Tag Archives: Watercolors

Unstuck in Time

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

Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, Princeton on June 5, 2015
As I’m working on this small landscape painting of the Crocker house and horse barn at Wachusett Meadow, my mind drifts back in time to when this was a working farm.

The Crocker Farm, Wachusett Meadow - at 72 dpi

The Crocker Farm, watercolor on Winsor & Newton cold-press, 7.5″ x 11″

I notice that most of the structures I can see from this viewpoint date back to the 1830s or earlier. The new day camp building is hidden by the copse of trees, so the new picnic pavilion is the only modern structure visible from where I’m sitting (the new solar panels are further to the right and out of my view). My apologies to the hard-working Wachusett Meadow staff – I decide to leave out the pavilion and include only the old farm buildings. So, this scene is part fact and part imagination – harking back to an earlier time before a wildlife sanctuary existed here…

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!


A Lesson in Orioles

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

Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary, Falmouth on May 26, 2015 (part 2)
The area around the swallow barn is a good place to study oriole plumages. In addition to numerous adult male and female Baltimore orioles, I observe adult male and female orchard orioles, along with a first year male orchard oriole (that one had me puzzled for awhile!)

Orchard Oriole studies, Ashumet - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

Orchard orioles are on the increase in New England, and we should see more of them in the future. Although I have seen this species a number of times, this was the first opportunity I’ve had to draw orchard orioles from life!

Orchard Oriole, adlt male, Ashumet - at 72 dpi cropped for blog

Orchard Oriole in Apple Tree, watercolor in Stillman and Birn Delta sketchbook, 9″ x12″

Orchard Oriole, yg male, Ashumet - at 72 dpi

Young Male Orchard Oriole, watercolor in Stillman and Birn Delta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

Along the Grassy Pond Trail were some of the shortest pink lady slippers I’ve ever seen! The entire plants were no more than four inches tall, but the blossoms were full size – giving the plant cute, gnome-like proportions.

Pink Lady Slipper at Ashumet

A Nest of Possibilities

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

Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary, Falmouth  on May 26, 2015 (part 1)

Drawing birds, as opposed to “birding” or photographing them, entails observing and studying individual birds for relatively long periods of time. Perhaps because of this, I often find bird nests during my fieldwork. I’ll notice that a bird I’m observing is hanging around one particular spot, or I’ll see a bird carrying nest material – both clues that a nest is close-by. Today, at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary, I found the nests of a yellow warbler, a northern oriole and an orchard oriole!

Yellow Warbler studies, Ashumet - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

The nest of the yellow warbler is well hidden in a honeysuckle vine growing up a locust tree. The nest is about 25 feet up, and I can focus on it with my telescope by backing up along the trail.

Yellow Warbler and Nest, Ashumet - at 72 dpi

Yellow Warbler at Nest, watercolor on Fabriano soft-press, 9″ x11″

The female is never far away, and returns frequently but I never see her actually enter the nest. She may not have eggs yet, or may not want to enter the nest with me nearby. I draw as quickly as possible, and then move away.

Osprey Overlook

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

Great Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Wareham on May 24, 2015

I find my way to one of Mass Audubon’s newest properties in Wareham this afternoon. The signage, trail maps and interpretive panels are top-notch!

I’m aiming for a water view today, so I head out to the Osprey Overlook off the Heron Point Loop Trail. The path takes me through an attractive coastal forest dotted with majestic white pines. Brown creepers and pine warblers sing from the trees overhead , while towhees sound off from the huckleberries below.

Osprey Overlook, Great Neck - at 72 dpi

Osprey Overlook, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 13″ x 9″

Osprey Overlook lives up to its name – within minutes an osprey floats overhead, and I can see the nest on a platform across the marsh. I set up a field easel in preparation for some landscape painting, but keep my sketchbook nearby to record the shapes of the osprey during its numerous fly-overs.  I’m planning to add the bird to my painting.

Foliage on the Cape is at least a week behind inland areas, and here the landscape still has the soft tonalities and subtle colors of early spring, which are set-off nicely by the ultramarine blue waters of Bass Cove. As I paint, a willet makes a noisy visit to the nearby shoreline.

Painting Set-up at Great Neck

Technical note: when I started this landscape painting, I was in full shade from the trees behind me, but as I worked the sun began to dapple my watercolor pad. It’s always best to have the watercolor paper in shade while painting on location (and some artists carry an umbrella just for this purpose), but that’s not always possible. You can paint with the paper in full sun if you take care to compensate for the brightness of the sheet, but the worst scenario is to have your paper partly in the sun and partly in the shade. Here, I finished the landscape by blocking the direct sunlight with my body, so the page remained in full shade.


On the Waterthrush Trail (High Ledges, part 2)

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

High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary, Shelburne on May 21, 2015

After tearing myself away from the yellow lady’s slippers, I head down off the ledges to explore the Waterthrush Trail. This short section of trail skirts around what is intriguingly named the “Orchid Swamp” on my trail map. As I enter the cool, damp woods along the edge of the swamp, I hear the stuttering notes of a Canada Warbler coming from the understory of hobblebush, striped maple and witch-hazel. It has been several years since I’ve seen a Canada, so I approached quietly, hoping for a good look. The bird sings repeatedly, making it easier for me to pinpoint its location, and I finally spy it in the arching branches of a witch-hazel. I put my sketchbooks to work…

Canada Warbler studies, High Ledges - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

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

Canada Warbler in Witch-hazel, watercolor in Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

Poking around the swamp while trying to keep my feet dry, I find marsh marigolds and foam flower in bloom, and on my way back to the Sanctuary Road, I stop to admire some painted trilliums and columbine.

Foamflower at High Ledges


Columbine at High Ledges










I decide to do a drawing of the trillium (which I used later in the studio to do a finished watercolor). High Ledges is indeed a treasure trove of wildflowers!

Painted Trillium, High Ledges - at 72 dpi

Painted Trillium at High Ledges, watercolor on Lana hot-press, 8″ x11″


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…


On the Flats

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

Joppa Flats Education Center, Newburyport on May 15, 2015

After a good day of birding on Plum Island, I stop by Joppa Flats around 5 pm. The tide is low, and many birds are scattered across the flats of Newburyport Harbor. I admire a group of bonaparte’s gulls, some of which have fully developed black hoods for the breeding season! Also on the flats are common terns, black-bellied plovers, short-billed dowitchers, assorted peeps and quite a few brant.

Brant studies 2, Joppa Flats - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

I’m intrigued by the shapes of the brant as they waddle across the flats and peck at morsels here and there. Being birds of the coast, I don’t see them nearly as often as Canada Geese, and only a few times before have I had good opportunities to observe them out of water.

Brant studies 1, Joppa Flats - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

These studies would be fun to work with in a larger composition – maybe a project for this winter in the studio!

Birds in Blue and Gray

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

Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, Holden, MA on May 11, 2015

It’s a warm, humid morning at Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary in Holden.  From the trailhead (as I’m applying bug repellent and sunscreen), I can hear black-throated blue, black-throated green and pine warblers, ovenbirds, a scarlet tanager and a red-eyed vireo.

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

Black-throated Blue in Birch, in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

As I hike in along the Appleton Loop Trail, it becomes obvious that black-throated blues are the most abundant warblers at this site. Every quarter mile or so, I encounter another BTB singing from the sweet birches that arch above the mountain laurel thickets.

Black-throated Blue in Birch 2, Eagle Lake - at 72 dpi

Black-throated Blue in Song, watercolor on Arches Fidelis (en tout cas), 9″ x 8.5″

Pausing along the trail, a female Black-throated Blue circles and scolds me – I must be near a nest, so I move on…

Black-throated Blue female, study, Eagle Lake - at 72 dpi

sketchbook study, 3″ x 5″

Crossing over Asnebumskit brook on the pipeline right-of-way, I notice that the streambed is looking quite dry for early May. It’s been an exceptionally dry spring so far.
The Asnebumskit Loop Trail skirts down along the stream, and as I near the area where the brook flows into Eagle Lake, I hear the distinctive notes of a blue-gray gnatcatcher (Peterson used the word “peevish” – the perfect adjective to describe their voice!)

Gnatcatcher studies, Eagle Lake - at 72 dpi

field sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

The small plot of forest here has the feeling of a wet bottomland – just the right habitat for these birds.  Sure enough, the pair is building a nest high in a red maple branch directly over the water!  I watch as one member of the pair gathers the sticky webbing from a caterpillar nest and takes it to the nest site.

Gnatcatcher in Red Maple 2, Eagle Lake - at 72 dpi

Gnatcatcher in red Maple, in Stillman & Birn Delta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

On my way out of the Sanctuary, I park my car and stroll out onto the causeway between Stump Pond and Eagle Lake.  It’s a pleasant spot, and I admire the soft colors of the early spring foliage across the water.  Looking down, I see sunfish guarding nests in the shallow water along the shoreline.  The red spot on their gill covers identifies them as pumpkinseeds.  The males are in bright, breeding colors – their fin margins (which they wave like fan dancers) are a striking aqua blue!