Category Archives: Education

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. 

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

SUPPORT OUR WORK and Donate to the Museum of American Bird Art

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!

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

Mammals at MABA by Maris Van Vlack (RISD Student and MABA Intern)

For me, one of the best things that can happen on a hike is finding an unusual animal, and there are many unusual animals that live on the MABA property. I see squirrels and chipmunks every day, but have encountered much bigger animals also. You will see many more animals when walking quietly. If you spot something running away from you, keep still because it might return later. 

This groundhog (pictured below) waddled under the bird blind as I approached. Animals like this disappear quickly, so I have to have my camera at the ready.

Groundhog among the milkweed

A more unusual spotting: while sitting by the pond on the Main Loop Trail at the back of the sanctuary, I noticed this American Mink run into an old piece of metal pipe. I waited quietly, and a few minutes later the mink popped his head out of the pipe, allowing me to snap the picture below. He then left the pipe and disappeared into the long grass. Minks are in the weasel family and have dark brown bodies with pink noses. 

American Mink peeking out of a pipe

Last week, I crossed paths with this curious White-Tailed Deer. It initially ran away, but then came back to finish its meal. It continued eating while staring at me warily. I have found that one of the hardest parts about photographing woodland wildlife is getting an angle without branches blocking the way. 

White-Tailed Deer while chewing its lunch

These deer photos made good reference images for a watercolor painting:

When painting realistic animals, it is important to pay attention to the shapes created by bones and muscles. They will help make the drawing seem more 3-dimensional. Below are some of the simple curves that show the shape of the deer:

I paid special attention to the lines that show the neck twisting. The deer was turning its head to look at me, so I tried to capture that movement with curving lines. Paying attention to subtle motions like this can make your drawings come to life. 

Strong diagonal lines make a painting more dynamic. I noticed that the deer’s body had some lines that leaned to the left. To give the painting balance, I added thin tree trunks in the background that lean to the right.

These unique animals all living so close together show that you don’t have to travel far away to find some really cool wildlife. Keep an eye out for wildlife locally! Animals that live close by can be a great source of inspiration. 

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!

Flower Hunt on the Main Loop by Maris Van Vlack (RISD Student and MABA Intern)

Wildflowers catch the eye during a walk in the woods; most have a pop of color that stands out against the background of green leaves. Below is a collection of wildflowers that grow along the sides of the Main Loop Trail at MABA. This post is a wildflower timeline, starting at the beginning of June and ending with the flowers that are just beginning to blossom now. 

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

June 10, 2020

6-8” tall

These striking flowers are in the orchid family and are invasive to North America. Unfortunately, they bloom in May and June, so you are unlikely to see them for the rest of this year. 

Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)

June 11, 2020

3-6” tall

These small white flowers are also out of bloom, but you can still spot the wilting blossoms by the edge of the path in many places along the Main Loop Trail. The leaves are still growing all over the ground (pictured above.)

Multiflora rose (Rosa Multiflora) – Invasive Plant

June 22, 2020

2-4’ off the ground

These flowering shrubs grow along the brook; the white flowers grow in clusters. In the painting above, I filled up a sketchbook page by painting the blossoms and leaves from many different angles. 

Hawkweed (Hieracium)

June 25, 2020

12-30” tall

Not only do these flowers grow on the main loop path by the brook, they are also some of the first flowers you see when you pull into the parking lot, growing along the stone wall! Their bright color contrasts beautifully against the stone.

Swamp Dewberry (Rubus hispidus)

June 25, 2020

4-8” tall

These small white flowers grow all along the Main Loop Trail. I normally see only one or two plants in one place. They often grow amongst lots of other plants. 

Common Selfheal (Prunella Vulgaris)

June 29, 2020

4-6” tall

These are the only purple flowers I have seen so far. They grow very low to the ground.

Whorled Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia)

July 1, 2020

12-24” tall

These yellow flowers with red centers are just beginning to bloom in large patches by the trail edges. These plants can be found by the brook and actually produce oil that is collected by some bees (Macropis) that collect oil. Look for their tall stalks, like the one pictured above. 

Round-leaved Wintergreen (Pyrola Rotundifolia)

July 1, 2020

5-9” tall

I saw the first of these flowers recently. It was growing by the edge of the path, hidden in some grass. They can be identified by their downward-facing blossoms.

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!

The Vernal Pool: Part 2 by Maris Van Vlack (MABA Intern and RISD Student)

This summer the Museum of American Bird Art is thrilled that Maris Van Vlack, a rising sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design, will be interning at MABA. She will be sketching and painting in the wildlife sanctuary. She will be blogging about her experience. Enjoy her post about a week spent at the vernal pool. –Sean Kent

Many different kinds of birds live in the vernal pool area, making it a great bird watching spot! Below is a list of some of the most common species that I have seen there:

Baltimore Oriole– They are black and orange, so are easily seen in the trees above the vernal pool.

Northern Cardinal– the males are bright red, but the females are dull brown and camouflage well in the trees. I typically see them perched on branches that are low to the ground.

Mourning Dove– They are usually seen hopping about on the fallen tree near the back of the vernal pool (pictured below). I’m guessing that they have a nest in that area.

Black Capped Chickadee– They don’t have any bright colors, so they are harder to see. They are found anywhere in the trees or brush by the vernal pool.

Common Grackle– They appear to be completely black, but the feathers on their heads have a bluish iridescent quality. They are often in the mud by the edge of the water.

Grackles at the vernal pool foraging for food, watercolor

Of the birds that spend their time around the vernal pool, grackles are the most prominent because they make quite a lot of noise. They are omnivorous and hop around the vernal pool, looking for insects to eat. I decided that grackles were a good bird to draw because they are willing to get pretty close to me, unlike other birds who keep their distance and are obscured branches.

Drawing from life is a useful habit to form because it will help your drawings capture the movement and 3-dimensionality of your subject. When working on a painting of an animal like the grackle, which holds a position for just a few seconds at a time, I started by observing the bird and doing many quick sketches.

These drawings are all done from the observation of one grackle, which was hopping from branch to branch in the middle of the vernal pool. Each sketch took three to six seconds because I wanted to capture each position in the moment. I kept my eyes on the grackle, not on the paper, so I could draw the lines and shapes that I actually saw, and not the shapes that I remembered when I looked away. The goal of an exercise like this is not to create a beautiful finished drawing, but to quickly sketch as many gestures as I could. Some of my sketches don’t even look like birds! What they are meant to do is capture the shapes of a bird in motion. Here are a few things I learned while doing this exercise:

-You don’t just have to draw birds in profile, like so many drawings do. You can draw them straight-on, upside-down, from below, from above, sideways, flying, and more!

-There is a lot of movement in a bird’s tail. Sometimes it points up, other times it points down. When the grackle was turned sideways, the tail looked like a thin line, but when he turned backwards or was flying, it was fanned out.

-It is useful to draw a line representing the direction of the bird’s spine. It will help show the kind of movement that the bird is making, and will also help you draw the rest of the bird proportionally. This line is usually going to be curved like an S or a C, not a straight line.

This finished piece was painted with gouache. Gouache (it rhymes with squash) comes in small tubes and is very similar to watercolor. The main difference is that it is more opaque, so light colors can be painted over top of dark colors. As I was working on this painting, I was thinking about a dark color scheme that reminded me of the shadowy areas around the vernal pool. I reserved light colors for the highlights on the beak, eye, and parts of the branch. Even though the trees in the background contained a lot of bright yellow where the sun comes through the leaves, I chose to exclude those bright colors to keep the painting moody and dark. Adding little bits of red to the green paint keeps those shades from becoming too vibrant.

Birds are everywhere, so I encourage you to go outside and sketch one this week! Start with a practice exercise to capture basic shapes, and take a photo or two if you need help remembering the colors. Birds occur so often in art, and there is good reason! They have such a variety of colors, sizes, patterning, and shapes that they provide an endless list of possibilities for drawings and paintings.

The Vernal Pool – Part 1 by Maris Van Vlack (MABA Intern and RISD Student)

This summer the Museum of American Bird Art is thrilled that Maris Van Vlack, a rising sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design, will be interning at MABA. She will be sketching and painting in the wildlife sanctuary. She will be blogging about her experience. Enjoy her post about a week spent at the vernal pool. –Sean Kent

MABA’s vernal pool is a gathering place for lots of wildlife, and is a great place to watch the comings and goings of woodland wildlife. The pool is located very close to the trailhead, and is easy to find on your trail map. The word “vernal” means spring, so a vernal pool is a body of water that forms when snow is melting in the late winter, and it slowly disappears when the weather gets hot in the summer. Even though it isn’t there all year round, the vernal pool is the home to a variety of animals and is a great place to sit and sketch! Here is a list of wildlife I observed when sitting by the pool for only about 15 minutes:

Green Frog
Baltimore Oriole
American Robin
Damselfly
Mourning Dove

The marker sketch above was drawn from the vernal pool overlook right on the trail. Natural bodies of water don’t have a clear outline, so they can be tricky to sketch. I find that it is best to first draw the things around the water that define its boundaries (like trees or patches of grass) and then draw the reflections you can see on the water’s surface. The vernal pool has a lot of big branches resting in it which create reflections, as well as the sun, sky, and surrounding trees.

An interesting branch and reflection

a sketch of a tree on the bank of the vernal pool, split open and full of shelf fungi

The light by the vernal pool is very captivating because it comes through the leaves overhead and then bounces off of the water’s surface. One day, when I was beginning to sketch, I noticed an interesting pattern of shadows on my paper:

As a drawing experiment, I tried to trace the shapes of the shadows on the paper. This was difficult because the wind kept blowing the leaves back and forth. This was the result:

I find the lines of the drawing interesting, and I think they capture the feeling of the wind blowing leaves back and forth.

The sketch above is drawn from the vernal pool overlook on the main loop path. This view is not as close up as the other place directly on the bank of the pool, but you won’t scare away the wildlife and can watch all the birds fly about! There are often common grackles that hop around the edge of the pool, making quite a racket. I have also seen cardinals, black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, and orioles from this view.

Remember, the vernal pool is quickly shrinking! Even just a week later, I noticed that the water level had gone down about a foot. Go visit! It is a great place to sit, draw, and observe nature.

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!

Trail Camera Scavenger Hunt #3

We’re back with some more trail cam videos for some scavenger hunting fun! This time, the action is all in the meadows. Look closely, because there’s one or two animals hiding in the darkness! If you want to go back and check out the old videos or find the scavenger hunt list, here’s Post #1 (with the list) and Post #2.  

I’m ready for my close up!!!

Look who’s found a home!

Searching for a meal!

Look for the Glowing Eyes

Who’s that walking by???

Nature Notes: Thinking Like a Scientist

SUPPORT OUR WORK and Donate to the Museum of American Bird Art

This blog post corresponds with a program for children and their caregivers by the Museum of American Bird Art at Mass Audubon about Thinking Like a Scientist, Bird Nesting, Searching for Signs of Spring, and making art by creating a bluebird and nest box out of household and common art materials.

Nature Story Time: Have You Heard the Nesting Bird

Eastern Bluebird Singing

What are Nests Made of?
From Nature on PBS


NATURE NUGGETS brings science and animals from NATURE on PBS to kids and their caregivers. Use the activities below to create active learning and engagement opportunities with your child.

Art Project: Create a Bluebird and Nesting Box

Build your own bird nest!

Use Mass Audubon’s Nature at Home resources and build your own bird nest!

Eastern Bluebird

Hooded Merganser Nest from Nature Nuggets on PBS

Trail Camera Scavenger Hunt

Check out our fun Trail Camera Scavenger Hunt on the Taking Flight Blog.

Mass Audubon’s Bird of the Day Series

Learn more about your neighborhood birds from Mass Audubon’s Bird of the Day Series.

American Robin

Northern Cardinal

Mass Audubon Bird Nest Resources

Become a Citizen Scientist
NestWatch

Using Citizen Science volunteers, Cornell’s NestWatch is a nationwide nest monitoring program. The Museum of American Bird Art participated in NestWatch, monitoring our nest boxes that usually have nesting Tree Swallows, House Wrens, Chickadees, and occasionally an Eastern Bluebird.
Click here to learn more about common nesting birds from NestWatch.