Ink and colored pencil nature journal sketch of a tree

Tips for Sketching Trees

We just had a cold snap here in Colorado Springs, with night-time temperatures dipping below 40. Mornings have a crisp chill that makes it hard to get out of bed, and spots of gold and russet signal the beginning of Autumn. Nature is pointing us toward a quieter cycle, and a last chance to sketch deciduous trees before they drop their leaves for winter. It’s the perfect time to share some quick tips for sketching trees.

Nature journal ink and water color sketch
Copyright 2021 ChubbellArt, Ltd.

Cottonwoods and Mountain Ash, American Plum, Gambel Oak and Willow, and even the little Common Hoptree sapling in our yard will be putting on fall color soon. So while the days continue to warm into the 70s and low 80s, I get my kit and head down to the park.

Nature journal sketch of an oak tree
Copyright 2021 ChubbellArt, Ltd.

I remember the first advice I got about sketching trees: “Don’t draw lollypop trees.” “Don’t try to draw every leaf.” That leaves (ha ha!) quite a bit of room for the unknown! So let’s back up a step to prepare for sketching by looking intentionally at different aspects of trees.

Diagram suggesting where to sit while sketching a tree
Sit far enough from the tree to see all of it without straining. Copyright 2021 ChubbellArt, Ltd.

Start by finding a comfortable seat far enough from the tree so you can see all of it without moving your head. By asking productive questions, you can break the tree apart to understand it, then put all the pieces back together in a coherent way. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Can you pick one shape that represents the tree? Maybe it’s a diamond or a cone, a sphere or even a cube. The shape of the tree may be typical for its species.
  • Is the tree in direct sunlight or shade? How do the shadows create the three-dimensional form of the tree? How might they change in the next 15 minutes? The next hour?
  • How does the tree grow? Working from the roots and trunk upward, how do the main branches divide from the trunk, and what are those branches like? How many branches can you see peeking through the leaves or needles? Is the trunk single or double? Is it straight, gnarled, split?
  • What shapes do the leaves or needles make as they form clumps along the branches? Cones? Cubes? Spheres? Can you see individual leaves? What shapes are the leaves? Leaf shape is also a way to identify a tree species, so you might want to sketch the leaves separately.
  • What’s unique about this tree? Are there interesting bits of sky visible between leaves or branches? Does the tree have a cavity or a nest?
  • What do you love about the tree? Something drew you to this spot. What was it?

You can start to record your observations at any point, just know that you’ll want to make adjustments while you work. Start with a light touch in pencil or pen, then reinforce the lines as you work. I like to create an “envelope” based on the ratio of the tree’s height to width. I draw the envelope first, then cut in the overall shape of the tree. Inside the shape, I place the landmarks I’ve observed. These landmarks are essential for getting the details in the right places. There’s a time-lapse video at the end of this post that shows my process.

Ink and water color nature journal sketch of trees
Branches are a lovely subject for studying negative space. Copyright 2021 ChubbellArt, Ltd.

Deciduous trees offer us that last beautiful gasp of color before they drop their leaves in the fall. The golds and yellows we get here in Colorado won’t peak for another week or two. But I know that bare branches are just around the corner, and just as fun to sketch!

Bird Sketching – Life in Progress

When the weather was too poor this winter for outdoor sketching, I set up my drawing supplies on the porch, plugged in the space heater, and worked on sketching birds from life. I found the chickadees and finches very challenging. Why couldn’t I observe some sleeping ducks on a pond instead? But the most convenient, numerous collection of live birds was right there on the other side of my window.

February feeder birds sketches, mostly Juncos and House Finches.

So I worked, and struggled, and wondered how anyone completes an actual sketch of a bird in the field. I started with basic gestures, borrowing ideas from books, blogs, and videos. I knew I could draw from photos, but I wanted to be able to complete a finished-looking sketch during my sketching session. Then I found a bit of helpful advice: build your memory.

Always on the lookout, and constantly on the move: House Finch in the Ponderosa Pine. You only get a moment to capture something about a live bird.

Hmmm, I thought. I guess I should memorize the shape of that finch bill. But no, it’s not like school. I couldn’t memorize a set of visual facts. Putting the right information into memory requires repeated drawing from life, which enhances both my observation and drawing skills.

The more we look, the better we understand. A second observation of a House Finch bill at bottom right.

When I realized that the practice itself would build my memory and make sketching faster, I stopped struggling. Drawing from life is recommended by successful bird artists like John Busby and William T. Cooper. Busby was a British wildlife artist, educator, author, and a founding member of the Society of Wildlife Artists. He described bird sketching as a long-term practice:

Encounters with wild birds are usually measured in split-seconds, and one is rarely given another chance to react…It does take time to learn to draw quickly and a good memory and a high-speed response is something to cultivate…there is much that can be done to sharpen observation and fix events in your memory.

John Busby, Drawing Birds Timber Press, Second Ed 2006

William T. Cooper was a prolific Australian bird illustrator who worked from life. Here he explains the experience of developing a working memory of your subject:

Drawing from life is very important: it allows much more information to penetrate the mind than when copying from a photograph. This information enters the subconscious and will be drawn upon when required some time in the future.

William T. Cooper, Capturing the Essence, Techniques for Bird Artists Yale University Press 2011

He makes it sound almost magical. And I’m discovering an ease to developing these skills when I stop struggling and let the process unfold. I’m working on more responsive gestures while I let bird behavior and proportions seep into my brain. As I work more quickly, that thinking, left brain settles down, and I also feel more present.

Migratory birds add color and excitement to the feeding stations.

It’s May now, and migration season in Colorado is in high gear. Western Tanager, Bullock’s Oriole, and Black-headed Grosbeak are competing with a small, noisy flock of Pine Siskin for seeds and oranges. What a delight to sit here for an hour working with the birds, gently encoding all that behavior, noise, and color into memory.

Nature Sketching: Color Your World

I love to use mixed media in my nature journal. That means making tough choices about how many pencils and pens to bring along, and what types of color media to include. This post explores ways to mix up your color tools without breaking the bank, and without loading down your sketching kit.

Pencil and water color sketch of a House Finch eating an orange from a feeder tray. Illustrates the application of water color to a pencil sketch.
Nature sketching with color can be quick and light

A basic kit might contain nothing more complicated than a sketchbook and a pencil. Add a bottle of water (and any necessary comfort items), and you’re ready to go. This is a light option, not just in terms of ounces, but in terms of attention. You won’t be distracted by extra supplies – Did I lose my eraser? Where is that darned sepia Inktense???

My basic nature sketching kit

So when I want to bring color along, I try to keep it simple and go for tools that are lightweight and offer little distraction. I have a small watercolor palette, which requires a brush and a bottle of water. This is my “fussy” choice. Or, I might bring water color pencils (a few, not the whole set!) and a water pen (a nylon brush with its own water reservoir). Occasionally, I’ll trim my kit down to just three colored pencils: red, blue (or black) and yellow. I mean, you can make any color of the rainbow with those, right?

Everything fits inside this zip bag, then tucks into a backpack.

By packing thoughtfully, I can bring a small range of colors in multiple media. This lets me have fun with layering them in one sketch. For example, I might apply water color pencil, then reinforce it with regular colored pencil after the paper has dried.

Lay down water color pencil, then activate it. Once dry, top with regular colored pencil or graphite.

I also like to create my own coloring pages of birds and flowers from my nature journal. I start with a sketch, outline significant lines in permanent ink, and let the ink dry. Once I erase the pencil, I’ve got a lovely contour drawing, perfect for sharing. If I’m still out of doors, I snap a photo, color the original, and keep layering!

Make your own coloring page by inking in your lines and erasing the graphite.

I can also capture the tones of a subject with just ink or graphite, and leave color for later (or not at all). Colored pencil, water color, and marker can all be layered over the graphite, which will also help to seal the graphite in place (less smudging).

For darkest areas, try starting light, then crisping up edges and lines as you get darker.

For me, keeping a light kit makes a sketching session easy and unlabored. And the more I enjoy my nature sketching session, the more likely I am to grab my kit and head outdoors, which of course increases my enjoyment. So pack light, and get out there!

A Passion for Birds

It’s late winter, just around the corner from Valentine’s Day. It’s the perfect time to reflect on the many loves in my life, including my passion for birds, art, and science.

These three loves coalesce in the practice of natural science illustration, often referred to as “art in the service of science.” But science can also serve beauty. Accurate, detailed drawings can capture our imaginations and hearts in a way that leads us to curiosity, delight, and a desire to protect.

In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.

Baba Dioum
Untitled watercolor painting of a european goldfinch, campanula flower and dutch poppy by scientist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian, 1600s
Maria Sibylla Merian 1705

In 1699, Maria Sibylla Merian left her home in Amsterdam and traveled with her daughter to Surinam where she continued her work as an entomologist and natural science illustrator. Sibylla Merian was an entomologist, illustrator, and publisher. Her work redefined what was known about metamorphosis. You can see in her engravings and paintings how lavishly she loved what she encountered.

Today we encounter natural science illustration almost everywhere we look. If you’re a birder, you probably have at least one field guide on your shelf. We rely on the adept illustrations of each species to help us identify birds (and other life) in the field. But we may not be aware of the thousands of hours of research, field observation, and craft needed to produce these complex works. That’s what natural science illustrators excel at: simplifying complex scientific ideas with rigorous accuracy. This is a job for people with passion.

Photograph of a bookshelf showing a handful of bird field guides

At the Denver Botanic Gardens School of Botanical Art and Illustration, I learned how to be rigorous in researching and understanding the plant species I illustrated. When I decided to concentrate on illustrating birds, I wanted to apply that same rigor, but with a shift in focus. I wanted to render birds as accurately as possible for the sheer joy of it. My hope is that the delight and joy of rendering the beauty of birds comes through in the lush details and colors, the soft textures, and even the scaly feet (always challenging for me to see properly, and endlessly fascinating). My bird studies are just beginning.

Color pencil illustration of a pygmy nuthatch upside down on a large tree branch
Pygmy Nuthatch / 2020
Copyright Christine Hubbell

Drawing and illustrating birds is a highly rewarding, challenging practice. You can start at any age, and with the basic skills of handwriting. A great place to start is in your nature journal. This is where you record what you see, hear, and experience. And you don’t need big outdoor spaces. A porch, patio, or back yard will do. Record your observations over time and you’ll also have a rich historical record of your experiences.

Photograph of a page from a nature journal that shows a color drawing of a european starling; dated April 27, 2020. Includes some text in the margin “The starlings were foraging on the shore in the tall grasses, climbing up the bank on my side of the creek. Silent hunters.

Some of my favorite nature journaling resources are by John Muir Laws. His books on journaling, drawing birds, and teaching are carefully written, easy to follow, and enormously helpful. David Allen Sibley has wonderful process and drawing videos available from his website as well.

For all things bird, explore the amazing artists and educators at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Academy. They offer both real-time and recorded nature journaling workshops as part of their extensive series of classes and workshops.

Hermit Thrush / 2021
Copyright Christine Hubbell

There are so many reasons to love the artistry that allows us to understand birds, and so many reasons to love birds through making art. When we draw birds as a way of studying them, our minds shift to observing with intention. We learn to see aspects of birds that we would otherwise miss.


I’ve posted the following for anyone who’d like more time to draw along with the images in my Aiken Audubon nature art presentation.

If you’d like to watch the 44 minute presentation, you can see it on the Aiken Audubon YouTube Channel.

Under the Reading Lamp

If you’re anywhere in the northern United States today, you’re probably experiencing dangerous cold. It’s the perfect time to take shelter with a good book. Here are three books on nature and art that are absorbing my interest this week.

The Revolutionary Genius of Plants by Stefano Mancuso

What a delight to breeze through this exploration of how plant adaptations can inspire us to achieve our very human needs and desires. I kept saying to my husband “this book is crazy!” But I also kept reading, even after Dr. Mancuso argued that plants may have a form of vision. No kidding. There are wonderful stories here about how plant structure informs some of our most creative architecture or how the decentralized organization of plants could teach us to create robust democracies. I’ve always been more into birds than plants, but this book could tip the balance in favor of plants.

Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth

I spent a happy half hour on my chilly porch sketching our resident rabbit and a few end of day birds with this book at my side. Leslie and Roth encourage readers to begin where they are by observing everything around them and recording it with any available tools. The object is to connect to the natural world locally, by exploring our cities and neighborhoods and parks without judgement. It’s the perfect message I hope to carry into the sketching workshop I’ll be giving in May, plus my sketchbook is filling up with happy observations.

The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws

I love this comprehensive guide to drawing from nature. At 300 plus pages, it’s hard to imagine anything Laws hasn’t covered. From how to observe nature (including how to estimate groups of birds) to contextualizing observations by including maps and landscape sketches, there is enough material here for a lifetime of study. Because I struggle with page composition in my sketchbooks, I skipped to that section and picked up some good tips. It’s that kind of text – dip in and find what you need or absorb it cover to cover.

The arctic temperatures may be ending, but we’re not quite done with winter. So stay warm, make some art, and keep reading!

Got a good nature or art book to share? Post a comment!

At the Tail End of Quiet

I understand why we use the beginning of the year to make a fresh start. The holidays are behind us with their noisy chaos and overindulgence. Closets and arteries need cleansing. And even at the end of January, the calendar still has a compelling sense of possibility.

But I don’t want to race ahead. I’ll be very grateful for spring’s renewing energy. I just want to stop a while at the edge of winter and take one last look around.

Magpies on a snowy trail

Magpie feathers are structurally blue in sunlight

What I see are the dusty browns and gray-greens of faded plant material providing camouflage for the birds. That’s Colorado, of course. Fifty thousand shades of tan! Look closer and you notice that song birds and other critters are surviving on grass seed and the fruits that have persisted into winter. So there’s life in this season if you know where to look.

House finch on a branch eating ash seed

A house finch gleans seeds from an ash tree

When I decided to illustrate the common hop plant, I was thinking about the plump green flowers I’d seen in early September.

Hop flowers and hop leaves on a barbed wire fence

Fresh hop flowers

But by December, the plants had long since dried. Botanical illustrators often reconstruct plants from herbarium specimens, which are specially prepared by trained collectors from living plant material. They are works of art in their own right, arranged to show the flowers and growth pattern of the plant. They bring the plants back to life.

Without a herbarium specimen, it was a bit of a stretch to think I could get the information I needed from a handful of dried hops. I got as far as soaking some curled leaves in water, unfurling them to get a look at their shape, and making a few sketches. The flowers were another problem. Hop flowers open and curl as they dry, so I couldn’t confidently use them to simulate fresh flowers.

A dried hop flower

What I did learn from the dried hop flowers was just how interesting they are in their own right. There’s something soothing about their monochromatic warmth. The bracts and bracteoles swirl around the strig, reminding me of a paper chandelier or a folk dancer’s skirt adorned with ribbons.

An illustration of dried hop flowers

Detail of dried hops. See the full illustration in the gallery.

There are many things pulling me forward as January drifts into February. In a few weeks I’ll be hosting my first ever open studio sale. Artwork needs to be matted, packaged and priced if it’s going to find a new home. I could jump into a swirl of activity.

Or I could ease into my studio while juncos forage for seeds in last year’s monarda. I could think about all the winter birds making a living among the last of the berries, and I could be grateful for a handful of dried hops on my drawing table.

Sunshine on Cottonwood Creek

Transforming Winter

I used to hate winter, especially the month of November. Here in Colorado, fall leaves hit peak color toward the end of October. We’ve had our first or second snow. The winds pick up, then die off, and November sets in. November days are stark, short, and ugly. At least, that’s how I used to think of them.

I believe that making and viewing art is transformative. My attitude toward November took a 180 degree turn when I spent part of the month designing and painting a small illumination based on the letter “N.” At first it had nothing to do with November. Just nuthatches. I’d been seeing them in my yard and went looking for them down at the creek.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

At the creek I met a lovely fellow birder who knew exactly which trees the nuthatches were using. Cathy pointed me toward a couple of hollow Cottonwood branches and there they were. We heard them, too. Nuthatches have a squeaky balloon chatter that’s unmistakable once you catch on.

White-breasted Nuthatch in flight

The more time I spent outdoors looking for nuthatches, the more I noticed that the days were not just dry and short, they were also warm and soft and beautiful. Birds sang everywhere. The water in the creek had a particularly bright sheen from the low, south-driven sun. I couldn’t possibly be warming up to November, could I?

But there it was, creeping into my design for the illumination. The winter sun moving across the sky. The nuthatch prying at the bark of a Cottonwood amid scattered leaves. A sense of stillness at the center of a season in transition. This was my early winter meditation, and it transformed how I felt about those bleak November days.

Illuminated N Sketches

I learned illumination techniques from Renee Jorgenson, who is a wonderful artist, teacher, and master calligrapher. The process starts with a small design, no more than 4 inches square. Every element is carefully planned, from the letter form to the motifs and background patterns. Gold leaf goes down first, then flat color applied with gouache. Black ink and white or pastel details make the colors pop and add visual interest. When it’s successful, you get that sense of a medieval manuscript illuminated with jewel-toned colors. A mini stained glass window on paper.

Illuminated N

I scanned this piece and used it for Christmas cards, but its legacy is that I will always associate it with enjoying the month of November. I hope it speaks to you, too, because there are more tough winter months coming. February can be dark and cold. But “F” is also for flicker, and I think we’re ready for it.

it's definitely you cartoon

When Art Breaks Your Heart

Fall. The colors, the textures, and the chilly nights all make me want to snuggle into the studio a little more deeply. A collection of fall treasures in a terrarium bowl was too romantic to pass up. But my dream of turning a medley of buckeyes and beach glass into fabric for table linens almost broke my heart.

glass bowl with leaves and tree nuts

At first it was golden. I tossed off a composition in record time. I especially loved illustrating the buckeyes. For this project I wanted something looser, richer, and more saturated than colored pencil. I was going to need a new medium. And that’s where things got messy.

graphite sketch

Experimenting with markers both under and over Neocolor II water soluble crayons was exhilarating. And I didn’t just punt. I did my homework, made a color chart. I thought saturation would be more important than “natural” colors. After all, I was designing fabric. Oh, what we tell ourselves in the beginning.

a sample of color swatches

After days at the drafting table I had to admit things weren’t exactly “good” between me and my art. The colors were electric and the values were mostly nonexistent. I was tempted to cut my losses and move onto something else. But after making a value study I decided I really did like the composition. Was I willing to start the illustration again? Sigh. Would it be worth it?

I started over. Finally, I was ready to make a scan and attempt the crazy process of layering the edges for a repeating pattern. What I almost got was an epileptic seizure. I could have cried.

bright fall medley fabric design

In every relationship there comes that moment when you mentally tally the pros and cons. I kept coming back to the beach glass and the overall composition. If I could just tone down the yellows. Pop the greens. Deepen the values.

I would give this relationship/project one more day, and several layers of colored pencil applied carefully, and lovingly, on top of the Neocolors. I also adjusted the scan before starting from scratch on the fabric design. I’m definitely happier with this version. But am I still in love?
detail of fabric design

I’ll let you know when the fabric arrives. Until then, happy fall!
fall medley illustration at the drawing board

Bird feeders in the snow

Grateful

It’s a rare, gray day in Colorado. Snow is falling. While I type, my wrists are warmed by the flax seed pillow at the edge of my keyboard. The oil-filled seeds give off a nutty aroma and radiate gentle heat. I have my muse to thank for this small comfort. If you don’t believe in the idea of an artistic muse, you can call it a creative impulse. Whatever it is, as I work to better connect with what drives me, I rediscover how grateful I am for the luxury of making art.

In fact, I’m thinking about 2016 and all of the things I’m grateful for. Like joining the Colorado Creative Co-op, where I’ve enjoyed sharing my finished plates, making new friends, and selling a few pillows like the one I’m using now. I make the pillows with a flax-filled inner packet and a colorful pillow case trimmed with quilt tape. They got me back into sewing, and what a great way to use my Spoonflower samples.

Spa pillows

Because my muse is nothing if not complicated, making simple pillows led to a more elaborate project. As early as July I was hunting for a way to design fabric for holiday ornaments. Doodling in my sketchbook, the doodle took the shape of a mitten, which reminded me of a bird, which made me think of “A Partridge in a Pear Tree.” Can you make sense of this? Because it just looks chaotic to me.

Sketchbook page

In two days, I had twelve drawings. I gave one or two a “local” touch. This maid is milking bison. She must be one tough chick.

Eight Maids A-milking

Rather than draw eight maids or twelve lords on a tiny mitten, I snuck the number of the verse into each illustration. Can you find the seven?

Seven Swans A-swimming

It took two weeks to complete the illustrations in ink, watercolor pencil and colored pencil. I wanted a palette of harmonious colors, and worked to keep those colors consistent over the twelve illustrations. My only regret turned out to be using too much yellow and lime green – they ended up looking almost the same when printed.

I pushed hard to finish the paintings because I didn’t know how long it would take to get the fabric from Spoonflower. And I still had to scan each illustration and adjust it in Corel PaintShop Pro, size the mittens to get the most from the yardage (sixteen to a fat quarter), build in a seam allowance, create a matching solid for the mitten backs, and cross my fingers that it would all work on the first try. I was delighted when the fabric showed up. Printed on Spoonflower ultra cotton poplin, it washed like a dream. I’d made some prototypes from muslin and iron-on transfers, so I was ready to go into production.

Over the next few weeks I sewed sixty-four mitten “sandwiches” of fabric and quilt batting. I experimented with different kinds of trim, finally settling on a collar of colorful grosgrain ribbon. My muse egged me on, whispering that she wanted more sparkle. Ah! beaded dangles! So in addition to sewing all those mittens, I spent another week or so hand-beading. After that, the decision to spritz them with fabric glitter didn’t seem as over-the-top as it might have at the beginning. I wasn’t really in charge.

Holiday ornament

Ordinarily, this kind of silliness would suck up all of my studio time. Instead, time expanded around the creativity. I designed more fabric, sewed more pillows, and illustrated. This year’s art calendar features ten new finished plates, something I haven’t managed since my days in botanical illustration classes. I finished most of them between July and November.

Junco

It’s a gift I’m truly thankful for, and if inventing a muse helps me understand how I work, then why not. Apparently I need both crazy production projects and the counter-point of meditative colored pencil work. Did I mention I learned a new way to bake bread while all of this was going on?

Pullman loaf

Pencil cartoon

Basic Black

They say the little black dress never goes out of style. It’s simple and can anchor an entire wardrobe. Maybe that’s why I love working in graphite. When I’m overwhelmed with juggling color, it feels good to go back to the basics. Composition, value, and shape. Graphite is the little black dress of my art wardrobe.

Some of my favorite drawings are smudgy graphite sketches. Smudgy is good because it adds instant mid tones. I like to work on toned paper, too, but lately I’ve been heading out with nothing more exciting than a 2B pencil, an eraser, and my Canson sketch pad – the perfect “go anywhere” medium. I’ll confess to a little color excitement here. I made this bag from fabric I designed last year. It’s the perfect companion for sketching trips to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Purse and sketchbook

We often get an audience when we’re working in front of the natural history dioramas. This trip, I showed one summer camper how easy it is to pick out shapes with a kneaded eraser and smudge them back in again when I don’t like the results. “It’s like magic!” she said. I agree – a happy kind of magic where drawing is more like painting.

Seal face

After scribbling in some tone and smudging it with my finger (which is not exactly archival, but hey, it’s just sketching), I lay in a few shapes and pull out highlights, then work in the details. It’s relaxing to sit very still and look carefully, rechecking proportions and reshaping something to be more accurate.

Seal family

So bloom on, tawdry flowers of summer. I know you’re calling to me too, but for now I’ll wear basic black. And shades of grey.