Tag Archives: Technique

Join Us: Workshop with Barry Van Dusen on September 25th

Join us for Nature Art in Field and Studio a workshop with Artist-in-Residence Barry Van Dusen

Set-up at Hassocky Meadow - at 72 dpi

This one day workshop will focus on Barry’s current residency with the Mass Audubon Society.  Over the past sixteen months Barry has been travelling around Massachusetts, creating paintings and drawings at Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries. Barn Swallow at Stone Barn Farm - at 72 dpi

Barry will show a selection of the more 120 watercolors he has produced for the project and share his residency sketchbooks.

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You’ll learn about how the artist uses optics in the field, and how he organizes his art materials for efficient fieldwork.  He’ll discuss the approaches he uses to create artwork on location and in his studio.   Barry will lead students through basic drawing, tone and color exercises to help them get started with creating their own record of outdoor observations.

Click here or contact Sean Kent (skent@massaudubon.org) to learn more or register for this amazing program. 

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″