Tag Archives: Laughing Brook

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!


Of Time and the River

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

Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Hampden on August 28, 2015

Thirty years ago, I had my first solo show of nature art at a wildlife sanctuary near Springfield, Massachusetts called Laughing Brook. Back then, Laughing Brook was a fully staffed sanctuary, with a large visitor center and a “zoo” of native animals.
So, it’s understandable that when I pulled into the parking lot this morning, a flood of memories accompanied me, although very little was as I remembered it. The visitor center was gone; as were the animal enclosures, and even the trails and parking area seemed strangely out of place.
Laughing Brook’s history is one of floods and fires that I don’t need to recount here, but in short, the “zoo” was closed down in the 1990s and the visitor center demolished after a fire in 2004, converting the location to an unstaffed property. As recently as 2005, another major flood washed away trails and much of the parking lot. No wonder I didn’t recognize the place!

East Brook at Laughing Brook
But as much as things have changed, some things remain the same. East Brook, that so inspired the writings of Thornton Burgess, still tumbles clear over golden gravel bars and threads in and out of mysterious tangled roots along the banks. Kingfishers still flash along the stream corridor and dragonflies still dance in the shafts of light sifting down through the forest canopy. It’s a reminder that buildings, trails, parking lots, meadows and ponds may come and go, but rivers are as old as the mountains.

At the pond off the Mort and Helen Bates Trail, I tried to approach some blooming arrowhead along the shore. Most of the arrowhead plants were past blooming, and I never did find a blossoming specimen close enough to paint, but in the process I flushed a bird from the undergrowth that flew up into the lower branches of a weeping willow.

Northern Waterthrush Studies - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study of Northern Waterthrush, pencil, 10″ x 6″

It was a handsome northern waterthrush, and with my binoculars I got good enough looks to make some quick sketches in my sketchbook. Later in my studio, I used these sketches to develop this watercolor.

Northern Waterthrush in Willow - at 72 dpi

Northern Waterthrush in Willow, watercolor on Arches rough, 14.25″ x 10.25″

There are many spots along the East Brook Trail where one can take little spur paths down to the edge of the brook, and in these low-water conditions, it was even possible to walk right into the streambed (and still keep your feet dry) by picking along the gravel bars or hopping from rock to rock. I settled down in one such location and made an exploration of the gentle pools and riffles.
Blacknose dace are abundant in the stream, ranging in size from 5/8” to 2” long, and water striders patrol the water’s surface, casting those strange geometric shadows on the streambed. I make studies of both in my sketchbooks, and combined the two species later in this studio watercolor.

Water Striders and Dace - at 72 dpi

Water Striders and Dace, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

Caddisflies of various species are also in abundance. The soft-bodied larvae of caddisflies construct little shelters or “cases” that they live in, and each species makes a distinctive type of case using sand, pebbles or twigs. Some of the smaller species build cases that look like little clusters of pebbles attached to the underwater rocks – and these could be easily overlooked. Other species build elaborate twigs cases up to 2 inches long that are easy to spot in the stream bed. Held in the hand, the larvae will sometimes emerge from one end and wave their legs around.

Caddisfly Larvae, etc - at 72 dpi Grayscale

Sketchbook studies at East Brook, pencil, 9″ x 6″

A big glacial erratic called “Split Rock” is worth a quick detour off the upper stretches of the East Brook Trail. From one angle the boulder looks just like a sperm whale, with open mouth, rising up out of the deep!

Split Rock at Laughing Brrok - at 72 dpi
Heading back to the car, I stop once more at the pond and notice a young heron perched in the big dead tree on the far shore. With a scope, it’s an excellent view of the bird, and I can’t help but try making some studies. It looks like the bird will stay put for a while, and indeed it does – giving me time to make some detailed studies of the birds expressive face and head.

Young Heron at Laughing Brook - at 72 dpi

Young Heron head studies, pencil and watercolor on Canson drawing paper, 8.5″ x 9.5″