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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.