Saturday, November 27, 2010


Thwak!! That was the sound the young Red-tailed Hawk made as it left its perch 10 feet above and in front of us and landed at our feet, less than 6 feet away. I assume that he thought he spotted something though as we watched and sketched him today at Morris Arboretum we never saw any sign of him actually capturing anything. The next thing you knew he flew straight at us missing our heads by less than three feet!

I've been reading a wonderful book over the last few days called 'Modern Wildlife Painting' by Nicholas Hammond. It covers American and European wildlife art over the last 200 years more or less. One repeating theme is familiar to me: berating wildlife art that relies too much on photos and too little on real life experience and field sketching. He mentions artists like Liljefors who were active hunters, who lived in the natural world, and knew it through experience.

Being a city dweller, even though I grew up on the outskirts of a small town with farms and fields nearby, I realize that my experience of nature is limited. I don't 'live' in it, except as it exists in cities. So I can ID a hawk. But I really can't tell you much about it. Today's experience was exciting in the sense that it gave us a glimpse into the hawk's life from his perspective, not ours. He was hunting. We were unwitting witnesses.

I did a field sketch of the hawk that is below. The bottom sketches show him after he landed right in front of us. At least one of them captures I think the sense of movement as he tried to plant his feet and talons firmly on the prey, which may or may not have actually been there.

At top is a quick watercolor based on a photo I also took at that time. What's most amazing to me about the photo, and what I tried to capture in the sketch, is the way his legs showed enormous strength and his wings were pulled up as though he was going to use them as weapons. In doing the watercolor I tried to capture the strength and forcefulness of the hawk at this time. In some ways it doesn't really look like a hawk. But this is pretty much what I saw. Animals can always surprise you, as long as you take the time to visit them in their world.

I also did some quick field sketches of Canada Geese at Valley Green a few days ago. They're below. They are a very common, and often unloved, bird. But they are wonderful subjects for drawing.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

November Surprises

When we went to Cape May the first week of November it really wasn't when we wanted to go. We wanted to go earlier but circumstances prevented that. One consolation though was that I'd read that November was often the month of big surprises at Cape May, especially for West Coast migrants.

We didn't see any. However I had to think of it when a west coast warbler was reported just 7 miles away yesterday. Improbably it was also the first day for bird walks at the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Center in Philadelphia. Who would have expected a Townsend's Warbler, on the first or the 10,000th walk?!

Still that's what it was and some great photos were taken. You can see how we might be tempted to go hunting for it, something we've never done before. We bird locally and on vacation but never make special trips to see just one bird. But this was too good to pass up.

Well I did see a bird with a face patch today, only eight feet off the ground, that others clearly identified as the Townsend's. Jerene got a couple of looks, not much better, but enough to piece together the bird. I brought my camera and sketchbook and was really hoping to do a field sketch. Not today though.

However yesterday we had another November surprise, a Fox Sparrow in our backyard. They are not exactly rare birds here. But I doubt that we see them more than once a year in Philadelphia. And we've never seen one in our yard.

He didn't stay long, and it was getting dark, so I didn't get any sketches. I did get a couple of quick photos though and did the quick watercolor at top based on one. It leaves a lot to be desired but at least serves as a record of our first ever Fox Sparrow.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lino on Hosho

My newest foray into linoleum cuts, number three in my career, is at top. It is version number 11 and is pretty close to being the last version, if not actually being the finished version.

It's based on the watercolor above, based on a photo that I took at Morris Arboretum this summer. I know that there are plenty of more experienced lino printmakers on the web, many giving step by step narratives of their prints. But since this is my first one on good paper and went through a lot of steps I thought I'd show some of them here.

I began by scanning the watercolor, then reducing it in size to about that of the lino block. I then printed that and made an outline in chalk of the major shapes. I then rubbed this onto the lino block. Because linos print in reverse if I'd just drawn on the block while looking at the watercolor the end result would have been in reverse. I didn't want that so I used the process just detailed.

Once I had the chalk on the block I made a few cuts. But once lino is gone it is gone, just like wood or stone in sculpture. So I wanted to proceed cautiously. The very first version is above.

I then moved on developing various areas, and responding to what the various proofs looked like.

Above is version five. At this point I still intended to let the foliage next to the heron go to the top of the page. But as I experimented with various ways of hatching in order to get the sense of tones I made a mess. The area was just a jumble. So finally I decided to let the background fallen tree show through and divide the foliage into two shapes.

It took 6 more versions after that before the print seemed to come together. As I said previously I've been using some very old Japanese printmaking paper whose name I don't even know. It's been rolled up for years so has been difficult to use. But finally I ordered some good paper. The version at top is the first proof pulled on good Hosho paper.

Most likely I'll print an editon of 10 or so of these on the Hosho paper.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

November Ospreys

When I first started the prototype of this blog, at what was then a web site, one of the motivating factors was seeing an osprey at the Wissahickon in late fall, November if I remember correctly. We rarely see osprey here. But the more I've birded the last few years the more common I see that they are, particularly in spring and fall migration.

Still it was worth noting when I started talking to people at the Wissahickon on my last two walks and each time an osprey flew up and landed nearby. Yesterday a woman I didn't know stopped me, I'm sure because of my binoculars, and asked me if I knew anything about birds. Then she described an osprey, which promptly flew up and landed in a nearby tree with a fish.

After a few minutes I told her I just had to draw it. The result is below. It was an immature so had far more markings on its feathers than an adult osprey did.

When I got home I decided to try a linocut based on the sketch. The results are at top. I think it looks quite a bit different than the recent American Bittern.

I had to decide what to include in the background and decided to stick with an empty sky. But I'm not sure how well that worked. To a certain extent the print looks cartoonish. But I think it still gets some of the sense of the osprey.

In researching woodcuts I found an old book I had on printmaking. As I looked at it I realized I got it when I taught a course in printmaking. I'd completely forgotten about this, mainly because is was so long ago. As I recall I only taught etching. Still it was a surprise to recall that someone had once actually paid me to teach it. As anyone who has taught college, or maybe had any job, knows though, someone is always asking you to do something a little outside your area of expertise. Such was the case with me and my printmaking course.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bittern Redux

I believe I mentioned in my post on field sketching in Cape May that it was frustrating to have the best look I've ever had at an American Bittern and find that my pens wouldn't work. The combination of rain on the paper, the paper sizing and the ink from pen just became the epitome of recalcitrance. The pen wouldn't make marks.

But I chanced harming my camera and took a few photos of the Bittern just standing stock still out in the rain. Yesterday the developed prints from those photos arrived, just as I'd picked up the first ever linoleum blocks I've ever bought or used from the local Dick Blick. I'd been downtown for another appointment and decided to wander in and look around. Always more expensive than I'd planned.

In any case before you knew it I'd done some quick sketches from the photos, found my ancient woodcut carving tools and well as some larger wood carving tools, dragged out some ancient Japanese woodblock paper whose name I no longer remember and started to work.

Above is the third version. I'm really not sure if versions two or three improved on version one but I had to give it a try.

Those readers who've seen my charcoal drawings won't be surprised that I take to woodcut and now linoleum cut. I do have a predilection for graphic quality in art. I can appreciate many types of art and work in many ways. But I do feel comfortable with this.

My guess is that I'll eventually move on to woodblocks, even though wood can be the epitome of recalcitrance itself. But for now I think it's going to be linoleum. Of course multi-color is a temptation but I better resist for awhile.

And of course I'll have to revisit artists like Andre Rich and Kim Atkinson both of whose work has always struck me.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Season of the Sparrows

Sometimes as I look out into our backyard and the tens and tens of House Sparrows at out feeders I forget how beautiful sparrows can be. But like much of nature, including the insects I used to draw, nature when seen close up is rarely ugly. Sometimes the beauty is bold. At other times it's more subtle. Such is the case with sparrows.

Last week we saw some particularly handsome sparrows: Swamp and Savannah. And yet they're really nothing compared to Lincoln's or LeConte's, the last of which I've never had the pleasure of seeing. I think I still had those sparrows in my mind when I started this watercolor of a Song Sparrow today.

Song Sparrows are common for most Americans I think. But they still have a striking beauty. This one has just picked off a worm from nearby leaves. It's a bit more toned down than usual for me but I wanted to keep the background toned down so that the sparrow could have his moment in the sun. This is done on 300# Arches cold press paper and is 9x12 inches.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

November Field Sketching in Cape May

As regular readers of this blog surely realize I and my wife like to vacation in Cape May, NJ at least once a year. Though there are many attractions in Cape May we singlemindedly pursue just one: birding. The various habitats combined with its location at the tip of a peninsula on the Atlantic coast combine to make it a tremendous place to see quite a variety of birds.

So I include my own rough evidence of that. I say 'rough' because these sketches are just what I see while the bird is still there. I don't go home and finetune them in the studio. Not that I won't do later finished paintings. But with field sketching I try not to fix them up afterwards. Not that I never add something later. But normally not. So in the sketches below there is a Bufflehead that looks like almost nothing. But I won't do anything with it. What is here is honest and I'd like to keep it that way, knowing that this represents what I thought I saw.

At top is a Northern Gannet in flight, seen with a scope from our motel room window. Beneath him are a Black Skimmer and a Royal Tern.

Above are more Black Skimmers, seen facing head on, where their bill seems to disappear, followed by a male Northern Pintail, and finally one of the ubiquitous Sanderlings, who constantly played tag with the incoming surf.

Now a Black Scoter, sitting off in the distance, followed by an American Coot, and finally an American Bittern posing in the rain. We had rain all day on one day. We are likely to see American Bitterns about once a year, generally in squawking flight going out of sight. But the rain seemed to have rendered this bird unafraid of people. He just sat out in the open. Just one problem though. I had a tremendous view but my pen would not make a mark on the paper. I tried two different pens and could only get what you see. The pens would just not work on the rain-spattered paper. I did get some photos though so something more developed may yet appear. Oddly enough we saw two bitterns one day and then a single one on two succeeding days. Only this one stood out and posed.

We don't see Black Vultures all that often and they are always in flight. But these sat quietly in some tree tops. Below a loud but rarely visible Brown Thrasher.

There comes a time when many birders get sick of seeing Yellow-rumped Warblers. They seem to be everywhere when you know that other warblers are also around. But you just can't find the one other warbler amidst the 100 Yellow-rumps. But still they are beautiful birds, in their more delicate fall colors as well as in their gaudy spring colors. This one was so close he walked across my shoe at one point as I tried to sketch him. Followed by a male Ring-Necked Duck and a distant female Hooded Merganser.

Finally just the hint of a Bufflehead, followed by a Golden-crowned Kinglet, one of many which were also so unafraid as to land at my feet as I sketched. Beneath him a bird that I sketched for ID purposes because I just didn't know what type of hawk it was. Finally, thanks partially to all the details I noticed while sketching, I determined it was a Red-shouldered Hawk. Finally beneath him a seabird that I just couldn't see well enough to ID.

AS I said these are rough. They are more evidence of things seen than finished sketches. But I think this sort of honest sketching is invaluable. I thought of this as I looked through the photos that I also took. I take them for reference, perhaps to see a detail that I missed in the sketch. But the photos always strike me as a bit lifeless. They can't capture the full three-dimensionality of the bird. And yet they can have such detail that they seem like they would be a good source for a painting. I don't believe that they are. For me I want to start my paintings or developed drawings based on field sketches. They seem to be a better talisman of the initial experience. They evoke it better. Then I may use photos to help with details.