Sunday, May 30, 2010

Delights of Spring

I put up a nest box near my patio this year and a pair of Carolina Chickadees settled in.  I was delighted to find six hatched young when I checked the box on May 3rd after being away for a week at the New River Birding and Nature festival in West Virginia.
They were amazingly tiny, piled on top of each other, naked and pink.  But boy, did they change rapidly.  

I was lucky enough to be home sixteen days later when they each took their first flight.  This was a surprise. No fluttering stops and starts on the wing.  After a brief hesitation at the box opening, they just one-by-one took flight, zipping up to an oak's mid-canopy to waiting parents who rewarded with snacks.

Landing, on the other hand, was a different matter.  One fledgling grabbed a thatch of twigs for his landing and ended up upside down.  He looked down and around, as if to say, oops Mom, what now?

Sketch:  watercolor, ink and gouache on 9x6 pastel tonal paper.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Fun of Painting a Red-winged Blackbird

I think it was the bright neutral reeds that enticed me to paint this blackbird.  The contrasts were brilliant in the early morning light.
Or maybe it was the fun of watching the males display their bright shoulder patches, singing and ruffling their feathers while searching in the shadows to see if the females were impressed.  Even the arrival of a bus load of bird-lovers from WV's New River Birding and Nature Festival did not disturb their early morning nuptial festivities.  This is what I love about bird watching, the moments that bring a bird to life, that give you a glimpse of personality and how they go about their day.  Forever, this is not "just another blackbird" but an impressive Red-winged Blackbird.
I can't explain why I decided to use a light pumpkin, 75# pastel tonal paper for this painting, except that I initially considered using gouache to highlight the reeds.  As it was, the reeds became incidental as the painting progressed.  Instead, I was more attracted to the possibilities of morning light and jumped right into playing with the background, the impressionistic splash and disarray that grasses naturally create.  (The pale pumpkin paper actually has a rosy glow, now that I think about it.)
This is what makes watercolor fun for me, the surprises and movement, its abstract qualities.  It lends itself so well to intuitive thinking, a kind of spontaneity that gets stronger as you become more familiar with the medium.

I don't want to control the paint as I work.  I want to play with it, move with it and enjoy what happens, all the while keeping in mind that I want to also showcase my subject.  Even with the playful start in this painting, I limited my palette.  The fewer colors, the more unified and brilliant the painting.  I chose Winsor Newton's Cobalt blue, WN Quinacridone gold and Daniel Smith's Carmine Red for my primary colors and added WN Burnt Sienna for brown.  All other colors you see are mixes of these four colors.
I painted the bird in layers, not sure just how to handle the black, working it through as I went along.  I wanted to see some shading and color, not just a mass of black.  My reference photo was printed in black and white on my laser printer which offers very little detail.  The practical reason for this--I'm out of one of my color ink cartridges.  Artistically, however, this turned out to be of benefit.  It gave me the freedom to create the background colors from my imagination and memory.  

As I began to add shading to the foreground reeds below, I noticed that I had lost the forward edge of the front wing (see above).  Below, I have scrubbed that edge so I can restore it with another application of paint.    
As I added shading to the foreground reeds, you can see what begins to happen above.  With the exception of the bird, the values are now mostly mid-tones with little variation.  To solve this problem, I added a darker mix of green and gray around some of the reeds to add a depth.  This darker shade also leads the eye around the bird.  
9 x 12" Watercolor on 75# toned Pastel paper.

Click here to learn more about my visit to WV's New River Birding and Nature Festival.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Search for a Swainson's Warbler

In the case of this sketch, it was the search for the right colors to bring out this beautiful bird's subtleness on paper.  
The Swainson's Warbler is a shy and secretive bird that hangs out in the shadows of thick stands of rhododendrons.  That is one of the reasons this bird has the reputation of being seldom seen even when its song is heard.  Its neutral colors simply disappear into the shadows.
On this occasion, with a group of birders and terrific guides at the New River Birding and Nature Festival, the odds of seeing this bird were better.  It landed on a rhododendron branch right in front of us.  Even then it took alert eyes to find him.  What a thrill to get such intimate looks as he perched quietly.  I love these subtle colors, the way his posture, this moment, says so much about his personality and his habitat.

It is always a challenge for me to go small in a sketch, so instead of focusing on the detail I love, I used this opportunity to play with color and values so that the negative space would make the neutrals in the bird stand out.  
The foreground leaves are created with a mixture of  DVP Cad Yellow Light and WN ultramarine; the shrub limbs, with burnt sienna, ultramarine and a touch of Van Dyke brown here and there.  Above I tried a darker green mixture in the negative space.  Too blue.  Below, I added some Van Dyke brown to see what happened.
Still too blue.  It was here that I decided to add more color to the bird to help guide me.  I initially painted him with a mixture of burnt sienna and Van Dyke brown.  The overall affect is more reddish than desired but it gave me a place to begin.  It also enabled me to see the disconnect between background and subject at this phase.  There was no unifying color. This is not only not pleasing to the eye, it isn't what we see in nature.  And it especially isn't true for this secretive little bird who frequently can't be seen at all.
So I warmed the background by adding WN New Gamboge to ultramarine and added some burnt sienna in spots.  Next, I smoothed and shaped the bird's head using my scrub brush and more paint, added some shadows, and painted a light glaze of ultramarine over the wing and back to subdue the brightness of the burnt sienna.  
All of this playing around made me smile about this bird once again.  I thought he was wonderful when I saw him the first time.  Creating the sketch just made me want to paint him even more!  

Watercolor on 90# cold press sketchbook paper.  Colors used:  WN Ultramarine, WN Burnt Sienna, DVP Cad Yellow Light, WN New Gamboge, Van Dyke Brown.

To see my posts on the New River Birding and Nature Festival at Vickie Henderson Art, click here.   

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Hardest Thing About Sketching is Time

I've just returned from a fun and exhilarating nature festival at the New River Gorge in West Virginia--the New River Birding and Nature Festival.  This is a beautiful place and this time of year, it's a place alive with migration and beautiful wood warblers settling into their nesting territories on mountain ridges.
Time was at a premium while there.  Briefly described, my mornings began at five a.m. and if I had two hours for rest in the afternoon, I was lucky.  When the day was done, you were ready to fall into bed and the next morning, you were up and on your way to your next adventure.

When you participate in a festival of this sort, you learn so much, your eyes are opened wider, your senses are keenly alert.  Birding is about habitat, about song and about finding the bird, whether with your naked eyes, binoculars or a scope.  You're with experts that can help you do this and I for one, wanted to take advantage of every minute of it.
And this is also a time for learning a lot about yourself, your personality type, your comfort zone.  I'm a turtle!  That best describes it.  I want to soak it all in slowly.  I understood after a day or more of rest, why my mind was in such a fog when I returned home.  Thank heavens for notes, photographs and my handy reference books on my shelf.  Because, I want to remember it all.  I want to absorb it and integrate it and never forget it.  And I want to sketch it.
Not only is a sketchbook a record of what you see and feel about your journey, it helps you to integrate information that otherwise has been acquired at a fast pace.  Sketching is a time to absorb it all, remember it and relax as you let your mind play it back for you and recreate it on the page.
There were several times I wished for more time and my sketchbook--while viewing Kanawha Falls, sharing a picnic on boulders beside the Gauley River or while examining a beautiful Jack-in-the-Pulpit.  Time is at a premium every day of our lives.  And because sketching deepens my pleasure and the depth of what I've enjoyed, as much as I can manage it, it will continue to be an important part of my experience, whether before, during or after!
The above sketch was created in my sketchbook, watercolor (and ink on the bridge) on 90# coldpress Arches paper.

Click this link for more about my experiences at the New River Birding and Nature Festival. Scroll down to start at the first post.  And for information about West Virginia's New River Festival click here.

Ocean Trail at Rancho Palos Verdes Preserve, California--2015

Ocean Trail at Rancho Palos Verdes Preserve, California--2015

Joshua Tree National Forest, California, with son Chad and daughter Thuan--2015

Joshua Tree National Forest, California, with son Chad and daughter Thuan--2015
Photo credit: Thuan Tram

Bird banding with Mark Armstrong at Seven Islands State Birding Park - 2014

Bird banding with Mark Armstrong at Seven Islands State Birding Park - 2014
Photo courtesy of Jody Stone

Birds Close-up

Birds Close-up
Photo courtesy of Karen Wilkenson

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill, Manitoba

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill, Manitoba
Photo courtesy of Blue Sky Expeditions

A dog sled experience with Blue Sky Expeditions, Churchill, MB--2014

A dog sled experience with Blue Sky Expeditions, Churchill, MB--2014
Photo courtesy of Blue Sky Expeditions

Churchill, Manitoba--2014

Churchill, Manitoba--2014
Photo courtesy of Blue Sky

2014 Hummingbird Festival

2014 Hummingbird Festival
Photo courtesy of Jody Stone

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane art banners and son, John--2014

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane art banners and son, John--2014

Muir Woods on the Dipsea Trail at Stinson Beach, California--2014

Muir Woods on the Dipsea Trail at Stinson Beach, California--2014
Photo courtesy of Wendy Pitts Reeves

Checking out the gulls at Stinson Beach--2014

Checking out the gulls at Stinson Beach--2014
Photo courtesy of Wendy Pitts Reeves

Discovery Hike in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska--2012

Discovery Hike in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska--2012
Photo courtesy of Ruth Carter
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