Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Sketchbook as a Map for Your Painting

A sketch is the artist's road map, like a tool for planning your journey.  Besides being its own form of art and a record of observations, turning to your sketchbook to work out decisions about your painting before you start can be invaluable.
Before I started my painting of this Northern Harrier, I had a number of decisions to make.  As soon as I received the request for this painting to honor a friend, I had a good idea of the posture I wanted the bird in for this painting, and I also had an idea of the way the background would look--open rolling fields common to east Tennessee. Decisions about color, values, and a landscape arrangement that would best highlight this bird were next.  To help, I turned to my sketchbook for color mixing and to make value studies.
Above left, you see a pencil sketch of the values, relative lights and darks for the landscape, and to the right another sketch of the same arrangement using watercolor. It was this little sketch to the right that gave me the first glimpse of the scene I had in mind.  I was still exploring colors at this point, deciding whether to use Payne's gray more prominently, or to remain with French Ultramarine, my favorite blue for mixing with Burnt Sienna to create neutrals.  You can see some of the neutrals possible in the first image above, along with a nice selection of autumn greens made with Quinacridone Gold and French Ultramarine.  Below, another series of color explorations with Payne's Grey on watercolor paper.
In the end, I settled on the colors that were the most pleasing to my eye and familiar to me, Winsor Newton's French Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Quinacridone Gold, and a touch of New Gamboge.  All other colors you see are made from this primary palette.
Unlike other hawks that hunt from a perch, the Northern Harrier hunts for small mammals gliding low over open fields to find its prey, aided by its acute hearing. Historically this species was especially impacted during the spraying of DDT in the 1970's. Northern Harriers have a unique and spectacular flight display called, 'sky dancing', involving high speed climbs, dives and spiraling loops to attract their mate. While the nesting of other hawks failed due to egg shells too thin to incubate, Northern harriers were so weakened by the pesticide that they could not carry out their elaborate courtship displays and breeding almost completely stopped. It took many years longer for this species to recover after the banning of DDT in this country.
Though considered stable or slightly declining currently, Northern Harriers are impacted by the loss of wetlands, prairies and changing farming practices.

11 x 14 watercolor on Arches 140# coldpress paper.

Links and resources:

To see the first post on this painting visit:  A Northern Harrier Hunting
More information about Northern Harriers at Cornell
More about the use of your sketchbook in creating a painting in:  The Richness of Watercolor
You may also enjoy visiting my Purple Martin painting, showing a different approach to painting a bird in its habitat.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Northern Harrier Hunting

Not all paintings happen with ease.  I can often observe a bird, its behavior, its habitat, and have good reference photos from which to work before I begin.  But that wasn't the case with this painting.  
I have always enjoyed painting the close-up views of birds that give you not only a sense of its habitat but also some beautiful detail.  But close-up views are not the way we generally see a Northern Harrier, a beautiful raptor species in a family all its own, that hunts in a low glide over open fields and is one of the few birds that can hover over its prey for a prolonged period before striking. If you once see this bird in action, you will thrill every time you encounter one.  
A number of years ago, while living in a rural area of east Tennessee, I had the special experience of seeing Northern Harriers that were wintering over.  Every evening I took great enjoyment in watching with binoculars as they glided over our fields hunting before roosting for the night.  This has endeared this bird to me as one of my favorite species, one that stirred my excitement forward and lead me to to spend more time observing birds.
Above you see a collection of some of my explorations before I actually painted this painting.  These included value sketches of the landscape's foreground, mid-ground and background, experiments with shapes in the design arrangement, and trying out colors and color-mixing while I settled on the best color combination to represent the scene and season.
My first challenge was the bird.  Northern Harriers are just arriving in Tennessee now, not to mention they are difficult to observe and photograph.  You generally have to know where they roost and hunt in order to be productive in capturing them.  So, instead, I searched the internet and my books, finding a variety of images, both male and female, to help me with the details as I created the hovering posture of my subject. Above you see my initial sketches of the bird, a male on the left, female on the right. And below, a 2009 sketch I also referenced that I created after observing a Northern harrier hunting at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.
Once I settled on the posture of the bird and his location in the painting, my next focus was the landscape and the values that would help make my subject the center of focus.

Next: Sketches and color exploration

Links and References:
More information about Northern Harriers at Cornell
Other sketches of a Northern Harrier in flight
More about the use of sketches in creating a painting in:  The Richness of Watercolor

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Part II--A Book, A Teacher, and Intuitive Learning

Have you ever wanted to do something so badly, that you were equally afraid you couldn't?  That pretty much sums up how I felt about becoming an artist.  And just to set that worry straight for any readers that feel something similar, if you love art and have always wanted to draw or paint, you already are an artist.  The becoming part is simply a matter of becoming familiar with the medium and developing skills through practice.  
Even though I was disheartened by my initial class, my interest in watercolor did not lessen.  I browsed the local art store for books and magazines to aid my attempts to paint.  It was during one of these visits that I found the treasure that shaped my art endeavors for the next ten years, a book called, Watercolor:  A New Beginning, by Ann K. Lindsay.
I opened the book while still in the store, as we often do, to leaf through it to see what it had to say.  I found topics like, "Being of Two Minds", describing the rational vs. the intuitive mind and how these two parts of our brain learn and approach things differently; "Managing Your Inner Critic" suggesting ways to manage your inner fear and why that critic develops inside; and, "Just in Case", addressing feelings of fear and resistance while trying demonstrations in the book.  Ann writes:  "Art is our heart coming right out of us onto the paper, into the world; no wonder we feel so vulnerable and easily discouraged".
This was the book and the instructor I had been looking for.  In the book, I found step-by-step instructions that actually started at the beginning with putting paint in the palette, suggesting inexpensive ways to get started.  Subsequent chapters demonstrated ways to play with pigment and water on paper, covered the basics on colors explaining primary, secondary, tertiary and neutral colors, and progressed to painting a subject using values with tips on drawing, and adding backgrounds to your paintings.
Exploring how different pigments react to salt.

This book, with its nurturing and encouraging approach, gave me the courage to feel excited about watercolor, again. So excited in fact, I traveled from east Tennessee to upper state New York the next summer, in 2000, to take what I consider to be my first watercolor class, this time with Ann Lindsay. This journey was an adventure and magnificent in so many ways. But most of all, I want to say a little more to you about that tenderness we feel as beginning artists, a feeling that can often hold us back.
Even in the gentle and nurturing environment of a class of true beginners with an intuitive and mindful instructor, my first attempt to put my art out into the world in that first day of class was truly frightening.

In my journal I wrote:
July 31st, 2000:  [Monday--day one] "I had a panic attack--throat closing, flushed, tears--over the show-and-tell thing we did after the first exercise today.  How could I be self-conscious, uneasy over splashing color and water on paper in no particular pattern? It is beyond my understanding sometimes, what sets off my anxiety."

August 4th: [Friday night, as the week of classes ended] "I have enjoyed this tremendously....Ann says, art is the soul coming out on paper. Maybe that's why this art is so very sensitive an issue for me. There aren't too many ways that I share my soul with others....When I shift to expressing who I am inside, talk about me, whether in a novel or a watercolor or sketch or photograph, that is a very sensitive moment. I feel vulnerable and exposed. Hence, my panic attack on the first day of class. It was less about what we were looking at, what I had created on paper, and more about how much I have always wanted to do this."

And to all of you artists out there--keep painting!

Links and Resources:

Part I to this post:  Books, A Difficult Start and A Passion for Watercolor

Ann K Lindsay's website

Watercolor:  A New Beginning.   Even though this book is out of print, I highly recommend it for everyone who loves watercolor.  It's a beginning for beginners and a "new beginning" for watercolor artists at any level. You may find signed copies from the author here.  Click these links for book contents and excerpts.

Secondary market copies at Amazon can be found here:  Watercolor:  A New Beginning

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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