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″