Tag Archives: Studio

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


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.





Positive Thoughts on Negative Shapes

Lake Wampanoag, Gardner

The third sanctuary I visited for this project, back on May 4, 2015, was Lake Wampanoag in Gardner.  (see A Taste of the North, May 4, 2015).  That day, I found some striking pileated woodpecker excavations in a red spruce tree.  I found the holes in the usual way – woods chips scattered across the trail caused me to stop and look up.  The holes were very fresh.   The heartwood glowed a bright orangey-tan, outlined by the rich burnt sienna of the inner bark.

Spruce w Pileated WP Holes, Lake Wampanoag - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

I made this pencil drawing at the time, and took some color notes.  As usual in cases like this, I never saw the bird.  However, pileated woodpeckers are common around my home in Princeton and I’ve had many opportunities to observe and sketch them in the past.

Weeks passed, then months.  But the spruce trunk and those woodpecker holes stuck in my mind, and I finally got around to developing them into something more…

Pileated in Progress - at 72 dpi

the work in progress…

In the studio, I worked up some sketches of a male pileated to “fit” with the spruce trunk, taking care to adjust the viewpoint, scale, pose and balance.  Working at a large size is much easier in the studio than in the field, so I scaled things up here.  At 22.5″ x 14″, this is the largest watercolor I’ve done for the residency so far.  The composition I developed is as much a portrait of the holes as it is of the bird, and I liked this idea of a dual center of interest, with both carrying equal weight.  After all, you couldn’t have one without the other!

Pileated Crest retouched - step 1 - at 72 dpi

When I want a red note in a watercolor to really POP, I almost always start with an under layer of pure lemon yellow.   I allow this to dry completely, and then glaze over it with a strong wash of cadmium red.

Pileated Crest - step 2 - at 72 dpi

The yellow under layer gives the red a glowing quality that it would not possess by itself.

I originally intended to add a full background to this painting – or at least a background tone.  But as the work progressed, I realized that I didn’t need a background of any kind, and that the bird and tree trunk alone made a stronger statement.  The spruce tree here acts as a surrogate for the environment – representing those unusual, cool spruce woods at Wampanoag.

Pileated Woodpecker and Red Spruce, dropout - at 72 dpi

Pileated Woodpecker and Red Spruce, watercolor on Winsor & Newton cold-press, 22.5″ x 14″

Another reason I decided to leave out the background was because the negative shapes (i.e. the white shapes between and around the objects) worked nicely to strengthen the composition and reinforce the main subjects.

This is not always the case.  Take a look at this watercolor done last spring at High Ledges in Shelburne (see On the Waterthrush Trail, May 21, 2015).

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

I always felt there was a problem with this painting – the negative shapes overwhelmed the subject and made the image visually confusing.   The negative shapes were definitely working against me, here.   Just recently I added a full background, with more witch-hazel leaves and stems, and a background tone.

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

I like the painting much better now.  The bird takes center stage, as it should, and that glowing yellow throat and belly have a lot more impact!  I hope you like it better too, since there’s no going back!

Solitary Ruminations

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

December 1, 2015

Solitary Sandpiper sketchbook studies - at 72 dpi

solitary sandpiper field sketches, pencil, 9″ x 12″

After every sanctuary visit, my head is filled with images and impressions, especially in the first few days afterwards. But as time passes, certain impressions are more persistent than others, and linger for days, even weeks. The solitary sandpipers foraging on the grassy mudbars at Skunknett River (see “A Skunky Place for Eels”, Skunknett River Wildlife Sanctuary, Oct 11, 2015) is a case in point. Something about the way the soft round volumes of the birds related to the gentle greens of the grass kept nagging at me, and I knew I needed to explore the impression in paint. (The winter months are a good time for developing these lingering impressions in the studio.)

I keep what I call “studio sketchbooks” on hand for exploring these types of ideas. The drawings in these books are NOT field drawings. They are, instead, explorations of picture ideas. Getting something down on paper focuses my thoughts and intentions.

Solitary Sandpipers picture idea - at 72 dpi

concept sketch of solitary sandpipers, pencil, 9″ x 12″

Using the sketches made at Skunknett, I first tried a scene with two birds, one passive and one active. Somehow, it didn’t match the vision in my mind. Examining some rather poor photos taken through my scope at Skunknett, I realized that what most interested me was the way the soft, round volume of the bird seemed to merge with the grasses, and all the tonal transitions were subtle and soft.

Solitary Sandpiper in the Grass 2 - at 72 dpi

photo taken through scope at Skunknett River Wildlife Sanctuary

Making another pencil sketch with just one bird, I adjusted the tones to get the softer feeling I was after. Now, I seemed to be getting closer to my original impression.

Solitary Sandpipers picture idea 2A - at 72 dpi

Concept sketch of solitary sandpiper, pencil, 7″ x 9″

I started my watercolor with two simple washes on a wet sheet- establishing the tone of the bird’s belly shadow and the green grass, and letting them merge slightly on the wet paper. These two washes established the tone and mood, and all subsequent washes were keyed to them.

Solitary Sandpiper in the Grass - at 72 dpi

Solitary Sandpiper at Skunknett River, watercolor on Arches rough, 9″ x 12.25″