Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Best Way to Bird...

is to just sit still. I had to think of this today as I was talking to two friends and an Osprey came up quietly behind us, landed, and stayed at least 15 minutes as we continued our conversation. When they left I took up sketching him and he probably stayed for another ten minutes, always on the same branch.

It's amazing how often this happens. I'd seen very few birds in 90+ minutes of walking and almost all of them the Canada Geese and Mallards in the sketch above. Then we started talking and the Osprey appeared. A Sharp-shinned Hawk also quietly flew in and landed near us while we talked. Meanwhile a Turkey Vulture kept circling the Osprey, getting closer each time before finally drifting off.

In any case it just proves, to me anyway, that often the best way to bird is to just sit still and let the birds come to you. In the case of the Mallards and Canada Geese they are almost always there at Valley Green, primarily looking for free handouts I think. But there's something pleasant about just watching and sketching them and their world, especially on a day as beautiful as today.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When Mighty Oaks Fall......

the whole forest suffers. I thought about this today while walking at Carpenter's Woods in Philadelphia. Last summer one of the huge old oaks fell, taking away one more of what seems to be the favorite tree of birds, certainly of migrating warblers. And of course it destroyed everything in its path.

Today I saw another huge one had fallen, again taking with it everything in its lengthy path. Young trees as well as old trees, perhaps even endangering a tree that probably was its own age. As I said when a huge old oak falls it does a lot of damage. The innocent suffer.

Now I have strong political opinions, leaning more left than right but not oblivious to the huge faults of both parties and the even larger faults of our new 'party.' The unquestioned accepted doctrines of both parties are tiresome. But I don't give my political opinions an outlet here.

I can't help it today though. The fallen oak reminds me of the financial crisis and all the people who are still suffering in many ways from it. There is plenty of blame to go around for it, affecting both parties as well as the public, and always centered on greed. But most of the supposed causes, Fannie Mae, stupid and/or greedy home buyers, totally inept rating agencies, are all red herrings. The vast brunt of the blame comes back to just one place: the financial industry and its unbridled greed. And that greed found an outlet due to deregulation.

But the Obama administration is like the workers from Fairmount Park who will come in and try to clean up the mess. For whatever reason the Democrats seem unwilling to take credit for what they've done but they have in fact been the foresters who came in and cleaned up. And the answer for the future is a return to much stronger financial regulation.

And yet many people seem to blame the Obama administration rather than the financial industry which caused the problem in the first place. Though Democrats were also guilty in the rash of deregulation that took place over the last 20 or so years and led to this disaster they were small peanuts compared to the Republicans. And people want to let the deregulators back in, or even worse the Tea Parties who don't even seem to understand why regulation is necessary! You'd think the present crisis might have shed some light on this but in fact it's done the opposite. There is more and more call for deregulation. Remember deregulation caused the present crisis. A return to it will just precipitate another one.

Imagine if you ran a forest like that. You'd not only have to worry about cleaning up after fallen trees by yourself since there'd be no government agency to do so. You'd also have to worry about just about anyone coming in and cutting all the oaks down all on their own as part of their own libertarian, constitutional right. Perhaps they'd prefer to put up a circus and charge admission. Who would stop them? The fact is society, particularly one as large as ours, can't function without regulation.

If you're at all awake you've seen examples of regulation gone wrong. It can happen to anyone and often does. But in response I'd say this: have you ever seen a misapplied regulation that's caused the damage the removal of regulation from the financial industry has caused? I didn't think so. Underneath it there is no 'mortgage' crisis. The crisis is due to financial deregulation. It found its outlet through mortgages. In five years it will find something else.

On a completely different tack: two different watercolor studies of Common Yellowthroats done over the last week. Well maybe not quite so different. I just wonder how much more endangered birds such as this will become if the Republicans gain control of the House or Senate. A crisis is always used as an excuse to plunder something. Adios Environment.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Language of Drawing

The page at top is a scan of some recent sketches I did from photos of some White-throated Sparrows. Though we rarely get them in our backyard they have arrived in Philadelphia in the last week and, as of a couple of days ago, in our backyard as well.

I did a couple field sketches. But they flushed easily and I didn't get far with the field sketches. So I decided to do this work from photos just to familiarize myself again with the structure of them and other sparrows. After all they will be THE birds of the next 4-5 months!

Drawing them, the recent field sketches I've done, a recent conversation with a birder who watched me sketch at a local hawk watch and then asked about field sketching, and finally the reproduction of a tremendous Goya drawing in a recent New York Times article on a show of Spanish drawings all led me to this post.

About 25 years ago I ran across a book that talked about drawing as a part of a general education in the US over 100 years ago. It was just considered a basic and necessary skill. A far cry from today. I never read the book and may be slightly misremembering it. But I think my memory is basically correct. Drawing at one time was just much more important than it is now.

And yet.... I love drawing. Even when I was an abstract painter I loved drawing. But it is an odd thing. It changes the 3-dimensional world into two dimensions. It also seized the world in a way. Seizes it and puts it down. In that sense I think it may be almost an atavistic human impulse.

I think what got me thinking about this more than anything else was: 1, the Goya drawing. It's the best that drawing can be. And 2, the conversation with the hawk watcher who was interested in my field sketches at the feeder below the hawkwatching platform. He mentioned Urban Sketchers, a site I've looked at a few times, as well as a site devoted to sketches in Moleskine sketchbooks, a type of sketchbook I often use. That reminded me of the Sketching in Nature blog that I often notice in the Art section of the Nature Blog Network. And then there is this very odd New York Times blog on learning to draw. The odd thing is not the blog, but it's location at the New York Times. Still it's one more example of a seeming increase in interest in drawing.

Basically what I saw was the very highest type of art, as in the Goya, as well as the broad appeal of drawing as in all of the various web sites. It looks like there is almost a Renaissance of drawing, especially of sketching from life, whether it be people, cityscapes, nature, birds or whatever.

I could never prove this. And since I'm not part of any of the blogs and websites I mentioned I don't really have a good feel for it. I do spend a lot of time at the Wildlife Art section of as I've mentioned many times. There is a great appreciation of birds drawn from life there. But all in all I'm just not part of any such movement and so all I can do is speak from an outsider's viewpoint.

But it's hard not to notice this seeming widespread desire to draw and particularly to draw from life. That strikes me as very good and very welcome. I think it's the foundation of good art. And that Goya reminds me of just how exceptionally good drawing can be.

Like music it's a sign of the best in human culture. The more of it the better.

Friday, October 15, 2010


That would be kinglets and warblers, at least when you're trying to do field sketches of them. In my last post I mentioned how happy I was with my last two pastel drawings of the Orchard Orioles and the Black-throated Blue and Tennessee warblers. I still I am and plan to continue in that direction.

But I also want to continue working from life, getting better at drawing birds as I see them, even if it's only for a split second as is often the case with warblers and kinglets.

The drawing at top includes a Golden-crowned Kinglet, followed by a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and then a male Black-throated Blue Warbler. Since I didn't have a scope and the birds only sat still for a split second I looked at the birds, tried to 'burn the image onto my retina' and then look down and start drawing. This seems to be good for getting the general shape of a bird. But unless you're one of those people who can think 6 moves ahead in chess you run into trouble on move number two. Where do the noticeable markings go, for instance the obvious stripes in the head of the Golden-crowned Kinglet and the huge eye in the Ruby-crowned Kinglet? Where exactly are those black and white markings on the black-throated blue?

Well these are problems. In each of the sketches above I used my visual memory of other drawings and photos. As usual my memory was wrong. When I checked later I saw that once again I had both the wing position and the markings wrong on the kinglets. And I once again elongated the head of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I've made this same mistake in 90% of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet field sketches I've made! The Black-throated Blue is a bit better but that's partially because I held off on some markings until I could get home and check a reference.

Why put myself through such torture? If I meet people when I'm out sketching their obvious comment is: why don't you just take photos and use them. It seems hopeless to try to explain the lack of connection that results in working from photos. Not to mention the added excitement of trying to draw what's right in front of you before it moves. That excitement comes out in field sketches I believe. It also teaches you to see.

One of the odd things that does happen in field sketching is that you put down your impression. In the watercolor above, which was based on some photos of a Golden-crowned Kinglet I took the other day, I tried to accentuate what I saw with my naked eye, rather than all that the photo showed me. Inevitably photos show you the edge of each primary, secondary, tertial feather. But you don't see the world this way. What I saw instead was a sleek oval with stripes on the head and a black and white arrow/chevron toward the back.

The arrow/chevron made no sense to me as I saw it? What was it? What part of the feathers created it? But the impression was most definitely there. When I checked the photos I saw it was a combination of a black mark and some edging on the flight feathers coupled with a slightly lighter color in those feathers. Since I had photos to work from I could have delineated each feather. But why? What I saw was the black and white arrow/chevron shape. So that's what I tried to accentuate.

This is the choice each artist must make since the advent of photography. Do you want to be true to photos or true to what you see. They are vastly different.

The last sketches above include a Red-bellied and Downy Woodpecker at a feeder. It also includes more warblers and kinglets, none very successful. These sketches are from a few days ago. The one at top is from today and yesterday. I think that they show I'm slowly improving with this. Hopefully I'll finally get a believable kinglet sketch before they're gone until next year.

By the way if you do want to see some beautiful photos of Golden-crowned Kinglets in tremendous detail you couldn't go wrong with this recent post from Corey at 10000birds. One of them shows the chevron that I mentioned.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Warblers in Walkingsticks

I believe that I've finished the new pastel of the Black-throated Blue and Tennessee warblers in Devil's Walkingstick. In the end I stayed pretty close to one of the compositional sketches I showed a few days ago.

I did make the berries stronger than in the preliminary sketch, both as a design device as well as to accentuate the importance of these berries to birds. You can only say so many things and write so many letters questioning the wisdom of pulling out Devil's Walkingstick. Sometimes a work of art has more effect. That of course wasn't my main purpose in making this drawing. But it is a possible added benefit.

I'm also including the finished version of the Orchard Orioles and nest. It's not terribly different than what I last posted but there are some changes. I also like posting it here because I think these two drawings are fairly successful, at least by my idiosyncratic standards.

As an artist you often do works you're not that fond of that quickly find public appreciation and vice versa, works you like that don't seem popular. But as others have said, the public is fickle. I'm sure some artists are successful by catering to public tastes, and sometimes you have no choice if you want to sell anything. But for me I've always wanted to first meet my own exacting standards. These two works have done that I'm happy to say.

To me at least they portray an accurate view of something seen, they are well designed in composition and color, and they use the medium of pastel to advantage. Not everyone who sees these is going to agree. In fact some may now be on floor slapping their knees in laughter because this seems so wrong. Seriously. But I'm my hardest critic and I'm happy with what I've accomplished here and I wanted to explain why.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


It's sometimes hard to convince people how important bird songs and calls are in identifying birds. I remember talking to a co-worker once, who supposedly knew about birds, who remarked that he thought learning calls and songs was for snobs. Real Birders SEE Birds. Well, not exactly.

If you know bird vocalizations you can spend time looking where you hear the unusual bird, and perhaps getting it in view in your binoculars, rather than chasing movement with your eyes only to find that you've just put your binoculars on robin number 42 for the day.

Today I really didn't need to know any vocalizations though. This time a Black-throated Blue warbler landed in front of me, then vocalized a loud 'Click' every time he moved amidst the Devil's Walkingstick. I'd put down my binoculars for my camera and was trying to shoot some photos. So having him constantly giving me vocal clues as to his whereabouts was tremendously helpful. Warblers don't tend to sit still. So you can bet that by the time you've focused your camera, binoculars or scope that they've probably moved.

This constant 'click', also described as 'dik' or 'thik' helped me find him each time he moved. It was also loud. That's one more pleasure of birding: learning the surprising aspects of birds. You wouldn't think such a small bird would be so loud. But it is.

The quick watercolor at top was done in 15-30 minutes, based on a photo I took. Like many of these quick watercolors that are intended mainly as blog illustrations I don't take a lot of care with them. They're really meant to illustrate a story/post. I've been trying to document all the birds that feed on Devil's Walkingstick, a plant that for some perverse reason is classified as an invasive by many. When I got a photo of him with a berry from that plant in his bill I just couldn't resist painting it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My Favorite Sketchbook Pages

of any artist, myself included, often look like the page above. I realized this as I did these sketches today. They're thumbnail sketches of a Black-throated Blue warbler and a Tennessee warbler, both seen in Devil's Walkingstick, feeding on the berries, this past Sunday. As much as I like seeing a quick field sketch that captures the sense of life in a bird, often at a unique moment, I'm equally taken with planning sketches like these.

They are almost never done from life. Instead they show the artist working out ideas, often using photos, sketches or just memory for the subject. I had no intention of posting about this. But after finishing this page of sketches it hit me how much I like pages like this, for others artist as well as myself.

I think the reason is that you can see an artist thinking out loud, trying out various things. For instance both of these sketches started off horizontal. But as I worked on the lower one I ran out of room to get the Tennessee in and eventually made it into a vertical format.

Who knows if the final drawing will look anything like either of these.

I got the idea to do a more developed pastel after doing the 15-minute watercolor above. At first I thought I'd just do the Black-throated Blue and the Devil's Walkingstick. But then I thought it also might be interesting, and more lifelike, to include the Tennessee as well. One of the showiest of our wood warbler alongside one of the drabbest.

I think one other thing I like about sketches like this is that the artist works in shorthand. The lines are often too light or too dark. The shapes are just indications, not finely tuned. I like that. They show the process of making a drawing or painting. I'm not sure why but I've always loved seeing this.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Blackwater River Beaver Ponds

Our trip to Canaan Valley didn't bring us many birds, but it did bring beautiful weather, sunny skies, and a really magnificent setting. We visited Canaan Valley State Park, Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, punctuated by 100s of warblers at the banding station and a roadside Ruffed Grouse, and Canaan Valley NWR. Though we enjoyed each we probably most enjoyed our visits to the many tracts of the National Wildlife Refuge.

There are extensive high-altitude wetlands here, most connected in one way or another to the Blackwater River which flows through the valley. The scene above is based on a photo taken toward the end of the Camp 70 Road trail, as it looks over a beaver pond.

Most of the time we were there the clouds were magnificent and dominated everything we looked at. So when I took this photo, with a future painting in mind, I tilted the camera to get more sky than land.

I'm new to watercolor and really haven't studied its history as I have with other media. Still I think most people would say watercolor was just made for painting sky and clouds. Vegetation and foliage may be another story. But clouds and watercolors go together.

However they've never gone together in my paintings. I've rarely if ever done landscapes or cloudscapes. But these views were just irresistible. So I'm continuing to work with them.

Eventually I'll probably turn back to abstracting them. For now it's interesting to try to paint them as they appeared, at least in photos and my mind's eye, using the medium just made for them.

Friday, October 1, 2010

My First Landscape

I suppose it's fitting after my post about heading more definitely toward abstract work that I should do my first standalone landscape in many, many years. I don't find anything odd about this.

I'm doing this painting because I was struck day after day by the beauty of Canaan Valley in West Virginia a few weeks ago. It's a high mountain valley and the habitat, as residents say, is more like Canada than West Virginia. Yes I know some might say, 'Umm. Canada's pretty big you know.' But I think you get the idea. Probably the most beautiful area we saw was the Freeland Rd. Tract of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The rich yellows, orange, reds of the foliage complemented the deep green conifers, bluish mountains and rich blue sky, which was then reflected in the ponds. A closeup photo of some of the foliage looked like a Jackson Pollock painting but with Matisse's colors.

In the face of such beauty an artist can't but help want to portray it. I did one quick felt-tip pen drawing on site. I think I've already shown it here. But I also wanted to do something more developed. So this is my first landscape in I'm pretty sure at least 25 years. Certainly it's my only developed landscape in 25 years.

But this is just the first. In my mind the purpose of art is to express the artist's view of the world. He can be struck by the beauty of the world and want to portray is like a photograph. I don't say 'realistically' because it's too difficult to say just what that really is. The idea anyway is to portray what he sees. But what I saw was brilliant color. I wish this painting showed that but it doesn't.

So I'll probably do some more landscapes of this area. And I wouldn't be surprised if some of them become abstract, because that may just seem like the best way to express the whole experience of being there.