Sunday, August 30, 2009

Am I Beautiful, or What?!

Stub-tailed, long-beaked, knob-kneed! Not the phrases that first spring to mind when discussing beauty. But that is a good description of a Green Heron, and he is beautiful!

Of course the maroon and dark green colors of much of the upper bird helps, as does the rich brown streaking on neck. This one was particularly striking due to the bold zigzag pattern on the wings, seen in the second photo. This is the fresh plumage of a first year bird. He'll keep it until next summer. I'm surprised we've never seen this before but we've rarely been so close to one either. I wonder if his seeming tameness also is related to his age. Or perhaps he was a migrant and too hungry to worry about nearby humans.

We saw him on a 4-hour walk at Tinicum(John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge) today on a beautiful, sunny, breezy 80 day. I'd say he was the high point along with a couple of Marsh Wrens, two Great-Crested Flycatchers and one Willow Flycatcher.

I did have my watercolor field box with me but it seemed better today to stick with the pencil sketches above and the photos. i also wanted to share the scope with my wife so that gave me less time to draw, or paint, with it. Still I certainly wish I'd had time to try some watercolor field sketches of this very handsome bird. I expect you will be seeing some watercolors, and maybe pastels, of him in the future. He is just too striking not to be the subject of more developed artwork.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Field Box and Fly-Tying

A number of years ago when I used to fly fish for trout I decided to explore fly-tying, the tying of very small lures meant to imitate insects and other trout food. I'd avoided it for years even though I hated paying for lures tied by someone else. The reason I avoided it is that I have big hands and lures are basically very small trinkets that are sewn together. Me as a small seamstress? It didn't seem likely.

Nonetheless I finally got the hang of it and learned to work 'very small.' I have that same feeling with my new Field Box. It is so small. All in all though it's easier to use than fly-tying materials so today I spent another hour before work sketching Canada and Chinese Geese at Valley Green.

Like yesterday they're nothing to brag about and they probably show me more what I still need to learn than they make me happy with the current results. Still I'm not embarrassed to show them, and that says something because I have posted work that I have been embarrassed about in the past. Or maybe the embarrassment just won't hit me until they're posted and it's too late!! Possibly, but I think not. I do like something about these.

Today is supposed to be very warm, about 90. But it couldn't have been a more beautiful day than it was when I was out sketching these. Must be the end of August.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Carpe Minutiae!?

Father Bede, my cantankerous and very strict Latin teacher from many, many years ago, would be looking disapprovingly at this title I'm sure. But it's been a long time so I've just made a wild guess as to how to modify Carpe Diem(Seize the Day) to Seize the Minutes.

I had to make an early morning delivery to our vets and wanted to try a bit more field sketching on the way home before leaving for work. So I seized 45 minutes at a new location: Militia Hill Hawk Watch at Fort Washington State Park. I figured there wouldn't be any hawks in flight but thought the feeders might be busy. And they were.

So this sketch is my second attempt at using watercolors in the field. The colors are too strong and straight from the pan. I used the tiny brush that comes with my field box and at times it's just too small. But the drawings helped to get me more comfortable with watercolor field sketches. And I couldn't resist the acrobatics of the American Goldfinch. The other birds are a Downy Woodpecker and Mourning Dove.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Field Boxes, Flycatchers, Waxwings

I've spent a lot of time at the Wildlife Art section of over the last month. There are some incredibly good artists there, not to mention a vibrant and helpful community. As I've looked at the work there, especially the watercolor field sketches of Nick Derry and Tim Wootton a question has been rumbling around in the back of my mind: Why don't I use real watercolors for my field sketches rather than watercolor pencils and waterbrushes?

The latter method is quick and very convenient. Most of my recent sketches from life are done in this manner. But it is limiting as well: you're pretty much stuck with the colors of the pencils you have with you and color blending is difficult; the end result is half-sketch/half-watercolor; it almost always, at least in my work, looks tentative.

When I see field sketches that look almost like finished paintings I've quietly asked myself if I don't need to change methods. Finally a couple members of the forum suggested I just get a watercolor field box that I can bring with me so that I can do full-fledged watercolors. So I did.

The time was right and I'd just gotten a 10% off coupon from Dick Blick Art Supplies. So I bought an expensive field box set. I surely didn't want to spend as much money as I did, especially as I have a fair number of Winsor & Newton tube watercolors as is. But this looked like a convenient well designed set and it included pan watercolors, which I thought might be better and maybe less strong than tube watercolors.

Well there are field boxes and there are field boxes. I'm sure many people make their own, some from wooden boxes, and some from small mint tins. But I never thought that I was buying something about the size of a mint tin!!

You can see its size in the photo above. That is a quarter to the right of the watercolors! So it's far smaller than I expected. I got it on Friday but wasn't able to get out yesterday due to the rain. Out of frustration I gave it a try using a photo of a Barn Swallow I'd taken. I used the teeny, tiny collapsible brush and the results are below.

To some extent I feel like I cheated because I didn't work from life on this. It's based on a photo. Nonetheless I'm happy with the vibrant colors, especially compared to the watercolor pencil Mallard in upper left.

So, to finally get to the point of this lengthy and wandering post, today my wife and I again went to Morris Arboretum to see what we could see and to try some field sketching, especially with the new field box.

Immediately I saw the first problem. There have been many Cedar Waxwings at Morris recently but they rarely sit still long enough to draw or paint. But today I tried. I got one lined up in scope, then got out my field box and sketchbook. Here's the problem. I need one hand to hold the sketchbook, and one hand to hold the tiny plastic tin of watercolors, and a THIRD hand to do the painting. And really a fourth hand to hold the small container of water. The small watercolor of a waxwing below shows how quickly I gave up on this method!

This isn't much of a page. The waxwings just wouldn't sit still and I just couldn't get a good drawing let alone a good watercolor. The even worse sketch in upper right is a Willow Flycatcher. I just couldn't get anything right on it but I did get enough notes to clearly identify it later as a Willow Flycatcher.

After the three hand fiasco I decided that I needed to sit down somewhere so that I could manage this with two hands. Those drawings are at top. Still more problems presented themselves. Should I draw first with a pencil? Should I just start with brushes? That seemed like a good idea but then there were new problems. The tiny little collapsible brush held no water and so was constantly out of water. So it was like painting in the dry brush method. So then I tried a waterbrush but its flow is erratic even though it has its own reservoir. Finally I went to a standalone brush that was bigger than the collapsible one. That was okay but also ran out of water quickly, or had too much water and ran. So all of the sketches on top two photos are me feeling my way around.

They are a bit clumsy, particularly in regard to color. But they also feel more like paintings. If I can just grow a third or possibly fourth hand I think the future is bright!!

All kidding aside I am hopeful. Today was very frustrating but I see clearly the possibilities ahead and look forward to getting out again. There's nothing like painting.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cicadas and Field Sketching

I've continued to do field sketches since I last posted, both at Valley Green, where ducks and geese are plentiful, and at Morris Arboretum, where I and my wife went this weekend. The most notable thing at Morris however was not the birds but the insects, specifically cicadas.

I'm not sure we've ever seen such an abundance of them. And I'm not sure the local birds had either. We had barely started birding when we saw a number of birds flycatching. Flycatchers, right? No, Warbling Vireos. More than that they looked like flycatchers who suddenly decided to make right turns in the middle of a dive. I'm not sure but I think they were going after the cicadas.

I thought about trying to take a photo of some of the closeup cicadas but it just didn't seem worth the effort to unpack the camera from the daypack. By the time I did the insects probably would have flown! They normally do, whether they're birds or insects. Possibly I should have tried a sketch.

We did manage to see a number of birds at Morris as well. The most interesting for sketching purposes were two Green Herons and one pale, probably immature Northern Flicker. I include a page with sketches of both. The heron has three legs because he shifted his pose while I was drawing him.

Two trips to Valley Green produced a couple of pages of ducks and geese. Interestingly the one hybrid goose, with knob on head and wattle on neck, is a Chinese Goose, not a Graylag/Barnyard Goose as I'd guessed. They're both domesticated geese and so aren't as usual in guidebooks. That coupled with all the hybrid ducks at Valley Green makes me want to write them all off as hybrids. But a passerby told me he thought the geese were Chinese Geese and he was right. They're actually very handsome.

The Valley Green page above includes a duck I've shown previously. But the other birds on that page are new. I'm showing it particularly because of the Mallard with one leg raised in lower right. He wasn't just drying it off, or instigating a new dance craze. He was actually injured from what I could tell. He didn't want to put any weight on it.

I think he, as well as the Mallard in upper left of that page, show why I love drawing from life and why I'm happy to be devoting more time to it. This type of sketching can capture a unique moment in time. Some people don't see this and long for work of fine detail. But for others, and I think this includes most artists, there's nothing more satisfying than a quick sketch that seems to capture a moment, and gesture, in time.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Freedom to Make Mistakes

A funny thing happened as I worked on this drawing, now in its third or fourth day I think. I realized that I was spending a lot of time trying to retrieve what I'd lost from the last version of this drawing that I posted.

I won't rattle on forever about that but it does seem appropriate for this my 100th post. When I started this blog, originally a web site, I thought I'd use it to write down bird sightings, thoughts on birds, nature and art, and maybe throw in a quick sketch or two. But as time went on I realized that my strongest interest by far was in developing my art and showing it here.

When I started this drawing I wanted to be somewhat improvisatory, as I've been through most of my artistic career. I had foregone improvisation to a large extent over the last three years as I took up birds as my subject. But something gnawed at me as I did so. I wanted to be true to the birds I saw but I wanted more artistic freedom.

I think I've finally gotten to the stage where I'm regaining that freedom. And one of the big parts of that freedom is the Freedom to Make Mistakes!

I think that may be what happened when I went back into this drawing to try to unify the background, so that it seemed more illusionistic and not so much just painterly markings with pastel. In doing that I think I lost some of the summery brightness that the drawing had on Sunday.

I hope that I've retrieved some of that. If not I think I have at least turned it into a finished drawing. And that is really what is important to me.

When I did abstract and non-objective work most drawings took days to finish. If they didn't then they at least took a full eight hour day. I was never satisified with what I did, at least not immediately. But generally after those days of work I was satisfied. I felt that I had a finished drawing. Paintings were the same but took weeks rather than days.

Most of my bird art has been done in much less time. Anyone who follows this blog knows that occasionally I still spend too long because I have ruined a good quick watercolor or two by overwork. That's undoubtedly true. But I think watercolor is a different type of medium. Most artists need to work quickly when using it. It just won't get better with continued work.

Pastels, charcoals and paintings are different however. It is possible to make them better with more work. It doesn't always work out, but even when it doesn't you generally learn something.

So that is really why this works seems appropriate for my 100th post. Whether it's better or worse than my drawing from Sunday I can't say right now. I'm too close to it. What's most important though is that I worked on it until I thought it was finished, really finished, like my old abstract works. Sometimes this is a painful process. But I think in the end it makes for better stronger work. And for happier artists!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Finished(?) Acadian Flycatcher in Pastel

This improvisatory drawing of an Acadian Flycatcher may be finished. It is certainly finished for an hour or two. My tendency as an artist is to just launch into activity and see what happens. I like working that way and probably can't work any other way. But sometimes it gets me into trouble! A little more thought and patience might be useful.

So over the ywars I've learned that even though I may work in a fevered flurry it's best to take a break before I destroy something good because I'm working too quickly. So for now this sits.

It's not quite as bright as yesterday's drawing but I think it looks a bit more realistic. Anyway I'm sure I'll have a better opinion on it after letting it sit for a bit.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Improvisation in Greens

Today just didn't work out for any fieldsketching so I decided to grab an hour or two of studio work. It seemed like a good time to return to pastel and charcoal work, with the subject as usual based on a photo I'd taken.

I'd been happy with my recent Piping Plovers in charcoal and pastels so that's one reason I chose this medium. I also had been happy with the recent watercolor of the Acadian Flycatcher surrounded by leaves and catkins, probably birch, and basking in a golden/green glow. There is something about that glow I love. So I decided to do a drawing based on another photo of the flycatcher.

But as I started I realized that there was something else. I wanted to improvise, as I used to in my abstract and non-objective drawings and paintings. So that's what I did. There is a basic drawing here and a wee bit of planning. But most of this is an improvisation. Who knows how it will turn out?

The drawing at the top is the first version, mainly in compressed charcoal with some pastel. The version above adds much more pastel and a fair amount of erasure. As with so much of my work I need to take care that I don't lose too much of the brilliant white of the paper. It will be another tightrope walk. So will the rest of the work. I really don't know where I'm going with this. But that is the thrill of improvisation. Sometimes it works; and sometimes it doesn't.

When I was a graduate student in art at Cornell I loved jazz and really thought of much of my work as being similar to improvisatory jazz. There may be a foundational melody or other structure to come back to but the fun is in experimenting away from that structure. In this case it's the Acadian Flycatcher and foliage. I hope that I won't lose the structure in my improvisation. As with all my bird art I still want to stay true to the subject.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sketching Ducks and Geese Live

There is a popular spot along the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia that includes a restaurant, parking, lots of people, and a quiet stretch of water. The quietness would attract ducks and geese to begin with but the addition of families throwing out bread to feed them makes it particularly attractive to them. This is Valley Green.

It's about 10 minutes away by car and I've been hoping to get up early enough to head over there and get an hour's drawing done from life before heading off to work. I did that today and the results are above. Subjects are primarily Canada Geese, Mallards, and stray pigeon or grackle. All are done from life without benefit of scope or binoculars. I used pencil with a bit of watercolor pencil and waterbrush.

All in all I'm pleased with them, especially the geese and the lone mallard. Probably more than anything they convince me of the tremendous possibilities in working from life.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"A Pencil is One of the Best of Eyes"

I ran across the title quote while reading 'Crow Planet, a new book by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, yesterday. It's from the 19th century scientist Louis Agassiz. His point was that in drawing what you see you actually are forced to see much better. You see details that you otherwise might miss. This sentiment has been stated many times by others, especially birders and bird artists. Only when you try to draw what you see do you realize that you might not have really seen so well in the past.

As I read this last night I thought of the trouble I'd had drawing the young robin above earlier in the evening. It was dusk and even though the robin was only 6-10 feet away I just couldn't see him well. What did his eyes look like? I knew that there was a sort of broken eye ring but I just couldn't see it. It was too dark. So I made a guess. But what I learned is that next time I'll take one very good look at the robin so that I understand his eye.

I've also had a similar problem with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, also seen in the drawing at top, as well as in the top drawing of my last post. I've seen many times now the way that their torso forms almost an S shape when they're feeding. But the wings!! They move too fast to even see them. But worse, I can't even see where they attach to the body. If I knew that, which admittedly I could find by looking at photos or guide books, I could at least approximate them. So I'll continue to look differently and more intently as I see them in the backyard this year. Eventually I'll get a better understanding of them and be able to draw them better. One thing that I've noticed since posting is that I'm drawing the wings of an insect not a bird! I'm sure that they don't come to a point as they attach to the torso as they do in birds. My guess is that in the constant fluttering it 'seemed' to look more like the wings on an insect, e.g. dragonfly, than that of a bird. But I'd be very surprised if the wings aren't very much like other birds in actuality, even though in appearance that might not be the case.

But it is only in the drawing itself, when drawing from life that is, that you begin to realize how little you actually see and how much better you need to train your eyes.

Jimmy Nardello, Dinosaur to the Rescue

It was a sad day yesterday when I had to destroy about 30 tomato plants in our garden. They all suffered from late blight. I was first alerted to this problem by Ellen at The Spicebush Log a few weeks ago. That post led me to look at our tomatoes, all grown from seed, and including such heirloom varieties as Hillbilly Potato Leaf, Cherokee Purple and Green Zebra. I saw a few spots of yellow and brown on some leaves but I didn't think it was late blight. Yesterday an email from Johnnys Selected Seeds reminded its readers of the dangers of late blight. It also included the first link above, which shows many photos of late blight evidence on tomatoes

So I checked again. This time there was no doubt. Although I'd grown all plants from seed and so they couldn't have been contaminated by a commercial grower they had still gotten the disease. And that is the problem. Because it spreads through tiny spores which can travel great distances it's possible to get the disease from contaminated plants in other gardens. Once your plants have it you can also spread it to plants outside your yard. And you can get it in your soil so that it remains for years. Given all that I had no choice but to pull all the plants yesterday. Unless the farm which the runs the CSA to which we belong has escaped the blight we'll have very few tomatoes this summer.

But there was a bright spot. Growing plants from seed there are always some seedlings that just don't get planted due to lack of room in our small urban garden. Also as trees and shrubs in our yard and our neighbors have grown our yard has gotten more and more shady. So it's harder year by year to find room to plant all we'd like to. There is just too much shade to be good for most plants. With all the tomatoes I ripped out and put in plastic bags however a fair amount of new space opened up.

Most of the extra seedlings were the delicious Italian frying pepper Jimmy Nardello(see drawing at top) and so I'll be able to plant them rather than just see them wither away to nothing in their tiny seedling pots. Additionally a few basil seedlings will now have a home.

Each fall as the weather starts to cool I wish I had some kale, especially Lacinato Kale, also known as Dinosaur, and Tuscan Kale. But there was never room in the garden so I never planted a fall crop. The new space will allow me to do so. Additionally I'll plant some other crops thst will be delicious in the fall, especially choi and spinach. Many plants will survive some snow and cold so it's possible to have garden crops late into the year. Unfortunately one of my favorites, Green in Snow Mustard, no longer seems to be available.

In the drawing at top you'll also find a few bonus Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, drawn from life in our backyard. As you can probably tell they don't sit still for long. But still I try, and I do learn. See my next post, coming in next few minutes, for more information on this.