Tag Archives: creativity

A Passion for Birds

Color pencil illustration of a Long-eared owl positioned slightly in front of the full moon, perched in an active position on a slender branch
Long-eared Owl / 2021
Based on photographs by Risë Foster Bruder
Copyright Christine Hubbell

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.

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.

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.

 

Cartoon featuring Alice in Wonderland

Another Rabbit Hole

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.

Sketchbook images of cartoon sheepHubbell043

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.

Easter bunny fabric design

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.

Colored pencil artwork

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.

Kaleidoscope fabric images

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.

Beagle cartoon