Nature in a Minute: The Blues

Blue vervain  (Verbena hastata)

On walks last week I observed two of my favorite flowers, both having blue flowers. Though fairly common in this area, they are less showy and can easily be overlooked among grasses and taller plants that dominate in late summer.

Blue vervain commonly occurs in wet meadows, wet river bottomlands, and stream banks. It typically grows 2-4′ tall.  The candelabra-like growth form is distinctive. The tiny flowers are on erect, pencil-like spikes 2-6 inches long.  Flowers on each spike bloom bottom to top, a few at a time. Blue verbena flowers are 5-lobed and purplish-blue.

The leaves are lance-shaped and opposite on the stem. Blue vervain blooms from July – September. This handsome clump is growing along the Neponset River in East Milton. Bumblebees are among the important pollinators of Blue vervain.

Blue vervain.  Neponset River bank, Milton (August 16)

Blue vervain.  Neponset River bank, Milton (August 16)

Blue curls  (Trichostema dichotomum)

The charming Blue curls has delicate blue flowers with a distinctive structure.  The flowers are ½ to ¾ inch long, having five petals. The lower petal is tongue-like with prominent dark spots on white shading. The four upper petals are shorter and all blue. It’s the stamens and pistil, rising above the petals and curling toward the lower petal that give Blue curls their common name. To get a good photo, I held a piece of cardboard as a background for the flowers. 

The flowers are at the tips of opposite stems with a pair of leaves at the intersection with the main stem. Blue curls grow to 18-24 inches. Four to six pairs of flowers may extend from the main stem. It grows along wooded borders, in dry grasslands and sunny dry meadows. 

Julianne Mehegan at Arches NP

Our guest blogger, Julianne Mehegan, is a wonderful friend of MABA, a birder and a naturalist.

Landscape Sketches at MABA by Maris Van Vlack – RISD Student and MABA Intern

Over the last few weeks, I have been captivated by working on these landscape sketches of various locations at MABA. I like to draw them with a ballpoint pen because it can be used very delicately and lightly, while also being able to achieve darker values.

View while sitting at one of the picnic tables by the parking lot

It is important to show perspective when drawing large spaces. The drawing above implies distance because the far away areas use darker values than the close areas. In the foreground, the picnic table uses only a few lines, while the trees in the background are more dense. This use of value makes sense for this setting because the space farther away from me was more shaded, while the spot where I was sitting was in the sun. 

Education building, from the garden

This drawing also uses value to show perspective, but is a good example of linear perspective, too. The lines of the architecture and path all converge to a point in the background, showing space. 

Sketch of the Pequit Brook and the overhanging tree branches

Abstracted drawing of where the Main Loop Trail intersects with a stone wall

The two drawings above show a less literal method of sketching a landscape. When I am abstracting my subject like this, I don’t look down at what I am drawing as often. These drawings produce looser lines that have more character. 

View of the education building from the meadow

The sketch above is one of my favorites from this summer. The reason I like it is because it makes use of a lot of blank space, but is still exciting to look at. I think this works because the blank space is shaped in interesting ways, so that it works with the subject of the drawing instead of just becoming a flat background for it. 

Main Loop Path

When drawing in nature, I often struggle with filling up large areas of foliage; there aren’t clear forms or shadows that can be drawn. In the drawing above, I approached this problem by leaving the area of leaves and ferns on the bottom right mostly blank. I shaped this blank area by drawing the things that surround it, like the path and the trees.

There is no step-by-step method to drawing a landscape. I hope these different drawings gave you some insight into what my thought process is when I am drawing. To make a drawing that truly captures a unique location, the artist has to respond to what they are seeing in a thoughtful way, using line, shape, and value to represent what they see and how they see it. 

The Pine Grove at MABA by Maris Van Vlack – RISD Student and MABA Intern

The Pine Grove Path is the shortest path of the MABA trails, but it is special because it is primarily pine trees, not deciduous trees like the rest of the MABA property. Pine trees tend to have higher branches, so the view of the forest is not blocked with lots of branches and leaves. The ground is the orange color of dead pine needles, not brown with dead leaves. 

In the drawing above, the wavy lines on the path represent the shadows of the trees, and also imply the uneven texture of the path’s surface.
Pine trees have branches growing out on all sides, and drawing trees this way makes them seem more lifelike. 
White pine cones

The pine grove is made up of mostly white and red pines, which are some of the most common pines in New England. White pines have long, thin cones (above) and red pines have shorter, rounder cones (below). 

Red pine cone

I noticed some sassafras plants sprouting up by the side of the paths. Keep a lookout for Black Swallowtail Butterflies, which are attracted to sassafras. 

This painting shows the view looking up at the trees. I find it exciting to look up at this place because the sky is visible, unlike most of the surrounding area. I used a wet-on-wet watercolor technique, which causes the paint to blend more and makes the colors run ino one another. 

This last painting depicts some logs and branches on the Pine Grove Path. I used water to blend the trees in the background, so that there would be a sense of depth in the painting. 

Amphibians at MABA by Maris Van Vlack – RISD Student and MABA Intern

Keep a lookout for the many amphibians that live at MABA! Although all amphibians spend part of their life in water, each species lives in a different habitat. Because of this, you can find them all over the MABA property! I have seen them by the vernal pool, pond, brook, as well as by the sides of the trails. 

Yellow spotted salamander in ink and watercolor; eastern red-backed salamander in watercolor

Salamanders can be found by the brook, usually near or under rotting logs. There are two main species at MABA: the yellow spotted salamander and the eastern red-backed salamander. The yellow spotted salamander is mostly black with yellow spots. The red-backed salamander has a reddish-orange stripe down its back, and tends to have a longer, thinner body. At first glance, you may mistake a red-backed salamander for a small snake. 

Frogs are by far the most common amphibian at MABA, and green frogs are the most common of them all! By the pond at the back of the sanctuary, they will come and sit just a few feet away from me. They range from 2” to 3.5” in length. I have noticed a lot of variety in the coloring of green frogs: some (like the one pictured) have more green spots, and others appear more grayish green.

Green Frog in watercolor

Pickerel frogs are about 2.5” in length and have distinctive black and brown markings on their bodies. When the frogs are in the water and only their head is visible, try and notice if there are any black markings by the eye. This can help you distinguish pickerel frogs from green frogs. 

Pickerel frog in ink and watercolor

Of the MABA frogs, the Wood Frog seems to live the farthest from the water. Often on the trails by the edge of the brook, Wood Frogs are mostly tan or light brown with a dark stripe by their eye. 

Wood frog in watercolor and marker

Frogs and toads are quite similar, but toads tend to have dry skin and live farther from the water.

American Toads, which are the only species that I have seen at MABA, are tan or brown and have spotted, bumpy backs. Below is a drawing of two of the toads I have seen: the larger, older one was about 3” long and the smaller one was only 1” long. Both were seen on the Main Loop Trail. 

American toads in ink

This larger American Toad was being preyed upon by a garter snake when I approached. When it heard me come closer, the snake slithered away and left the toad alone. 

If you cannot get a picture of an amphibian you see, it is helpful to remember its size, coloring, markings, and location so that you can identify it later. A quick sketch might help as well!

My name is Maris Van Vlack, and I will be blogging for the summer of 2020! I am a rising sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a major in Textiles and a concentration in Drawing. I used to take homeschool classes at the Museum of American Bird Art and have had my artwork exhibiting in their Taking Flight Exhibit for young bird artists.

I am especially interested in working with unusual materials in my work, and am inspired by plants, animals, and the patterns found in nature. This summer, I will be creating a guide for the MABA trails with sketches and paintings. I will be recording and writing about my observations, and sharing them through these blog posts. Hopefully this will be an educational and inspiring resource, and will motivate you to sketch what you see when you visit MABA this summer!

Pequit Brook #2 by Maris Van Vlack – RISD Student and MABA Intern

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In my first post about the Pequit Brook, I focused on drawing the water, rocks, and landscape that exists in the brook area. The drawings in this second post focus on the smaller things that define the brook’s environment, like the plants and fungi that grow there. When trying to capture the key elements of a location, I think that it is important to keep shifting scale, going from wide landscapes to small details. 

Some of the mushrooms growing along the Pequit Brook

You will notice many mushrooms popping up alongside the trails after it has rained. They come in red, orange, yellow, white, black, tan, and brown! I like the shapes that are created when pieces are broken off, like the mushrooms on the right in the drawing above. 

Photo of an interesting texture on a black mushroom

Pictured below is a large group of Indian Pipe Plants, or Ghost Plants. They are often mistaken for fungi because they aren’t green. This is because they don’t have any chlorophyll. Instead of getting energy from the sun, like most plants, they steal nutrients from the roots of trees. In Massachusetts, the Ghost Plant is white or grayish white, sometimes with pink flowers. 

Ghost Plants grow in moist, dark areas, and the biggest patch of them was at the end of the Pequit Brook Trail. 

The shape of the stalk and flower reminds me of seahorses

A bigger, experimental painting of a group of Ghost Plants using acrylic and gouache

The drawing above is of the Muskratweed plant. It grows in big stalks that are 3-8 feet tall. When it leans over into the brook, it becomes part of the whole landscape and the flowers add a pop of pinkish-white color to the scene. In this drawing, you can see the small details, like the clusters of fluffy flowers.

The plants and mushrooms that I notice by the side of the Pequit Brook are always changing; some begin to die and new ones appear. This selection of things is a good representation of one moment during the summer. 

My name is Maris Van Vlack, and I will be blogging for the summer of 2020! I am a rising sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a major in Textiles and a concentration in Drawing. I used to take homeschool classes at the Museum of American Bird Art and have had my artwork exhibiting in their Taking Flight Exhibit for young bird artists.

I am especially interested in working with unusual materials in my work, and am inspired by plants, animals, and the patterns found in nature. This summer, I will be creating a guide for the MABA trails with sketches and paintings. I will be recording and writing about my observations, and sharing them through these blog posts. Hopefully this will be an educational and inspiring resource, and will motivate you to sketch what you see when you visit MABA this summer!

Pequit Brook at MABA by Maris Van Vlack – RISD Student and MABA Intern

The Pequit Brook runs alongside a large part of the Main Loop Trail at MABA. You can also  reach the brook by taking the Pequit Brook Trail, which ends in a clearing right by the water’s edge. Many creatures live by the brook, including Spotted Salamanders and Eastern Red-backed Salamanders. I’ve also seen many songbirds, and many times when I approach the brook I see a Great Blue Heron disappearing into the trees. (I have yet to get a good picture of it because it flies away so quickly!)

The animals and plants at the brook are exciting, but this series of sketches focuses on the brook itself. For me, drawing the brook means capturing the feeling of water in motion. When drawing bodies of water, I identify the places where there is bright sunlight hitting the water. I also try to show which way the water is flowing around rocks and other obstacles. I find that ripples in the water can be more easily understood with line studies.

Line study of water currents in the brook

In the piece below, I used watercolor for the body of the painting, later adding opaque white gouache for the highlights. When painting water, make sure that you use the colors that you see instead of the colors that your brain thinks should be there. Large bodies of calm water often look blue because they are reflecting the sky, but smaller streams don’t actually look blue. The Pequit Brook is so shallow that light hits the rocks and dirt on the bottom of the brook and comes back up through the water. This makes the water appear different shades of brown, grey, yellow, red, and green, depending on what is underneath the water. 

When painting rocks, I pay attention to how they interact with the water: whether the water is flowing over them, around them, or both. Rocks are each a different shape, and showing this in a drawing will make it more interesting. It is important to notice which parts of the rock are angular and which parts are smooth. Drawing flat sides of rocks and noticing how the light is hitting them will help with this. 

A pen drawing of a rock near the brook, focusing on the unique angles this rock creates

I find that the brook looks different every time I draw it because it is always in motion. It is one of my favorite places to sketch!

My name is Maris Van Vlack, and I will be blogging for the summer of 2020! I am a rising sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a major in Textiles and a concentration in Drawing. I used to take homeschool classes at the Museum of American Bird Art and have had my artwork exhibiting in their Taking Flight Exhibit for young bird artists.

I am especially interested in working with unusual materials in my work, and am inspired by plants, animals, and the patterns found in nature. This summer, I will be creating a guide for the MABA trails with sketches and paintings. I will be recording and writing about my observations, and sharing them through these blog posts. Hopefully this will be an educational and inspiring resource, and will motivate you to sketch what you see when you visit MABA this summer!

Nature in a Minute: The Wood Lily

Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum)

On a recent walk I was surprised to see these Wood lilies. About twenty were in bloom over a ten square foot area. A power line runs through the woods here so a swath about 20 feet wide is kept clear of woody plants. Wood lilies need sunlight so a clearing like this is ideal for them.  

The cup-shaped flowers are upright, a distinguishing feature of Wood lilies. All other wild lily species nod. The flowers have six purple-spotted petals. 

Wood lilies are 1-3 feet in height.  The leaves are long and narrow, arranged in a whorl around the stem.  They grow from a bulb and are perennial. Tiger swallowtail butterflies are the primary pollinator of the Wood lily.

Julianne Mehegan at Arches NP

Our guest blogger, Julianne Mehegan, is a wonderful friend of MABA, a birder and a naturalist.

The Mulberry Tree at MABA by Maris Van Vlack – RISD Student and MABA Intern

The mulberry tree at MABA (located in front of the Education Building) is always full of life because so many animals come to eat its fruit. An astounding variety of different birds have been perched in the tree, it is amazing to watch (and hear!). 

View of the tree from the Camp Building

Here are all the birds that I saw in the mulberry tree in one morning:

American Robin

Black-capped Chickadee

Goldfinch

Gray Catbird

Common Grackle

White-Breasted Nuthatch

House Finch

Cedar Waxwing

Blue Jay

I wanted to point out two species in particular, because the mulberry tree is the only location at MABA where I have seen them. The first of these is the House Finch. The males can be recognized by their red head and shoulders. It is a muted red, not a bright red like a cardinal. The females are completely brown.

The second bird is the Cedar Waxwing. They are not as common as House Finches. Their bodies are mostly brown, but their most prominent feature is the distinctive black patterning on their faces. 

These birds come to eat mulberries, shown in the drawing below. Right now, the fruits are greenish white. 

Pen drawing of mulberry branch, showing the fruit and leaves

 The purpose of this illustration is to show a more scientific version of a mulberry branch. This drawing shows what the fruits look like for identification purposes. My second mulberry branch drawing (below) is more expressive. Instead of exactly replicating the individual parts of the branch, this drawing shows what the whole silhouette looks like, with leaves in the foreground and background, blowing in the wind. I think that the two drawings are equally realistic, but both show elements of the branch that the other does not. 

Watercolor painting of mulberry branch

When doing a series of sketches on a location, I try to use a number of different drawing and painting methods so as to give an accurate depiction of the whole location. Which of the branch drawings do you prefer? I encourage you, when making art, to think about the many ways that something can be represented. 

View of the mulberry tree and the back of the Education Building

Nature in a Minute: Beauty in Bogs

According to the dictionary, “A bog is a mire that accumulates peat, a deposit of dead plant material—often mosses, and in a majority of cases, Sphagnum moss. It is one of the four main types of wetlands.”  Bogs have wet, spongy ground that floats over a body of water.  

Flora found in bogs is showiest in mid-summer. On a recent visit to Black Pond Bog I was rewarded with these choice beauties.

Rose pogonia  Pogonia ophioglossoides

Nestled in a bed of Spagnum moss, this delicate orchid is a rare beauty. The fringed lip is a distinctive feature. Many species of Bumblebees pollinate Rose pogonia.

Purple Pitcherplant  Sarracenia purpurea

The Purple Pitcherplant is the only pitcherplant native to New England.  Having the unique capacity to derive nutrients from sources other than soil enable this plant to grow in poor conditions. Insects are drawn to the open “mouth” of a pitcherplant. Once inside they are blocked from leaving by downward pointing hairs. A sticky fluid breaks down the inset body and “feeds” the pitcherplant.

The genus name (Sarracenia) comes from Michael Sarrazin (1659 – 1734), who was the first botanist to suggest the pitcherplant devoured  insects.

Purple pitcherplant flower

Purple pitcherplant growing in Sphagnum moss

Swamp azalea  Rhododendron viscosum

Swamp azalea is a deciduous woody shrub that grows in bogs. It is upright, reaching a height of 5-8 feet. The flowers vary from white to pale pink in color. In mid-summer the flowers are fragrant giving off a spicy aroma. The leathery, dark green leaves appear before the flowers. In the fall the leaves turn a colorful yellow/orange.

Julianne Mehegan at Arches NP

Our guest blogger, Julianne Mehegan, is a wonderful friend of MABA, a birder and a naturalist.