Tag Archives: Cardinal flower

Around the Museum

September  1, 2016

Museum of American Bird Art, Canton


The Museum of American Bird Art in Canton is the sponsoring sanctuary for this residency, and I’ve been looking forward to spending some time exploring the property.  I’ve visited MABA many times to take in exhibitions or present workshops and lectures, but I’ve never explored the trails!

It’s raining when I arrive at the Museum – which is notable, since less than 4” of rain has fallen throughout ALL of this hot, dry summer.  Massachusetts is experiencing a drought of historic proportions.  So, I don’t mind the rain as I start down the Main Loop Trail behind the Gallery.  The moisture has intensified the color of the pine needles carpeting the forest floor in the Pine Grove, and I pause to take in the scene.


The Pequit Brook Trail leads through the center of the reserve, providing the shortest route to the brook.  I’m hoping to find some cardinal flowers still in bloom along the brook – which is classic cardinal flower habitat.  I’m afraid I might be too late, but with some searching I locate one small plant topped with a single blossom.   Encouraged, I make my way up the brook, hopping from rock to rock and pushing past the heavy growth along the banks.  Upstream, I find several tall, mature flower spikes heavy with bloom, and other spikes that have nearly done flowering, with just a few buds remaining at the tip.  The rain has let up, so I take out my sketchbook and make some pencil drawings. To get the right viewpoint, I need to squat or kneel on the rocks as I draw, and the discomfort of these precarious drawing positions urges me to draw faster!


Sketchbook studies of Cardinal Flowers, pencil, 9″ x 12″

Later, in my studio, I use these pencil drawings to develop a finished watercolor.   You’ll see how I’ve re-arranged the pencil studies for a better composition, and used a background wash to tie the individual studies together.  I’ve also transcribed some of the written notes to the painting – they supply another layer of information that adds to the understanding and appreciation of this gorgeous native wildflower.


Cardinal Flowers at Pequit Brook, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 11.5″ x 13.5″

Bird activity is best in the meadow below the Gallery building, so I linger here on my return.  A young phoebe hunts from a high, open perch at the edge of the meadow.


Sketchbook study of a young phoebe, pencil, 6″ x 6″

The vantage point, looking upwards at the bird, shows the BROAD base of the bill – which is not so evident in a straight side-view.  Catbirds, robins, and cardinals dodge from shrub to shrub searching for berries, while nuthatches, chickadees and a red-bellied woodpecker work over a big, dead snag.



Though it’s been an exceptionally dry summer, the ripeness of autumn is everywhere in evidence.   Heavy fronds of goldenrod and curly dock rise above the ripe grasses, and bright, arching spires of pokeweed lend some notes of bright color.

In the grape arbor, the fruits are turning from lime green to pink to deep ultramarine blue…


Sketchbook studies at the Grape Arbor, pencil and watercolor, 8.5″ x 10″

I walk slowly around the Gallery building, looking for the best angle on this handsome structure, and finally settle in a spot near the bird blind and bird feeders.  It’s not a view of the Gallery that most visitors see, but I like the way the two graceful chimneys bracket the building, and the tudor-style articulation on the south- facing gable makes a good focal point.  I make a careful pencil drawing, paying extra attention to the angles and proportions.


The pencil drawing, made on location

My father was a good draughtsman, and taught my brothers and I to draw in perspective at a young age, so drawing in perspective is fairly natural to me.  Still, I need to observe closely and draw slowly to capture the unique character of the structure.   As I’m finishing the drawing, the rain starts up again, and I’m forced to put the drawing away…

You’ll notice that there are no BIRDS in the picture.  Instead, I’ve made an oblique reference to them by including the bird feeder in the foreground.  There are lots of wonderful birds, of course, INSIDE the building!


The Museum of American Bird Art, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

The Exhibition Gallery was built in 1938 as a studio where the previous owner, Mildred Morse Allen, could practice her art.   The building was extensively renovated and updated after Mass Audubon acquired the property in 1992.  The lower level was converted to a conservators office and a fire-proof, climate controlled storage vault.   The south gable you see here encloses a small exhibition space, while the spacious main gallery occupies the bulk of the upper level.  If you haven’t visited the Museum, and perused one of its beautifully presented exhibitions, you’re in for a treat!



The Great Marsh

This is from a series of posts by MABA resident artist Barry Van Dusen

Barnstable Great Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, Barnstable on August 16, 2015

I had hoped to get down to Cape Cod last week, but car troubles put my Toyota in the garage for a few days, and by the time I finally get underway a heat wave has settled over New England, with high humidity and temperatures in the 90s. To try and beat the heat, I get an early start and arrive at Barnstable Great Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary by 7:30 am.
A short hike through a forest of oak, cedar, cherries and pines brings me to a small clearing next to an abandoned cabin. A break in the foliage here supplies an elevated view of the marsh, with a backdrop of Sandy Neck in the distance. The Barnstable Great Marsh is the largest salt marsh on Cape Cod, covering more than 3,000 acres.
The clearing is a nice shady spot at this time of the morning, so I set up my scope and pack chair. I spot an osprey, egrets, herons, laughing gulls and shorebirds out on the marsh, but they’re too distant to draw or paint, so I decide to do a landscape. With my 25x scope I can “project myself” out onto the marsh, bringing the dunes of Sandy Neck much closer, and this makes for an appealing composition.

Work in Progress at Barnstable Great Marsh (small)

…the first washes set out to dry in the sun

As I start to lay down the first washes of color I realize that the very high humidity is going to have an effect on my painting. High humidity can be both a blessing and a curse to the watercolorist. The washes of color dry very slowly, so there’s more time to develop the wet passages. I can take my time developing smooth color gradations and soft edges – things which I usually have to hurry with before the paper dries. At some point, however, I need those first washes to dry, so I can paint additional layers over them (what watercolorists refer to as glazing.) Today, it’s taking FOREVER for those first washes to dry! I lay my half-finished painting on a bush in the sun, and wander down the path to the edge of the marsh.  By the time I return to the clearing the washes have finally dried and I can get on with my work. As I’m painting with the scope, small birds zip back and forth through my field of view – swallows – and as a final touch, I add them to my painting.

Swallows Over Barnstable Great Marsh 2 - at 72 dpi

Swallows Over Barnstable Great Marsh, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

Next, I move down to the edge of the marsh to do some studies of some of the plants I’d noticed there. Growing out on the marsh is an attractive flowering plant that I later identify as saltmarsh fleabane.

Salt-marsh Fleabane at Barnstable Gr Marsh (small)

I’m also intrigued by the bulrushes growing where the woods give way to the marsh grasses. These are robust, 4-foot tall grasses with long curving blades and heavy clusters of cone-shaped seed heads.

Softstem Bulrush - at 72 dpi

Softstem Bulrush, watercolor on Lanaquarelle hot-press, 11.25″ x 9″

It’s getting pretty hot, now, especially in the sun, so I do some exploring along the the shady trails of the sanctuary. I flush a green heron at Otter Pond, and then find a superb stand of cardinal flowers at the outflow of spring-fed Cooper Pond. I had not expected to find cardinal flowers growing wild on Cape Cod, since I most often encounter them far from the coast along cool, tumbling streams in upland forests. But they seem quite happy here, with a second handsome cluster of plants growing further west along the shore. Unfortunately the flower stalks are surrounded on all sides by a thick growth of poison ivy, so I content myself to do some drawing from a distance thru my telescope, and complete this watercolor later in my studio.

Cardinal Flower at Barnstable Gr Marsh 4 - at 72 dpi

Cardinal Flower, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 14″ x 10″

On my way back to the car, I stop to marvel at a wildly contorted cherry tree growing along the trail. In one place the limbs of the tree seem to have tied themselves into a big knot! It deserves, and gets, a study in my sketchbook.

Contorted Cherry Tree at Barnstable Gr Marsh - at 72 dpi

Cherry Tree at Barnstable Great Marsh, pencil study, 8.5″ x8.5″