The Next Best Thing

February in upstate New York is typically cold and cloudy. With two months of winter already past and another two on the horizon before spring arrives, it’s time to head to the tropics or the desert for a midwinter getaway. Except when you can’t. Then, we have to settle for the next best thing: a trip to a greenhouse. I spent yesterday afternoon at the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College in Massachusetts and it felt like paradise. Warmth. Light. Rooms full of greenery. Art supplies in hand. What could be better?

Tips and Techniques– Based on my experience at the conservatory, my tip this week is: don’t give up too soon on half-baked sketches. Painting conditions at the greenhouse were difficult—tight aisles, lots of people, and no way to spread out or relax while painting. I painted both of these pages standing up, and believe me, they were very rough watercolors when it was time to leave. Nevertheless, I had the concept and basic colors down, which enabled me to add details and text when I got home. How many times have you found yourself in the field without enough time to finish? I say: at least get started. Take some notes or a photo and finish later.

After Mary Oliver

“My work is loving the world.”

So begins the poem Messenger, by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who died this week at the age of 83. Oliver delivered intimate observations of nature and deepened our understanding of life’s essence in few, choice words.

“Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums…”

And though there were no hummingbirds or sunflowers to be found here yesterday, I nevertheless felt compelled to walk down the starkly cold winter road in honor of Mary Oliver and to satisfy my own need to find what beauty might remain along the roadside.

“Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished…”

Standing still in 21-degree weather means mostly frozen fingers. Still, there is no substitute for being present; for being astonished by the cold; by wingbeats of geese overhead; by curled leaves of grasses waving in the wind.

Celebrating 3,000

When I started this blog in the spring of 2014, my goal was simply to share my artwork more widely. Nearly four years and 238 posts later, I’m thrilled that more than 3,000 people are now following. Keeping a blog is journey unto itself– I’ve met people I would never know otherwise, swapped stories and art tips, shared everyday experiences, and received much kindness from strangers around the world. Drawn In has also honed and focused my artwork, and motivated me to keep seeking, recording, and sharing the ordinary beauty around me. Many thanks to you for your interest in receiving my art in your inbox and for taking the time to offer your thoughts, praise, questions, and stories! Here’s to another spin around the sun and to a productive 2019!

Hour by Hour

After all the hustle and bustle and merriment of Christmas comes a bit of quiet– which always feels just right.

Tips and Techniques– Yesterday, I captured some of my final holiday preparations using a challenge I call “Hour by Hour.” The goal is to sketch something every hour of the day, but each sketch should take no more than three to five minutes. The time limit makes it doable, and although some of the sketches seem random in the moment, the end result really conveys a sense of the day. I sketched everything in pen and then added watercolor as time allowed. This is a fun challenge to try while traveling. I also recommend it if you struggle with what to sketch or with finding time to put pen to paper.

Tis the Season

It’s a busy time of year in my workshop. ‘Tis the season for making lists, and creating gifts and cards and tags. This leaves little time for personal artwork. Instead, I glued my To Do lists into my journal and, as you can see, this page reflects the rather messy state of my affairs. 

My favorite project each year is the Christmas letter I create for my former neighbor’s children. I have been sending them tales from the North Pole for several years; and though they are now at the age when believing in such magic is increasingly met with skepticism, I can’t let the Christmas spirit go. Here’s this year’s card—just a simple note, but one that I am happy to share with them, and with you at this festive time of year. Wishing you joy!

 

Along the Roadside

Yesterday was the kind of day I’ve been waiting for since winter arrived unexpectedly in November. Temperatures climbed above freezing, which felt almost balmy, and I spent nearly the entire day outside. After the oak leaves were raked and the remaining daffodil bulbs planted, I headed into the fields and down the road with my sketchbook. Shriveled wild grapes, thorny tangles of multiflora rose hips, and climbing vines of bittersweet not yet eaten by birds offered a bit of brightness against bare branches and brown grasses. They seemed the perfects things to sketch to capture the day.

 

Tips and Techniques– If you want to sketch outside in cold weather, I suggest really paring down your supplies so that you have very little to carry or fuss with in the field. I bring only my sketchbook and a Micron pen. I don’t want to be pulling gloves on and off or organizing sketching supplies in the cold. I make mental notes of color or take a photo for reference, and paint once I’m home with a cup of tea in hand.

 

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″