Saturday, April 28, 2012

Still Sketching

Garden chores, carpentry chores related to our garden, and a lot of birding and field sketching have argued against any developed work during the last week or two. I don't mind this. During winter I long for warmer weather so that I can actually sketch from life. So that's what I like to do at this time of year. And of course there are always the new arrivals to sketch. That adds some excitement. Above is a field sketch of the first Wood Thrush of 2012. Below it is a poor sketch of an Eastern Screech Owl. In these two instances and almost all the others on pages below I didn't have my scope. So the sketches are done by looking at bird in binoculars and then sketching the bird. It's almost three years since I started field sketching seriously. It is a daunting task. The birds are so often gone before you can put pen or pencil to paper. It seems impossible. And yet when I see field sketches by talented artists I can feel the excitement that they must have had as they drew. Sketches from photos, including my own, leave me cold by comparison. There's just nothing like a good field sketch. I imagine this is related to why I've always preferred Rembrandt's sketches to his paintings. There's an electricity in them that is not found elsewhere.
But it has not been an easy road. The excitement is always there but the results don't always seem to indicate much improvement. This is less so with field sketches done with a spotting scope and birds that tend to sit for more than a split second. And I'm very happy with those. With the sketches done in the manner of this page though I sometimes feel disappointed in my progress. That is starting to change though. I've learned that such sketching requires both mental effort and experience. Once you've gotten certain parts of a bird wrong enough times you start drawing it differently even in field sketches. More I think you learn what you don't know. As I've learned all the things I don't know about constructing a bird on paper I've started to pay more and more attention to those aspects when looking at a bird to sketch it. So even a field sketch that is done in less than 10 seconds may include years of experience and knowledge. I'm starting to feel that with the way I draw woodpeckers, thrushes, wrens, even those troublesome warblers. On the page above are some recent attempts at a Yellow-rumped Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker and Gray Catbird. They still leave much to be desired. But finally I feel that it won't be long before my field sketches show a full and convincing sketch of the birds I see. It is an exciting time.
Above some sketches of a Carolina Wren, all of whom seem to be perched in the open and singing at this time of year, a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a Hairy Woodpecker. I'm starting to feel at home with Carolina Wrens. Woodpeckers are more complicated but I'm starting to pay attention to the different shapes and sizes of their bills, the shapes of their heads, and the patterns on their face and wings. It's a lot to keep track of and generally I can only notice a few things before the bird has flown. But the knowledge is accumulating. I expect that soon my various woodpeckers will actually look like the species they are meant to portray. There is something tremendously exciting about being able to sketch birds as they appear, and disappear, right in front of you. By the way almost all of the credit for my improvement, outside of my actual practice, can be laid at the great examples of field sketching found at the Wildlife Art thread at

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Waterthrushes, Wood Thrushes, Warblers

Not quite a year ago I published a post on developing a print of a Louisiana Waterthrush based on a field sketch and a subsequent watercolor. What really struck me was the long tail.

So I've been surprised when I've seen Louisiana Waterthrushes over the last couple of weeks and their tail doesn't seem quite as long. Unfortunately most have been high in trees, singing away, which is always a pleasure to see, but nonetheless difficult to draw. Even photos were difficult because they were too high.

The small watercolor above, 5x7 inches on Fabriano Artistico cold press paper, is based primarily on one of those photos. In it I've tried to be more accurate about the tail. I should add that I was about to toss this yesterday. But I think I've salvaged it.

The waterthrush still seems to be a slender, attenuated bird. But much of the length seems to come from the lower torso itself, not the tail. It seems there is always something new to learn!

Above is the one field sketch I attempted of the bird. It is primarily based on a mental image of the bird after studying it with my binoculars. I did manage to show the shortish tail but didn't do well with the bill. At the top of the page sits a Tree Swallow, and in the middle, a rapidly, more or less, moving Snapping Turtle.

Until today the warblers that have been around are: Yellow-rumped, Pine, Palm and the Louisiana Waterthrush. Today that finally changed. We saw our first Black and White Warbler as well as our first Ovenbird. We also heard numerous Wood Thrushes though, surprisingly, we saw none. Our first Blue-headed Vireo also sang away but kept himself well hidden.

A 4-5 first of year day though means that true migration has finally arrived. Time to enjoy it before many of the birds are gone on their passage further north.

I made some very tiny tweaks to the Northern Pintail watercolor. More than that though I think this photo more accurately shows the orange color of the painting.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

New Watercolors, Big and Small

When you work in a number of media as I do you might ask how I choose a particular medium. Well if you get somebody to answer please let me know! I really have no idea what prompts me to change from one to another.

The watercolor above, a larger than normal 12x16 inches on Arches 140# cold press paper, is based on a photo I took of a Northern Pintail at 'The Meadows' at Cape May a year or two ago. The photo above is missing some of the orange cast that dominates the watercolor but otherwise it's fairly true to the photo. And the photo reminds me pretty much of what I saw, and why I took the photo.

Still you have to ask yourself if it's possible to do a sunset painting and not end up with a horrible cliche. I'm not sure. I do know the fear of cliche is why I never attempted to paint this. But I've had second thoughts on donating my recent Great Black-backed Gull at Flatrock Dam watercolor to the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center fundraiser. I like it too much.

So I think it was the idea of producing another work for it that prompted this. I think it would have been easier in acrylic since it's so forgiving. But I like to keep pushing myself with watercolor, to make some vague attempt at mastering it. That's what I've done here.

There's probably more to do. But I decided I needed to leave it be for now, and see what it looked like when posted online, and in the clear light of tomorrow.

Though the boldly colored beauties called Wood Warblers are starting to appear here for their brief visit there are still some more subtle beauties around, such as the Swamp Sparrow. In this case I know why I chose watercolor. I wanted to be true to the bird and try to get the subtle variations in color in this bird. Watercolor seemed best for this purpose. I also wanted to try out my new 5x7 inch Fabriano Artistico watercolor block. I bought it with the idea that I'd take it into the field and actually do some field watercolors this spring and summer. We'll see. These particular Swamp Sparrows by the way are often found in the dappled sun and shade of a small streambed. That's what I've tried to capture here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Snipe, Field Sketches and More Ragworts

This post is I think more about the complexities of nature than anything else. If you spend enough time with it you're constantly surprised. The plot doesn't seem to grow old or hackneyed.

At top is a field sketch today that I made of a red phase Eastern Screech Owl and a Carolina Wren. With the wren I saw something I'd never seen before, all sorts of white spots on the scapulars or wing coverts. It was hard to tell which because the bird was all puffed up and I think had just taken a bath it a small stream at Morris Arboretum. I'm familiar with the barring on tail but these spots were on the top half of the bird when seen from the back. Some young birds have this sort of markings but I'd never noticed it before on Carolina Wrens.

When I got home I checked a couple of guides but I saw nothing to say that the very small white spots on the wing coverts of Carolina Wrens are more visible in young birds. So my guess is that they just seemed larger because the feathers were all separated due to the wren having been in the water and it was easier to see each spot.

With the Screech Owl the surprise was that the bird didn't move at all and yet the full frontal face that was there when I started sketching became more of a profile as the bird moves his head without any visible movement. So my drawing looks a bit, or more than a bit off. But it looks that way due to another of nature's surprises.

We birded two areas today, Carpenter's Woods and Morris Arboretum. So wouldn't you know that soon after I write about my favorite wildflower, and the fact that I associate it with Shenandoah National Park, we'd find it it two local locations?! The one at Carpenter's Woods was bigger, both in height, flower size and leaf size. But I think there's little doubt as to what it was. Later as we went to Morris Arboretum hoping to see some of the Wilson's Snipe that we've flushed on and off there over the last 10 days the first thing we saw instead were some Golden Ragwort that look almost identical to ours. A photo of part of the Morris patch is above.

We rarely see snipe, only every couple years and rarely in Philadelphia. Part of that is that there aren't that many of the marshy areas that they like. There is Tinicum but since it's on the other end of the city from us we don't get there all that often. Before this year we'd seen them once at Morris.

But we've now seen them on three days over the last 10 days. Unfortunately unless you see them when they come out to feed at dusk you're most likely to see them as they flush after you accidentally scare them off.

What is surprising though, especially if they don't flush in profile so that you can see their long bill, is that your first impression is of a white rump. Jerene and I were both firmly convinced that we'd be able to positively ID the bird we saw 10 days ago because of the white rump. We also flushed it a second time and saw the long bill but I wanted to confirm the white rump. What a surprise to find there is none. In fact there's almost no white on a Wilson's Snipe. Could we have made a mistake? It seemed unlikely, especially as they always made the squawk that snipe make as they fly off. Then finally I realized that they do have a white belly. Each time they flushed in such a way that they banked away from us and showed us their belly. It was just about in the same place on their torso as their rump, just on the wrong side of the body! This has happened each time we've seen snipe recently. My guess is that it's a common practice of theirs.

Because they were always gone in an instant I couldn't begin to sketch them. I did make numerous other attempts over the last few days though. One of the most common migrants has been the Hermit Thrush. He's pictured in the lower right. They generally strike me as a bit pot-bellied, with their wings often pointed down, reaching below their torso. I've been sketching them each fall and spring for 4-5 years now and am finally getting a feel for them. Most of the other birds, including one of many migrating Great Blue Herons in flight, are less successful. But I was happy with the Double-crested Cormorant drying his wings at the Manayunk Canal yesterday.

It would be nice to have a sketchbook full of migrating warblers. But it's always nice to see any bird and get just a little bit better at portraying it in a field sketch. It is a long road!

Over the last few days it's bothered me that I'm not able to show photos of Golden Ragwort with the deep burgundy stems that we see at Shenandoah. So I finally did a search on an old computer for some old photos. Here is one from 2004. Golden Ragwort in all its beauty. Oddly it is often called a wetland, or wet meadow plant. And it is. But it's also found in very dry areas. I believe that this photo shows one in a drier area though I may be wrong. It certainly is true that it also grows in some very dry, e.g. mountain ridge tops, places at Shenandoah. The coarser plant we saw at Carpenter's Woods was also in a dry location.

Friday, April 13, 2012

My Favorite Wildflower

This may seem a silly title. How can you choose a favorite wildflower? Could I choose a favorite artist, or even a favorite bird artist? Probably not. There are just too many of each that I like and admire.

Still it is possible to have favorites, even if they change from time to time. We've been fortunate in being able to buy many of the wildflowers that we've admired in the wild: Trillium, Bloodroot, Black and Blue Cohosh, among others. The pure whites of Trillium Grandiflorum and Bloodroot, coupled with shapely leaves make them very admirable in themselves. At times each has been my favorite.

And of course there are the orchids, including the ones we see most often: Yellow and Pink Lady's Slippers. Of the two the Yellow is the most striking to me. They are offered for sale occasionally but are quite expensive. I think if we had them I'd feel a bit like I had a Maserati parked on the street. It would be just too good, and gaudy, for the likes of us. And we'd worry about it.

We became most educated about wildflowers during our many vacations in Shenandoah National Park. That education was supplemented by our travels in Pennsylvania, particularly along the Wissahickon in Philadelphia.

Gradually we've bought many of the woodland wildflowers that we've admired at Shenandoah and elsewhere. But the favorite I show above is not I think a woodland wildflower. We first saw it at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park about 20 years ago. There is was in full sun.

There was just something about it that was striking. The warm and rich golden yellow of the flowers, the deep maroon of the stem, the shapely basal leaves coupled with fern-like true leaves. It was quite a combination. But we were never able to find a place to buy it. Then a few years ago we found one at Bowmans's Hill Wildflower Preserve. It's taken a few years to get established but this year it looks particularly good.

The one problem is that the stems are purple only as they start off on this particular plant. Then they turn green. I don't believe this is true with the beautiful plants of Shenandoah. Still we can't complain. I took these photos yesterday in a very strong wind. I particularly like the fact that the plants seem oblivious. The petite flowers are firmly anchored on those strong, if wrongly colored, stems. It's a hardy little beauty and my favorite wildflower, at least this year.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Gulls of Flat Rock Dam

Ever since I saw the Great Black-backed Gull at Flat Rock Dam about a month ago I've wanted to do paintings of the scene, as much for the powerful water as for the bird. But I've never painted water before. So I made the first attempt about a month ago. This is the second. It is 9x12 inches on Arches cold press 300# paper.

This is most likely a second cycle Great Black-backed so it is more brown than the beautiful deep slate gray of the mature gull. Not that you can see all that much detail here but nonetheless I wanted to be true to what I saw.

One reason I chose to do this now is that I'll most likely contribute it to the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center and Roxborough Development Corporation for their silent auction fundraiser in early May. I suspect that art with some local connection and not as much a focus on birds as is usual for me will be more likely to sell. Since I'm completely intrigued by the scene anyway it seemed like a good subject to use for the fundraiser. If I had time I'd also do it in acrylic but I think that may have to wait until the spring migration is over.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Sucking Sap

One of the truisms of early spring birding in the areas around home that I bird is that it will be the Season of the Woodpeckers. It is often a frenzy of activity and variety, made all the better by the fact that most trees haven't yet leafed out and birds are easy to see. A few days ago at Carpenter's Woods we saw 6 species of woodpeckers: Downy, Hairy, Northern Flicker, Red-Bellied, Pileated and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Of the woodpeckers likely to be found in most of the mid-Atlantic US only the Red-headed was missing. Unfortunately we haven't see the one that wintered along the Wissahickon for about a month now and it has probably left.

Our favorite, not surprisingly, is the Pileated. When it flies overhead it almost seems prehistoric because of its size. See it clobber its bill ferociously into a tree a few times and you have to be impressed.

But the star of recent days has been the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It's interesting to note that the first thing that All About Birds says is that the bird is not fictitious despite the use of its name for comedic effect. I remember growing up thinking, at least based on the TV shows I watched, that one of the worst, and therefore the best in my mind, insults you could hurl at someone was "You Yellow-belled Sapsucker." Right up there with sidewinder and varmint.

We've seen sapsuckers just about everywhere we birded this week. Most of the time they were on Black Birches. But the odd thing was that the birches were dark, almost as though wet, in many places but light or dry in others. There were no sapsucker holes so the sapsucker wasn't getting sap or insects from holes they'd drilled. Still they went to these trees as drawn by a magnet.

I did take some photos which I often take for references. As I looked a a number of them I noticed that the woodpecker held its head sideways ,flat to the tree. Why? It was sucking the sap! I'd never actually seen this before. The birch sap was running. This what is pictured, however imperfectly, in the sketch above. Though I did a few field sketches this is based on a photo. I don't think I ever could have seen this clearly with my binoculars. So here the greater power of the camera came in handy.

This little bit of knowledge I think shows my nature study is so rewarding. There is always something more to learn and to appreciate. And most times it combines with the web of knowledge that you already have, making it a bit larger and stronger. I used to look forward to this time of year in order to watch the NCAA basketball championship. Now I look forward to spending as much time as possible outdoors, seeing nature seemingly come to life again after a long slumber.

As a side note a search for 'birch sap' turned up some references to collecting birch sap and of course to 'birch beer.' It's amazing what you can learn. I've heard of birch beer and I'm sure drunk some soda version of it at some time. But I'd never asked myself just what it meant, 'birch beer.' Now I know.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Field Sketching with a Scope

You can blame it on the snipe! It's always easier to sketch live birds when you can see them through a spotting scope. This is because you can see more detail since scopes have higher magnifications than binoculars, and more importantly because you now can look and draw at the same.

It's such a luxury to be looking at the bird through a scope then glance quickly down at your sketchbook to make some marks. When I bird without a scope there's always the need for more than two hands. You need two hands to hole the binoculars, though I know some people can do it one-handed.

But even if I did weight exercises so that I could easiiy lift the binoculars with one hand there's still another problem. While my eyes are up where the binoculars are in front of my eyes my sketchpad is far below, generally around waist level. Often I find that I look at bird with two hands holding binoculars, then drop them and put sketchbook in one hand and pen in another. Great until I need to take another look at bird. Where do I put the pen and sketchbook while I put both hands on binoculars? Often I keep the pen in my right hand and the sketchbook in left as I raise binoculars. This is a good formula for losing sketchbook, pen or both.

I won't go on but you can see the difficulty. That's why it's so incredibly easier to use a scope. The problem is that it is heavy as is the tripod that is necessary to hold it. So I rarely take it out in winter. I don't think it will be worth the hassle of the weight. Come spring it's another story though, as birds finally become prolific.

They're not quite prolific yet but there was another reason to bring out the scope today. We flushed at least two Wilson's Snipe at Morris Arboretum on Sunday. They kept coming back to same location, well hidden until we flushed them again. Never did we get a good look.

So on the offchance that they were still there I decided to bring scope, hoping that I could get a good look, and sketch them, before scaring them off. Well no such luck. There was no sign of any shorebirds today.

But there were turtles and swallows in particular. Above a Tree Swallow, snapping turtle, head low to water, and a Canada Goose on nest on left page. On right a male and female Belted Kingfisher as well as one of many Painted Turtles on a log. It was such a pleasure to be able to look at them and sketch them without constantly lamenting the lack of four hands!

I also did some field sketching without scope over the previous few days. You can see the difference. Eastern Phoebe and White-throated Sparrow on left, wonderful Great Blue Heron with crest on right along with a nother Eastern Phoebe, a Carolina Chickadee, a Wood Duck in flight and the first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of the year. The latter bird is elongated. I always enlongate them unintentionally. I've vowed that this is the year I finally get them right. Next time....