Author Archives: Barry V.

Getting Started With Nature Drawing: Advice for Young Bird Artists from Barry Van Dusen

As part of our annual Taking Flight youth bird art exhibition, different acclaimed bird artists will offer advice to budding young artists. The goal of the Taking Flight exhibition is to create a greater awareness, conservation, and appreciation for birds while fostering the development of young artists and sharing their work with the public. Submissions accepted March 1–June 15, 2018. Click here for more information.

Our first post is by internationally recognized wildlife artist, Barry Van Dusen, who was recently an artist in residence at the Museum of American Bird Bird and meet with the young bird artists in the 2017 Taking Flight exhibition.

 

If you’re serious about becoming a good naturalist and a good artist, start keeping a nature journal/ sketchbook to record your observations.

A young artist looking closely and sketching what she notices

Learn to look carefully and NOTICE what you see.

Young artists sketchbook

It’s more important to OBSERVE carefully and RECORD your discoveries than it is to make pretty pictures in your sketchbook.   Try to LEARN SOMETHING NEW each time you use your sketchbook

Young artist’s sketchbook in winter

Make WRITTEN NOTES along with your drawings to help you remember what you observe.

When you’re just beginning, practice drawing leaves, twigs, pinecones, seashells, crab shells, dead insects and other natural object you find outdoors.   These things do not move, so you can take your time to look at and draw them.

Draw the plants and flowers you find in a garden.

Try to draw the SHAPES you see with simple line drawings.  Drawing accurate shapes takes lots of PRACTICE!   Artists call these “contour drawings”.

Visit museums to observe and draw the stuffed animals, skeletons, and other specimens.

It may sound gross, but drawing from freshly dead birds (window strikes or birds hit by cars), is also a great way to practice drawing and to learn about animals.  (Give the birds a proper burial after you draw them.)

You can practice drawing subjects like birds from photographs, too.  Start with sketchy lines to block out the bird.

Notice the proportion of the head to the body, and the different angles made by the bill, tail, wing and legs.   The birds in the photographs don’t move, so you can take your time.

There are lots of places where you can get close to live animals and try drawing them:

Bird feeders…

Farms…

Frog Ponds…

Parks and Duck Ponds…

Zoos and Nature Centers…

Fish Hatcheries and Aquariums…

and Butterfly Conservatories…

…to name just a few.

Most important is to HAVE FUN and enjoy learning about Nature! 

The goal of the Taking Flight exhibition is to create a greater awareness and appreciation for birds while fostering the development of young artists and sharing their work with the public. Submissions accepted March 1–June 15, 2018. Click here for more information.

 

FINISH LINE, part 3: happy ending!

August 24, 2017

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Edgartown

It’s my final day on Martha’s Vineyard, so I get up early, say my good-byes to the Murtha’s, and head out for another day’s work.   Hoping to get better (i.e. closer) looks at some of the shorebirds I had seen at Felix Neck, I drive to the Joseph Silvia State Beach, which lies just across Sengekontacket Pond from the sanctuary.   This is a popular tourist spot, but I arrive early and find a place to park near “The Jaws Bridge”.

The JAWS Bridge

This bridge connects the north and south sections of the State Beach, and spans a breach that allows the ocean waters to flow in and out of Sengekontacket Pond.  Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary is just across the pond, and Sarson’s Island is closer from this vantage.

I scope the Island and see the same enticing selection of birds I had seen from Felix Neck, but they are still abit too far away for meaningful drawing.  Luckily, there are also shorebirds on the near shore, and with binoculars I pick out oystercatchers, turnstones, dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, yellowlegs, willets and one stilt sandpiper.

Ruddy Turnstone

To get closer to these birds, I hike north up the shore of the Pond.   It’s nearly high tide, and the sun is at my back – favorable conditions for field sketching!

The oystercatchers are wary.  Although I got a close look at the crippled bird two days ago at Felix Neck, these healthy birds are keeping me at a distance.   (Later I learned that wariness is a widely recognized attribute of this species.)  Realizing that I’m as close as they will allow, I set up my scope and work from afar – make some smaller drawings in my sketchbook.

The elusiveness of the oystercatchers, while frustrating, will not prevent me from painting them later.  My time observing these birds has left me with some strong impression and firm mental images that I can carry with me back to the studio…

Here’s a large watercolor painted in my studio after my return from the island.

American Oystercatchers on Martha’s Vineyard, watercolor on Arches coldpress, 14″ x 22.5″

Oystercatchers really are ODD birds, and I wanted to capture their strangeness in this portrait.  The strong legs and feet of these birds are especially expressive – there’s nothing delicate about them.   In color and in form, they remind me of bubble gum fresh out of the wrapper!

And here’s another odd feature of these birds:  when I have had opportunities to observe them at close range, I have noticed that some of the birds have a lop-sided or irregularly shaped pupil.

detail showing eye fleck

Checking on-line, I found references to “eye flecks” in American Oystercatchers, caused by areas of black pigmentation on the bird’s iris.  Even more interesting was a recent study that indicates a link between eye flecks and sex.  Birds with eye flecks are usually females!   Male and female oystercatchers are difficult to tell apart, and this feature may be useful for determining the sex of these birds in the field.  Presumably, my painting shows a male on the left, and a female – with an eye fleck – on the right.

Thankfully, some of the other shorebirds at the state beach are more cooperative for field sketching.  A turnstone and a willet allow close approach, but more alluring to me is a small, tight flock of sanderlings, settling down to wait out the high tide at the water’s edge.   The seven or eight birds are all adults, in various stages of molt.

Sketchbook studies of sanderlings, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

Some have nearly completed their transition into winter plumage and their upperparts sport the overall pearly gray tones of winter.   Others show dark patches of summer plumage mixed in with the newly emerging winter feathers, giving them a rather motley, unkempt aspect.  On the heads and breasts of some birds are patches of rust– also a remnant of their breeding dress.   In winter, sanderlings are the palest of our shorebirds, and some of these birds have gleaming white heads and snowy white breasts and undersides.  I revel in these variations and get to work recording them in my sketchbook.

Sketchbook studies of sanderlings, pencil, 9″ x 12″

This sketchbook page of the sanderling flock is deceiving – the birds look serene and settled.  In fact, the birds were continually in motion – standing up or sitting down, or shifting positions in an intricate game of musical chairs. Drawing the group required a good deal of patience and improvisation, the arrangement owing more to serendipity than to calculation and planning.

Late Summer Sanderlings, watercolor on Winsor & Newton coldpress, 12.5″ x 22.5″

My studio painting of the scene is more deliberately conceived and composed, but you can easily pick out all the poses I had recorded in my sketchbook.   I’ve tried to show the variations in plumage I observed at the State Beach.  Can you find the two birds that have molted completely into their winter plumage?

detail

This is what I would characterize as a “high key” painting.  Most of the painting is composed of values in the lighter end of the value range, with just a sprinkling of the darkest values.  I wanted to convey the light-filled environment of a sandy beach in summer.   The darkest accents are the bird’s bills and eyes, which form a repeated rhythm across the middle of the composition.

With such good models to work with at the State Beach, the morning passes quickly and it’s soon time for lunch, which I enjoy on the breakwater next to the Jaws Bridge – my feet dangling in the clear ocean water while jellyfish float by on the tide.

Driving through Tisbury on my way to the ferry, I stop to use a restroom at the town library.  As I walk through the butterfly gardens around the front entrance, I am distracted by a flurry of motion.

Sketchbook page of Monarchs, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

On one liatris plant, I count eight Monarch butterflies – a phenomenal concentration of these handsome migratory insects, whose populations have been down in recent years.  There’s just time enough to do some sketches before I leave to catch the ferry at Vineyard Haven.

From the upper deck of the Woods Hole boat, I watch Martha’s Vineyard receding on the horizon.  I sit back and reflect on my travels over the past two and a half years, visiting all 57 of Mass Audubon’s public properties.  In that time, I’ve accumulated a wealth of experiences and impressions – some recorded in my watercolors, sketchbooks and blog journal, and others preserved as indelible memories.

I hope you’ve enjoyed following my travels around Massachusetts, and to YOU READERS – my sincere THANKS for your attention and words of encouragement!  With the completion of my sanctuary visits, the purpose of this blog has been realized, and my postings will become less regular and less frequent in the months ahead, but I will, from time to time, post updates when they relate to the residency project.  PLEASE STAY TUNED!

With the project completed, I will NOT stop visiting Mass Audubon sanctuaries – there is still so much more to observe and enjoy!   Maybe I’ll meet you on a sanctuary trail someday soon…

FINISH LINE, part 2: a day with Sean

August 23, 2017

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Edgartown

I’ve arranged to spend my overnights on Martha’s Vineyard with artist Sean Murtha and his family, who are vacationing on the island (my sincere THANKS to Sean, Deidre and Graham for putting up with a “third wheel” during their valuable family vacation time!)

I arrived a day ahead of the Murtha’s and now drive to Edgartown to meet them on the incoming ferry.   We find our way to their rental house and settle in.

Sean Murtha

Next morning Sean joins me at Felix Neck for a day of sketching and painting.  It’s nice to have a field companion along, and thanks to Sean, I have some photos of myself at work for this blog.

We pause along the Marsh Trail to watch some laughing gulls loafing along the shore.  Their heads are just visible above the marsh grass and sea lavender, which makes for an interesting motif.

sketchbook study of Laughing Gull and Sea Lavender, pencil, 5″ x 10″

I make a detailed drawing in my sketchbook that I use later for this studio watercolor:

Laughing Gull and Sea Lavender, watercolor on Winsor & Newton cold-press, 10.5″ x 15.5″

You’ll notice that I’ve made some minor changes to my location sketch.  I’ve cocked the primary feathers upward to make the bird look more relaxed and settled, and I’ve added more sea lavender at the left to create a repeated rhythm across the composition.  In the final painting, the screen of grasses adds an intimacy to the scene – as if you’re nearby in the grass, sharing a private moment with the gull.

Along the shore, we see where structures have been installed to slow the erosion of the marsh – which in recent years has eroded as much as ten feet in some areas.

In response to these declines, Mass Audubon has initiated the Living Shoreline Restoration Project.  This project aims to restore the marsh and the critical habitat it provides for wildlife, including juvenile fish and shellfish.

Partnering with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Rhode Island, the project uses various biodegradable structures to stabilize the shoreline and trap sediments that will encourage the growth of marsh vegetation.  Sediment traps are also installed to monitor the progress of the restoration.

Further along the shore, at the end of the Old Farm Road, I set up to paint a view of Sengekontacket Pond with the Joseph Sylvia State Beach across the water, while Sean does some drawing nearby.

I block in the landscape with some broad washes of color – enough to establish the main shapes and color masses, and (more importantly) to set the mood.  Sean interrupts his drawing to take some photos of me at work (thanks, Sean!)

With the direction of my painting firmly established, I decide to finish it later – there’s a lot more for us to see and do today!   Here’s the painting as it looked before I packed it away…

the first washes of color

And here’s the painting after bringing it to completion back in my studio…

Shoreline at Felix Neck, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10″ x 13.5″

The pinkish patches of sea lavender supply some important color variety, and the swath of cobble and stones at the bottom right of my painting adds some interesting texture.  This small patch of cobble puzzled me – why HERE, on an otherwise unbroken stretch of sand?  Later, I asked director Suzan Bellincampi about it and learned that this was excess building material the previous land-owner had dumped here after building some ponds elsewhere on the property.

After lunch, Sean and I split up.  He wants to do a plein air oil painting of the marsh, and heads down the Marsh Trail.  I meet with staff at the visitor center, and then strike out on the Old Farm Road.   At the Waterfowl Pond, I train my scope on a young osprey perched in a large dead tree over the observation blind.

sketchbook studies of a young Osprey, pencil, 4.5″ x 7″

The bird is a good model, and I work out several views of its head and shoulders in my sketchbook.   A head-on view proves especially challenging, requiring liberal use of my eraser before I get it right!

When I meet up again with Sean, he’s well along with his oil painting.

He’s working on a small canvas panel clamped onto a French easel.   The finished painting beautifully captures a summer day on the marsh, complete with four great egrets!

The Marsh at Felix Neck – a plein air oil painting by Sean Murtha

I hike out to Majors Cove again, hoping for more looks at oystercatchers.   No oystercatchers this time (not even the crippled bird that was here yesterday).  I debate doing a drawing of a large dead white oak near the end of the Shad Trail.

It’s a stunning specimen, but I decide I can’t do it justice on the small sheets of paper I’m carrying.  I think of my friend Debby Kaspari of Oklahoma, who does wonderful, large drawings of subjects like this.   Later, back in my studio, I pulled out one of her drawings that I had obtained by trading with her several years ago.

Graphite and pastel drawing on toned paper by Deborah Kaspari

It’s a graphite and pastel drawing on toned paper of a contorted white oak, and when I looked at the caption, I smiled.  Her drawing was done on Martha’s Vineyard!

 

FINISH LINE, part 1: first day on the Vineyard

August 22, 2017

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Edgartown

During the record-breaking winter of 2014/15, Amy Montague and I hatched a plan for a special kind of Artist Residency, during which I would travel around Massachusetts to visit and work at Mass Audubon’s wildlife sanctuaries.  The contract we agreed upon specified that I visit at least 45 sanctuaries, but in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to visit all 57 public properties.  What I didn’t know was how long it would take.  We settled on a two-year timeframe, wrapping up with an exhibition at the Museum of American Bird Art in Spring/Summer 2017. By the time my show opened in May 2017, I had worked at 52 sanctuaries, leaving five properties yet to visit.  There was no reason to stop, now!

Flash forward to the morning of August 22, 2017.  I’ve been  stuck in traffic for over an hour on the Bourne Rotary, waiting to make my way across the Bourne Bridge and then on to the Martha’s Vineyard Ferry at Woods Hole.  I thought I had left myself plenty of time to make the ferry, but unbeknownst to me, an accident on the Sagamore Bridge earlier that morning had redirected all traffic over the Bourne – resulting in this horrendous traffic snarl on a Tuesday morning!

As it happens, I did make the ferry that morning – arriving last in line and just in time to get on the boat.

My final sanctuary visit, to Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, was underway!

The first thing that caught my eye as I arrived at the Felix Neck parking area, was a large, strangely proportioned birdhouse mounted on poles.

Barn Owl nest box

The structure had been used by Barn Owls for many seasons, but has had no owls in residence for the past three years.  Barns Owls are at the northern edge of their range in Massachusetts, and in recent decades, Martha’s Vineyard has been the most reliable breeding locality for these birds (nine pairs nested on the Island in 1985).  Unfortunately, they are vulnerable to severe winters with heavy snow cover (such as the winter of 2014/15).  One can only hope that they will re-colonize the island in the near future.

The Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary is a roughly 200 acre neck of land surrounded on three sides by the protected waters of Sengekontacket Pond.  The Pond itself is separated from the ocean by a narrow barrier beach comprising the Joseph Sylvia State Beach (more on that to come).   Ocean waters pass in and out of Sengekontacket Pond beneath a bridge on the state beach known locally as “The Jaws Bridge”, since it figured prominently in some scenes from the movie JAWS!

sketchbook studies of Great Egrets, pencil, 9″ x 12″

Sharks were far from my mind, however, when I set out on the Marsh Trail to explore the sanctuary.   A green heron skulked along the edge of the waterfowl pond, but flushed when I took out my sketchbook.  Further out on the marsh, some Great Egrets were more cooperative, and I spent some time mapping out the odd angles formed by those impossibly long necks.

Along the Marsh Trail, pitch pine forests border the marsh, with an understory of huckleberry.  Where the forest gives way to the open marsh , “high tide bush” (marsh elder) forms tall, billowy shrubs.  I like the way the waters of the marsh form a bright, level ribbon beyond the pine trunks and branches, and get to work on a watercolor.

I use a small sheet of Arches 300 lb cold-press that is just right for painting the roughly textured pitch pines.  There’s a gracefulness to the curving sweep of some of the branches, but there’s awkwardness, too, in the chaotic angles and weird undulations of the trunks.  I find this intriguing – the graceful and the ungainly mixed together.

Pitch Pines at Felix Neck, watercolor on Arches rough, 9″ x 10″

From a spur trail that leads out to the shore, I have a view of Sarson’s Island across the water.  It’s labeled as a “bird nesting colony” on my trail map, so I scan it slowly with my scope.  I see mostly cormorants and gulls, but mixed in are oystercatchers, plovers, turnstones, dowitchers, willets and peeps.   A small flock of Black Skimmers flies past the island and I follow them out over the waters of Sengekontacket Pond.

I try some sketching of the Oystercatchers on Sarson’s Island, but they are too far away for meaningful drawing, so I instead take a landscape approach.  Four cormorants are perched on a rather odd structure consisting of a cable hanging between two sturdy posts.  Later, I learn from director Suzan Bellincampi that the posts and cable were originally erected to encourage egrets to nest, though we couldn’t quite figure out how this rig might have worked!

Here’s the watercolor after the first layer of washes:

Sarson’s Island, stage one

Working at a distance through a telescope has the effect of reducing contrast and softening colors, due to the intervening atmosphere.  I hope to retain this effect in my painting, and keep the tones close and subdued.

Sarson’s Island, watercolor on Fabriano cold-press, 9″ x 11″

Note that there are three species depicted in this watercolor: double-crested cormorant, black-bellied plover and great black-backed gull.  One of my champions, John Busby of Scotland, often did scenes like this with multiple species, and I was thinking of him as I worked on this painting.  One tricky aspect here is keeping the various species in proper scale to one another.

I continue along the shore on the Marsh Trail, pausing to draw some bayberry twigs heavy with those waxy, silvery gray berries.   The thick, shiny leaves curl at the edges, and have other slight undulations that catch the light – making them challenging to draw and paint.

Bayberry Studies, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 10.25″ x 13.75″

Further along the shore, I finally get a close look at an Oystercatcher – a single bird with a crippled (right) leg, which dangles uselessly as it hops along the shore.  The bird is well-known to sanctuary staff, who have been observing it for weeks.  Its plumage is unkempt, probably due to the difficulty of preening while balancing on one leg, but otherwise the bird seems to be getting along.

The views along the shore are alluring, with their lush green tufts of marsh grass interspersed with bright little sand beaches – all surrounded by the sparkling waters of Sengekontacket Pond.  I start a watercolor near the terminus of the Shad Trail, looking up into the protected waters of Majors Cove (I’m now on the westernmost shore of Felix Neck).

Majors Cove, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

I paint until the light starts to fade, then head back to the car.

note: my visit to Martha’s Vineyard has been broken into three  parts – one for each day I spent on the inland.  Please stay tuned for parts 2 and 3…

Down to the Brook

July 6, 2017

Richardson Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Tolland

 

From my hotel in Great Barrington I drive east through the pastoral farmland of the Housatonic River Valley and into the Hill Towns: New Marlborough and Sandisfield.  I pass through the little hamlets of Mill River, Montville and New Boston, and then on into Tolland.

The parking for Richardson Brook Wildlife Sanctuary is simply a wide shoulder on the side of Rte 57, with the trails beginning beyond a break in the stonewall.   The trails are all downhill to the brook, in some spots quite steep.  I follow the Charlotte Clark Loop Trail, then the Richardson Brook Trail.

This photo I took of the boulder strewn woods along the Charlotte Clark Loop reminds me of a painting by the Maine artist Neil Welliver.

Here’s one of Neil’s paintings – see if you don’t agree:

Late Light by Neil Welliver

A flicker of movement draws my attention – it’s a blue-headed vireo foraging very LOW.  It’s not typical behavior for this species, and I watch as it actively searches the forest floor – flitting from one low perch to another, but never actually landing on the ground.   The soft, lemony wash on the flanks shows up well in the soft light of the understory, and the contrast of the white spectacles on its slate-blue head is striking!  I make some quick sketches and take some notes.

Sketchbook studies of a Solitary Vireo, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

Later, I use these sketches to re-create the scene in my studio:

Solitary Vireo at Richardson Brook, watercolor on Fabriano soft-press watercolor paper, 10.5″ x 15″

Arriving at Richardson Brook (which is also the southern boundary of the sanctuary), I see that the water levels are low, but the stream corridor is shady, moist and cool.  Little pools lined with golden gravel are tucked between moss-covered rocks and fallen logs.

I consider painting the scene but am intimidated by its complexity.  In my mind, I formulate a painting plan. How will I “frame” the composition?  Which washes will I lay down first?  Which areas are lightest and will need to be painted around or “reserved”?  Where will the darkest accents occur?  This mental “rehearsal” is my way of building up the courage to begin…

A Blackburnian Warbler murmurs overhead as I block in the brook with a soft pencil, then “jump in” with my paints (excuse the pun)!

I paint the darkest accents first, which establishes the overall pattern of lights and darks.  Next, I paint the pattern of greens on the mossy rocks, then the pools of water in between.  With these initial washes in place, the picture starts to take on a life of its own.  It starts making its own demands and leads me on to the next step.  All I need to do is “listen” carefully and do what I’m told!

Richardson Brook, watercolor on Arches cold-press watercolor paper, 10″ x 13.25″

The hike back to my car is all uphill, and a good cardiovascular workout.  I pause to catch my breath and admire a dense patch of partridgeberry, spangled with those oddly furry white blossoms.

On another “rest stop”, I find a woodpecker wing feather, looking very “graphic” against the confusion of the forest litter.

 

ADVENTURES IN LIMESTONE COUNTRY: part 2: Bunnies and Yellow-bellies

July  5/6, 2017

Lime Kiln Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, Sheffield

 

I return to Lime Kiln Farm the next morning – I want to experience the reserve during the early hours when wildlife activity is at its peak.

I get better views of the Alder Flycatcher today and make some sketches and color studies.  All of the empidonax flycatchers are subtle in plumage – the morphological differences between the species very slight.

Alder Flycatcher Study, watercolor on Fabriano cold-press, 8″ x 8″

The only reason I can be sure I’m looking at an Alder Flycatcher is the distinctive call.  Sibley describes it as “rreeBEEa”, but to me it sounds more like “zwee-BEEP”.  Either way, the accent is on the second syllable.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker flies in and lands on a nearby snag and I train my scope on it.  It’s a handsome adult male with a red throat and cap.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, watercolor in Stillman & Birn DELTA sketchbook, 12″ x 8.5″

Sapsuckers are common birds in the Berkshires, but become scarcer as you move east.  We see them often enough where I live in central Massachusetts, but they are largely absent east of Worcester County.

Suddenly, things are happening fast: a Cooper’s Hawk streaks in and alights, but is immediately driven off by a red-winged blackbird and a kingbird.  Then, I nearly step on a large northern watersnake sunning itself in the path!

Slowing my pace, (and watching my feet more carefully, now), I notice a cottontail in the meadow path ahead.  The rabbit allows me to approach quite closely , so I set up my scope to draw.  The bunny is a good model – moving occasionally, but sitting quietly for long stretches while I draw.

Sketchbook studies of a cottontail and a goldfinch, pencil, 6″ x 9.5″

A lot of the drama here will be in that bright bunny EYE, so I pay it close attention!

Clover and vetch enliven the scene with bits of color, and in the surrounding grasses, I avoid dark accents, hoping to achieve the soft, flickering quality of a summer meadow.

Cottontail at Lime Kiln Farm, watercolor on Arches rough, 12.25″ x 16.25″

 

Adventures in Limestone Country, part 1: FEEL THE BURN

July  5/6, 2017

Lime Kiln Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, Sheffield

Sketchbook Study of a Black-and-white Warbler, pencil & watercolor, 4″ x 6″

I plan an overnight excursion to visit two unstaffed sanctuaries in the Southwest corner of the state, and book two nights in a hotel in Great Barrington.  By 8 am, I’m on the Mass Pike heading west.  Driving through Palmer, I’m astonished by the extent of gypsy moth defoliation.  For as far as the eye can see in every direction, the hills are brown and bare.  It’s been reported that 900,000 acres in Massachusetts have been defoliated this summer, and one of the worst hit areas is the one I’m currently driving through…

I arrive at Lime Kiln Farm Wildlife Sanctuary by noon.  It’s a warm, sunny day and butterflies are active around the gravel parking area.  A red admiral, an orange sulfur and a tiger swallowtail flit around the lot, where my car is the only one present.  It’s a pleasant spot, surrounded by meadows that keep the view open to the mountains on the horizon.

Sketchbook Studies of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, pencil, 6″ x 9″

A copse of trees at the edge of the meadow includes some dead spruces, whose lichen-encrusted tops are a favored perch of a ruby-throated hummingbird.  I set up my telescope and break for lunch, but am interrupted by frantic bouts of drawing when the hummingbird appears.  In my final watercolor, I use a pose from my sketchbook that helps to coveys the feisty character of these birds.

detail of finished watercolor

I make one change to my sketchbook pose:  I move the wingtips to BELOW the tail.  It’s something hummers often do when perched, and to me it makes the bird more assertive.   Ruby-throats just don’t seem to comprehend that they are VERY SMALL!

Hummingbird on Spruce Top, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 13.5″ x 10.25″

As I’m drawing, I can hear the calls of an alder flycatcher coming from a shrub swamp below the meadow, so I follow the Lime Kiln Loop Trail hoping to get closer to the bird.

The old Lime Kiln is an impressive structure, towering forty feet into the forest canopy.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, the lime industry was a prominent part of the New England economy.  Lime was a key ingredient in plaster and mortar.

When limestone is burned, it produces lime (calcium oxide).  Lime kilns in New England used wood or coal to burn the limestone.  The kiln was loaded with a cord of wood at the bottom, and then piled with limestone broken into basketball sized chunks.   After the burn, the lime was loaded into casks for transport.  By 1900 the lime kilns in New England were shutting down due to competition from newer building materials and cheaper lime from other sources.

I crawl about the relic kiln, shooting it from various angles, and imagine the roar of a cord of wood blazing in the belly of the old kiln.  FEEL THE BURN!

I follow the Quarry Trail, then the Taconic Vista Trail to the “Scenic Vista”.   And, it is indeed SCENIC – with the Taconic Mountains to the west and the nearer Berkshire Hills to the north, all viewed across a wide meadow.  A yellow-throated vireo sings it’s “three-eights” from a big oak while I set up to paint.

painting in progress at the Scenic Vista

I’ve written previously about the artistic challenges posed by the unbroken greens of summer in New England, and here again I’m faced with the challenge:  how to deal with all that GREEN!

View of the Taconics I, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10″ x 13.25″

My first attempt at painting the scene disappoints me – it feels heavy-handed and overworked, so I immediately start another version.

View of the Taconics II, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

On my second attempt, I scale back to a smaller sheet and deliberately compress the landscape from left to right.  I make the mountains more prominent and paint them with a purer, brighter blue.  I pay special attention to the zone that links the distant mountains with the nearer trees (i.e. where the greens shift from cool to warm).  I simplify the foreground and bring more light into the closest trees on the left.

I’ll leave it to YOU to decide which painting YOU prefer!

Summits and Snowies, part 2: Creature Feature

March 2/3, 2017

Blue Hills Trailside Museum, Milton

My second day at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum is colder, with temperatures remaining in the 30s all day.  It’s sunny, however, so I do some more drawing at the snowy owl enclosure.  The two birds are again huddled on the ground in the rear corner of the pen.

Snowy Owl sketchbook studies, pencil, 9″ x 12″

drawing at the snowy owl enclosure

It’s early in the day, and I’m the only one in the little zoo behind the visitor center.   Suddenly, I hear a great flap of wings and turn to see a wild turkey vulture alighting on the nearby turkey vulture enclosure.    It hops around atop the cage and peers down at the “prisoner” within.  I wonder what has attracted the wild bird: curiosity? food? sex?   It’s a handsome specimen – much more colorful and sleek than the captive bird – and I turn my attention to it.  I take some photos and start a drawing, but another (human) visitor arrives and scares off the wild bird.

Turkey Vulture Head Study, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

We go inside to warm up, and meet director Norm Smith.  He is busy getting ready to host an important international meeting of scientist and researchers focused on snowy owls.  Norm has been conducting his own research on these birds for nearly twenty years.  He was the first to put satellite transmitters on wintering snowy owls in an attempt to better understand their seasonal movements in New England.    His research has called into question many long-held assumptions about the owls that move south into Massachusetts in winter.  Needless to say, the snowy owl is a bird of special significance at the Trailside Museum!

Norm introduces us to staff members in charge of the live animals at Trailside, and we get a tour of the lower level.  Some of the animals are recovering from injuries and will eventually be released, while others are permanent residents who, for various reasons cannot be returned to the wild.

A raven and a box turtle have the run of the place, and follow us around as we take our tour.  The box turtle develops a special fondness for my shoe!

The staff generously offers to set up any of the animals for us to work with, so I select a gray phase screech-owl, which is taken from its cage and placed on a padded perch in the center of a low table.

Sean and I get to work, and the owl proves a good model, sitting quietly and studying US!  The owl seems especially fascinated when I take out my paints and brushes!  (Thanks, Sean, for your photos in this post!)

Gray Phase Screech-Owl, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 11″ x 9″

Upstairs in the museum, a variety of live animals are on display.  One enclosure holds two timber rattlesnakes: one very dark and the other predominantly golden brown.

Timber rattlesnakes are endangered in Massachusetts and persist at only a handful of widely scattered sites in the state – mostly in mountainous areas.  There is a small population in the Blue Hills Reservation, but they are reclusive animals and seldom encountered.  They pose virtually no danger to the public, in fact, only one person has ever died of snakebite in Massachusetts, and that was over 200 years ago!

I have not yet painted a snake for this residency, so this is a good opportunity, and the snake is a very cooperative model – I don’t believe it moved once during the time I worked on my picture!  I decide to indicate a natural setting for the snake and substitute a suggestion of leaves, rocks and twigs in place of the wood shavings in its enclosure.

Timber Rattlesnake, wartercolor on Arches cold-press, 14.25″ x 10.25″

Before leaving Trailside, I go back outside and check the snowy owls one more time.  To my delight, the paler bird is sitting atop a natural perch in the center of the enclosure.

Snowy Owl sketchbook study, pencil, 9″ x 12″

It’s a much more dynamic pose than the birds made on the ground, so I make a careful drawing that I use later to develop this watercolor.

Snowy Owl at Trailside, watercolor on Arches rough, 16.25″ x 12.25″

 

Summits and Snowies, part 1: Great Blue Hill

March 2/3, 2017

Blue Hills Trailside Museum, Milton

It’s cold and very windy on the morning I arrive at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton.   Mass Audubon runs and manages the Trailside Museum, the visitor/interpretive center for the Blue Hills Reservation.   This 7,000 acres public reserve is the largest open space within 35 miles of Boston, and is owned by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

I figured winter would be a good time to visit the Trailside Museum, since it would offer opportunities for both outdoor and indoor work.  The Trailside Museum is only minutes from the Museum of American Bird Art in Canton – the sponsor of my residency.  I’ll stay overnight in MABA’s guest suite and spend two days at Trailside.  Sean Kent, the education director at MABA joins me both days (thanks, Sean for your photos in this blog entry!).

Boston Skyline from Great Blue Hill summit

Today, March 2, Sean and I hike to the top of Great Blue Hill (elev. 635 ft.) and take in the view of Boston and the Harbor Islands.  While at the summit, we visit the Blue Hill Weather Observatory – the oldest continuously operated weather observatory in the United States.

Blue Hill Weather Observatory

We crawl up onto the observation deck at the top of the observatory and hang onto the railings with the wind gusts nearing 60 mph (the anemometer is a spinning blur!)

Descending from the Observation Deck

Below, in the control room, a technician points out a glass case of antique mercury barometers – still working and very accurate!

Antique mercury barometers

Down off the summit, and out of the wind, we set up to do some landscape work featuring the rocky outcrops along the Summit Trail.

The temperatures have been dropping throughout the day, and it’s in the low 40s when I begin drawing. I’ve brought along a few of those chemical hand-warmers, and slip one into the glove of my drawing hand.  I can’t draw with the glove on, but I slip it on and warm up my fingers periodically.

The completed drawing done on location

I complete the drawing on watercolor paper, but am getting seriously chilled by the time I finish, and can’t summon the courage to take out my paints.  I’ll finish this one in the studio…

the work in progress…

Here’s the painting about half finished.   You can see that I laid in the tones of the distant background first – I’ll want them to recede in the finished painting, so deliberately make the colors pale and subdued.  Next, I paint the areas of ground between the rocks with a rusty brown tone, which at the same time organizes the shapes of the rocks.  Then, I paint the shadow pattern of the rocks and lay in the darker tone of the three dominant tree trunks.  The shadows on the foreground rocks are among the darkest notes in the painting, so I’ve now established the full range of values.

Summit Trail, Great Blue Hill, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

Now, it’s just a matter of laying in the middle value grays of the rocks.  I try to add some interest and variety here, by varying the complements used to mix the grays.   Most of them are mixed from ultramarine blue and cadmium orange, but I also throw in some burnt sienna and cobalt violet here and there.

Back at the Trailside Museum that afternoon, Sean and I make some drawings of the snowy owls in one of the outdoor pens.  The birds are sitting on the ground in the rear corner of the enclosure, but with my telescope, I have “in-your-face” views of the bird’s heads and do several pages of studies.

sketchbook page, pencil, 9″ x 12″

sketchbook page, pencil, 9″ x 12″

There are two owls: one almost completely white with only a few scattered markings on the wings and tail, and the other heavily spotted and barred all-over.

stay tuned for Blue Hills Part 2: Creature Feature…

 

SMALL MIRACLES, part 2: Lost in the Weeds

January 29, 2017

Endicott Wildlife Sanctuary, Wenham

Back in the studio, I spread out the winter stems I collected along the entrance drive at Endicott Wildlife Sanctuary.  I arrange the stems on a big sheet of Arches hot-pressed watercolor paper, moving them around and trying out various arrangements until I have a nicely balanced composition.   You might notice that the pepperbush in the center arches outward to the left and right, while the two outermost stems curve gently inward, bracketing and containing the stems in the center.

Seeds of Promise, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 21″ x 22.5″

I have a pretty good idea what the various species are.  I’ve got goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, an aster, sweet pepperbush and meadowsweet.   Only one of the specimens has me puzzled: a tall, narrow spire with densely packed cylindrical seed capsules.   I check my Newcomb’s and realize – of course! – it’s purple loosestrife.  This is one species I’m sure the Audubon Society would have NO objection to my collecting!  In fact, I had read on the visitor’s kiosk that the Society had successfully introduced a beetle into the wet meadow to control the spread of this invasive, non-native plant.

the drawing phase (purple loosetrife)…

After settling on an arrangement, I make a careful drawing of each specimen with a 2B pencil, working from the specimen itself.  I call this approach “indoor field sketching”, since even though I’m not outside, I am working directly from life.  I’m aiming for an accurate botanical portrait of each species, so draw carefully and slowly using a modified contour drawing technique.

detail: goldenrod and pepperbush

It’s amazing how much you can learn about botanical structure by working directly from specimens like this.  For example, I noticed how the twigs of the pepperbush branched smoothly off the main stem without any obvious scars or marks at the junctions.  Doing some research, I read that the new woody growth of pepperbush is forked or branched, and the side twigs do not always originate from a bud, as in most woody shrubs.

painting in progress…

I work from left to right in both the drawing and painting stages, so as to minimize smudging (I’m right-handed).   I strive for accuracy but also a light touch, and I mix the subtle grays and browns with care, slightly emphasizing the color shifts.  The attraction of this painting is really in the details, so here are some more close-ups:

calico aster

Queen Anne’s lace and pepperbush

meadowsweet

This is the largest watercolor that I’ve painted for the residency so far, at 21” x 22 ½”.

Seeds of Promise, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 21″ x 22.5″

I’ve probably spent more hours on this watercolor than any of the others, too.  The painting and drawing took more than four full days of work.  The original watercolor is currently on display at the Museum of American Bird Art in Canton, Massachusetts.