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!
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!
If you’re anywhere in the northern United States today, you’re probably experiencing dangerous cold. It’s the perfect time to take shelter with a good book. Here are three books on nature and art that are absorbing my interest this week.
The Revolutionary Genius of Plants by Stefano Mancuso
What a delight to breeze through this exploration of how plant adaptations can inspire us to achieve our very human needs and desires. I kept saying to my husband “this book is crazy!” But I also kept reading, even after Dr. Mancuso argued that plants may have a form of vision. No kidding. There are wonderful stories here about how plant structure informs some of our most creative architecture or how the decentralized organization of plants could teach us to create robust democracies. I’ve always been more into birds than plants, but this book could tip the balance in favor of plants.
Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth
I spent a happy half hour on my chilly porch sketching our resident rabbit and a few end of day birds with this book at my side. Leslie and Roth encourage readers to begin where they are by observing everything around them and recording it with any available tools. The object is to connect to the natural world locally, by exploring our cities and neighborhoods and parks without judgement. It’s the perfect message I hope to carry into the sketching workshop I’ll be giving in May, plus my sketchbook is filling up with happy observations.
The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws
I love this comprehensive guide to drawing from nature. At 300 plus pages, it’s hard to imagine anything Laws hasn’t covered. From how to observe nature (including how to estimate groups of birds) to contextualizing observations by including maps and landscape sketches, there is enough material here for a lifetime of study. Because I struggle with page composition in my sketchbooks, I skipped to that section and picked up some good tips. It’s that kind of text – dip in and find what you need or absorb it cover to cover.
The arctic temperatures may be ending, but we’re not quite done with winter. So stay warm, make some art, and keep reading!
Got a good nature or art book to share? Post a comment!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
It started with chickens appearing all over my sketchbooks. Sometimes they lived in a chicken coop or met in the park to play chess. They looked like pirates, sea captains and school bus drivers. One, intensely interested in exoplanets, clucked his way onto a rocket ship.
I had a vision of large paintings of plucky chickens exploring the universe. The vision blossomed into a fantasy – a whole gallery of paintings, and maybe a children’s picture book! This was getting serious.
Half-completed projects tumble out of a box in my studio like the souvenirs of failed love affairs. Contour drawings, value studies, reference photos, receipts for supplies I’ve never used. What if the chickens ended up here, too – sandwiched between faded photographs of bantams and red jungle fowl? But love blossomed – and demanded a trip to the art supply store.
I bought Golden Open acrylics and experimented on canvas, watercolor paper treated with clear gesso, and Strathmore 500 illustration board.
Here’s a watercolor sketch treated with gesso.
Over-painted with acrylic. It’s definitely time for painting lessons.
Illustration board was better – easy to use and forgiving. But when a friend introduced me to watercolor canvas panels, I fell in love again.
This surface seems perfect for transparent layers of acrylic washes, which will produce beautiful botanical–
–wait–what happened to the chickens?
My summer crush is turning into a smoldering affair with acrylic paint.
And if it all goes wrong? If acrylic paint breaks my heart?
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.