Return to Snow

The blackbirds returned two weeks ago– a huge flock of red-winged blackbirds and grackles. They hang out in nearby fields and wetlands, and every few days turn up squawking in the tall trees surrounding our yard, then scatter in a great mass of beating wings. But today, amidst a foot of new snow, they stay. Hunkered down at our feeders, they clean us out twice over. And what could be better: The birds or knowing that, despite the snow, we’re on the other side of winter?
Tips & Techniques: Since these birds were never still for more than a few seconds, I decided to skip the pencil and go direct to watercolor, using a size 5 DaVinci travel brush. If you have a feeder, give it a try: it’s a good way to work quickly, focusing on the general shape of birds in different postures without getting caught up with details.


Color Play

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.

Goldenrod Galls

What began as a simple search for interesting props for my upcoming Sketching Nature workshop, led to a great illustration of how much there is to discover if we only look more closely. Among the things I collected were the dried stems of goldenrod, many of which had classic round goldenrod galls. But I soon discovered other deformities that I hadn’t noticed before: stunted stems with tufts of leaves at the tops, and elliptical-shaped growths on stems.

It turns out that more than 50 species of insects—mostly flies, midges, and wasps– lay their eggs on goldenrod stems. When the larvae hatch, they borrow into the stem, causing the plant to form a protective chamber around the growing grub. When the larvae transforms into an adult, it emerges from its hideaway and flies off. Sometimes woodpeckers drill into the gall for a meal, in which case, you’ll find a small hole in the gall. For the most part, the insects don’t harm the plant; though in the case of the bunch gall, they do stunt the growth of the stem, causing leaves to sprout at the top and curtailing the growth of flowers.

So, there you have it…a bit of natural history for your day and an invitation to go out and see what you can discover.

Tips & Techniques– Keep it simple! I wanted this page to illustrate how much you can do with a few simple things on a page and a limited amount of time. I drew everything directly in pen and shaded only the darkest areas. I added watercolor in three loose layers, using combinations of yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue. A bit of spatter near the dried flowers and the “goldenrod galls” text were my finishing touches.


Out of the Shadows

Owls are master’s of silence, darkness and shadow, so spotting one is not easy. Painting one is not especially easy either. Still, I wanted to play with the idea of pulling an owl out of shadowy woods using a limited palette of blues and browns– though you’ll see that I added yellow ochre midway through to warm things up. I didn’t set out to paint every detail, but rather to strive for an overall impression. Here’s the finished piece– I took a series of photos along the way to give you a sense how the painting progressed.

I started with a very loose wet-in-wet wash. This stage adds an element of unpredictability to the painting, but also creates some cohesion. As the painting progresses, I’m working background and foreground, adding many subtle washes to develop the forms.

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Painted on Arches 140lb paper, 8×10″


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.

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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.


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!