Category Archives: Art Inspiration

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.

Female downy woodpecker

Winter Inspiration

Winter can be full of surprises. This year I decided to walk a single stretch of Cottonwood Creek several times a week. I took my camera along, birding and observing. We’ve had more snow than usual, but the birds don’t care. They ignore me as I trudge along in my boots under the bare branches.

My favorite discovery has been a pair of downy woodpeckers that I saw spiraling up the narrow trunks of stunted trees. I’ve gone back many times to find the female, listening for her brief chirp or light tap-tap as she hunts insects under the bark. She has so much personality, I wanted to capture it. Working from photos, I first composed and painted the pair together, then decided to draw them separately. I read that downy woodpeckers are more solitary in winter. Here’s my study in oil. This was a big help in preparing the more finished graphite painting above.

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The creek hosts a nice range of bird species. Right now, it runs under a mantel of ice, emerging in matted vegetation at the edges. I caught this cat keeping a close eye on some mallards near the foot bridge.

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Song sparrows, goldfinches, juncos, house finches, and chickadees all flit among the shadowed branches. This area also contains a number of dead trees that are perfect habitat for flickers.

Northern Flicker

As the weather warms and the trees leaf out, it will be harder to spot the birds. But I’ll keep looking. I wouldn’t want to miss spring migration and mating season, and all the lovely surprises that are sure to inspire new paintings.

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Cottonwood Creek, looking west.

Chicken on the beach

Summer Crush

I fell in love this summer – with chickens.

Chickens

It started with chickens appearing all over my sketchbooks. Sometimes they lived in a chicken coop or met in the park to play chess. They looked like pirates, sea captains and school bus drivers. One, intensely interested in exoplanets, clucked his way onto a rocket ship.

Sketchbook illustration

I had a vision of large paintings of plucky chickens exploring the universe. The vision blossomed into a fantasy – a whole gallery of paintings, and maybe a children’s picture book! This was getting serious.

Studio mess

Half-completed projects tumble out of a box in my studio like the souvenirs of failed love affairs. Contour drawings, value studies, reference photos, receipts for supplies I’ve never used. What if the chickens ended up here, too – sandwiched between faded photographs of bantams and red jungle fowl? But love blossomed – and demanded a trip to the art supply store.

I bought Golden Open acrylics and experimented on canvas, watercolor paper treated with clear gesso, and Strathmore 500 illustration board.

Sketch

Here’s a watercolor sketch treated with gesso.

Acrylic sketch

Over-painted with acrylic. It’s definitely time for painting lessons.

Illustration board was better – easy to use and forgiving. But when a friend introduced me to watercolor canvas panels, I fell in love again.

Painting

This surface seems perfect for transparent layers of acrylic washes, which will produce beautiful botanical–

–wait–what happened to the chickens?

My summer crush is turning into a smoldering affair with acrylic paint.

And if it all goes wrong? If acrylic paint breaks my heart?

Pencils

The cat is keeping my colored pencils warm.