Category Archives: Nature sketching

Sycamore Leaves

Sycamore Leaves Sketch
Sycamore Leaves. ©2014 Stephanie Benedict. 3 1/2 in x 5 1/8 in., watercolor and water soluble pencils in a Moleskine watercolor sketchbook.

Autumn isn’t typically Sacramento’s best season. Most of the native trees don’t turn the brilliant colors you see in colder climates; we don’t have sugar maples or beech trees here. Oh, some of the newer subdivisions have planted Chinese pistache and liquidamber trees, which put on a nice show.  But many of our trees are quieter in color.

I decided to sketch some sycamore leaves, to see if I could capture the very subtle colors of the leaves as they lose their chlorophyll and turn first yellowy green. (They then just fade into a kind of gray-brown, and then fall off the tree.)  It made a good exercise both to try for the subtle changes and to practice my watercolor technique.  I added the pencil later, to try to get some of the texture of the leaves.

In the comments below, let us know what autumn is like where you live.

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Pyrocumulus

People here in Sacramento, California, learned a new word last week: “pyrocumulus.” It’s a type of cumulus cloud that can form over a wildland fire when conditions are right.  Well, conditions were right on September 17 when the King Fire more than doubled in size in one day.  (It’s called the King Fire because it started near King of the Mountain Road in Pollock Pines, about 60 miles east of Sacramento.)

Pyrocumulus sketch ©2014 Stephanie Benedict
Pyrocumulus. ©2014 Stephanie Benedict. 3 in x 5 in., gouache. Stillman & Birn zeta sketchbook. This is how the cloud looked to me from about 50 miles away in suburban Sacramento.

The Wikipedia definition of a pyrocumulus is:

produced by the intense heating of the air from the surface. The intense heat induces convection, which causes the air mass to rise to a point of stability, usually in the presence of moisture…

Pyrocumuli contain severe turbulence, manifesting as strong gusts at the surface, which can exacerbate a large conflagration. A large pyrocumulus…may also produce lightning. A pyrocumulus which produces lightning is actually a type of cumulonimbus, a thundercloud, and is called pyrocumulonimbus.

One person from Calfire said in a news report that the clouds can collapse quickly, too, sending embers out in several directions.

Conditions in the Sierra Nevada foothills are so dry, after three years of drought and almost no snow last winter, that the fire just took off, increasing from about 28,000 acres to over 70,000 acres in one day. The winds shifted in the days after the pyrocumulus, slowing the fire’s expansion and sending smoke out over the Sacramento Valley and the foothills.  Still, in less than a week the fire burned more than 80,000 acres (or 120 square miles) of forest, as well as a number of homes.

After decades of fire suppression in California, the forests are thick with brush (where they haven’t been clear cut). It will take crews from Calfire and the US Forest Service weeks to put this fire out. The worst part?  The fire was apparently deliberately set.  A man has been arrested for arson.

Fire is part of the natural cycle in California. People who live in the foothills know it could happen in any year, dry or no.  And we could manage the forests better, leave the oldest trees, which are most fire-resistant, and either burn or cull the understory more.  The forests used to burn every decade or so.  But we can’t really let these fires burn now—there’s too much fuel.  Just like the King Fire.

Do we also have climate change? I think so, though no one can say for sure yet.  National Geographic speculated on this recently.

Have you been affected by fire in the West? Have you seen a pyrocumulus cloud?

The Drought in Northern California

It rained in Northern California last weekend: a trace in Sacramento, and a few inches of snow fell in the Sierra Nevada. The week before, while most of the rest of the US was caught in the “Polar Vortex,” the temperatures here were deceptively mild. Indeed, if you are a bicycle rider or a hiker, this is a great winter: Central Valley and Bay Area temps in the 60s, perfect sunny weather. (Well, except for the dirty, stagnant air.) It’s not so great if you’re a skier, though: there’s no snow in the mountains. Almost literally. The early January snowpack measurements found that on average the snowpack is about 20% of “normal.” In the northern part of the state, the snow was at 10% of “normal.” So while last week’s storm helped a teeny bit, many of the cross-country ski resorts have closed; instead, people can hike on their trails.

Benedict Oak Tree Sketch
Oak Tree Sketch. ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. Watercolor in a Hand Book Journal.

What this means for residents, both human and non-human, is that, unless things change, there will be very little water this summer and fall. The fire danger will be extreme. There have already been red flag warnings in Southern Cal and in the Sierra foothills in January. There was a fire in Big Sur in December.

Here is Sacramento, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has cut the flows to the American River to 500 cubic feet per second (cfs). (A cubic foot is about 7.5 gallons.) By comparison, according to the Sacramento Bee, the median flow for early January is 1,728 cfs, over three times as much. Local lore has it that, when the flows are this low, you can walk all the way across the river in some locations.

Wildlife officials have already started warning people to beware thirsty wild animals. If the drought goes on long enough, it may affect the country’s food supply.

Here are a couple of photos from my local park, where there is a vernal pool preserve. Vernal pools are not affected by the pumping of river water. They only get water from rainfall, and no water flows out of them. The first photo is from December 2012, the second of our three dry years (so far). And the second picture is from last week (before this last rain).

 

Vernal Pools 2012 Benedict
Vernal Pools in Fair Oaks, December 2012. This was the second dry year in a row.

 

Vernal Pools Jan 2014, Benedict
The same vernal pools in January 2014. Sacramento has had no measureable rainfall since early December, and that was less than 0.1 inch of rain.

Since there is little I can DO about this drought, except conserve water*, I’ve decided that I’m going to try to document the drought in sketches and paintings. The sketch above is from that same park. With no rain, the oak trees kept their leaves very late, and they turned beautiful and subtle burnt oranges and reds.

I know I am supposed to end these posts on an upbeat note, and pose a call to action. So here’s my call to action for you: pray for rain. Do a rain dance for us. Whatever power you have with the Universe, send some rain and snow our way.

*Water in the West is an extremely complicated and complex topic, but since this blog focuses on art and nature, not politics, I’m not going to get into it. Yet.

 

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?

 

The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds

A friend’s recent question—“why don’t you put birds in your paintings?”―led me to find one of the best books I’ve seen for drawing birds: The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, by John Muir Laws.

The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, cover illustration
The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, by John Muir Laws. ©2012 John Muir Laws. Illustrations used by permission

Artists typically study human anatomy in figure drawing classes, studying skeletons and musculature to inform their work. After all, we are hard-wired to know when an arm is too long. But few classes teach how to draw animals, and few books are as clear as this one.

With simple, clear instructions and wonderful examples, Laws takes you through all the steps you need to learn to draw birds accurately and quickly. AND he warns you about common mistakes, such as making the head too large.

Laws starts with the basics, of course: getting posture and angles, the proportion, head position, and angles. Only then does he go into shading and, finally, color. (The cover illustration is a good example of his process.)

Then the book goes on to bird anatomy, birds in flight, using negative space, field sketching, and materials. And he offers lots of tips. Here’s an example:

?©2012 John Muir Laws.  Used by permission
This image highlights the duck’s shoulder. See how the duck balances its mass in the water?©2012 John Muir Laws. Used by permission

This image, of a duck in water, highlights where the duck’s shoulder is, to help you get the feathers right. I also see it as helping balance that duck in the water, by showing how the mass is distributed.

He shows you how to make a frame to draw birds in flight, how to get heads and bodies in perspective, and how to use negative space to draw those curvy necks on herons.

Laws encourages everyone to sketch nature in the field. “The most important part of field sketching,” he writes, “is not the drawing itself, but the focus that it brings to your observations and the strengthened memories that emerge from drawing what you see.” And he offers more tips on his website and blog.

And, perhaps best of all, he runs the Bay Area Nature Journal Club, “a diverse community of artists and naturalists, of all levels, who meet together to connect to nature through art.” It’s a free program with monthly workshops on sketching nature, wildflowers, and birds. Makes me wish I lived closer to the Bay Area—maybe I’ll join them some time when they do a trip to the East Bay.

Wren in Flight ©2012 John Muir Laws.
Can’t you just hear the whirr of this wren’s wings? ©2012 John Muir Laws. Used by permission

“If you just see a blur of wings, draw the blur.”

I love it!

Why don’t I put birds into my paintings? That’s a topic for another post.

Do you like to sketch nature?