Sunday, December 28, 2008

Winslow Homer - Baaad Example!

There is no doubt in my mind at all about who my favorite watercolor artist is: Winslow Homer. I couldn't say this about drawing or painting but I can about watercolor. So I was very happy to get a new Homer book for Christmas: 'Watercolors By Winslow Homer: The Color of Light' from my old haunt of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Art Institute of Chicago. While working my way through it today as I stared at some tentatively finished paintings in my studio I came across examples of his scraping and blotting to alter previously applied pigment. This is something I can use I thought.

A while later I decided to remove the staples that attached my 'Greater Blackbacked Gulls' watercolor from its stretcher board.

But after I had taken off a couple of staples I remembered what I'd said in an earlier post about the painting: it was really lacking in tonal variety. I'd also just read about how important tonal clarity was to Homer. As I looked at the painting I thought: What a dud!

So I went back to work on it, using scraping, blotting, erasing into wet paper, and variations on these to try to bring more tonal variety and clarity to the painting. I think that the new version is an improvement.

When I labeled this post 'Winslow Homer - Baaad Example' I of course wasn't criticizing Homer. My point is that the good example of quality art can persuade you to alter your own work, perhaps destroying it in the process. But that's really my artistic background. You work and work and work at a painting until it seems finished. For some artists this will be primarily a 'visual' finish. For others some other category/value is applied to determine finish. There have been many times where I've ruined a work by going back into it, sometimes with an idea that was brighter in my mind than when put into practice. But generally speaking you become a better artist by setting higher standards for yourself and not always settling for your first attempt at something.

But watercolor, particularly if you're new to it like I am, presents a dilemma. It's so easy to ruin the freshness of a watercolor by overwork. On the other hand Homer is a great example of ambition in watercolor. He shows you that you can go back into a watercolor and try to improve it, knowing that you may in fact ruin it, but also showing many great examples of exactly the opposite result. What a great example he sets for all watercolor artists!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Holiday Communication

I sent out a number of holiday greeting cards based on a photo I'd taken of one of my sketches, and we got normal greeting cards, and online greeting cards and of course phone greetings. But my wife Jerene shows how to do holiday communication the old-fashioned way: with a nose-pat.

We like to take a short walk at the Wissahickon on all the major holidays. Yesterday we were greeted by a Brown Creeper, what seemed to be a dueling Red-Bellied Woodpecker and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and a very visible Red-tailed Hawk. But when we finished our walk we were greeted by these two horses.

Jerene couldn't resist saying hello to them. And I couldn't resist taking a photo. That photo served as the jumping off point for my newest watercolor pencil and waterbrush endeavor, this time using my new set of 36 Derwent watercolor pencils. It's a little too early to say much about them but they were good enough to get me started on this sketch. My thought is that I'll soon be very fond of them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Draw What You See, See What You Draw

Today I finally broke down and put up my spotting scope in our tiny kitchen. Once the tripod legs are spread out there's barely room for anyone, human, feline or possibly even avian, to move.

But sometimes you just need to see your subject better. In this case the Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker and Junco were viewed through the scope. The detail that you can see when viewing through a scope always has the potential to make a better drawing. Though I don't show it here, or only with the vaguest suggestion, I could really see the complex and beautiful pattern of the dove. Also the wind-created lines in its breast feathers. That knowledge may not show up in the drawing done the same day. But it does add to my storehouse of knowledge, not to mention my visual appreciation, of the birds I see.

It's a pain to peer in the scope then refocus on the drawing pad remembering what you've just seen. But contemporary artists are lucky that we even have scopes. We should probably just count our blessings and not complain.

I include a small waterbrush in the photo of one sketch. I'm still amazed at the possibilities that this cheap little instrument, especially when coupled with watercolor pencils, opens up. One more thing for contemporary artists to be thankful for. I do think that the colors could be brighter but I expect that will happen as I add more colors to my very small palette of watercolor pencils

This last photo is of an immature accipiter that's been in the yard recently. We've had a number of immature accipiters, as well as mature Cooper's and Sharpshinned Hawks this fall. I've not been able to do much in the way of sketching them live. But I do hope to do a more developed drawing or painting from photos soon.

You might call this a perfect setup: a scope to see detail, convenient drawing and painting utensils, and cooperative birds!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Crimes in Science and Art

I should say right off that there's a lot of hyperbole in the title of this post. If it's too much just enjoy the sketch and move on. I suppose you could say it's a crime that the Sharp-shinned Hawk in the upper left of this sketch caught a House Sparrow and calmly tore it apart for a morning meal. Many hawk-lovers would disagree and say that hawks have as much right to eat as any one else. I won't get involved in that argument except to say that the people who say this generally tend to seem to protest a bit too much about how natural the carnage is.

But the crime I'm talking about is of a different sort: that of viewing birds anthropomorphically, or from a human perspective. I'm sure that this tendency has tended sometimes to making birds far cuter than they really are, and forcing upon them our human attributes that may be far from the attributes that a more objective observer might see. For instance seeing a mama Phoebe feeding a young bird that is almost as large or maybe even larger than her is both heartwarming (nurturing the young) and comical (the babe is bigger than the mama). Of course more knowledgeable birders realize the tragedy: she is feeding a baby cowbird, whose own parent has parasitized her nest by laying its own eggs there. She might in fact raise only cowbirds and none of her own children, not recognizing the foreign intruders for what they are. The decline of many songbirds can be attributed in part to this cowbird behavior. So humans can be wrong in their interpretation of bird behavior and other animal behavior.

Some people are so against this they almost consider it a crime. We should never attribute human motives to what seems to be analogous behavior in other species. But what else do we have? We are human. It's hard to see things in a different light or from a different perspective.

Which brings me in a very roundabout way to the title of this post and to this drawing. I've been writing a lot a here and at 100swallow's great blog The Best Artists about art that is based on a thorough mental memory of the subject. At 100swallow's site the subject has been the horse as drawn by Michelangelo and Leonardo. Here the subject has been birds. But both have talked about the need to actually observe animals in nature and draw them live. One of the main goals of this is to actually understand how the birds are put together and also how they move and act. When you understand them as thoroughly as the great artists you can probably draw them from memory, without a subject in front of you.

But another part, that I haven't mentioned as much, is empathy with what is seen. I was reminded of this when I looked at the pigeon in the lower right of this drawing. He his tilting his head in a certain way. This is a characteristic of this particular pigeon, and though all pigeons might move in a similar manner, they each are different. I had some empathy with this pigeon as I drew him. So drawing from nature can help you to understand the general structure of birds or other animals. But it can also help you to see the individuality of each bird, animal, person that you draw. In many ways this is more important and rewarding than understanding them generally. You can't really draw a good likeness of a bird without some understanding of the general structure of birds and yet I think the best art shows the individuality of whatever is portrayed, be it a house finch or a person.

I'm sure that just as some more scientific types would say it's wrong to anthropomorphize birds some artists would say it's not good to show the individuality of birds. It makes them seem cute, like drawings of babies with big, innocent eyes. But sometimes that is just what is there: the pigeon almost looks human in the way he looks out, as does the House Finch in the lower left. I'm sure some would say that is a bit of a crime. To me it's just being honest to what I see. Sentimentality is a great risk in science and in art. But absolute denial of some animal kinship with the world around us is probably far worse a crime.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Starting To Be Fun...................

I know. I know. I said I would not publish any work until it showed a little more improvement. This sketch may not qualify. But I've been having fun with it. Last week I changed from pen and ink to pencil. I love pen and ink but it's mighty unforgiving, especially when drawing from life. Pencil allows far more deftness of touch, far more variety of line weight. I also added watercolor and waterbrushes about a week ago.

The waterbrushes are new to me and a real treat. Today I was able to add the third component: watercolor pencils. Watercolor pencils combined with waterbrushes is a great combination, just as Pam Johnson Brickell said in my earlier post about drawing birds from life. Pam, you are right. This is really enjoyable!

You get the sensitivity of pencil and the instant paint quality of watercolor with just two drawing utenstils: a waterbrush and a few watercolor pencils.
So now what had been a real struggle, requiring a great deal of no-pain-no-gain philosophizing, has become something enjoyable.

People really learn best I think when they get some reward for their efforts and not just constant failure with the promise of some faroff gain. Drawing birds from life is difficult so it's important to get some reward as you go about it. There is the reward of knowing that you're understanding what birds look like much better than you used to. But it's important to get a visual reward as well. I think that will happen, both for me and others, with this great combination of tools.

One side note: snow must be on the way. Our feeders were full of some of our more uncommon visitors such as a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet and Carolina Wren. That should make for more drawing opportunities tomorrow. And when you look forward to drawing birds from life as an "opportunity" you know that it's starting to be fun.

Bay-breasted Bonus

Can you tell the difference? Yes, the Bay-breasted Warbler is a based on a photo. Though we DID get snow we also got a lot of wind and there have been very few birds at the feeder. So I finally gave up on drawing from life today and decided to try the new waterbrush and watercolor pencils on a sketch based on a photo. This Bay-breated warbler was very difficult to identify when we saw him at John Heinz Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia in late May, 2008. Only the bay swatches and strongly defined black and white wings confirmed the identification. If nothing else this illustrates the use of visual clues to identify a bird when you don't get the best look. It also illustrates the difficulty of drawing warblers from life. The numerous Bay-breasted warblers that we saw this day were constantly moving. I had to choose between just indentifying them with my binoculars, trying to draw them in the brief time I could see them, or trying to get some photos(this was the only successful one) to use for later reference. All In all it's probably best just to look at them in binoculars and t try to seal the visual memory. When working from photos there's just too much missing information. So you may be able to draw a semblance of the subject but in the back of your mind you know that you're missing something essential.

This really doesn't seem to deserve a new post. So I'm tacking it on to yesterdays.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Signs of Late Fall

It's always about Thanksgiving that we see our first hawk kill in our backyard. Usually it's an immature Sharpshinned Hawk but occasionally it is a Cooper's Hawk and I'm pretty sure that's what this is, this time a mature one. It's been cold and rainy this weekend so we've had more bird visitors than usual, a very quick visit by eight Common Grackles, two Carolina Wrens - one more than our previous high count, and our first Northern Mockingbird in awhile. Unfortunately for the other feeder birds I guess the hawk was just as hungry as they were. I believe that is the remains of a pigeon beneath his feet. He eventually flew off with it so there's not much left to help identify his victim.

Most of the color is also gone from the garden by this time of year. But the Zinnias seem to keep just the faintest sense of their original color. Here their fascinating shapes are a good counterpoint to the largely barren seedheads of Fennel. It's hard to see these spent Zinnias each fall and not think of Piet Mondrian's wonderful Chrysanthemum drawings. Their structure cries out to be put down on paper. I've always wondered if the Mondrian drawings don't hold some clue as to his real visual intent in his later abstract paintings. Artists' motivations are many but I can't help but think that one of them is to put down on paper, to concretize if there is such a word, the fascinating structure of nature. In an earlier post I mentioned 'carving three dimensional objects out of the two dimensional space of paper' or something very similar. These Zinnias just seem to say: "You have to draw us! Please concretize us!" But so does that hawk. In fact all of nature puts its structure on display over the next few months, all of it crying out to be drawn. Well we shall see.

I did spend about two hours today drawing Mourning Doves, House Finches and Juncos at or around our feeders, this time with pencil and waterbrush and watercolor. They're an improvement over the first felt-tip pen attempts of a few weeks ago. But I've put up too much questionable art recently. So I'll wait for something more successful before posting it. I think I've now made a convincing case for the fact that I can do so-so art from life. It's probably best to wait and show some sign of improvement! I do remain confident that they will get better.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Thanksgiving Tradition

For many years we've always taken a break from our Thanksgiving meal preparation to take a walk on Forbidden Drive at the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia. Sometimes it's fairly eventful and we may see a Pileated Woodpecker or two. At other times it's much quieter. Still it reminds us of much that we have to be thankful for, especially being so near to this place of natural beauty and life. It has always seemed like the perfect entertainment for a holiday like Thanksgiving.

Thursday's walk found this White-breasted Nuthatch on a limb that crossed in front of some of the Wissahickon's metamorphic rocks. I wish I could name the rock. It looks like the greenstone we often see in Shenandoah National Park but I just wasn't paying that much attention to it when I took the photo that served as the basis for this. But it sure does look metamorphic. We also saw two other Nuthatches, one Carolina Chickadee and our first fall Brown Creeper in Philadelphia, at least 50 feet high in Sycamores and other trees. This seemed surprisingly high to us. That was one of the few places that the sun was shining though so it might be that insects were active there and the Creeper knew this. He was busy scouring under the bark.

My birthday occurred recently and among my presents were a couple of waterbrushes. I started playing with them yesterday and hope to do some more life drawings of feeder birds today and tomorrow. I also used them in this first waterbrush watercolor. It's not quite a lump of coal but leaves very much to be desired. But it was a useful experiment in using the waterbrushes and shows me that they have a lot of potential, especially for field sketches. If I have any success with feeder birds and waterbrushes this weekend I may post them later. The painting also reminds me of all the improvements I need to bring to my watercolors. That is sobering but still useful. Normally I probably wouldn't post this image. But it does serve as an illustration for our Thanksgiving walk and that is worthwhile in itself.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Painting is Like Christmas or Gulls Continued

Many years ago when I took my first ceramics class at City College of San Francisco the instructor said that opening the kiln to see how your work had fired was like Christmas, you never knew what surprises might be there. It could be a shiny new bike. Or it could be a large lump of coal. Painting is a bit like that, especially if you work late into the night, when all good light is gone and colors are no longer true, and your mind is probably not as alert as you think it might be.

What surprises will the morning bring? Last night was like that. I worked too late in bad light. This morning greeted me with a disappointing painting but not much more disappointing than when I'd quit last night. I've done more work on it this morning and it's most likely done.

As usual I've lost more white paper than I'd like and the painting could be helped by some remaining white areas or light areas. In fact as I look at this painting next to a newer one a few days after this post I see that it's really lacking much in the light end of the tonal spectrum. The other painting is much brighter and shows the luminosity that is watercolor's strength. In trying to unify the background grasses I also killed off some of the lighter areas and some of the bright luminosity along with it. But I do think the painting is more unified that it was last night. And the gulls do show off their bright whiteness. So at least it is not a disaster.

I still have much to learn about controlling a water color brush, especially when it comes to the feathers of birds. But I've told myself that I need to continue work on larger watercolors and get away from the 7x10 inch watercolors that I normally use for a watercolor sketch like this. This is my first attempt on a quarter sheet of paper, about 15x11 inches. This really is a more comfortable size for me and I think I'll continue to use it for any studio sketches. As with drawing birds from life you just need to do it, not think about doing it. So that is the motto for this winter for drawing from life and working in watercolor: Just Do It.

If I'm lucky I won't have a large collection of coal when I'm done.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gulls in Progress

Just a quick post today to show work on a new watercolor. I've decided to spend an hour or two each weekend drawing from life birds feeding at our feeders. This began when Project FeederWatch started three weeks ago. If the opportunity presents itself for a more full scale work from life I'll try it. If not then I'll work from my photos.

Today was fairly quiet at the feeders so I decided to return to my nemesis watercolor and begin one of two Greater Black-backed Gulls seen from 'The Osprey' shallow draft boat in September, 2008 at Cape May, NJ.

I guess you could say that this is the Winter of Nemeses. First drawing birds from life; now watercolor. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. So here's hoping that I grow in strength as I battle these two nemeses. As I've said before I do really like watercolor. But it requires more preplanning and discipline than I'm used to. We shall see. This is a start but there's a long way to go.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bird Memories

The memory in the title of this post refers not to how memory works in birds (who would know?) but how an artist needs to use his memory of a bird to draw him or her. The drawing above is not drawn from memory or from life but is informed to some extent by my memory of all the birds I've seen and drawn.

This is my newest charcoal drawing, based on a photo of a Black and White Warbler taken in the trees right outside the Cape May Bird Observatory office in late September, 2008. Cape May has a wealth of good birding spots but sometimes one of the best can be right around the office. Easy birding! Along with many warblers we saw that day here we also saw our first Brown Creeper of the fall.

I continued my live bird sketching this week and it's improving. But there is still a long way to go. One thing that live sketching forces you to do is make quick decisions. Birds, at least feeder birds, have often moved by the time you get pen or pencil to paper. So if you want to be successful, and I say this as someone who's not, I think you need to think as you draw. What should I put down first? The head? What shape is the head? The torso? What shape is it? Where precisely are those dark markings on the throat of a House Sparrow? How does the bill join the forehead? That's the gist of what I learned this week and my sketches have improved a little.

In sketching, if you want to get more than just a sense of movement as in some of the sketches in my last post, you need to recall what a bird looks like, how the bill meets the forehead of a House Sparrow, at the same instant that you are putting pen to paper to catch the bird that's about to move.

It's challenging, sometimes so challenging as to make you want to give up, but also exciting. Will you be able to be a bit more successful this time? This is part of the excitement I mean when I talk about the values of drawing from life.

All well and good you say but why show a drawing based on a photo? Well for one because it's my newest drawing. I'm still not sure if it's done. But also because I drew it after some life sketching yesterday. Though you may well understand the various large feather tracts of birds, e.g. greater coverts, primaries, etc., it's very hard to see them in the brief time in which you see a bird you're trying to sketch. Still that knowledge can help you as you make split second decisions as to what you put down on paper. You look at the bird, review your memory of bird feather structure, think about how you can apply that to this particular sketch, remember what you might have learned in previous sketches and put pen to paper in a second or two or five at most.

As I was working on this drawing I recalled some of what I'd just experienced in sketching House Sparrows, particularly regarding location of feather tracts. The photo is based on just the flat representation of what the camera saw. The photo is just marks on paper; it's not the complicated three-dimensional object itself. The great danger of photos is that they are two-dimensional just like drawings. So in a way the translation is easy. You are going from two dimensions to two dimensions. But a bird, or anything else, is three dimensional. The type of drawing I want to do goes from two dimensions(the photo) to three dimensions(what the photo represents) to two dimensions(the drawing). To do this successfully you really need to understand the structure and volume of the object you're representing. The best way to do that is through the knowledge and memories gained from trying to get down on paper a bird that won't sit still for more than a split second. 'Neural memory', if I recall correctly, is what the Motmot called it. It's part of what makes some drawings seem much more lifelike than others, and I think it's probably also part of what makes drawing from life so rewarding, even with all of its frustrations.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

I Thought I Could Draw a Bird

or maybe just a squirrel if the birds were too bad, but even that was tough today, the first day of Project Feeder Watch.

As I've written many times both here and on my main web site I really prefer working from life and not from photos. There is an immediacy that the artist tries to capture when he's drawing what is right in front of him that is lost when working from photos. I work only from my own photos so I have more of a connection than with someone else's photos but still there is something lacking.

However I know that the beginning of Project Feeder Watch will soon show me what a dangerous idea that may be. Live birds, particularly when they're feeding, can make me look like a rank amateur! But as the Motmot says you've got to own a bird, not like owning a pet bird, but in the sense of knowing some birds well enough to draw them blindfolded, or as she says "the essence of the bird is yours to keep."

Project Feeder Watch is one of many Citizen Science projects sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It strives to use ordinary citizens to collect important data about birds. The sheer numbers, especially when done in a controlled way, prove valuable to scientists in studying bird populations, bird behavior, etc. In Project Feeder Watch people count the birds that they see at their backyard feeders from early November until late March or early April. It's both fun to do and scientifically useful.

For me it is SUPPOSED to be the chance to force myself to work from life. Well as much as a brick wall offers me the chance to bang my head into it.... Just kidding. It is an opportunity and I'll take advantage of it, I hope more this year than last year. But as you can see it is a challenge. Those birds just won't sit still. Most birds I've drawn on these two sheets held their pose for less than 2 seconds. I hope the drawings will show an improvement by the end of Project Feeder Watch season. I'll be doing my best to make sure that they do.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Few Birds, But What a Tree

We spent a brief hour at the Wissahickon today, looking for birds, but also enjoying the brilliant colors of fall. Birds were incredibly scarce. We saw only two, a Hairy Woodpecker and a Red-tailed Hawk. But it was still great to be out on a beautiful day with most leaves still retaining their full color.

I think that oaks might very well be our favorite tree. In spring most of the early migrants, especially warblers, can be found at the top of oaks, nibbling the caterpillars that are themselves eating the tender emerging leaves of the oaks. But now in fall their strong colors are the high point. That is until you look up and see the incredible design that the limbs seem to create. I had to choose between a photo that accentuates the color of the leaves and one that shows the beautiful and strong design of the trunk and branches. As you see I just had to go with the trunk and branches.

Don't Kill that Drawing!

I think that this drawing of a Lesser Yellowlegs is done. It's based on a number of photos taken at Cape May, NJ in early October. A very handsome Pectoral Sandpiper fed near this Yellowlegs and he might appear in later drawings. Earlier versions of this drawing appear in the last post. That post ends by saying that I hope I can add some background to the drawing without also removing all the life from it. This may make no sense to non-artists but artists I think know that finishing a work of art, whether it be drawing, painting or novel, can be the hardest part.

The problem, especially in watercolor or drawing, is that the white of the paper is a very valuable part of the artwork. Once it is gone it is generally gone for good, and yet it's necessary to keep a fresh look to the work. So as you get to the end you get a little more cautious about using up the remaining white space. It's sometimes tempting to just leave the white of the paper, which can sometimes still read as part of the illusion of reality rather than just as blank paper. The second version of this drawing, seen in my last post, is like that. I THINK that the upper background reads as a light filled space, not just blank paper.

But I wasn't sure and it certainly did not give any indication of the spartina which is part of what makes the salt marshes of Cape May so handsome. So, knowing I might very well kill the drawing, I went ahead today and added the background. As I developed it I removed more and more white paper. Hopefully it works and is an improvement. I do think that the Yellowlegs now seems better unified with the background and foreground. It will take awhile for me to decide. If not I'll remember this lesson next time. The lesson of not removing too much white is I think a lesson that artists never stop relearning.

But why write about all of this? Well there's certainly the danger of talking art to death. On the other hand I think non-artists might be interested in the many decisions that go into making a work of art. So maybe I should change my post title to this: "Don't Kill that Drawing......with Talk or with Charcoal".

Sunday, October 26, 2008

More Shorebird Drawings

I finally got a chance to return to artwork today. As usual the first process is to figure out what medium I'm going to use. The three that I've used exclusively over the last two years are charcoal, pastel and watercolor. Right now I just don't have time to undertake anything new, like for instance printmaking. So today the first hour or two was spent deciding on a medium. I'd almost gotten out my watercolors to try to remedy a very bad watercolor I started a week ago of a robin in our crabapple when I decided that might be like throwing good money after bad. Instead I decided to return to shorebirds and charcoal instead.

I wrote on Museworthy's blog recently that I once spent three hours a night, five days a week doing figure drawing for a couple of years while living in San Francisco. I always did this after working at a very dull job and it helped to bring something creative to my day. Work certainly wasn't! I mentioned that I thought I was still influenced to a great extent by all of that figure drawing. And I think that is one of the appeals of drawing shorebirds. For some reason they seem to take more anthropomorphic poses than other birds, for instance warblers. Or maybe warblers do so but they just don't sit still long enough for you ever to notice. They're constantly on the move.

But shorebirds often amble along, like the Lesser Yellowlegs above, taking a somewhat human pose, and offering the artist a chance to capture that sense of movement. I hope that I have captured the movement here. Now I need to add a little background detail, hopefully without taking all of the life out of the drawing. Only time will tell.........

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What do you do, just listen?

This post is a quasi-anniversary for this blog. A little over two years ago the sight of an osprey at the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia was the impetus for starting a web site devoted to art, birds and nature. About nine months ago I migrated the contents of that web site to this new blog. Near the very bottom of this blog you'll find that post.

We had never found an osprey to be a regular visitor there. The only other time I'd seen one was the day after the general election of 2004. So it was a real surprise to find one again 2006. Though ospreys were in great decline in the 1950s due to DDT they have made quite a comeback. We see them frequently near large bodies of water, often the ocean, especially near Cape May, NJ, but also at the large water impoundments of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia. We had heard rumors of them being seen at the Wissahickon but we'd never seen any ourselves. When we did it was a momentous enough event to get me to start this blog.

Yesterday we took a 4 1/2 hour walk at the Wissahickon. This was a well deserved vacation after 6 days of stripping wallpaper, spackling, sanding and painting at home. Many of the same birds we saw in that post of two years ago appeared: ruby-crowned kinglet and golden-crowned kinglet, great blue heron, many downy woodpeckers, et al. But no osprey. Then we heard the full-throated whistle that accompanied the osprey two years ago. Examples of osprey calls can be found at the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Just search for 'osprey.' It has been awhile since we'd heard him and so I wasn't absolutely sure it was an osprey.

And so the title of this post, 'What do you do, just listen?' This refers to
another recent post, 'What do you do, just watch them?', in which I tried to explain many of the things that make birding/bird watching so exciting. But the sound of what might have been an osprey reminded me of something I'd forgotten: sound!

This is a bit hard to explain for someone who hasn't experienced it. But I've always found it thrilling to be able to walk into the woods, hear all sorts of bird calls, perhaps sprinkled in with the sounds of squirrels, chipmunks and who knows what else, and be able to stop and identify the source of each sound. This isn't perfect of course and I'm often embarrassed at my mistakes. But most of the time they are correct. Now why this should be so satisfying I can't say for sure. But I think at least part of it relates to what I said in 'What do you do, just watch them?': skill and the sense of being part of a world, and a somewhat orderly one at that, which is far different from the workaday world.

As we continued to hear the call I was certain that it was an osprey. And sure enough one soon winged by and down the stream in search of fish. My guess is that the ravine-like structure of the Wissahickon valley amplifies the sounds of birds there and makes them sound fuller than they might elsewhere. I think this is especially true of a larger bird like an osprey, compared to a smaller bird like one of the kinglets. The examples from the Macauley Library noted above are nowhere near as full and rich as what we have heard at the Wissahickon when we hear an osprey. In fact I couldn't think of another bird, at least that we're likely to see there, that has such a full whistle. And that's finally what made me decide that an osprey must be near. Fortunately he soon flew by to confirm this.

So sound can also be a very large part of birding. If you are interested in bird sounds there is a wonderful book by Donald Kroodsma called The Singing Life of Birds. It includes a CD with sonograms of various bird songs. This might sound just a little too esoteric for many but if you have any interest in birds, and especially if you also have an interest in music, I think you'll find it fascinating. After reading the first part of it, about the variation in the songs of song sparrows, I listened to our backyard song sparrow render over 10 different songs. The guidebooks of course mention the one song of most birds, but after reading this book you'll realize, and hear, that birds are individuals, just like you and I.

There was one other similarity between yesterday and our birding trip of two years ago when we saw the osprey: the great blue heron. They are much more frequently seen at the Wissahickon than are ospreys. And yet they're still not all that frequent, perhaps one out of every 5-10 times we go birding there. I just did a quick check to see if there had been a trout stocking there recently and could not find out. But trout are often stocked in the Wissahickon in the fall as well as in the spring. Perhaps that has something to do with the appearance of these two wonderful fish hunters.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Drawing for Film

In late June I received an email from someone I'd never met asking if I'd be interested in lending some of my abstract drawings for use in a short, independent film. Last Friday the drawings returned from their round-trip journey to the shooting in Georgia.

As the film's web site says: 'A PEACOCK-FEATHERED BLUE is the story of a 9-year-old boy who’s failing science. Marcel loves sketching and painting, but hates following the rules. When his mother finds out he received an F on his latest test, she threatens to take away his art supplies if he doesn’t come up with a winning science project...' For more on the plot check the above web site. Be sure to mouse over the kites to see the various links.

The screenwriter and director, Jenna Milly, thought that some of my drawings would work well to represent the type of creative drawings that Marcel does. The drawing above is partially finished drawing that Marcel is working on as the film opens. I created it especially for the film based on another drawing of mine that Jenna liked.

The drawings below are examples of some of the drawings that Marcel has done. They hang in his room at home. They were not done specifically for the film.

The film should be finished around March, 2009. In the meantime this site gives a sense of the scene during the shooting of the film. It's odd being part of something where you haven't met any of the other people involved or seen the finished product. At least now I know what they look like and get some idea of what filming must have been like. One photo includes Marcel and my half-drawn sketch. It should be exciting to see it when the time comes. Let's hope it does well and gets into some major film competitions!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Flocking Robins, Pleasures of Fall

This will be a quick post because I just wanted to capture a few photos of the beauty of fall in our backyard. For the first time ever, at least that we have ever seen, robins are rampaging through the yard gobbling down the crabapples from our one tree. We planted it 15 years ago in the hopes of atracting birds but it really hasn't been all that successful. Until the past few days. The tree has been covered.

As you may be able to see an insistent, young starling also managed to get in to the crabapple and steal some fruit for himself.
Each October our zinnias seem to look their best. They are such pure, rich colors in a world that is starting to fade. In one more effort to save the suet for birds like Downy Woodpeckers and not from thieves like squirrels, I put up a clothesline and put the suet on that. Hopefully the squirrels stay off and the birds enjoy the food and the beautiful view of the zinnias.

Our very last color in the yard comes from salvias. Below is the first sign of color on a Pineapple Sage. Our 'Tula' salvia has not quite started to show its blooms yet. Soon however they'll both be in bloom: the last glorious color before the grays of late fall and winter.

Monday, October 6, 2008

What do you do, just watch them?

One of my wife's co-workers asked this question a few years ago. I guess his curiosity just got the better of him. Or maybe it was just total mystification. I think he thought of us as smart, fairly reasonable people but he just couldn't understand what we did, or why, when we went 'birdwatching.'

We spent the last week at Cape May, NJ, 'birdwatching' about eight hours a day for five days in beautiful, sunny 70 degree weather. I can't think of a more enjoyable vacation than being at Cape May, NJ in migration season with sunny weather. The accompanying photos are all from that trip.

In some ways I think that the pleasures of birdwatching parallel those of flyfishing for trout. Good trout streams are often in very beautiful areas. They are often quiet and uncrowded. So part of the appeal of both is just being outside, enjoying some of nature's most beautiful, and most quiet areas.

There is also the sense of sport or game. I suspect that my wife's co-worker thought that birds just pop out and pose for you. That is almost never the case. They are often hidden by leaves, tree branches, other more common birds, or they just won't sit still, as in the Magnolia Warbler below.

Sometimes you can just see part of them and have to use your knowledge of them to make a good guess as to their identification, as in the same Magnolia Warbler in another view.

At other times, as in the photo below, identification is a challenge of a different type. Just what are those specks high in the sky? Even binoculars or scopes may not have enough power to identify them clearly. In this case the larger bird is almost certainly an Osprey. The smaller bird is probably a Mississippi Kite, a bird we'd never seen before. But we couldn't be sure of this. Various clues like the manner of flight, color, shape, and the knowledge that more skillful birders had recently seen Mississippi Kites in the same area led to our tentative identification.

In other words you need skills similar to that of flyfishermen to both find and identify many birds. But like flyfishing half the pleasure is just being outside in such a beautiful environment. This is particularly true at Cape May.

One of the other pleasures is just the beauty of the birds themselves. Especially when seen in magnification through binoculars or a spotting scope almost any bird is beautiful. Even the feather pattern of a House Sparrow can seem striking when seen through binoculars. And if the bird is more colorful than a House Sparrow, such as a Blackburnian Warbler, their appearance when seen in magnification is breathtaking. I'm sorry to say that we didn't see any Blackburnians on this trip. A watercolor of one we saw on another birding trip however, sits atop this page.

Sometimes it is a more simple, graceful beauty as in the Snowy Egret below.

Sometimes the excitement is in just seeing a bird that you've never seen before, as in the Lark Sparrow below. Tbere is always a sense of wonder and discovery in birdwatching. Sometimes it is in seeing a new bird. Sometimes it is in seeing new behavior, as when we say nine Great Blue Herons in flight over The Meadows at Cape May. We think that they were heading off to roost but still need to read up a bit on this to confirm it.

Finally there is the pleasure of feeling connected to a larger world than that in which most people spend most of their time: that of nature. The predictable timing of bird migration, something particularly noticeable at Cape May, exposes people to another sense of time. It is a pleasure to feel part of a world that has its own unique rhythms. All in all there is the feeling of being part of a much larger world. Perhaps in fact what is birdwatching for us is peoplewatching for them.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Drawing Shorebirds Continued..........

Well the first drawing from the birding/boating trip in Cape May, NJ aboard 'The Osprey' is done, whether I want it to be or not. There's only so much compressed charcoal you can grind into a sheet of paper before the pristine whiteness of the paper disappears forever. That's the case now. Actually I'm very happy with the Short-billed Dowitcher but I do wish I could get back just a wee bit of pristine white paper. I leave it to the viewer to guess where that might be.

Though I would rather work from life I just don't have time right now so this is based on a photo. When I chose to begin this work the first thing I asked myself is what medium I should use: charcoal, pastel, watercolor? I eventually chose charcoal. As you can see the way I used it has created a drawing that almost looks like a woodcut. A watercolor would have been much different. I expect that I'll soon also try a watercolor of the same subject, It will be quite different and yet I think both will be true to the subject. That is one of the beauties of art.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Drawing Shorebirds

As promised I've started the first artworks based on the photos taken last week at Cape May, NJ on the 'Osprey'. This is the start of a charcoal drawing of a Short-billed Dowitcher. I had done an even earlier stage but the first thing I noticed is that the gesture was completely wrong, and lifeless. The current version shows some darker, stronger lines meant to simplify the drawing and retrieve a sense of the actual movement of the Dowitcher. As I work on it I hope to improve the sense of movement, and grace, in the Dowitcher. And eventually there should be a greater sense of the feather pattern. These are truly handsome birds and I hope that the final stage of the drawing will show that.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

If You Like Art, Especially The Best Art,

and if you like talking, writing or reading about it, you might very much enjoy this site devoted to The Best Artists. I saw a link to it on another site I enjoy, this one devoted generally to drawing and painting birds and nature, Drawing the Motmot.

As anyone who has read this blog knows I do spend a lot of time thinking about art, probably more so than I do about birds and nature. But I think that there is a dearth of discourse on art today. I guess this is somewhat hard to believe given that with the internet and blogs it's unlikely that there is a dearth of discourse on anything! Nonetheless The Best Artists site is refreshing in that it offers the thoughts of one person on one artist or piece of art that they find striking. It's been a pleasure to read, and respond to occasionally. I'd really encourage anyone who has a love of art to take a look.

I especially like the fact that it seems free of art historical baggage that obfuscates so much art. This is a straightforward response of one person to the art he sees. Though I've studied Art History, and often enjoyed it, it can have a way of getting in the way of the art, interpreting it for you before you get a chance to interpret it for yourself. In my experience you never truly appreciate art if you don't interpret it for yourself. Art History might augment this but more often it prevents an honest response from the individual. I think this is especially true of the tapes packaged for art exhibits. Their intent may be good but they really disguise the art. It's far better to see an exhibit without any of this, experiencing it for yourself, seeing your own reactions, and then afterwards maybe going back and reading about it or using audio-visual aids. The Best Artists site allows you to read one persons direct observations of art. As I said I find it quite refreshing and enjoyable.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Birding by 'Osprey'

Yesterday, September 13, 2008, we spent a wonderful 2-2 1/2 hours exploring the back bays and sounds of Cape May, NJ on the 'Osprey', a shallow draft pontoon boat captained by Captain David Githens and his assistant Tom. This was part of a trip organized by Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education Bird Club.
The SCEE contingent on the boat included 12+ passengers and there were at least 10 other passengers. Most people, including Jerene my wife, spent their time enjoying the ride and viewing the birds. My time was spent between just enjoying being out on the boat on a beautiful, sunny 80 degree day, getting good looks at Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers, Tri-Colored Herons and Clapper Rails among others, and trying to get photos like those that accompany this post. These photos will be used as the basis for later drawings and/or paintings.
I'll elaborate on this post and any artwork that may come of it later, but for now just wanted to get some of this online. The photos, by the way, include an American Oystercatcher, sandwiched between two Short-billed Dowitchers. The top photo is from the back of the boat as we neared the end of our trip. Though I've spent much of my life near water I've spent very little time on boats. Each time I do I realize how much I enjoy it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Confusing Fall Flycatchers

Jerene and I spent most of yesterday out birding in Philadelphia. We spent the morning at Carpenter's Woods and the afternoon at Morris Arboretum. One of the surprises of this August has been the discovery that there are a number of migrating warblers, and other migrants, around at this time of year. I'd read that some shorebirds actually start their southern migration as early as late June, but I didn't realize until this year that warblers were also on their way by mid-August or earlier.

So I've seen a number of warblers over the last few weeks, most of them at Carpenter's Woods. They include: Blue-Winged, Canada, Black and White, American Redstart, and Common Yellowthroat. Yesterday we added Magnolia, Black-Throated Blue, and Chestnut-Sided at Carpenter's Woods. Despite the famous line about "confusing fall warblers", probably from Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds, we haven't really run into that many difficult fall warblers.

Over the last few weeks though, we have run into plenty of confusing fall flycatchers. The main problem is that many of them are neither singing nor calling. No 'peeaweees', 'che-BEK!s', 'PIZZZa!s' or 'FEEBEES' to give a clue. For the most part the birds are silent. When the view is only from behind, as it was for a flycatcher at Carpenter's Woods last week, is the bird an Eastern Wood-Pewee or an Acadian Flycatcher? Or yesterday at Morris Arboretum, what were the many flycatchers? The huge eye-ring of one, combined with color and tail-flicking, determined it to be a Least Flycatcher. But we didn't hear the familiar 'CheBEK' that used to waken us at Shenandoah National Park. Fortunately the other clues were enough for identification. But what about the other flycatchers we saw: strong white throat, light vest, yellow, lower bill and fine, narrow eye-ring? We finally narrowed it down to Willow/Alder. According to David Sibley first year winter Alder's have a 'distinct but narrow eye-ring'. These two birds both did but were they first year winter birds? I leaned toward calling them Alders due to their fine eye-ring but finally had to just call them Willow/Alder. If only one of them would have called.

As for the back view of the Pewee/Acadian I finally decided on Acadian, due to the somewhat oval eye-ring. The next day I came upon another flycatcher at Carpenter's Woods, this time a grayer bird with noticeably longer primary projection. He also flew back to the same perch, like Eastern Wood-Pewees often do. So I decided he was an Eastern Wood Pewee. Then, in an unusual occurrence for August flycatchers, he sang his plaintive 'pawee'. I was thankful to finally have some aural confirmation for my identifications.

All in all it has some very challenging birding, necessitating the weighing of many clues to make a final, but often tentative identification. So I stand with my headline: 'Confusing Fall Flycatchers.'