Tag Archives: graphite

Bird Sketching – Life in Progress

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.

February feeder birds sketches, mostly Juncos and House Finches.

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.

Always on the lookout, and constantly on the move: House Finch in the Ponderosa Pine. You only get a moment to capture something about a live bird.

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.

The more we look, the better we understand. A second observation of a House Finch bill at bottom right.

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.

Migratory birds add color and excitement to the feeding stations.

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.

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.

 

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.

Choosing a calendar

Marking the Seasons

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.

Chubbellart201501

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.

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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.

Paulownia tomentosa

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!

Pedicularis groenlandica

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.

Noodles and the Magic Sock

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.

Washington Hawthorn berries

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.

Ornithogalum sp.