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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently I needed reference photos of mice. I’ve snapped bighorn sheep, pocket gophers, praying mantis, flies, fish and salamanders. Rabbits by the bucket. Squirrels by the tub. Not one mouse.
Be careful what you wish for.
My husband and I were having dinner on our porch when I heard him say “what the heck is that?!?” He’d spotted a mouse gathering spilled thistle at the base of the bird feeder. We spent the next few nights photographing and counting mice. We may have to think about a relocation plan. Or at least a little tightening up around the foundations before fall.
But how nice to have the universe respond in a moment of need. In fact, it’s been a season of serendipity. When I attended the annual conference of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators in July, I lucked into the perfect experiences.
I learned about advocating for tiny members of our ecosystem in a talk by Marla Coppolino. Her presentation gave me ideas for raising awareness of Colorado native bees and pollinators. I took home an incredible piece of artwork sculpted by Karen Johnson. I want to wear it everywhere!
Linda Feltner taught a workshop using the principles of notan – creating a balance of lights and darks, warms and cools in a composition. I’ve taken a bird workshop from Linda, and love her teaching style and her depth of knowledge about painting the natural world. Her GNSI workshop was an eye-opening exploration of composition for natural science subjects. I gained an understanding of how to situate the birds and insects I want to illustrate in their environment. I can’t wait to get started.
Leon Loughridge (Dry Creek Art Press) also demonstrated notan principles in his field sketching workshop. Leon showed us how to see the lights, darks, warms and cools in the landscape and to shape them for good balance. Something else I’m anxious to practice.
Recently, I needed some raven photographs. There are ravens just up the hill, but they are cagier than mice. I may need more than serendipity.