Friday, August 28, 2015

Hummingbird Inspiration!

Hummingbird migration is one of my favorite seasonal events.  In mid-July our first hummingbird nestlings fledged, more than doubling the number of hummingbirds at our yard feeders.  In a short time they were joined by migrants, increasing activity in the garden substantially. If you sit still for a while you can pick out the youngsters by watching their behavior.
Young juveniles look just like adult females with the exception of feathers that are more gray than green, a characteristic that is hard to see at a distance.  Behavior is the primary give-away to recognizing a recently fledged juvenile.
While females are all business--coming to the feeder for a drink and leaving quickly to return to nesting activities--juveniles hang-out.  They sit on limbs, hide in the foliage, watch the activities for a while and tentatively approach the feeder.  They also explore everything, especially the flowers. 
Juvenile hummingbird observations inspired my two "mini-bell" sketches above.  Both were created using negative painting to form the leaf shapes that make up the tangle of foliage so characteristic of minature petunias.  "Hummingbird and Million Bells", above, began as a wet-on-wet multi-colored wash of Quinacradone Gold, Quinacradone Rose and Cobalt Teal Blue (all Daniel Smith watercolors). 
These three primary colors--red, yellow, blue--provide the basic palette for the sketch. Variations of green were made by mixing the gold and teal together.  Only two additional pigments were added, Burnt Sienna and Lunar Black.  Lunar Black was added sparingly in the final touches for texture and as the darkest dark shapes.
With each layer of paint, the goal is to add some new leaf and stem shapes appearing behind the lighter shapes. Because these shapes are darker and the space around them, darker still, they recede into the background and give the painting depth.
Negative painting can feel intimidating at first because it's easy to get lost and forget where your layer begins and should end.  Taking your time, imagining leaf and stem shapes as you work, and working in small areas at a time will help transform a confusing effort into a relaxing experience.
The nice thing about leaf shapes is there is natural variation in their size and shapes and you don't have to worry about getting them down perfectly. Mistakes happen and disappear!
If you are new to negative painting, visit my blog post, "Fun with Fall Leaves",  for a fun exercise to get you started.

More posts about hummingbirds:  hummingbird studies and hummingbirds in flight

Visit my companion blog and enjoy the Wonder of Hummingbirds Festival

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Art Workshop with Brenda Swenson--Skill-building, Inspiration and Community!

We are all students and always will be as long as our minds and hearts remain open and curious. Art workshops provide creative opportunities to not only learn new skills but also rub shoulders with other artists and gain new ideas, encouragement and inspiration.
Negative painting practice after the workshop.

Brenda Swenson in Boone, NC

I had the delightful experience this past week of visiting Boone, North Carolina, for a five-day "Sketching in Watercolor" workshop hosted by Cheap Joe's Art Outlet, featuring award-winning artist, Brenda Swenson.  I admire her watercolors and sketches and couldn't pass up the opportunity to learn from her when I discovered she was visiting the east to give a workshop.

Porch outside the class room--a place to retreat for breaks or to enjoy lunch. 

Each day of the workshop we practiced drawing skills that will help us paint a subject from life. The first skill practiced, and our warm-up practice for each day, was continuous line contour drawing--drawing with a continuous line without lifting your pen.  And yes, pen, not pencil.  No erasing or correcting.  We were encouraged to slow down and "see", and yet, each drawing had a time-limit and a timer running to keep our hands and minds moving.  Three minutes were allowed for one object, six minutes for two objects, and nine for three.  The objects were household items or "junk", any vase, tool, figurine, pitcher, anything that might be laying around the house or garage.
Above, a class exercise--combining elements from more than one photograph to create a sketch composition. Tombow water soluable burnt sienna pen with watercolor on Canson multi-media sketchbook paper.

The daily warm-ups accomplished so many things.  Practice in concentrating, accepting the wobbles in our drawings, awareness of time, moving continuously without getting stuck on any one area, focus, and just getting it down no matter how imperfect.  In fact, one of the mottos of class-- "perfect is boring".  What we found as we looked at each other's work was that the wobbles contributed to the uniqueness, charm and style of each drawing.
Above, members of our class waiting to have our work critiqued.  (I'm third from the left in the front row).  Photo credit:  Brenda Swenson

We learned as much from our critiques as we did from the art exercises and they were fun! Everyone's art is different and the variations in style and creativity are exciting.  Brenda pointed out positives in each work and gave suggestions for improvements, providing great visual examples to aid memory.
For example, the white cloud in my sketching practice on tinted paper (above) was created with opaque paint.  After pointing out the vignette design and how the light travels through the color of the tinted paper through the columns, Brenda mentioned that the white cloud wasn't needed.  I looked at it later and realized that the cloud is not only not needed, it draws the eye away from the main subject which is the lovely columns.  This is the value of practice and having someone else critique your work.  We're often too close to our own work to be objective.
The continuous line contour drawings felt awkward to me, at first, and I initially wondered why I ever thought I could draw!  Drawing is a skill that becomes rusty when not used!  For me the additional challenge was a combination of new tools and the timer.  With a timer going, I couldn't obsess about the details.  I couldn't erase!  This represented a huge leap forward.  I have wanted to sketch as I travel but the stopper has always been "too little time".  The skills we practiced were the very ones I needed to create possibilities for sketching in all types of circumstances.
 Above, Brenda Swenson demonstrates her negative painting technique.
In the classroom, a video camera was mounted to project the art demonstrations on a large screen so that while seated, members of the class could view the demonstrations.  The images above and below are pictures of the screen during the demonstration.
Delicious catered lunches were enjoyed daily and for the eager student, Cheap Joe's art supply store was right in the next room open for business!  Add a skilled and patient instructor to the mix and you have the ingredients for an ideal art vacation!
Tennessee artist Kay Alexander (left), Brenda Swenson and Vickie Henderson in Boone, NC.

Resources and information:

Brenda Swenson's website
Brenda's blog
Kay Alexander's website
Cheap Joe's Art Supplies

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Bluebird on Ice--an Exploration

"Watercolors are not for the faint-of-heart but for those willing to explore and experiment, knowing that they risk failure, knowing that each piece of paper will not end as a 'masterpiece'....So long as you keep rising to its challenges, it will keep opening doors on others.  In time watercolor will become a reflection of you and your personality".  Gordon MacKenzie, The Complete Watercolorist's Essential Notebook.
This painting became one of those lively challenges.  A practice in patience and decision-making that stimulated my desire to learn new skills and new ways to indicate sparkle in a winter scene.
My first challenge was saving whites w/o using a masking medium by painting around the iced limbs. My hope was to capture the bright, muted grays of this winter day illuminated by a coating of ice and snow.  Even though an initial wash of "painting around" objects looks a bit awkward at this stage, its appearance changes as you add more elements to the painting.  I used French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna (Winsor Newton brand) to mix the gray, adding more water to achieve a lighter shade.
The gray wash was painted on after wetting the paper and being careful to leave the iced branches dry.  The paint will move around the dry area.  Once the wash had dried, I added more limbs and the brighter colors on the bluebird.  The blue feathers are created from a mix of Pthalo Blue and Cobalt Blue.
Next I added the red berries and more limbs.  I added darker gray around the limbs below the bird but discovered I preferred the brighter gray and corrected this by spraying clear water on the darker areas to dilute the color.  
In the image above, the iced limbs draw the eye to the white and the hard edges. Below, I have softened some of the edges of the ice and added limbs showing through.  
I continued to soften the ice edges by lifting with clear water and a scrub brush and softened the lines of the limbs within the ice.  I've also added drips to further create the impression of ice and added more detail to the berry pods and the bluebird, shown below.
This was a fun exploration and a good practice for the patience of letting things unfold. Since working on this painting, I have searched for ideas in my watercolor books and found demonstrations on creating the sparkle and reflection in a crystal vase, which is somewhat like ice, and creating sparkles and ice on the surface of water.  Though I haven't come across a demonstration of ice on branches, these techniques will come in handy as I continue to explore this kind of winter scene.  
The last three weeks of February gave me plenty of reference images for ice on branches here in Tennessee.  Below is another image of a bluebird on an iced branches.  In this image, the limbs are clearly visible beneath the ice and you can see small reflections.  This maybe my next painting challenge!
Previous posts on Eastern Bluebirds 
Painting Ice
Softening edges
Visit my blog posts on birds in ice at Vickie Henderson Art to see more images of birds on ice.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Painting a Bluebird on Ice

One of the many helpful insights I've learned over the years is this simple concept: "Every painting is created one decision at a time." All you have to do to move forward is decide what one thing you want to do next.
That concept takes so much of the hesitation and intimidation out of painting.  Even if I can't "see" my way to the end, all I have to do is make one decision. And then, make one more decision after that.  Each decision builds on the next until the next thing you know, the painting is finished!

I had an idea of where I wanted this painting to go when I began.  I was interested in the ice and its impact on our wintering birds.  While ice coated everything, I watched the bird community change. New species showed up that were not normally at my feeders, and bird behavior changed as some species aggressively guarded their food source.  And right along with all this survival activity, the ice glistened on every limb, twig and blade of grass with an incredible hushed beauty.
I want to suggest that ice-glitter, the smooth ice formations around the burning bush twigs, and the hushed cold mood. I'm not really expecting to accomplish all of that in this first go-round, but I will learn from the effort! The first image you see is where I paused for a decision. The second image is the reference photo I'm using.

What would you do next? How would you begin if you were just starting this study? There are many ways to approach a painting and no one way is right or wrong. Feel free to use my reference image or one of your own and give it a try!

Bluebirds and Ice
painting decisions
learning as you paint

Monday, March 2, 2015

Winter Watercolor--Bluebirds and Ice

Just as we were thinking that spring was around the corner, winter decided to puff up and bring wintery precipitation of every form to east Tennessee.  In a matter of 24 hours we had an inch of sleet, freezing rain, snow, and artic air that plunged the temperature down to 4 F degrees, with lower wind chills due to the bitter wind.  
I spent a lot of time feeding and watching birds while ice glistened on every limb, sparkling like crystals when the sun came out briefly and creaking and popping as the wind brought the deep freezing cold front. Feeding bluebirds became a challenge.  
Bluebirds are special eaters--spiders, berries and fruits in the winter--they can't digest seeds. Larger birds suddenly became territorial--initially it was an American Robin, claiming all the berries for himself, and then a rogue Mockingbird moved in to claim every food source driving all the smaller birds away. Everybody was stressed!

I simultaneously worried about the survival of my bird friends and stood in awe of the dazzling beauty that surrounded them.  
Beauty is certainly one element that inspires our desire to create, but in this case, beauty juxtaposed with these harsh conditions tapped into that desire even more.  My mind immediately went to--how do I represent these beautiful ice-covered limbs in watercolor?

I'm just getting started with this exploration.  Creating a winter background, saving the white for the ice, getting that bluebird color and shape just right.  The only way to know how you will do it is to get started.  This process will result in either a valuable exploration or a painting.  Either way, the artist wins.
I decided to save the whites on the limbs by painting around them rather than using mask. Painting the subject next will help me see what else is needed as I go along.
Today, we're having a very dark, rainy mid-40's day.  I welcome it since the piles of snow that followed the ice disrupted a second week of work at my office.  There's always an upside, though. The incredible beauty that surrounded those wintery days, the influx of birds to my feeders with exciting wintering species like Fox Sparrows and Pine Warblers, and the added bonus of lots of inspiration for watercolor projects!  
Above is another painting in process that offered some different challenges--a light subject with a dark, textured background.  More about this painting soon.

Related Links:
Decision making -- the process
Chickadee in Snow
Bluebirds and Ice
Polar Bears sketching and my journey to Churchill

Monday, January 26, 2015

Winter Sketching

There is something about snow and the way it draws birds to the feeders that makes me want to step outside to sketch.  That was my urge on Friday (Jan 23rd) just after the snow stopped falling.  
34 F degrees is not exactly sketching weather but with gloves and a wool cap, I was okay for a while. Though a window view sounds warmer, had I been watching from indoors, I might have missed the big yellow tabby that came stalking and scattered all the finches.  A couple of hand claps sent him on his way.  
It's also likely I would have missed the chipping of the Hermit Thrush. He was chipping, wing-twittering and cocking his tail, all at the same time as I watched through my binoculars.  Cocking that rust-colored tail and letting it fall slowly is a characteristic behavior of the species and sometimes helps with identification.  
This Hermit Thrush likes to hang out around the feeders and every now and then, hop up on the suet plate to grab a crumb of home-made suet.  Quiet and secretive, he runs through the garden in starts and stops on dainty pinkish legs, hunting for insects.  At other times, like this one, he lands on a low-lying limb and makes thrushy chip notes in the shadows.

Winter brings a lot of fun birds and is a great time to watch for visiting species.  It's also a good time to practice fast sketching!  I lasted about 30 minutes!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Polar Bears on the Hudson Bay

When to Use Your Camera:
When there's no time to sketch.  
When the subject is moving so fast that you need to freeze the action  
For intricate features, lighting or details
                  abrieviated from David Rankin's book, Fast Sketching Techniques

In David's book, he includes a few more reasons but I think the above are the ones I relate to the most.  I would add, "when you want to see more than your eye or your binoculars can reveal".
To my naked eye, and even through my binoculars, this beautiful female Polar Bear appeared to be simply walking, wandering through the tundra vegetation sniffing.  To my surprise, when I viewed an image taken with my 400 mm lens and zoomed in to take an even closer look, she was actually pulling and chewing grass.

I found this delightful.  Female Polar Bears fast during the summer and fall months, while they are denning and nursing their cubs.  They live off of the layer of blubber that they have stored beneath their black skin.  The blubber both insulates them from the cold and provides nutrition during months when there is no sea ice.  It also provides the fat-rich milk that nourishes their cubs.
My trip to Churchill, Manitoba, provided for only one day on the tundra.  I wanted to internalize that experience as much as possible and observe everything I could about the bears' behavior.  She slept. She nuzzled her cubs.  She moved slowly, conserving energy.  She stood upright to her full height and sniffed the air.  Her fur appeared soft and thick.  Her walk was a fluid movement--and though there is no known nutritional value for her, she chewed grass--while she and her cubs waited for sea ice to freeze on the Hudson Bay.  
My images remind me of what I experienced and are my guide to sketching. I'm still practicing these subtle bear shapes and enjoying the recall of watching this female with her cubs.
Polar Bears are marine mammals and carnivores, at home in the water as much as on land. They rely heavily on the ecosystem that nourishes ringed seals which in turn, provide the nutrition and blubber that Polar Bears require to survive.  Sea ice is vital to bear hunting, resting, warmth and breeding.

For more about Polar Bears and my journey to Churchill, visit Journey to Churchill at Vickie Henderson Art.

Click here for Part 1--Polar Bears on the Hudson Bay
Link to my Polar Bear video
Ecological Society of America
Ecological Applications report of decline of Polar Bears
Hudson Bay Buggies and Bears with Rail Travel Tours
Learn about Polar Bears
Hudson Bay
Eskimo Museum
History of Churchill from Churchill Science
Churchill History
the impact of sea ice decline

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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