Tag Archives: Watercolor

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!


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

February 1, 2016
Pierpont Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, Dudley

Beaver Pond at Pierpont Meadow - at 72 dpi
From the parking area for Pierpont Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, there’s a fine view of a beavertown. You’re looking down onto a small pond tucked between rolling open fields. Most of the pond is covered with ice this morning, but there are two open patches – one along the beaver dam at the south end, and another around the lodge near the opposite shore.

Redtail studies, Pierpont Meadow - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study of an adult Red-tailed Hawk, pencil, 8.5″ x 9″

A handsome adult red-tailed hawk is perched on a dead snag near the dam, so I move cautiously to set up my scope and draw.  You never know how long you’ve got with a bird like this, so I work quickly. But I’m a good distance away and the hawk does not seem bothered by my presence. It grants me the time I need to finish my drawings, then takes off and starts making wide circles over the pond. Red-tails are quite variable in plumage, so painting one often feels less like painting a species of bird and more like painting an individual. This adult has a rather pale head, strongly checkered scapulars, and no real belly-band like you see in the field guides. This isn’t just any Red-tail, it’s THE Pierpont Meadow Red-tail!

Redtail at Pierpont Meadow - at 72 dpi

Red-tail at Pierpont Meadow, watercolor on Winsor & Newton cold-press, 15.5″ x 12″

There’s less than a mile of trails at Pierpont Meadow, so I’ll have ample time to explore the entire property. I linger along the Meadow Loop Trail, looking at birds’ nests and sorting out the various species of shrubs and trees. Some pussy willows are just emerging, which seems quite early in the year. I admire the carmine twigs and tar-black buds, and examine the cone-shaped galls that form at the tips of some of the branches. Starting some drawings, I discover a new use for my telescope: I use it to temporarily hold down some twigs that would otherwise be too high-up to work with.

Pussy Willows and Scope - at 72 dpi

Pussy Willow Twigs - at 72 dpi

Pussy Willow Twigs and Galls, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x12″

Along the George Marsh Trail, I’m puzzled by some tall seed heads rising up out of the leaf litter on the forest floor. I gently clear some leaves from around the base of one of the stalks and am surprised to find the beautifully patterned leaves of rattlesnake plantain, fresh and green!

Rattlesnake Plantain - at 72 dpi

Rattlesnake Plantain

Along the shore of Pierpont Meadow Pond, another beavertown is much in evidence. Drifts of pond lily roots (a favorite food of beavers) float along the shore and a well-worn trough leads up into the forest. Trees (some of them very large) are being felled well back into the woods. Obviously a busy lumbering operation must be taking place here every night!

Beaver Cuttings 1 - at 72 dpi

Beaver Cuttings 2A - at 72 dpi

The lodge for this beavertown is built into the bank of the pond, and is plastered with a thick coating of mud. I’ve read that beavers use mud to “seal” their lodges, covering all but the air vent. When winter cold freezes the mud, it forms a cement-hard barrier that deters predators like coyotes and bobcats.

Beaver Lodge at Pierpont Meadow Pond - at 72 dpi

Back at the parking area, the sun has moved across the sky, and the light on beavertown #1 is better than it was this morning, so I set up my field easel.

Set-up at Pierpont Meadow - at 72 dpi

Painting in progress at Pierpont Meadow

Thanks to today’s mild temperatures, my watercolor paints flow freely and my hands stay warm. I’ve nearly finished by the time the skies start to darken and a cold wind kicks up. It’s not often in Massachusetts that I’ve painted watercolors outdoors in early February!

Beaver Pond at Pierpont Meadow - at 72 dpi

Beaver Pond at Pierpont Meadow, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9.5″ x13″


Lands End

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

January 26, 2016
Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary, Gloucester, PART 1
Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary is a small reserve, but it boasts a surprising diversity of habitats, including a mixed deciduous forest, a meadow, a cobble beach, rocky shorelines and a small saltmarsh.

Eastern Point Lighthouse - at 72 dpi

Eastern Point Lighthouse

At the sanctuary parking lot, you realize you’ve driven as far out the East Gloucester peninsula as solid ground will allow (at the very tip of the peninsula is the Eastern Point Lighthouse).
I am surrounded by ocean – the relatively protected waters of Gloucester Harbor lie to the west, and to the south and east are the vast expanses of the Atlantic. To the north, a small cove hosts a handsome flock of red-breasted mergansers, along with gadwall, mallards and a few buffleheads and eiders.

Red-breasted Merganser - at 72 dpi

Red-breasted Merganser, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 10.25″ x 14″

The tiny adjacent saltmarsh is undergoing restoration to restore natural water flow and encourage native vegetation, but I could see that it was already a favorite haunt of mallards and black ducks.

Mallards at Eastern Point Saltmarsh - at 72 dpi

Eastern Point Saltmarsh

Out in the harbor are more of the same species, joined by a winter loon and a few pairs of surf scoters. One pair of scoters favors the area near shore, affording excellent views through the scope. Aside from puffins, few birds in New England have such outrageous bills! I start some drawings of the shapes and patterns involved, but with the birds bouncing around on the waves and diving frequently, and my eyes watering badly from the wind, my drawings are less than successful. Several times I retreat to the car to warm my hands. Nonetheless, I feel that my attempts are worthwhile, since the act of drawing brings an urgent attention to my observations, and supplies confidence for subsequent efforts back in the studio.

Surf Scoter - at 72 dpi

Surf Scoter, watercolor on arches cold-press, 9″ x 12″

Painting moving water has always been a challenge for me. If you over-render waves, they start to look frozen in place and you lose the sense of movement. I find it works best if I paint very quickly in a loose, gestural manner, and try to develop both soft and hard edges at the same time. I like to warm up my brush hand with a separate “practice sheet” before I tackle the final watercolor. That way I can start to feel the gesture of the waves, and develop a hand for the type of marks that will work best.

Witch-hazel studies, Eastern Point - at 72 dpi

Witch-hazel sketchbook studies, pencil and watercolor, 8″ x 10″

The trails through the forest are easily explored in an hour or so, and they offer shelter this morning from the wind. I find I can sketch comfortably, and make studies of some of the plants that catch my eye. The witch-hazel twigs here show a tight zigzag pattern, and I’m puzzled by small clumps of curious seed pods poking up through the snow. Later, I learned that the seed pods were those of Indian Pipes. As Joe Choiniere explained to me: “Although the flowers nod, the entire structure turns upward as it goes to seed and often fools people”.

Indian Pipe seed capsules - at 72 dpi

Indian Pipe seed capsules, sketchbook study, pencil and watercolor, 5″ x 6″

Gloucester is a popular winter destination for birders, so I am not surprised to meet some today, including Jim Berry, an expert in Essex County birds. He points out a group of about forty purple sandpipers hunkered down on the lee side of the Dog Bar Breakwater – a bit too far off for sketching. Jim also helps me sort out the gulls around the point today (stay tuned for part 2 – Gull-ology). Most of the birders are, of course, moving from spot to spot in search of “good birds”, whereas I confine my observations to the sanctuary and the immediate vicinity. If you want to “do art”, you can’t run around a lot, too!

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″





December Birds

December 7, 2015
Attleboro Springs Wildlife Sanctuary, Attleboro
Early December is one of those in-between times for birders. The migrations of autumn are mostly past, and the winter visitors have yet to arrive. A walk in the woods at this season can seem devoid of avian creatures, but this morning at Attleboro Springs Wildlife Sanctuary, I manage to be in the right place at the right time.

Cardinal at Attleboro Springs - at 72 dpi

Cardinal at Attleboro Springs, watercolor on Arches coldpress, 12″x 9″

Birds tend to gather into mixed flocks at this time of year, roaming together in their search for food. Most of the birds in these “guilds” are year-round residents, but some are late migrants (e.g. white-throated sparrows), and some are winter residents – birds from the north who spend the winter in our area (e.g. juncos and tree sparrows). The path to the Meadow passes through a brushy thicket, where I encounter one of these winter flocks. The thicket is catching the rays of the morning sun and forming a warm, protected pocket. There are lots of juncos and white-throats, along with chickadees, blue jays and robins. A Carolina wren, a downy woodpecker, a nuthatch and a male cardinal round out the group.

White-throat at Attleboro Springs - at 72 dpi

White-throat at Attleboro Springs, watercolor on Winsor & Newton coldpress, 9″ x 10.5″

The white-throats and cardinal are especially cooperative, so I take some photos and start some drawings that I later finish in the studio. I depict the white-throat deep in the thicket, surrounded by bramble canes; while the cardinal is in a higher perch above the tangle.

Alder Twigs, Attleboro Springs - at 72 dpi

sketchbook study of alder twigs, pencil, 5.5″ x 9″

At Brother’s Pond, I’m engrossed with drawing the alder catkins and twigs, when another group of birds moves through. Most are juncos, but there’s also some flashes of cobalt blue – a family group of bluebirds! The adults and youngsters are scouting out cavities in the red maple snags along the canal below the pond. Bluebirds, being cavity nesters, are instinctively drawn to holes in trees, and these birds flit from snag to snag, peering into holes and crevices.

Young Bluebirds, Attleboro Springs - at 72 dpi

Young Bluebirds at Attleboro Springs, sketchbook page, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

Puddingstone looms large in local lore and legend, and figures prominently on the sanctuary maps of both Oak Knoll and Attleboro Springs. Puddingstone is a conglomerate that consists of rounded stones embedded in a “cement” or matrix of contrasting-colored rock, giving the appearance of a raisin pudding. The Attleboro variety of puddingstone features purplish cobbles embedded in a greenish matrix. I find the most attractive examples of these distinctive rocks in an outcropping along the Reflection Trail.

Puddingstone - at 72 dpi


Just Offshore

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

Kettle Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Manchester-by-the-Sea on November 4, 2015

Snow Buntings (detail) - at 72 dpi

I dismantled my exhibition at Joppa Flats this morning, and afterwards decided to head south across Cape Ann to visit Kettle Island – one of Mass Audubon’s newer properties.
Kettle Island is a small, uninhabited island just offshore of the attractive and poetically named town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. The island can be approached by boat, but there are no trails, and you cannot land on the island. However, the adjacent shoreline is owned by the Trustees of Reservations, and offers close looks at the island from the mainland.

Kettle Island - at 72 dpi

Kettle Island, as seen from the Coolidge Reservation

I knew there would be none of the breeding bird specialties of Kettle Island present at this time of year, but I wanted to see the island anyway. In summer its breeding colony includes two species of egrets, little blue herons, black-crowned night herons, glossy ibis and sometimes even tri-colored herons.
From the Ocean Lawn of the Coolidge Reservation, Kettle Island is the most conspicuous feature offshore. With my scope I can pan across the expanse of the island, observing the gulls, cormorants and ducks on and around it. I walk across the broad expanse of the lawn, observing and photographing the island from several vantages, and I’m about to start a drawing of the island, when a flurry of birds erupts from the ground between myself and the ocean.

Snow Buntings - sketchbook page - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook studies of Snow Buntings, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

The little blizzard swirls and resettles even closer to me – a flock of about thirty-five snow buntings!
From my position, I’m looking west and into the glare of the afternoon sun, which is already low in the sky at mid-afternoon. The birds are strongly back-lit, making bold silhouettes and outlining their upper edges with glowing halos. In sketching the birds with the scope, I pretty much ignore this effect, being more intent on capturing the shapes and gestures. But later, I realized that this aspect could be the basis for an interesting painting. I’ve painted snow buntings before, but never in this kind of light. Nothing like a good challenge to get the juices flowing!
Back in the studio I re-work my sketches and organize them into a pleasing composition. In laying out the group of birds, I realize I can overlap or “stack” them one in front of the other and by so doing I can make the most of those glowing halos. I do some very simple color and tone experiments to help plan my painting strategy, and then start on a larger sheet of watercolor paper.

Snow Buntings STAGE 1 - at 72 dpi

Stage one: the shadow pattern in a neutral wash

First, I paint the shadow pattern in a neutral mid-tone with a strong violet cast.
These first washes on the bright white paper appear much darker than they will in the finished painting, so I anguish: are they dark enough? Or, have I over-compensated and made them too dark? These are the kinds of things that keep water-colorists awake at night!

Snow Buntings STAGE 2 - at 72 dpi

Stage two: adding the background tones and colors

The next washes establish the background tone. It needs to be light enough so that the bird’s silhouettes really stand out. I also try to leave many little bits of white paper showing, to the give the grasses some sparkle, as they, too, pick up glare from the sun.
With the background tone in place, the shadow shapes of the birds look much paler – in fact, it’s possible now to imagine them as predominantly WHITE birds (which snow buntings are!).

Snow Buntings (dark, cool version) - at 72 dpi

The finished painting: Snow Buntings, watercolor on Arches rough, 12.25″ x 16.25″

The final phase of the painting is pretty straight-forward. I simply add the local colors of the bird’s plumage (breast bands, wing-stripes, etc) right on top of the shadow silhouettes.

I hope you can see from this demonstration how much thought goes into the planning of a watercolor. As the British water-colorist Steve Hall once said: “A good watercolor is 90% preparation and 10% execution.”

Game Time!

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

Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, Sharon on October 25, 2015

Chickadee Studies - at 72 dpi

sketchbook study, pencil and watercolor, 6″ x 11.5″

Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, is Mass Audubon’s first and oldest sanctuary – established by the Society in 1916 (The staff is looking ahead to the 100th anniversary next year!).  It’s a large, rambling property of nearly 2,000 acres with more than 25 miles of trails. Moose Hill is also in a densely populated area of the state, and is well-loved and heavily utilized by the surrounding communities.  Just the previous evening, a big pumpkin carving event had attracted hundreds of families and children, and their work was on display around the sanctuary.

Pumpkin Carving Display - at 72 dpi

It is raining steadily when I arrive at 9 am, but the forecast promises that the rains will be ending by 10. Without lugging along my paints, I take an exploratory walk while the weather improves. I hike the Billings Loop Trail, check out the pumpkin carving display in the “bat house” next to the Billings Barn, and stroll the boardwalk through the red maple swamp.
Back at the visitor center, I dodge the showers and draw the chickadees coming to the bird feeders. Chickadees are constantly in motion, and not easy to draw, so working with them is a good way to hone my visual memory and life drawing skills. Practice, practice…

By 11 am, it looks like the skies are clearing, so I pack up my field kit and lunch and head up the Bluff Trial. One lower section of the trail leads through a “tunnel” of arching witch-hazel turned bright yellow – a novel effect.

Witch-hazel Tunnel - at 72 dpi

along the Bluff Trail at Moose Hill

As I near the Bluff Overlook a small garter snake slithers across my path. I step into the woods to cut off its retreat, and then gently touched its tail. It immediately coils tightly into a defensive posture – a sign that I should leave it in peace!

Garter Snake - at 72 dpi

The rocky ridgetop of the Bluff Overlook (elevation 491 ft.) hosts a plant community quite distinct from the surrounding forests. Eastern red cedars are the most conspicuous feature, but there’s also a predominance of pignut hickory, and a small shrub-like oak called Bear Oak. Clinging to the rocks on this exposed ridge, the cedars have a craggy, weather-beaten look, with parts of their trunks and roots polished to a silvery white.

MooseHill Bluff - at 72 dpi

The Bluff Overlook at Moose Hill, watercolor on Arches coldpress, 12.25″ x 9.25″

Another prominent feature visible from the Overlook is Gillette Stadium. I arrive on the ridge about an hour before game time, and Gillette is lit up like a spaceship – glowing in the fog and light drizzle (yes, the rain persists!). Rock music drifts over the intervening hills from the public address system.

Gillette Stadium - at 72 dpi

I wander further along the ridge to Allen’s Ledge, where the golden yellow hickories form a dense stand. I hear a quiet “check” note, and one lone yellow-rumped warbler flies in to investigate my soft “pishing”. It eyes me warily from the top of a hickory and then flies off. It’s the only yellow-rump I’ve seen today, and I realize that warbler season is winding down for the year. I may not see another member of the warbler tribe until next spring.

Yellow-rump in Pignut Hickory - at 72 dpi

Yellow-rump in Pignut Hickory, watercolor on Arches coldpress, 9″ x 12.25″

On my way back to the visitor center, I encounter a flock of robins feeding on bittersweet berries near the Billings Barn, so I get to work with my scope. Although many New Englanders think of these birds as harbingers of Spring, they are really year-round birds in Massachusetts. I enjoy observing and recording their habits and behavior through all four seasons.

Robin and Bittersweet at Moose Hill - at 72 dpi

Robin and Bittersweet at Moose Hill, watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II, 9″ x 11″

Addendum: In my last post, I mentioned a new book on Cuban Birds by Nils Navarro. Here’s a link:

Blue Skies of Autumn, Part 2

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

Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick on October 15, 2015

After finishing my landscape painting (see Blue Skies of Autumn, part 1), I pack up and head further down the trail. Yellow-rumped warblers are moving thru the Old Orchard in good numbers, and I fill a page with them in my sketchbook. Though they are often the most common warbler in Spring and Fall migration, I never get tired of watching and drawing these birds!

Yellow-rump Studies, Broadmoor - at 72 dpi

Yellow-rump Studies, sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

Palm warblers are moving through also, in slightly smaller numbers. They have a special fondness for ripe goldenrod, and I find more than a half dozen of them foraging in the unmowed field near South Street. I get good, close looks at these birds with my scope, and have a chance to study the variations in plumage.

Palm Warbler studies, Broadmoor - at 72 dpi

Palm Warbler studies, sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

Most birds have rich mustard-yellow overtones, but a few are quite plain and gray, and some are bright below but dull above. All of them, however, dip their tails nervously, and when flushed, flash bright white spots in the outer tail feathers.

Palm Warbler in Goldenrod - at 72 dpi

Palm Warbler in Goldenrod, watercolor on Arches rough, 10.25″ x 14.25″

I get so involved with the palm warblers that I lose track of time. I had hoped to get out to see the Charles River on the Charles River Loop Trail, but I get only halfway there before I realize I’m seriously running out of light, and decide I don’t want to find myself on an unfamiliar trail in the dark.

Fall Reflections at Broadmoor - at 72 dpi
On the way back across the marsh boardwalk, the autumn colors, made even more intense by the setting sun, are reflected in the water and make a nice contrast with the cool blue-green of the lily pads. So much to paint, so little time…
That evening, I enjoy a fine presentation at Broadmoor by Nils Navarro, who has recently written and illustrated a handsome book on Cuban birds. It’s always a treat to meet and share thoughts with a fellow bird painter!

A Skunky Place for Eels

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

Skunknett River Wildlife Sanctuary, Barnstable on October 11, 2015

When I mentioned to a friend that I was heading to Skunknett River Wildlife Sanctuary, he reasonably asked if I expected to see any skunks!  Actually “Skunknett” probably comes from an Algonquin Indian word meaning “a place to fish for eels” – which I’m sure it was in pre-colonial times.

West Pond, Skunknett - at 72 dpi

West Pond

As I ready my gear for the trail, I’m serenaded by red-bellied woodpeckers and Carolina wrens. The Bog Cart Path is bordered by oaks and pitch pines draped with old man’s beard lichen. Near the end of the trail, and adjacent to the outflow of West Pond, is one small spot where you can step out onto the shoreline and get an unobstructed view of the pond. I quietly set-up my scope and train it on a dazzling drake wood duck floating among the stumps and lily pads. The bird is in perfect light that brings out the purples and greens of its iridescent head. I take a few quick photos thru the scope then adjust it to start drawing, but in the process, my tripod makes a squeak. Instantly, the bird’s head snaps in my direction, and it flushes and flies off. DARN! I notice that the nearby mallards remain undisturbed. Wild wood ducks are WARY! Later in the studio, I work from my rather poor photos to construct this composition.

Wood Duck Drake (color correc) - at 72 dpi

Wood Duck Drake, watercolor on Arches rough, 9.5″ x 14″

Working in the studio, removed from the actual subject in the field, can be liberating in many ways. I am often more imaginative and inventive in my studio work, and this painting is a case in point. I’ve deliberately pushed the colors and shapes to bring out the graphic patterns suggested by this subject.

Closer to my end of the pond are at least three solitary sandpipers foraging in the grassy margins and on some exposed bars of mud. I enjoy sketching them for a time before proceeding down the West Circuit Trail and around the pond.

Solitary Sandpiper sketchbook studies - at 300 dpi

Solitary Sandpiper sketchbook studies, 9″ x 12″

At the far end of the pond, the trail passes by a modest stand of Atlantic White Cedars. Cedar forests once covered huge tracts in the sandy coastal plains of Massachusetts, but these days only scattered remnants survive. Their desirability as lumber and the rich, peaty soils beneath them (ideal for conversion to commercial cranberry growing operations) led to widespread draining and clearing of these forests starting in the mid eighteenth century.

Set-up at Skunknett River - at 72 dpi

painting in progress at Skunknett

Because of the small size of this grove, it lacks the gloomy aspect of larger cedar stands, and through the tightly packed trunks I can glimpse the brightness of the pond opening beyond. I set up my pack chair and settle in for some landscape work.

Atlantic White Cedar Grove - at 72 dpi

Atlantic White Cedar Grove, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 13.5″ x 10″

With my watercolors, I strive to capture the blue-green lichens coating the lower trunks and flaring roots of the cedars, and the dappled light on the trunks. Bright green moss growing over the roots adds a nice pattern in the foreground.

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″