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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
I’ll let you know when the fabric arrives. Until then, happy fall!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
I thought this post would describe emerging from a creative rabbit hole with new skills and ideas. And it does – sort of.
My winter obsession started with a spark from a Spoonflower fabric design contest. The contest was “ditsy sheep.” It turned out that “ditsy” did not mean “silly.” My sheep had to get smaller and much more scattered.
Which was great, because it forced me to explore Corel Paintshop Pro (ancient version X1!). I also picked up the wonderful Field Guide to Fabric Design by Kimberly Kight for tutorials and practical design advice (Stash Books, 2011). By the time Spoonflower sent me swatches of my fabric, I could ditsy like a novice. I sketched cottontails in coral, mint, black and white (another contest), and was back down the rabbit hole, ignoring the warning signs of addiction.
Elsewhere in the studio I began a series of colored pencil pieces on mylar. Here’s the Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum, probably thyrsoides) and some carnations in progress. One of my last posts mentioned a love affair with acrylic paint. The image behind the Ornithogalum is an acrylic painting.
Two new studio pieces
I keep planning to spend more time on the botanical series, but I’ve let two dozen pink carnations wither in the vase while playing with fabric. I’ve been texting friends and family with pictures of my latest designs. I scribble motifs on napkins and see colorways when I close my eyes at night. The mailman delivered a new set of swatches yesterday. Every day I tell myself “one more pattern. I can stop any time I want.”
Then I discovered Paintshop’s kaleidoscope option.
So I really have gone down a creative rabbit hole and acquired new skills and ideas. I just can’t get out. I feel a little more Go Ask Alice than Alice in Wonderland. Over the weekend I worked on the beagle contest. Feel free to ignore my texts.
My husband and I were shopping the post-holiday sales when we discovered a “seasonal” store. The picked-over assortment of toys, puzzles and calendars has probably vanished with the melting snow, but that day there were still hundreds of options in dozens of styles.
Calendars may be going the way of the photo album and the land line, transmuting into a set of data points on smart phones. I’m not complaining. My digital calendar not only reminds me of each appointment, it gives me a route and an (almost) accurate travel time.
But there’s something magical about flipping the page on a new week or month and enjoying the next image. Every year I make an art calendar for friends and family. And though I suspect she’d rather look at twelve months of grandchildren, my mother hangs hers in January and asks in November if I’m “doing another calendar.” “Yes,” I say. “Just as soon as I figure out what to put in it!”
I choose images that evoke the seasons. The snow and bare branches of winter give way to the soft pinks and greens of spring. Summer brights fade into the neutral shades of fall. I hope the images are lovely to look at, since each one will be hanging for a month in someone’s office or kitchen.
Baboons aside, here are some of my favorites from this year’s calendar.
The dried Empress Tree leaf (Paulownia tomentosa) was completely absorbing to draw. Its deep curls reminded me of draped fabric. The fast-growing Paulownia is native to China. The leaves are large – this one was about a foot long.
Elephant’s head (Pedicularis groenlandica) is a favorite wildflower of a good friend. We’ve seen it often along hiking trails. I cobbled together a contour drawing and value study from my old hiking photos and took advantage of the richness of colored pencil on mylar. I didn’t have a reliable color reference, so I pushed the pinks. Why not!
Colored pencil on mylar
This sample illustration from Noodles and the Magic Sock was fun to paint with water color and colored pencil on illustration board. In this image, Noodles (Felis nawtii) is using the sock as a lasso and a circus hoop to control magic animals.
My last post included a sneak peek of this acrylic painting of Martha, our Washington Hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum). Martha had a bumper crop of apple-flavored berries. After stripping most of the tree, the squirrels tried to shinny out to the very tips of the branches. The birds are still laughing.
The new year promises some exciting challenges. I’m taking a figure drawing class with plenty of self study in human and animal anatomy, and am continuing to explore acrylics and painting. But now it’s time to get back to my Star of Bethlehem portrait (Ornithogalum sp.), also colored pencil on mylar and perhaps Miss December 2016.
Welcome to the inaugural post of chubbellart.com. This month I hope to finish the latest in my series of bird portraits. These blue jays are done in mixed media, but primarily water color. I’m building up layers of grainy colored pencil and water color in the background. I’ve used water color pencils as well. I’m working on Arches 140# hot press, and it seems to be holding up to all the scrubbing and lifting I’ve been torturing it with.
My long journey to learn the craft of children’s book writing and illustrating continues. I’m participating in the SCBWI Carolinas Picture Book Dummy Challenge. It is truly challenging. After working on character development, setting, and composition, we’re finalizing dummy sketches and creating finished artwork. My story is about a cat named Noodles who must tame the magic sock in order to get his heart’s desire. I’ve got Noodles taped to the back of my studio door. I’m using the cats as models when they can be bothered to pose. I’ve got a week to finish the dummy sketches, a month to get the final art ready, and my primary goal is to not embarrass myself when I submit everything at the end. Assuming, of course, that I’ve checked in at all stages of the challenge and finish on time. We’ll see how it goes!