For me, March is the opening of the creative season. As the studio fills with new ideas, the world pivots from darkness to light, from the quiet waiting of Winter to full-throated Spring. It’s a good time for reflection. My artwork continues to evolve, but with familiar components—a love of beauty, a prayer for conservation, a hope of connection.
My recent colored pencil paintings capture imaginary wildlife encounters in human spaces, blending storytelling with natural science illustration. They place birds in human-made settings, echoing the role we play in shaping and controlling wildlife habitat. I’m never sure where the whimsy comes from, but I need that playfulness to round out my compositions.
I created “Folly” in response to seeing nesting Cerulean Warblers at a birding festival. Through the scope, we watched the male and female tending their nest, tucked in the crook of a branch about 20 feet directly above a busy trail. It reminded me that birds have a precarious life, often struggling to succeed in challenging conditions.
I illustrated the nest as a glass cup filled with the news of the day, a fragile and potentially disastrous choice. I surrounded them with Poison Ivy, which has a dual nature. It’s terrible for us, but beneficial for birds. I titled this piece “Folly” because foolishness is a good place to begin any journey. In foolishness we find the confidence to trust we’ll find what we need along the way.
I don’t know where my muse is taking me this year, but if it’s a Fool’s Journey, it’s bound to be interesting.
I can feel the early morning chill as I kneel at the riverbank, hoping to add another ancient bird to my birding life list. Through the mist I spot pterosaurs wheeling in unison. Two sauropods glance upward, unfazed. My pulse quickens as I train the bins on an unknown Enantiornithine species, and my mind races with the possibility of naming such a beautiful bird. I draw a quick sketch, and then I do a little “life bird” dance, unaware of the unstable dune behind me. As I fall backward, dislodging a cascade of sand, I toss my sketchbook into the seat of my time machine and engage the remote control.
Perhaps I’ll be rescued by a passing Tyranosaur, but it’s looking grim for this explorer. Lucky for you, my sketchbook has made it back to the present, and this Late Cretaceous adventure is available soon in my Spoonflower shop. I had so much fun with this week’s Spoonflower design challenge. I hope you enjoy it!
At 3 a.m. we awoke with a start to the sound of mayhem coming from the kitchen. My husband arrived first on the scene, and was just in time to see our otherwise lazy cat flying along the counter-top in hot pursuit of a mouse.
The plural noun for a group of mice is a “mischief.” How appropriate for the mice that share our home. They’ve eaten my favorite rubber spoons, left trails of droppings behind the stove, and shredded a pair of oven mitts for nesting material (eek!). But at least the cat finally got some exercise.
By the time I got to the kitchen the excitement was over. We set some live traps, did our best to decontaminate the scene, and eventually flopped back into bed. I don’t think we slept much. I kept listening for the trap in the kitchen to spring, too far away to hear except in my imagination.
The experience rattled around in my brain for a few months before a Spoonflower neutral pillow contest brought it to the surface. We caught two mice in our live traps, and I released them among the leaves and grasses. Now they’re hanging around in this repeating pattern, no doubt hoping to find my new oven mitts or a tasty spoon.
Would you like to explore with the mice? You can purchase this design on Spoonflower soon, or sign up for my e-newsletter for special info and a free coloring page.
Baby bunnies are all ears and bellies. To celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, I’ve just completed three eastern cottontail illustrations based on my photos. May is a reliable time to watch for these tiny foragers, who will taste almost everything in the garden. We were entertained by their zippiness, which I suppose kept them from being taken by hawks and owls. We weren’t so fond of their appetites. They especially loved my Firewitch Dianthus, and I hardly got to see it bloom once the bunnies arrived. I’ve illustrated them with phlox, another of their favorites. Which bunny would you choose? Love all three? Check out my Spoonflower shop for these cute little guys in repeat!
Originals and prints will be available soon. Please use the contact page if you’re interested.
It’s late afternoon in the studio. Soft light sifts through the branches of the maple tree, and I’m longing to explore the spring plants emerging along the hedgerow. After two decades as happy Coloradans, we’ve returned to the Midwest to be Hoosiers. We’ve got a little more breathing room, a lot more yard, and a new home for ChubbellArt.
In February, my husband and I loaded our cats into their fancy carrier for the cross-country trek from Colorado to Indiana. It’s been almost two decades since we drove west with a different pair of cats to new jobs and new adventures on mountain trails. Now we were returning to our roots and to family, following the Platte River east as flocks of sandhill cranes descended on the Nebraska corn fields.
If the cats noticed the cranes, they kept it to themselves. It was bitterly cold, in the single digits with plenty of sunshine. After a few hours of restless complaining, they settled into a routine of occasional medicated mewling. We reached Lincoln after dark, grateful for GPS navigation and a warm Air BnB. We let go of the chaotic violence of loading day, the memories already softening into story.
When the moving van arrived at the end of our driveway, a flock of Sandhill Cranes flew over the house. I took it as a benediction. Soon, the moving-in crew was hustling every box, tote, and stick of furniture inside. There was chaos, lots of cleaning up, and exhaustion on all sides. I’m grateful for the few days we had between moving out and moving in—days to quietly observe nuthatches cascading down the trunks of the maple trees, and to listen to the small flock of redwing blackbirds singing in the cattails across the road.
Two months after unpacking the last box, my husband and I are slowly settling into new rhythms. And though it still feels like we’re between leaving and arriving, I take joy in the birds vying for the suet feeders. We stroll on the beach, visit family, and make home repair appointments. Meawhile the cats patrol endlessly round and round the rooms, remarking the furniture. Sometimes they circle back to us in recognition that our little family is all that really matters. But mostly they complain about the increase of clouds and the lack of window ledges.
Soon enough, this unsettled feeling will be replaced with the more grounded sense of being at home, so I want to slow down and savor the strangeness, too. We’re constantly delighted by some new surprise. Hiding among the non-native trees and shrubs we’re finding walnut, oak, black cherry, and raspberry. Woodpeckers, migrating warblers and grosbeaks are flitting through, providing lots of challenging inspiration for art. This leg of our life’s adventure is as open to possibility as the previous twenty years, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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???
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?
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.
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!
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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!