Natural Selections--Observations on Art and Nature
Depending on your subject, field sketching can be pretty hard, and I suppose that is why more artists don’t do it. I’m a bird guy, and birds might be the most difficult of all things to sketch from life. They’re small, and often obscured, but hey at least they move around a lot. Yeesh. So, why do it? After all, there is this little invention called a camera that can make an image with much less effort on my part.
First off, I, as an artist, am after the truth, and cameras lie. By “truth”, here, I mean what I think is right and good, given all my passions and priorities. There is a great scene in the movie “Bullets over Broadway” where Rob Reiner, who plays an artist, says, “We’re artists, we create our own moral universes.” Precisely! Cameras dispassionately record all the details. But they still don’t tell the whole story, at least not the story as I see it and, most importantly, as I feel about it. Don’t get me wrong, the camera has its place, but as a method of gathering reference. The images it takes should not, in my humble opinion, be used as subjects for fine art paintings.
In my moral universe, I like to see things first hand, and whenever possible, sketch them as I see them. There is a quality to field sketches that is very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in the studio. In the field, I am forced to work quickly; I can’t record everything. I have to make decisions about what’s most important, what to prioritize. I make those decisions based on my own biases and intuition. The result is a more personal statement, and that takes me further down my road towards truth.
So, before I start a sketch, I try to figure out what it is that struck me about the scene in the first place, and then prioritize that element over all others. For example, this morning, I watched a hen Wood Duck sitting in a tree in our backyard. I was absolutely beguiled by her eye, and set out to sketch it. I added other details, but only insofar that they added context to my original target. She ended up sticking around for a few minutes, allowing me time to add some color, and notes about color, in the areas where I knew a photograph would give me little or inaccurate information. The resulting sketch is certainly incomplete, but it gives a fair representation of how I felt about that duck on that day under those conditions. Coupled with the photos I took (which were lousy due to poor light and long distance), I got some pretty useful reference material.
So the next time you’re field sketching, don’t try to draw everything. Target that aspect of the scene that really strums your inner guitar. This approach will help you make a better sketch. Even better, it’ll help you become more aware of your own priorities and values, and move you a little further along in your journey towards truth.
It was with a sizeable dose of melancholy last fall that I learned that one of the galleries that represents my work would be closing its doors after almost a decade of success. The gallery was housed in my hometown’s old library building, a structure that held lots of fond childhood memories for me. I used to spend hours sitting on the floor perusing books like the Audubon Encyclopedias and Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds during my family’s regular trips to town. But the library moved to a new building several years ago, and the old place (which had also served as the town’s jail in the early 1900’s) fell vacant. To its rescue came a civic-minded High School friend of mine, her talented building-remodeler husband, and a dedicated and visionary friend.
They peeled back layers of old flooring, revealing a (now gleaming) old parquet, and fixed up the roof, walls, ceilings…everything, really, and opened “The Snooty Fox” art gallery in 2004. The gallery showcased the work of some truly talented artists, most hailing from within a radius of 50 or so miles from the town. Precious few galleries have I seen that could boast the top of the line quality of art that “Snooty” did during its successful tenure, and it was truly an honor to exhibit my work there. But even more, as a one-time resident, and still frequent visitor to the area, I found the gallery’s civic-mindedness to be perhaps its real strength. The Snooty Fox promoted local artists, educated people of all ages, hosted various community events, and greatly enriched the social fabric of the area.
Alas, as is often the case with talented people like the proprietresses of the Snooty Fox, several other successful and worthwhile endeavors demanded their time and efforts as well. So, after much thought, my friends made the difficult decision to end their highly successful run. Yes, I will miss their terrific representation, their bon-homie, and all that they did for the community. But I am also left with more fond memories of the old building, now wonderfully refurbished and awaiting a new visionary to write the next chapter of its history. Good by, Snooty Fox...and thank you.
My friend, the terrific artist Barry Van Dusen, commented to me recently that certain birds are good “scope” birds. He knows what he’s talking about, given the countless hours he has spent behind his trusty Kowa scope, sketching birds out in the field.
I liked his characterization, and that made me think, “What makes a good scope bird”? First, scopes are a bit more unwieldy than binoculars. So good scope birds are ones that don’t move a lot, or, if they do, they regularly return to the same perch. Flycatchers do this sometimes, Shrikes too, and they are among the best of the songbird scope birds. A good scope bird must also stand out a little, not afraid to say to the world, “Here I am!” Eagles can qualify here, but not warblers. In fact, warblers, as they hyperkinetically flit from one obstructed branch to another, are the exact opposite of good scope birds. I love them, but…sorry, not good scope birds. An exception here is the Kirtland’s Warbler. In spring, male Kirtland’s will proudly perch in clear view in the tippy tops of Jack Pines, and belt out their songs with a passion that would make the Three Tenors weep. You can put your scope right on them (though you will have to travel to one particular area of Michigan to do it).
Finally, good scope birds also have to be nice to look at, which most birds are of course. One of my personal favorite birds, the Belted Kingfisher, certainly meets this criterion: Great shaggy crests, beautiful slatey-blue and rust colors, and bills that mean business. Plus, they remind me of when I was a kid, growing up on a lake that had many of these charismatic birds. Now, add to these attributes that Kingfishers will often sit for several minutes almost motionless in bare, easy-to-find spots, and you have what may be Numero Uno on the list of all-time great scope birds.
A few days ago, while out looking for ducks to sketch on our marsh, I heard the distinctive rattling chatter-call of a Kingfisher that I had unwittingly scared away from its bare, easy-to-spot perch. Dang? No, no, no…this Queen of scope birds dutifully returned to her perch about ten minutes later, and I was ready for her. I sketched her for several minutes, in various poses, before she finally flew off. Such a good scope bird was she that I came back the next day, and there she was again in the same bare, easy-to-spot perch. This time she even stuck around long enough for me to break out the watercolors, and I happily painted her right there on the spot. A good day, all hail the Queen!
A friend of mine once said, “If gulls were rare, they’d be beautiful”. He was watching a group of Ring-billed gulls at the time, as they sparred over what appeared to be a small pile of French fries someone had lost in our grocery store parking lot. I laughed at his witty observation, even though to me gulls are beautiful regardless of their relative abundance.
In fact, their abundance, and willingness to frequent locales with regular human traffic, make them convenient field sketching models. They also tend to make much more cooperative models than, say, a hyperkinetic warbler. Best of all, though, their white plumage wonderfully reflects the colors around them. I just love sleuthing out colors hidden in their “white” bodies, it’s like hunting for Easter eggs. What at a quick glance could appear to be a drab shadow under a bird’s belly, might be, upon closer examination, aglow with a rich gold reflecting up from the sandy beach. Likewise, the blue of a crisp autumn sky can be seen joyfully making its presence known in a shadow cast across the gull’s back.
Such colors in birds’ shadowed sides typically don’t show up in most photographs, and that’s a big reason I value drawing directly from life. I enjoy sketching at a park by my kids’ school, where Ring-billed Gulls reliably loaf on a little beach surrounded by busy roads. Wilderness birding it is definitely not (in fact one time I am pretty sure my presence thwarted a drug sale), but you can’t beat its convenience. Plus, during migration, anything is possible. One recent spring, several Caspian Terns spent several days there, as did a trio of Red-breasted Mergansers. One fall, there were Franklin’s Gulls, and I’ve seen a few hawks and some different species of warblers, too.
So, maybe the upshot of this blog is that beauty and nature are where you find them, if you’re just willing to look.
It's been hot lately in Minnesota, getting into the 90's for many of the last days of August. But last night the air turned crisp, and as if a switch had been flipped, my body began converting to "Autumn Mode", and I felt a rush of excitement.
Out in this crisp air, I worked my dog through the field along the marsh behind our house. She's in good shape for 11, but slower than she was in her prime. Last night, though, she felt the change, too, and both of our tails were wagging with a little extra whip.
Small groups of Wood Ducks and Mallards zipped by occasionally as we walked, and they, along with the break from the heat, are why I love fall. Hard to believe some birds are already getting resltess to move south, because I know there are still plenty of warm days to come. But the fall migration and the first crisp nights make these among my favorite days of the year.
Fall means the onset of the hunting seasons, of course, and to feed off that energy I am working on an oil right now of a flushing Woodcock. I'll post an image of it when it's done, but for now here's the 6" x 9" study for your viewing pleasure:
Just returned from a great week in the canoe country of northern Minnesota with my family. We stayed at Kawishiwi Lodge, in a great little cabin on the shores of the glorious Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wildnerness. It was a fantastic way to make day trips into the "B-Dub", and the weather couldn't have been better.
My family likes to fish, and happily we found a few Northerns, Smallmouth Bass, and an occasional walleye. My neice boated a huge Largemouth, too, weighing in at over 6 lbs! The lodge provides canoes and kayaks, and my kids had a great time paddling all around Lake One and the equally beautiful Kawishiwi River.
As I always am, I was blown away by the Loons and scenery.. The rugged basins of these Canadian Shield lakes are filled with ancient boulders that make gigantic, intricately textured backdrops for our state bird. Loons are beautiful no matter when or where you see them. But set amid these rocks, as mist rises from the lake's surface...well, you really can't beat it. Waking up each morning in the cabin, I'd hear the soulful wail of the Loon, and think that there really are no other sounds that match so perfectly with a place.
My daughter just finished a two-week canoe trip through Ontario’s spectacular Quetico wilderness. Her trip was made possible by a fantastic YMCA camp, Camp Widgiwagan. “Widji” provides some wonderful opportunities for young people to experience true wilderness, and their staff and trip leaders all have an irrepressibly positive energy that permeates everything they do. I really can’t help but gush about the experience my daughter had, and how good it makes me feel to know that people like her trip leader are putting their significant talents into such worthy endeavors.
For a few days prior to picking up my daughter, the rest of my family and I deployed our well-worn pop-up camper on the edge of the canoe country. I love just about any type of natural surroundings, but canoe country is special. The massive and ancient rocks, the calls of the Loons, and the quiet drips of water off the paddle have forever held a special allure to me. Unfortunately, the allure extends to myriad bugs possessing piercing and sucking mouthparts as well. But, bugs aside, this country is a great place to paddle, fish, and paint, and I look forward to working up some of the ideas spawned on my latest excursion north.
Well, all that courtin’ and chasin’ and general wooing that provided last month’s excitement and mayhem in the marshes, woods, and fields has evidently paid off. As I write this, we have Wood Duck eggs days away from hatching in our nest boxes, Cardinals, Robins and other songbirds foraging constantly in our yard for their demanding nestlings, goslings holding up traffic out on the highway, and Monarchs in various stages of metamorphosis in jars in our kitchen.
Loons were at it, too, and I recently had the neat experience of almost witnessing the hatching out of a Loon chick. We were visiting my parents on Lake Sylvia over the weekend, and a pair of Loons was nesting in the large bay behind their house. I put my scope on the nest, and had just started sketching the bird, when my 11 year-old son came by and needed my help cleaning fish for lunch. I left my post, cleaned the fish (I’ve got that whole “Y”-bones thing down pat I have to say), and was back at the scope about 30 minutes later.
When I resumed my watch, the bird and its mate were both in the water near the nest, and I noticed that one of the birds now floated in the water in a peculiar way. Its wings were drooped, and one side of its back was noticeably bulging up. So, I started drawing this bird, and as I was making color notes on the eyes and iridescence of the head, a very young loon chick unsteadily poked its head up from beneath the adult’s wing! Could the chick have hatched out and climbed onto the parent’s back in the relatively short time I had been gone? I don’t know, but there had been no sign of the baby before I left, and the adult in the water had been floating normally. Whatever the timing was, it was quite exciting to know that I had possibly come ever so close to witnessing the chick’s entrance to the world!
The bi-annual bird migration is something everyone should experience. It is a truly a sight to behold when swarms of ducks or long skeins of geese fill the skies each autumn. And then there's the spring migration: Simply one of the most spectacular events any of us can ever witness in nature.
In spring, birds are plumed in their Sunday best, and their natural secretiveness is swamped by their zeal to establish territories and woo mates, resulting in potentially perfect conditions for the field artist! Especially cooperative can be the waterfowl, which are among the first migrants to arrive on our marsh each spring. In some years, it’s like the Easter Bunny has left a big, new batch of brilliantly-colored treasure bobbing in the water and loafing on the ice edges.
I love to take my scope out, set up a little blind, and sketch. Sometimes there is so much going on that I find myself in a sort of migration-induced attention deficit-disorder. I’ll be sketching one bird, get pulled away by another, start drawing that, see something else, and then be pulled away yet again. This loop can continue ad infintum.
Sometimes, though, I do manage to retain focus, and drawings can come less clumsily. Unfortunately, this tends to be more the exception than the rule, and non-practitioners of the craft of field sketching would likely raise an eyebrow at the effort and time that I put into it. But when it does happen, I often feel like I am completely absorbed into the surroundings; a part of, rather than apart from, the natural world. I can come in from a session in the field with endless ideas for paintings, way more than one lifetime could accomodate.
Getting feedback from trusted experts is a great way to improve in any endeavor. For the past dozen or so years, I've had the privilege to be a part of a group of truly talented artists who gather annually at Gary Moss's great log home in central Minnesota.
Each of us brings along a handful of current paintings, and we display them one by one for the group to comment on. We all trust each other to give honest advice. Honest. Really, really honest. Sometimes the comments will make the artist feel a painting is much stronger than he thought. Other times...
This year, most of the usuals were present: Ron Van Gilder, Dan Metz, Gary Moss, Greg Alexander, Tom Wosika, and Tom Moen, and we missed Mike Sieve and Wayne Meineke.
One of the paintings I brought was a scene of Buffleheads zipping along a snowy river. I'm painting it in the looser style I would like to develop, and so was curious to see how it was received by the group. Happily, they liked it very much, and encouraged me to keep going down this road. What do you think?
I like winter. In Minnesota, we consider late November to late March to be "winter", a time to ski, skate, and even walk on frozen water in search of fish. But the 2011-2012 installment of this season has been a big ol' swing and a miss. Reportedly, it's the second warmest on record since the very first year figures were kept way back in 1878. The lake I grew up on didn't even freeze over completely until well into January, and my beloved cross-country skis continue to gather dust in the corner of my room. Sigh...
Nonetheless, a few silver linings can be found in this winter that isn't (so far). For one, it's been way easier on pheasants and other such critters than were the frigid temps and deep snow that Old Man Winter dished out early and often last year.
For me, a special treat was that the abovementioned open water on our lake attracted a bevy of Trumpeter Swans that added an angelic beauty to our Christmas. Typically, the only open water available for these huge birds to winter on is a stretch of the Mississippi River. But this year they've had many other options, and have given my sketchbook and I a terrific gift. Just last week, in fact, I tunneled through about 20 yards of cattails on the edge of the nearby marsh, and watched over a dozen of these stately birds feed and loaf among a flock of Mallards. Beautiful!
Every so often, the moon rises right around the time the sun sets, resulting in a unique, dynamic light. Just such an evening occurred on the 8th of last month, when the just-short-of-full moon rose shortly before the sun fell behind the trees.
I'd been tracking moonrise/sunset times all winter, and circled Jan 8th on my calendar in preparation for a Hawk-Owl painting I've been wanting to do for some time. Two years ago, I spent a couple days in the famous Sax-Zim Bog area of northern Minnesota, sketching Hawk-Owls. It was a LOT of fun, and resulted in one of my personal favorite watercolors, "Owl from the North Country". The following Autumn found me in bog country again, (thinking about the owls, not surprisingly) when the moon came up just as the sun was setting. The seed of a painting idea began to germinate.
Now, this past January 8th, I stood behind my field easel, out in our marsh, as the anticipated moment drew near. Right on time, the big moon floated up behind the far shore, and the light began to change by the minute. I painted as fast as I absolutely could--I mean, I really threw the paint around! I did five separate 5 x 7 oil studies in the hour surrounding the moonrise, and then jotted down a page of color notes in my sketchbook.
It was enthralling to track the warm bands of color in the sky moving upwards, gradually being replaced by a blue-violet band at the horizon. I wondered if that blue band was actually the shadow of the earth, made as the globe rolled over in space, moving me further away from the sun. It was exhilarating to really feel like I was on a celestial body, moving through the universe. I simultaneously felt hugely important and spectacularly insignificant.
With my rising moon/setting sun research in hand, I have moved forward toward a full Hawk-Owl/moonrise/sunset studio painting. "The Rising", now sits about 95% completed on my easel, and I'll try to post an image of it next month. Until then, enjoy each rotation of the earth!
Ahh, the season of the great Christmas Bird Count is upon us! For those of you not familiar with this grand birdwatching tradition, it has been going on annually since the early 20th century. In a nutshell, groups of birders go out and count all the bird species, and the numbers of each of those species, they see in a designated area on a designated day. Counts go on all over the country, from the end of December to the beginning of January. It's great "Citizen Science", and over the decades the data generated (compiled each year by the National Audubon Society) have illuminated numerous trends and valuable insights into bird populations and distributions.
I take part in the count carried out each year in and around the Cedar Creek Natural History area (near Ham Lake, MN) on the third Sunday in December. This year, our half-dozen groups collectively spotted 45 species of birds. My group's highlights included a Red-shouldered Hawk, a couple of Northern Shrikes, and several Red-headed Woodpeckers. Cedar Creek is a veritable hot bed for these dapper woodpeckers, and this year (with balmy temps that made if feel like it should be called the St. Patrick's Day Bird Count) over 50 Red-headeds were tallied, almost double the previous record high for this count!
It is a day devoted to citizen science and bonhomie, of course, but you know I brought along the sketchbook too. Here and there, I made some quick studies of some of the things we saw. Sketching the Red-headeds made me notice that there is considerable variation in the depth of the red on their heads. Some individuals had deep crimson over the whole head and bib. Others had varying levels of a mousey-gray-red, and even brown, in their heads. I suspect such birds were juveniles, but haven't confirmed that yet.
So, if you're a birder, or just interested in this aspect of nature study, joining a Christmas Bird Count is a lot of fun (unless you're on the count in Nome, AK where they encounter temps down to -30, and routinely tally up to three different species of birds each year). You'll meet some great people, see some good birds, and maybe even be able to share a CMF with new friends. For more info go to: http://birds.audubon.org/cbc?gclid=CLmw0_PClq0CFQQCQAod2AJynw#vv