Category Archives: Drawing

Nature Journaling at Year’s End

Update. Well, at least now we know why all the dead birds at Radio Road that day: an outbreak of avian cholera. Apparently the pond is going to be drained for a few months, to kill the bacteria.

Updated. What a way to start the year! My apologies if the version you saw included unfinished links.

It was a great way to finish the year: A field trip with the Nature Journal Club to Radio Road in Redwood City to watch and sketch shorebirds. About 20 birders and sketchers joined John Muir Laws on this unseasonably warm day near the sewage treatment ponds.

Avocets Napping, sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Avocets Napping by Stephanie Benedict. Sketch. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 5″ x 8″. Trying my hand at sketching live birds–and at using watercolors! (And yes, that’s a seagull in there.)

The (Bay Area) Nature Journal Club is a group of sketchers who take monthly trips to, well, sketch nature. But there’s a twist: they’re out to learn, too. I had only been to one other NJC event, a whale watching trip in Monterey Bay last October, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Laws gave an introduction and a primer to sketching ducks, and he asked the “bird nerds” (which included me) to introduce people to the kinds of birds on the pond.

Sewage treatment ponds are havens for waterfowl. There were both kinds of teal, pintail, widgeon, ruddy ducks, canvasback—even a few Eurasian widgeon, rarities for the Bay Area. And that doesn’t include the flocks of avocet, dowitchers (probably short-billed), snowy egrets, cormorants; and the gulls and passerines and raptors who flew by. I also spotted some birders with very large camera lenses lurking about.

After our introduction, we sketched and shared a potluck lunch, showed one another our journals—with Laws encouraging us to sketch beyond the birding-book profile view—then sketched and shared some more. Seeing other’s work is always helpful. Some had focused on drawing heads very well; others had worked on an individual bird. I worked on sketching the birds I don’t normally see when I go out in the Central Valley, where I live.

We ended the day with an examination of the feather structure on a cooperative dead pintail that Laws found, and a comment that the individuals who do the most to protect waterfowl habitat are actually hunters, through both their duck stamp purchases and organizations like Ducks Unlimited. He’s right: too often birders don’t provide the monetary support needed to protect habitat. “[Leaving] only footprints” doesn’t help protect habitat from development.

The bright sunny day did have its shadows. The surrounding neighbors threatened to have our cars towed when we went to their (public) park for lunch. And the pintail was not the only carcass we saw; there were a number of dead birds in the pond. One birder said there were an unusual number of carcasses that day. No one could say why. They had not been shot by hunters; predators would have eaten them. Disease? Toxins? Last summer I saw an account of many birds in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge being killed by some disease, and I wondered if something similar was at work here. The drought we’re having is likely to exacerbate any contagious or vector-borne illness, so that’s even more reason to hope for rain in the new year.

Still, I’m glad I went. Jack Laws and the Nature Journal Club are onto something, getting people out observing nature and turning their observations into art.

How did you finish out the year?

 

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Birds in Paintings, part 2

In a recent post, I posed the questions of why I don’t put birds into my paintings. Today, I answer that question.

I was a bird watcher long before I took up painting. I take my binoculars and camera with me when I paint outdoors, though birds can be a big distraction. So why not include them in the paintings?

In a word: verisimilitude. I’m not a wildlife painter. If I’m going to put birds into my landscape paintings, I want them to look like they belong there. I don’t mean the perspective of getting the foreshortening of the wings correct, though that’s important too. No, I mean getting the bird the right size in the scene. A friend suggested just putting in a dash for a flying bird. Well, ok, but I want the dash to be correct. Too big and the bird is too close. Too small and it’s just a dot. I want you, the viewer, to be able to tell turkey vulture from red-tailed hawk from great blue heron.

Here’s what I mean. These three birds are not the same:

Three raptors, a sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Three raptors. From top to bottom: turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk (more or less), golden eagle

Birds can tell a person a lot about the landscape, the ecosystem, the season. Birds move all the time. The presence if an osprey says something different about the territory than does the presence of a golden eagle. I want to be able to be accurate in my representations.

But all of that is just an excuse. So I guess my answer is: I’m workin’ in it.

Secret Treasures at the Crocker

Imagine walking into a room and suddenly being transported to another time, another place. A place where satyrs raise families, where temples slowly crumble in Arcadian decay. A place where miniature cows graze in tiny fields, or an army of 1/8th-inch tall soldiers march across a field.

That’s how I felt this week—transported―when I walked into the The Artist’s View: Landscape Drawings from the Crocker Art Museum exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum. While the big show currently at the museum is the Norman Rockwell show, there’s a hidden treasure on the second floor that I highly recommend. The show only runs through January 6, 2013, so see it while you can!

Willem van Bemmel Landscape
One of the drawings in the exhibition. Not my favorite, but the only one I could find an image of. Willem van Bemmel, Landscape with an Artist Sketching, n.d. Black chalk on beige laid paper, laid down to beige laid secondary support, 6 1/8 x 7 15/16 in. Crocker Art Museum, E. B. Crocker Collection

The exhibition features drawings from the 17th through the 19th centuries from the museum’s permanent collection. Most of the artists were new to me, but that didn’t make them any less amazing. Most are small: from perhaps 3 x 4 inches, to about 12” by 20,” these are ink and chalk and graphite drawings (and a couple of watercolors) and sketches of hillsides, trees, Greek temples in idyllic settings. The latter may not be to our modern tastes, but to anyone interested in seeing how someone works, they’re fabulous.

The museum kindly has a few magnifying glasses for visitors to use “for a closer look” at these small works. With them, you can see teeny figures done in ink (with quill pens, remember), or that family of satyrs in their forest home. Or you can just get a closer look at the individual strokes of the quill that form branches or the squiggles that transform into leaves when you stand back to look at the entire work. For the artist, it’s a great opportunity to look at the technique of these predecessors working 150 or 250 years ago.

I’ve heard that one of the reasons modern artists don’t get the effects these earlier artists did is that the paper we have available today is different (this is the Era of Bad Paper, after all). I could clearly see the difference in some of these works, on blue or cream laid paper. Some were made with brushes, some with charcoal, and others with chalk. The white highlights could be very subtle or bright washes—but they all seemed softer and yet more precise than most one sees today.

It’s a gem of a show. Where the Crocker did fall down, however, is in the gift shop: there’s not one image of any of these pieces on a postcard or print anywhere. I wanted to take a couple home with me (on postcards) so I could study how they were made. No luck. So literally, you may never get to see these works again.

And the Rockwell show? It’s pretty amazing. I’m not sure why illustrators get such a bad rap.