Tag Archives: Sketching

Blue Skies of Autumn, Part 1

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

Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick on October 15, 2015

Yellow-rump Studies, Broadmoor - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page of yellow-rumped warblers, 9″ x 12″

Autumn is coming on strong and touches of fall color are everywhere on this large reserve in Natick. The shortening of the days is ushering in the fall migrants: white-throated and swamp sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets, palm and yellow-rumped warblers. Yellow-rumps are everywhere today, announcing their presence with soft “check” notes. I watch them forage high and low in oaks, maples, birches, cedars, and even poking around in the cattails near the All-persons Trail.

Fall Color at Broadmoor - at 72 dpi

along the boardwalk at Broadmoor…

Along the boardwalk, I meet Director Elissa Landre and she suggests the Old Orchard Trail as a good place for my artistic explorations. And, it proves to be a good tip. The open fields here are not only scenic, but attractive to a variety of birds. I set up my painting kit as overhead a Cooper’s hawk makes lazy circles in a deep blue sky before peeling off to the South.
A nearly unbroken swath of little bluestem grass carpets the gentle knoll of the Old Orchard, suffusing the landscape with a strange orange-pink hue. A rounded rock outcrop emerges from the grass, and scattered pines and cedars lend some dark accents. A few bright maples flare with crimson amid the softer greens of the field edge. The sky is so blue you could reach out and touch it. The scene is begging to be painted, so I get to work.

Old Orchard at Broadmoor - SKETCH - at 72 dpi

preliminary sketch at the Old Orchard, 4″ x 6″

Before starting on my sheet of watercolor paper, I do a simple pencil drawing in my sketchbook. This helps me figure out how to “crop” the landscape spread out before me, and to organize the elements into a satisfying composition. I almost always make changes to a scene that I’m painting – who says you can’t improve on Nature?

Old Orchard at Broadmoor 3 - at 72 dpi

The Old Orchard at Broadmoor, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 13″

Once I get into the painting, I don’t hold back on the colors. I make the sky extra blue and the little bluestem a strong orange-pink. However, I’m also careful to provide neutral colors where the eye gets a rest – the muted greens of the tree line, and the cool grays of the boulder out-crop.
As luck would have it, Elissa comes by with Nils Navarro and Lisa Sorenson, and Lisa offers to take some photos of me at work. Thanks, Lisa!

Artist Barry Van Dusen at Broadmoor - cropped and retouched 3

Chipmunk Season

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

Lincoln Woods Wildlife Sanctuary, Leominster on October 6, 2015

Wherever I happened to be along the trails at Lincoln Woods Wildlife Sanctuary today, I was never out of earshot of the persistent “chuck-chuck-chuck” of Eastern Chipmunks. At no other time of the year are these attractive little rodents more vocal. I’ve been told that the “chuck” call is given by males defending a territory, so I tracked one down (by ear) and put a scope on the animal. It occupied an inconspicuous perch on the forest floor and delivered it’s “chucks” at regular intervals, otherwise remaining quite still – a good model for drawing!

Chipmunk, Lincoln Woods - at 72 dpi

Eastern Chipmunk, watercolor on Arches cold-press , 8″ x 12″

My dad often used an expression to describe us kids when we got up early in the morning – “BRIGHT-EYED AND BUSHY-TAILED”. It’s a pretty good description of this little guy!

The woods around the parking area in this urban neighborhood are a nearly unbroken stand of Norway maples. The ability of this tree to grow quickly and seed-in heavily allows it to out-compete native trees and form dense monocultures.  As I head deeper into the woods, however, the Norway maples thin out and give way to native species. Heading out along the western side of the Elizabeth Lincoln Loop Trail, I pass through a stand of majestic white pines before the trail joins with Vernal Pool Loop.

Vernal Pool at Lincoln Woods - DRY (small)

A series of vernal pools can be seen on either side of this elevated trail, which runs along a glacial esker ridge. Most of the vernal pools are bone dry at this time of year, but two of the largest pools have some water in them. I wander down to the largest pool to get a closer look. Around the pool, I notice some interesting plants – marsh fern, swamp oak, sassafras, winterberry and dogwood.

Vernal Pool at Lincoln Woods - WET (small)

As I’m about to depart, a movement along the opposite shore catches my eye, and I focus my binoculars on two blackpoll warblers that have come to bath in the pool.

Blackpoll Warblers in Vernal Pool sketch - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study of young blackpoll warblers, pencil, 5″ x 9″

The bright olive hue of the birds makes an unexpected contrast with the somber colors of the shoreline, and the bird’s reflections seem to glow on the dark waters. Within minutes the birds have moved on, and the pool is once again quiet and still. I make some quick sketches to fix the scene in my mind, and take some digital photos of the shoreline shapes and colors.  I use these references to help me work up this studio watercolor the next day.

Blackpoll Warbler Bathing in Vernal Pool - at 72 dpi

Blackpoll Warbler Bathing in Vernal Pool, watercolor on Arches rough, 10″ x 14.25″

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″

 

Summer Break

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

Waseeka Wildlife Sanctuary, Hopkinton on August 2, 2015

POND at Waseeka (small)

There are distinct rhythms to the natural year – times when everything is happening at once and other times when nature seems to slow down and take a breather. By August, most birds have raised a brood (or several broods). Young birds have left the nest and are learning to make their way in the world.

Young Phoebe at Waseeka - at 72 dpi

Young Phoebe at Waseeka, watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius cold-press, 15″ x 11″

At Waseeka Wildlife Sanctuary, the most common birds at the pond today were eastern phoebes and a good percentage of these were young birds. You could tell them from the adults by a soft lemony wash on the undersides and more clearly defined wing bars. I wondered if phoebe adults customarily bring their broods to places like this after leaving the nest – spots where there’s lots of food (i.e. insects) and many open perches from which to hunt. Or perhaps these are simply wandering youngsters that find these places on their own.

Waseeka Pond 2 - at 72 dpi

Osprey Nest at Waseeka, watercolor on Winsor & Newton cold-press, 8″ x 11″

The big nest out in the middle of the pond is vacant, too, but I had read that it has been used by a pair of ospreys for a number of years, so I was keeping an ear and an eye out for them. Around 1 pm, I hear some high pitched, chirping notes and observed a large bird land in a big dead pine on the far shore of the pond. Putting my scope on the tree, I noticed not one but TWO adult ospreys – one of them actively devouring a fish!  Even in my scope the birds are tiny, and abit too far off for serious drawing.

POND SHORE at Waseeka (small)
The shorelines at Waseeka are rich and varied. Beaver activity flooded these shores some years ago and drowned many trees, opening up the canopy and encouraging lush undergrowth. When the pond levels were restored, these open shorelines quickly regenerated with a striking variety of plants. Sweet pepperbush and pickerel weed are in full bloom along the shore today.

Many nest boxes have been mounted in the pond, attached to standing dead trees, and I presume some of these are used by breeding wood ducks and hooded mergansers. The boxes create interesting rhythms among the vertical trunks. I do a simple line drawing and add a wash of ivory black to establish the light.

Nest Boxes, Waseeka - at 72 dpi

Nest Boxes, Waseeka, pencil and wash on 80 lb drawing paper, 8″ x 12″

On my way back down the dike, I stop to admire some royal fern growing along the trail, mixed with fronds of sensitive fern – a neat contrast of fern shapes and colors. It’s a quiet, shady spot, so I sit and start a watercolor…

Royal Fern and Sensitive Fern, Waseeka - at 72 dpi

Royal Fern and Sensitive Fern, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 11.25″

Connecting art with nature: Top moments from the Take Flight (Week 2) Camp Session

Campers have been having a great week during the Take Flight session. We’ve been having lots of fun learning about birds, creating bird inspired art, and exploring the sanctuary. During the week, campers loved our visit from the internationally renowned Caterpillar Lab from Keene, New Hampshire, and printmaking workshop with the amazing Sherrie York. Here are the top moments from the week:

Moment #1: Fantastic Charcoal Drawings with our artist Katie Buchanan

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Moment #2: Collecting natural materials for leaf prints in their nature journal

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Moment #3: Nature Hikes and Scavenger Hunts

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Moment #4: Creating art using the process of suminagashi

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Moment #5: Visit from Sherrie York

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Moment #6: Excitement with the Caterpillar Lab

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A Matter of Proportion

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

Nashoba Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Westford May 29, 2015
The first thing I hear after getting out of my car at the Nashoba Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Westford is the plaintive call of the eastern wood-pewee. These birds are more often seen that heard, but I track this one down and start sketching. It’s a humid, overcast morning, and the mosquitoes are a challenge!

Wood Pewee studies, Nashoba Brook - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

The differences between some species of birds are so subtle that the little things can make a big difference. Things like tail length, head size and wing-tip length – in other words proportions.

Wood Pewee in Oaks, Nashoba Brook - at 72 dpi

Eastern Wood-pewee, watercolor on Strathmore Gemini cold-press, 11″ x 8″

Although there are a few “field marks” here to help identify this bird as an eastern wood-pewee (note the orange lower mandible, long wing tips and upright posture), a lot of the story is told with subtle adjustments of proportion and shape.  Compare my pewee with a study done earlier this spring of an olive-sided flycatcher (observed at Quabbin Park on May 13).

Olive-sided Flycatcher study, Quabbin Park - at 72 dpi

Olive-sided Flycatcher, watercolor in Stillman and Birn beta sketchbook, 9″ x 8″

Both birds belong to the same genus (Contopus), but the differences in proportions are striking. The olive-sided has an oversized head and bill, very long wingtips and a dinky, undersized tail!

Technical note:  The wood-pewee watercolor you see here is what I call a “re-painting”.  I started a watercolor of the bird on location, but I made some poor compositional decisions and then tried to correct them, which led to a confused and overworked mess!   However, even a “failed” field painting contains a great deal of information that can be re-used later in the studio.  Back home I re-painted the scene, refining the drawing and correcting the compositional errors I made in the field.  This “second time around”, I painted with confidence and purpose, and avoided all the mistakes from my first attempt!

 

Warbler Wave

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

Mid-May, 2015
By the middle of May in Massachusetts, large numbers of migrant wood warblers are streaming through the state on their way to breeding grounds here or further north.  It all happens so quickly, and I experience a manic urge to try and get it all down while it lasts. So many birds, so little time!  Instead of trying to do a finished watercolor with a full background of each of the species I encounter, I take a different approach.

Stillman and Birn Sketchbooks

I purchase several 9”x12” sketchbooks loaded with heavy watercolor paper made by Stillman and Birn.  My logic is that I can use these in field or studio to do quicker bird portraits with minimal background elements or no background at all. The heavy, archival stock will give me the option to remove and frame some of the pages later. Here is a selection from the Mass Audubon properties I visited through May.

Nashville Warbler, Wachusett Meadow - at 72 dpi

Nashville Warbler, Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, 9″ x 12″

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Wachusett Meadow - at 72 dpi

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, 9″ x 12″

Blackburnian Warbler study, High Ledges - large at 72 dpi

Blackburnian Warbler, High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary, 5.5″ x 8″

Yellow-rump Study, Wampanoag - at 72 dpi

Myrtle Warbler, Lake Wampanoag Wildlife Sanctuary, 8.5″ x 12″

Canada Warbler in Witch-hazel, High Ledges - at 72 dpi

Canada Warbler, High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary, 9″ x12″

Black-throated Blue in Birch, Eagle Lake - at 72 dpi

Black-throated Blue Warbler, Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, 9″ x 12″

 

 

 

Slippers in the Forest

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

High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary, Shelburne on May 21, 2015

Ron Wolanin calls me on May 20 from High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary in Shelburne. The yellow lady’s slippers are in full bloom, and Ron warns me not to wait too long if I want to work with them. I decide to make the trip out to Shelburne the next day, and arrive at High Ledges by 9 a.m.
Patten Road is bucolic and scenic, with pastures and farms tucked between the leafy woodlots. With Ron’s directions jotted on a scrap of paper tucked in my pocket, I head up to the ledges to find the flowers. At the ledges and the old Barnard homesite (i.e. “the chimney”), I can look down on Shelburne Falls and the Deerfield River. Overhead a blackburnian warbler sings from one of the red pines.
Proceeding down the trail, I locate the flowers, right where Ron said they would be. Eight blossoms are scattered across a small area of the forest floor, in little groups of two or three plants.

High Ledge painting set-up - 72 dpi

Although I have seen these flowers in botanic and private gardens, this is the first time I’ve seen them in the wild, and they take my breath away! To see them in their native forest haunts brings out their true character. First, I get right to work on a straight-forward depiction of a pair of plants. I decide to paint the plants without a background –more like a botanical illustration.

Yellow Lady's Slipper at High Ledges - at 72 dpi

Yellow Lady’s Slippers at High Ledges, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 10″ x 14″

The only change I decide to make is to show the two blossoms facing each other, and I do this by substituting a blossom from a nearby plant for the left-hand blossom in my picture.  While I work a raven croaks overhead and I’m serenaded by a hermit thrush and a yellow-throated vireo.

This is truly a special place for wildflowers – growing nearby are miterwort, hepatica, pink lady’s slipper, azaleas, columbine, star flower and others.  As I near completion of my watercolor, I decide to start another focusing on just the blossoms. I start a drawing from a different cluster of plants, showing one blossom from the back and one from the front.

Yellow Lady's Slipper at High Ledges 2 - at 72 dpi

“Slipper Talk”, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x12″

The structure of the blossoms is intricate, and the drawing must be done with great care to capture the right shapes and proportions. I put this drawing in my pack to finish in the studio, since I want time to explore more of the sanctuary.  (Later, after I’d finished this watercolor, my wife Lisa said it looks like two ladies having a conversation, so I name it “Slipper Talk”).

stay tuned for High Ledges part 2…

 

Sweet Spot at Brown Hill

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

Wachusett  Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, Princeton on April 28, 2015

There’s a sweet spot in the Hickory/Hornbeam woods on the back side of Brown Hill at Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary.  Joe Choiniere tipped me off to this rocky slope where Hepatica, Dutchman’s Breeches, Early Saxifrage and Small-flowered Crowfoot can be found. Today, with the help of some marker flags placed by Joe, I found the lovely Hepaticas in full bloom.

Hepatica, Wachusett Meadow - at 72 dpi

Hepaticas at Brown Hill, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 12.25″

The blossoms varied from white to pale pink to a lovely sky blue. I set up my field kit and made a painting showing the three color variations. You can see a few trout lily leaves in the upper left of my watercolor – these handsome, mottled leaves were poking up all over the forest floor.

Set-up at Hepatica, Wachusett Meadow - 72 dpi

In this photo of my painting set-up you can just see a few of the Hepatica blossoms in the upper left corner.  They are truly small flowers.

While I worked, yellow-rumped warblers murmured from the trees overhead and a sapsucker sounded off periodically. By about 4:30 pm the blossoms started to nod and close up for the night. I did another drawing of the nodding blossoms, and added color back in the studio.

Hepatica (Blue), Wachusett Meadow - at 72 dpi

Nodding Hepaticas, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 10.5″ x 8″

 

A Day at Rocky Hill: Field Sparrow

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

Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, Groton on April 15, 2015

A breezy, sunny day as I found my way to the new trailhead at Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Groton.  I had read about the heron colony there, and knew the birds would be sitting on eggs about now.

As I neared the power line crossing on the way to the heronry, I heard the clear, plaintive notes of a field sparrow.  I located the bird singing from a shrub under the power lines and got a scope on it quickly to do some drawings.

Field Sparrow Studies, Rocky Hill - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

In Ken Kaufman’s bird guide he uses the term “baby-faced” to describe the facial expression of this species.  It’s an apt description, and I strove to get that sweet, innocent expression in my drawings.  Field sparrow habitat is shrinking in New England and I encounter them much less frequently these days.  Power line cuts, with their predominance of shrubs and other early successional growth, seem to be one of the most reliable places to find them.  This bird was singing from a withe-rod, so I detailed the distinctly shaped pinkish-tan flower buds and “Y” shaped twig configuration.   In this watercolor (done back in my studio), I also wanted to convey the soft, high-key colors of early spring in New England.

Field Sparrow in Withe-rod, Rocky Hill, Groton - at 72 dpi

Field Sparrow in Withe-rod, watercolor on Lana hot-press, 14″ x 10.25″

To learn more about their natural history, check out this post by Sean Kent