Tips and Techniques: I drew the owls from videos, which I tend to like because they convey a bird’s personality and movement better than still photos, yet you can pause and replay if needed. Try drawing directly in ink and not worrying whether you get everything right. Keep your eyes on the bird more than your paper and keep your pen moving. The painted owl is a small study I wanted to try to help me decide whether to do a larger painting. The proportions aren’t quite right, but the negative painting technique worked more or less as I had hoped.

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Braving 18°F

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.

Winter Blues

“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!

The Simple Things

We caught a glimpse of the full moon last night before it disappeared behind clouds of snow.  A simple circle, so much depth. I’ve always loved the constancy of the moon, the way it connects eons and continents and people in its perfect radiance.

Handmade journal; click to view larger

Handmade journal; click to view larger

I kept this page simple to echo the subject and to emphasize the beauty and mystery of the night. The haiku is written with a Micron 02 pen and the larger text is painted in watercolor with a size 1 brush, combining yellow ochre and indathrone blue. I kept the paint fairly dry, because these colors make a greenish gray when mixed. In cases where I do want the colors to merge in the letter I use wetter paint. Try it with your favorite color combinations to see how it works.

Mystery Nest

Tangled in a thicket at the edge of a wooded wetland, the nest stood out like the prize it was for hiking on a cold winter day. As readers of this blog know by now, finding and painting nests is a recurring theme and a true pleasure for me. In fact, the subject of my first post was a nest. But this one is quite unique—almost two nests combined, it seems to me. It’s possible that a nest begun by one pair of birds was co-opted by another species, as sometimes happens; or that mice took over after the birds were finished and piled an enormous moss blanket on top of the woven base (though I saw no evidence of rodents). Either way, it’s a fine mystery and I’m happy to have it live on inside my sketchbook.

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Click to view larger; “In the thin light of winter woods, we find the promise of next summer.”

 

If you have come across a nest similar to this or have ideas about what birds it may have belonged to, I’d love to hear about it. I can eliminate a lot of possibilities, but I’m stymied. The nest was 7 inches across with a 3 inch cup, constructed 5 feet off the ground at the edge of a wooded wetland in central Connecticut.

Winter Birds

A solitary half-dead dogwood and a tangled hedgerow of vines and shrubs is all the landscaping that came with our house when we bought it last September. It’s not much, as they say, but it’s home. And, it turns out, it’s home to a surprising variety of birds as well. They are attracted mainly to the bird feeders we hung from the dogwood, though the shelter of the hedgerow and a neighboring elm provide good cover, too. For the price of sunflower seed and suet cakes, I’m enjoying the show from my kitchen window.

click to view larger

click to view larger

Though my backyard count is just an informal tally, it has been a longstanding tradition to count birds at Christmas time. The nascent Audubon Society began a winter bird census in 1900. Today, Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this long-running census to assess the status of bird populations, and to help guide conservation action. Find out more: www.audubon.org/join-christmas-bird-count

In Cold Rain

A cold rain is falling on the winter beach. A solitary loon, a few surf scoters, and a flock of bufflehead bob in the steely-gray water, disappearing now and again beneath the waves. This is no day for sketching seabirds. I retreat to the car and drive to a windswept spit of land that divides ocean from tidal marsh. A flock of gulls are right where I had hoped they’d be at the edge of the parking area, facing into the wind, occasionally preening or picking at clams or flying up and settling back down. I crack open my sketchbook in the front seat and draw. Gulls are perfect subjects, striking a variety of poses until the page is filled and I go home for tea.

click to view larger; watercolor in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

click to view larger; watercolor in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook