Nature Abstractions

Wintertime birds and trees

fineliner pen and watercolor in hand.book w/c journal

Two days before Christmas the ground was frozen solid and icicles cascaded from bird feeders. The suet basket outside my studio window was swarmed by a band of tiny birds unlike the Juncos and Chicadees, Finches and Sparrows I’d been seeing. The winter light was low, and they were so fast and their heads so thoroughly embedded in the suet that I couldn’t see their heads or any species identifying details. They had enough shape though to venture a color sketch!

And God Bless my birding mentors, this group of savvy women I occasionally go birding with. On Monday this week I joined the monthly meet up and sure enough, my simple description was enough for them to venture an ID. Bushtits! These tiny birds crowd-cluster a feeder, just like the one above, with tails helter skelter. As we walked along the trail, sure enough the little guys made a frenetic, tittering appearance in a tree.

As a beginner birder I used to think birding was just about seeing and hearing a bird and knowing its name. But the behavior angle is even more interesting, especially with these Pacific Northwest gray skies, when any but the brightest colors against tree branches is hard to discern. 

And leaves that remain on trees masquerade as bird shapes! Location and type of movement can be the final identifier.

No, this picture was not taken at 5pm. It was 10am. Could you ID these birds? Too big for Bushtits. Robins probably.

 

We were at Pioneer Park which is 5 minutes from my house. At first the bird activity was minor, so I paid attention to the vegetation, which is so dramatically different from other seasons. And my mind was brought back to the crinkled masa paper painting I’d just finished. When you wet the paper and crinkle it, you get a complex filagree of spidery texture. And that turns into instant vegetation when paint is added.

acrylic paint on crinkled masa paper mounted on w/c paper

It becomes impossible to not see the branches and trunks and brambles and . . .birds! I turned a dark smudge here into the crow I’d imagined and otherwise let the imagination take over.

You can see more examples on my blog here and here I learned the technique from master artist Cheng-Khee Chee a good twenty years ago and have been exploring with it ever since, often in Muse Groups, but also on large abstract canvases. The Masa paper is inexpensive and available online and in large art supply stores if you want to give it a try.

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Bark and Garden Center

various pens and watercolors in w/c hand.book journal

It was a day of “wintry mix” precipitation last week and we sketchers were not to be deterred. A wintry mix forecast on the weather apps, I’ve learned, means an unpredictable and freezing mix of rain, sleet, and snow with a similar mixture involving some ice on the ground. In all cases it means lots of layers of clothing to put on and take off throughout the day unless you just stay inside. 

Wintry mix does not mix well with sketching on location outdoors, obviously, so the always resourceful Jane Wingfield suggested the perfect solution: the enormous indoor plant nursery at the Bark and Garden Center with its endless (still life-) displays of plants and statuary. And it was a balmy 50 – 60 degree temperature!

Of course the nursery was in full-on Christmas tree, poinsettia and reindeer mode, and I probably go back there to do at least one Xmas card illustration sketch! The owner was so welcoming to us sketchers.

But there was something about this Greco-Roman mother figure that attracted me to sit with her for a while. She seemed powerful and indrawn, and so at one with the enveloping plant life, that the sketching of her became my own afternoon meditation. 

Dazzled!

Dazzled by fall colors! And anxious about how quickly the fall rain and wind storms are denuding my favorites! 

I keep thinking I’ll find the colors to mix, the techniques to employ, the tools to utilize. . .to capture. . .a touch of the outrageous autumn foliage displays. I keep working on it, but. . .

You probably think I’m exaggerating. But Nature is the biggest and most outrageous exaggerater, always. It was awful windy at the Capitol building this week, too much to try to put the color on the page on site. A more intrepid urban sketcher surely would have done so. I just wanted to memorize the look of that redderthanredred against that greenerthangreengreen with the gold thrown in . So at home I just kept putting paint on til I gave up. . .yet strangely still felt satisfied from the effort. 

Autumn glory upstaging Washington’s state capitol building!

And meanwhile this artistry was going on in my neighborhood. What would you say. . .New Gamboge with a touch of Quin Gold? Quin Rose? 

And then this morning this 4 inch glowing something in the middle of our lawn. A golf ball? A piece of paper trash (it is trash day) a wrapper? A fried egg for goodness sake? Would it glow in the dark to flavor up the spooky Halloween?

Did you guess? A mushroom of course! Time to get out the mushroom ID books!

Monarch Sculpture Park

You may remember Monarch Sculpture Park’s post from last year This country park, supported by the artist/owners and donations, is not only an invitingly peaceful spot, but an outdoor art museum whose assorted sculptures interact with the meadows and woods and water features in a way that tickles the imagination.

I had a hard time deciding what to sketch this time. I actually just wanted to sit lazily on the grass and take it all in. How could I fit all rush of impression on the paper of my little sketchbook? Yet the sketchbook is what brought my two sketch buddies and I out on that afternoon. So I turned toward the duck weed carpeted pond and the forest with a tall rust sculpture and started “doodling” again. Since the whole scene read as green, I challenged myself to use a diverse palette, greens, blues and oranges.

When I got home I found the two new gel pens I’d bought in Portland and had fun perking up the scene with some opaque line contrast.  Lots of scribbling here. It was hard to stop!

Grandfather Bunny

Out in the side yard doing some garden trimming I suddenly came eye to eye and inches way from a bunny lying under cover of a plant I was about to trim. When he made no effort to move away. . .well, here’s the art and the story to go with it.

acrylic inks on w/c paper

Found in a tangle of lily fronds, eyes open and question posed in absolute stillness, “if I do nothing will she go away? But from my touching proximity, I knew those deep dark eyes that gazed at me would not spur action. You were waiting for that which my world is trying to escape. I restored your soft shell of leaves around you and was drawn to speak to you as that beloved wildness that I have wished to reclaim for these many years, way back into childhood, standing at its door, impeded by my human-ness.

And so I softly pleaded with you Grandfather Bunny to let me step across the threshold with you, to hop and nibble and land softly with grass stained flower fragrant belly onto the softest spot in the garden. For a few moments I was almost close enough, but could not interrupt your last minutes of life with my human gaze, even though my prayers were to spend time with you in a rabbit warren, in the path of deer and all manner of birds and bugs.

Perhaps you knew that and had already sent blessings back to me from the other side, when I found you an hour later, eyes closed and body left behind, not a scratch on it, and I brought you inside because it was darkening out and I was not ready to abandon you to nature’s hungry reclamation crew. . .yet.

Next day I located a resting place under a conifer, on the far side of the ancestral grove, and the hole dug, filled it first with love and then your perfect wild body.

And the day after I found a fresh hole in the earth above you. I wonder, did someone in your home team come to get you and take you home? Or did you find your way back out and beyond so that now you are munching clover in a sunny field somewhere. . . eternal.

Camouflage

We tend to think of the creatures who eat the vegetation in our gardens as unwelcome intruders. Can you imagine what they must think of us?! Lately I’ve been startling bunnies and deer on a regular basis. One deer family in particular, a mom and two spotted fawns. Their pert heads lift at me with the unuttered challenge of “what the heck do you want?” They pause rather than bolting, unwilling to give up their munching or napping on the soft grass in the shade of the ancestral grove (the back side garden, under the birch trees, where we’ve “installed” the Grandmothers whose ashes we have shepherded since they died less than a decade ago). This deer family knows they are welcome there.

My mother had a very soft spot for creatures like deer, and surely would not mind a all watching the doe jump easily into the fenced-in vegetable garden and help herself to the bean and tomato plants. We can certainly survive without those extra veggies, and the plants of this world are accustomed to being munched on by all manner of creature. 

I did however subject this family to a round of picture taking and exact payment for their “rent” of my garden and its bounty, by including them in my art making.

Daler Rowney inks on w/c paper, 1st layer

Prior to the recent deer sighting, I was actually inspired by the trip to the Japanese Garden and a picture I took of the koi pond.

This image reminded me to play around with the “painting on water shapes” technique I love, as an expressive and highly spontaneous way to achieve nature shapes, especially since I live in an area dominated by trees, trees, trees!

So I started by wetting the paper with lines of water and crosslines connecting them in almost a tangle.

Next step: dropper onto the wet shapes with two different inks, somewhat randomly.

And next: tip the paper and add drops of water into the shapes if necessary, so that the inks mix and move.

Then I dipped a dip pen into the darker ink and added some calligraphy to delineate or suggest tree texture and branches, including dry pen texture.

Lastly I dipped a cotton ball in the inks and dabbed on leaf and bush foliage.

And that’s when the doe found her way in. With a bit more ink she found her place, a native with every right to live here with us and share this fertile ground. She fits right in. I considered adding birds and dragonflies and all manner of other creatures to this Where’s Waldo piece, but decided I’d told the story I wanted to, and time to move on.

Currently I’m reading a book which has had a significant influence on me lately, and I highly recommend it as a great read. . .Martin Marten by Brian Doyle

It’s about a boy coming of age and a marten also coming of age and a million other things to surprise and delight, so that you begin to see the world from the perspective of the non-human creatures, plants, etc which inhabit “our” world while we overlap and inhabit “theirs”.  (As you can see it’s making me more verbose than usual!)

Rookery and Stuck in the Muck

When you launch yourself out in nature settings you have to be ready for anything. . .which obviously we weren’t last week when we returned to Woodard Bay with the kayak, ready to explore from the water side.

I had checked the tides and we put in at high tide on a gravel shore with a gentle incline into the water. The day was sunny and warm with a cool breeze. We paddled along to the foot of the noisy cormorant rookery. From our front row seats we enjoyed watching the bird family commotion in the tall trees above us!

pen and watercolor

(This sketch, which was done quick and messy when I got home, shows the impact of the scene.) What we were able to see was silhouettes of nests and leaves and birds, sometimes indistinguishable, and a white feathery dust over it all.

Two juvenile bald eagles glided over the water next to us and lit on fallen trees over the water. Later some seals followed us and kingfishers, great blue herons and an osprey made appearances. We were indomitable explorers in high spirits.

Until it was time to go home and the shore had become an expanse of brown muck with holes spouting water from hidden mouths.

Oh right. Low tide. Actually it was a pretty funny joke on us. Attempts to get out of the boat and walk to shore resulted in sinking in up to mid shin level in stinky (of the organic smell variety) brown muck. Using the paddles as a platform and leaning heavily on Andrew’s youthful vigor and strength, we finally made it to the parking lot with every exposed surface coated with muck, which mostly got wiped off with beach towels to avoid smearing the insides of my freshly washed car. 

. . .one of those great new memories which improves with the telling! 

Note to self: next time you go kayaking in the Puget Sound, check the low tide times and get out of the water before!

 

 

Attempt at a Conversation with Birds

This blog was titled Conversations With the Muse many years ago, and mainly that’s been happening. I make art, and then I think and write about it. Otherwise it feels so unfinished. With the mixed media expressive art there is often a verbal interaction attempted with the content of the piece, which usually contains a great many unanswered questions. . .like this one.

For my underpainting I used an unfinished experiment with dripping inks and blowing them across the page with a straw. Then I found pieces of deconstructed paintings I’ve been keeping for the collage. The result was something that totally short circuited all the rules of color, design, technique etc that i have been learning and relying on in my art for many years. Thank goodness. My favorite thing is to create something bizarre, unexpected, and fascinating to contemplate. Hopefully it will get me wondering outside the box of my usual thinking.

acrylic inks and fluid paints on w/c paper

You crows, all black and squawky on one side and cooing doves on the other.

You’ve laddered up from the lower realms and found a roost for your pulpit.

Now speak!         

(silence)

How can you be so silent now, as I sit expectant with pen in hand to take dictation?

What do you see and hear and feel in your vast communications network?

Am I too dense to plug into it and understand?

How long would I have to sit and watch and listen to receive even a micron of the information which sails unseen, unheard by us humans, between you  and your avian family each moment of the day.

Surely this painting entitles me to just a bit of all that? . . .a feather dropped that I might keep for a dream catcher? A song that I could learn and sing to myself?

Perhaps when the cawing meets the cooing I may at last get a feel, by audio transmission, for the freedom of flight?

a look at the process of construction from beginnings to placing collage pieces and drawing in the focal bird

Have you had any conversations with your art lately?

The Sky Up There

One morning this week I sat at my dining room table facing the sunrise view, watercolor paints at the ready, hoping to capture the breathtaking sky drama. The sky was streaked with salmon color and every variation on blues and dark strings of clouds with bright yellow-orange-red undersides, and I started to put paint down in great haste. Every few seconds I looked up and it had changed. And then it started to rain. And then it stopped and a whole new cast of cloud characters entered the stage. Fifteen minutes from beginning to end of my sketch and I admitted that I had just tried to paint several different skies and ended up with mud (which always translates to indecision!)

So I thought I’d try a different approach, and paint the inner sky, or at least the one I remembered. After all, we look to the sky to help clear our minds, and never has there been a greater need of that. I got out my gouache paints which I thought might help with the pastel colors I imagined. 

But it wasn’t long before the sky started jumping around, and what was at first clear, became muddled and even opposite. Sound like something else we’ve been experiencing a lot lately?

the sky we think is up

there but we live in our inner

sky where we float and bob

the day along

as up becomes

down horizons appear

and disappear

A whacky ride which

flips us on our ear

leaves us standing wobbly

teetering on the edge

with a faulty gyroscope

and no wings

My Woods

Trees and skies, that is the theme my group of Muse sisters is pursuing in our art exploits now. There is a beautiful birch tree by our driveway which has been enticing me to paint it’s white bark again. So I got out some Masa paper and wet and crinkled it, and did the thing where you drag your brush along the tops of the wrinkles. . .and instant trees without all the fuss of getting it “right”.

With these mixed media pieces I always poke around til I find something to add that might tickle the imagination. And, well, you’ll see what I found. . .a bit of enchantment.

India ink, fluid acrylics, crinkled Masa paper mounted on w/c paper and collaged on

I like to imagine a walk in the woods

And I’d come upon a native

Or maybe I’d be hidden in a bramble

And he wouldn’t know I was watching

(Though that seems unlikely

It being after all more his wood than mine)

But let’s just say he didn’t see me

And I was the stealthy one

Who picked up his scent of hide skin and smoke

With some tree sap thrown in

And it was I who wondered

What bird offered up its feathers

And they looked like they belonged there

On his head

 

But I’m imagining as a white woman

Who grew up in a house with central heat

And got her clothes from stores

And saw Nature as something altogether different,

Separate and wildly mysterious

And mostly out of reach

Hence my stories about

What might have been

If I’d slept in a teepee

And danced to drumbeats and

Cooked over an open fire

And learned to heal with herbs.

 

But back to the native here

This is after all my woods he has entered

On his horse with his rifle in hand

I do not fear him

He has entered my enchantment