Tag Archives: Watercolors

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

The Great Marsh

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

Barnstable Great Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, Barnstable on August 16, 2015

I had hoped to get down to Cape Cod last week, but car troubles put my Toyota in the garage for a few days, and by the time I finally get underway a heat wave has settled over New England, with high humidity and temperatures in the 90s. To try and beat the heat, I get an early start and arrive at Barnstable Great Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary by 7:30 am.
A short hike through a forest of oak, cedar, cherries and pines brings me to a small clearing next to an abandoned cabin. A break in the foliage here supplies an elevated view of the marsh, with a backdrop of Sandy Neck in the distance. The Barnstable Great Marsh is the largest salt marsh on Cape Cod, covering more than 3,000 acres.
The clearing is a nice shady spot at this time of the morning, so I set up my scope and pack chair. I spot an osprey, egrets, herons, laughing gulls and shorebirds out on the marsh, but they’re too distant to draw or paint, so I decide to do a landscape. With my 25x scope I can “project myself” out onto the marsh, bringing the dunes of Sandy Neck much closer, and this makes for an appealing composition.

Work in Progress at Barnstable Great Marsh (small)

…the first washes set out to dry in the sun

As I start to lay down the first washes of color I realize that the very high humidity is going to have an effect on my painting. High humidity can be both a blessing and a curse to the watercolorist. The washes of color dry very slowly, so there’s more time to develop the wet passages. I can take my time developing smooth color gradations and soft edges – things which I usually have to hurry with before the paper dries. At some point, however, I need those first washes to dry, so I can paint additional layers over them (what watercolorists refer to as glazing.) Today, it’s taking FOREVER for those first washes to dry! I lay my half-finished painting on a bush in the sun, and wander down the path to the edge of the marsh.  By the time I return to the clearing the washes have finally dried and I can get on with my work. As I’m painting with the scope, small birds zip back and forth through my field of view – swallows – and as a final touch, I add them to my painting.

Swallows Over Barnstable Great Marsh 2 - at 72 dpi

Swallows Over Barnstable Great Marsh, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

Next, I move down to the edge of the marsh to do some studies of some of the plants I’d noticed there. Growing out on the marsh is an attractive flowering plant that I later identify as saltmarsh fleabane.

Salt-marsh Fleabane at Barnstable Gr Marsh (small)

I’m also intrigued by the bulrushes growing where the woods give way to the marsh grasses. These are robust, 4-foot tall grasses with long curving blades and heavy clusters of cone-shaped seed heads.

Softstem Bulrush - at 72 dpi

Softstem Bulrush, watercolor on Lanaquarelle hot-press, 11.25″ x 9″

It’s getting pretty hot, now, especially in the sun, so I do some exploring along the the shady trails of the sanctuary. I flush a green heron at Otter Pond, and then find a superb stand of cardinal flowers at the outflow of spring-fed Cooper Pond. I had not expected to find cardinal flowers growing wild on Cape Cod, since I most often encounter them far from the coast along cool, tumbling streams in upland forests. But they seem quite happy here, with a second handsome cluster of plants growing further west along the shore. Unfortunately the flower stalks are surrounded on all sides by a thick growth of poison ivy, so I content myself to do some drawing from a distance thru my telescope, and complete this watercolor later in my studio.

Cardinal Flower at Barnstable Gr Marsh 4 - at 72 dpi

Cardinal Flower, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 14″ x 10″

On my way back to the car, I stop to marvel at a wildly contorted cherry tree growing along the trail. In one place the limbs of the tree seem to have tied themselves into a big knot! It deserves, and gets, a study in my sketchbook.

Contorted Cherry Tree at Barnstable Gr Marsh - at 72 dpi

Cherry Tree at Barnstable Great Marsh, pencil study, 8.5″ x8.5″

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″

Striking a Pose or Turtle Yoga

July 24, 2015

Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Norfolk
Although the swamp azalea is past flowering, sweet pepperbush is just starting to come into bloom along the trails and boardwalks at Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary. Soon the air will be filled with its thick, sweet aroma!

Sweet Pepperbush at Waseeka

The boardwalks and viewing platforms afford excellent views of several ponds and marshes, with room enough to set-up my scope and do some drawing. Great for turtle watching!
On a warm, sunny morning like this, the painted turtles are vying for basking space atop the stumps rising out of the lily pads and waterlilies. I’m intrigued by the way the turtles often pose with their legs stretched out straight, resting on their plastrons.

Turtle Yoga drawing - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook Study of Painted Turtle, pencil, 6″ x 7″

Sometimes they tuck in the front legs, with only the rear legs extended, other times all four legs are stretched out at once. It’s very similar to a pose we do in my yoga class. Am I watching Turtle Yoga? I ask some naturalists about this later, and one conjectures that this behavior may expose soft parts around the turtles legs to the sun and air, thereby deterring leeches. Another theory is that extending the legs in this way exposes more of the skin to the sun, and enhances the basking effect.

Painted Turtle, Stony Brook - at 72 dpi

TURTLE YOGA – Painted Turtle at Stony Brook, watercolor on Arches cold press, 8.5″ x 12.25″

And there are other turtles, too. I watch the eerie slow-mo movements of a big snapping turtle from the observation platform at Teal Marsh.

Snapping Turtle at Stony Brook (small)

Heading back to the visitor center, I hear the distinctive notes of a purple martin. Upon my arrival at the sanctuary earlier, I had noticed the martin house in the big field next to the parking area, but seen only house sparrows perched there. Now, I focused my scope on the house and found a single martin perched on the top mast. Later, I asked sanctuary director Doug Williams about the birds and was pleased to hear that the martins were in their third year of using the box and that this year three nests had produced a total of 10 young birds! I saw no more martins this day, but was happy to know that the colony is on the increase!

Siblings, Young Canada Geese - Stony Brook - at 72 dpi

SIBLINGS – Young Canada Geese at Stony Brook, watercolor on Winsor & Newton cold-press, 9″ x 10.5″

Heading out again to do the Pond Loop Trail, I notice a pair of young Canada geese loafing on a rock in Stony Brook Pond. They’re about 2/3 the size of their parents, who stand guard nearby. In a scruffy adolescent stage, they are still downy on the neck and head, and their colors are soft and muted compared with the adults.
At the bridge between Kingfisher Pond and Stony Brook Pond, I notice several large dragonflies on the concrete bridge abutments. I’ve been watching dragonflies all day – many pondhawks and slaty skimmers, a few widow skimmers and some tiny amberwings – but this one I can’t identify. Occasionally one takes a handstand-like pose with its abdomen pointing straight up. Actually this is a common behavior among odonates called the obelisk posture (there’s that YOGA thing again!), and it is thought to help with thermoregulation on warm days.

Blk-shouldered Spinyleg - Stony Brook - at 72 dpi

Black-shouldered Spinylegs, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 12″

As luck would have it Robert Buchsbaum arrived on the scene, toting a dragonfly net and, more importantly, a dragonfly field guide (he was helping some volunteers with an odonate survey). Between studying my drawings and digital photos, we tentatively identified this insect as a black-shouldered spinyleg. Later I was convinced of our I.D. by noting the spines on the rear legs in my digital photos and also by a phrase which I read in the Mass Audubon pocket laminated guide A Guide to NE Dragonflies and Damselflies – in the brief description of this species written by Chris Leahy, he concludes with “Often perches on bridge abutments.” BINGO!

Wet Feet in Bear Country, Part 2

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

West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, Plainfield on July 19, 2015

After finishing up with the orchids, I head back to the car and dry out my feet as best I can before heading over to the West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary trail head on Prospect Street. As I’m assembling my gear to hike the trails, I hear a commotion in the woods across the street, and a young bear pokes its head out of the thick roadside vegetation and looks straight at me! I must look threatening because the animal makes a hasty retreat back into the woods, only to circle around and do the same routine again! The bear clearly wants to cross the road, but after its second retreat it must have decided to cross elsewhere. The bear was not a cub, but about the size of a German shepherd, and I paused to consider whether its mother might still be attending it. The fact that it made so much noise in the woods was re-assuring, since it would be unlikely to take me by surprise if I encounter it again.
Hiking the East Slope Loop Trail I notice that many of the beech trees are suffering from beech bark disease, and I later read on the orientation panel that this disease is contributing to the decline of beeches in the area.

Beech Bark Disease - West Mountain (small)

Attractive lady ferns line the trail, and in some places the forest floor is covered with a thick growth of hobblebush shoots. I stop to make a watercolor study of the hobblebush, since I love the soft orangey-tan buds, which rise like candle flames from the tip of each twig.  I’m also intrigued by the way the color of the new wood is distinctly different from the old.

Hobblebush, West Mountain - at 72 dpi

Hobblebush Study, watercolor on Lanaquarelle hot-press, 9″ x 11.25″

The trail follows alongside two lovely, tumbling brooks and through a hemlock forest – where I’m serenaded by black-throated green warblers and hermit thrushes.

Mountain Brook at West Mountain (small)

BTG Warbler study - at 72 dpi

sketchbook study, pencil and watercolor, 4″ x 5″


Wet Feet In Bear Country, Part 1

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

I receive a tip from Ron Wolanin on Thursday that smaller purple fringed orchids are blooming at West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary in Plainfield. Ron travels to many of the unstaffed central Massachusetts sanctuaries on a weekly basis, and his insider knowledge has been invaluable for my project. I leave Princeton early on the following Sunday, arriving at West Mountain by 8:15 am – already a warm and very humid day. I have no trouble locating the spot Ron has directed me to. Ron had warned me that the meadow was wet, so I’ve brought along an inexpensive pair of rubber wellies.

Purple-fringed Orchis sketchbook page - West Mtn - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

The orchids are SPECTACULAR! I note about two dozen plants in various stages of blooming.  The small, delicate blossoms take close scrutiny to understand their form and structure, and I get to work with my sketchbook. The flower cluster is a true spike (not a raceme), with blossoms attached directly to the straight, trunk-like stem.  The colors of the blossoms vary from a pale pink to a deep magenta purple, and I record these variations with color swatches in my sketchbook. I want to record these colors accurately (since they are often distorted in photos) and at the same time, figure out which pigments in my watercolor box will best match the blossoms.

Purple-fringed Orchis 2 (purple) - West Mtn - at 72 dpi

Smaller Purple-fringed Orchis I, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 11.5″ x 9″

Purple-fringed Orchis 1 (pink) - West Mtn - at 72 dpi

Smaller Purple-fringed Orchis II, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 11.5″ x 9″

I’m standing (or rather squatting) ankle deep in water, and have propped my pack chair in a nearby woody shrub to keep paper and materials dry. A water cup seems beside-the-point, and I simply dip my brush in the water at my feet. After painting for a while in this squatting position, I feel my left boot starting to leak and by the time I finish, my foot and sock are soaking wet. NOTE TO SELF: buy a better pair of wellies and bring extra socks next time!

Swamp sparrows are sounding off all around me, and tee-ing up occasionally on low snags. At one point a willow flycatcher moves through, giving me fine, eye-level views, and I take some notes and make a quick sketch of it.

Willow Flycatcher sketchbook study - West Mtn- at 72 dpi

sketchbook study, 5″ x 6.5″


Acclaimed Bird Artists Visit A Naturalist’s Eden

A group of bird artists gathered at MABA yesterday to revel in—and draw inspiration from—the artistry of Don Eckelberry’s watercolors, now on exhibit.


Left to right: Lucia deLeiris, Rob Braunfield, Jim Coe, Al Gilbert, Cindy House, Gigi Hopkins, Barry Van Dusen, Mike DiGiorgio


The artists taking in the Don Eckelberry Exhibition


Left to right: Julie Zickefoose and MABA director Amy Montague


Barry Van Dusen sharing his amazing collection of art from his residency at the Museum of American Bird Art

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Phantom Fontinalis

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

Graves Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, Williamsburg on June 27, 2015
I was intrigued to read on the Graves Farm Wildlife Sanctuary trail map that the coldwater streams on the property support wild brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), and I decided that my first task would be to check out Nonnie Day Brook and see if I could spy any of these elusive and beautiful fish. The water was unseasonably low when I arrived at the brook (a result of a very dry month of May), but the habitat looked entirely suitable to native trout, so I walked up and down the banks, scanning the pools and riffles with my binoculars at close focus.

Nonnie Day Brook, Graves Farm

I observed a number of black-nosed dace (Rhinichthys atratulus), but no brookies. The cool, clear waters flowed around moss-covered rocks and over areas of golden gravel and sand, and my mind wandered back to other places where I’d seen wild brook trout. Along a roadside ditch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I once watched adult brook trout less than 3 inches long in water less than 4 inches deep!  And, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia I once watched schools of brookies in bright spawning colors gathering in the pools of a tumbling mountain stream.
In low-water or warm water conditions, these fish seek out deeper pools or underwater springs that provide the temperature and oxygen levels they need, so I was not surprised to find them absent from the brook under the current conditions.  Dissapointing… but then I reconsidered – I’m an artist, and I can paint my own vision of a Nonnie Day brook trout, whether I had seen one or not! I made some notes on the streambed habitat and took some photos. Back in my studio, I gathered up brook trout references I’d gathered in the past and painted my own vision of a Nonnie Day Brook Trout!

Brook Trout, Graves Farm - at 72 dpi

Wild Brook Trout, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

There are some VERY impressive trees in the forest around Nonnie Day Brook. One huge old white pine was particularly awe-inspiring. I spent some time walking around the massive trunk and gazing up at its vast height. Photographs just don’t convey the scale of this behemoth, but here’s one anyway…

Big White Pine at Graves Farm (small)

Later, I wandered across Adams Road into the big hayfield – not yet mowed. It was filled with red-winged blackbirds and tree swallows, who perched cooperatively on orange-painted wooden stakes while I drew them.

Tree Swallow studies, Graves Farm - at 72 dpi

Tree swallows, sketchbook study, pencil, 5″ x 10″

Further west, where Joe Wright Brook passes under the road, a Green Heron also posed for me while I made more sketches…

Green Heron study, Graves Farm - at 72 dpi

Green Heron, sketchbook study, 6″ x 9″

Misses and Near Misses

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

Burncoat Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, Spencer on June 24, 2015
Everything was wet on the Flat Rock Trail when I started out this morning. Heavy thunderstorms the previous evening had supplied the area with some much needed moisture. The dampness brought out frogs and salamanders, and I found several lovely red efts along the trail, one of which I decided to paint. Note the winged maple seed (or samara), which gives a sense of scale.

Red Eft, Burncoat Pond - at 72 dpi

Red Eft, watercolor on Lanaquarelle hot-press, 8″ x 9″

Views of Burncoat Pond proved challenging, with only a few points along the shore allowing any access, but I started a watercolor nonetheless. My view was looking down into a marshy bay of the lake, through a screen of dead timber. It was a complicated scene. Too complicated, as it turned out! I couldn’t manage to resolve the special relationships, and about halfway into the painting realized that it was going nowhere. I put it away, deciding not to waste any more time on it. Not all field paintings work out, and sometimes the trick is knowing when to quit!
I headed back to the parking area for lunch. I had noticed on my way to the pond that the large meadows around the parking area were rich in birds, and I wanted to spend more time there. While eating lunch under a big sugar maple near the parking area, a bird flew into the branches over my head. Something about the bird looked interesting, but I couldn’t locate it among the sugar maple leaves. Finally, it flew to an oak across the road and I quickly got my scope on it – a black-billed cuckoo!

Blk-billed Cuckoo, Burncoat Pond - at 72 dpi

Black-billed Cuckoo, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14″

Good looks at cuckoos never seem to last very long, and this one was no different- giving me just one good look before it disappeared. I rarely try to develop a painting from such a brief look, but the impression I’d had was a strong one, so I scribbled some lines in my sketchbook to get down as much as possible of what I remembered. Then I took out a sheet of watercolor paper and sketched the oak branches where the bird had been sitting (the branches were still in my scope view). Later, back in the studio, I refined my drawing and finished the piece. I’ve learned that it’s sometimes good to force myself to work from memory – it has a way of distilling and intensifying a field experience!
Hiking up the section of mid-state trail a short ways, I got much longer looks at an indigo bunting. I must have been near a nest, because the male circled and scolded me from low perches along the trail. I did a page of studies, and later, a small watercolor in my studio.

Indigo Bunting sketchbook page, Burncoat Pond - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

Indigo Bunting, Burncoat Pond - at 72 dpi

Indigo Bunting, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12″

In good light, the blue of an indigo bunting is unearthly! I found that the best mixture was Thalo blue (a very strong, staining blue) softened with just a touch of ultramarine. The darker blue on the bird’s head and shoulder is pure ultramarine.  A background wash mixed from raw sienna and ivory black intensifies the bird’s color.

High Rocky Ground

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

Flat Rock Wildlife Sanctuary, Fitchburg, MA on June 17, 2015
The mountain laurel is in full bloom as I hike up the Loop Trail at Flat Rock Wildlife Sanctuary in Fitchburg. I admire the many stately beech trees in the forest here, their smooth gray bark dappled with sunlight. Ovenbirds and towhees sing from the understory.

Mountain Laurel Blossoms, Flat Rock

As I near the power lines on the Link Path, I hear the unmistakable song of a prairie warbler (certainly one of the easiest of the warbler songs to learn and remember). With gentle pishing sounds I lure the bird closer until it’s singing from the top of a white pine right above my head. I sketch furiously as it moves to nearby oaks, singing all the while.

Prairie Warbler studies, Flat Rock - at 72 dpi

sketchbook studies, 6.5″ x11.5″

Studies of a Prairie Warbler in Song, Flat Rock - at 72 dpi

Prairie Warbler in Song, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14″

Up on Flat Rock Road Trail the forest is drier and more spare, dominated by oaks and pines of moderate height, none very tall. The trail itself is bare bedrock. With every step my feet are in contact with the bones of the earth. Arriving at “The Bald”, I expect to get a view (as advertised on my trail map), but the trees have evidently grown up since the map was published, and no view is to be had, at least at this time of year.
Looping back on the powerlines I pass several boggy depressions and notice a calico pennant perched on a short stalk.  Dragonflies are good models for the field artist, since they choose a favorite perch from which to hunt, and return to it again and again. With my telescope, I can focus on that perch and be assured that the odonate will soon return. Back at the meadow next to the parking area I discover many more calico pennants, and decide to do a series of studies on a piece of hot-press watercolor paper.

Calico Pennants, Flat Rock - at 72 dpi

Calico Pennant Studies, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 12″

Curiously, none of the pennants are the bright red adult males. All the individuals I observe are yellow – identifying them as either young males or females.