bird watching

Last week at Sierra Camp

Have you ever chased a sunset with your brush? Mixed paint for an old weathered barn from clay dug up in the woods? Dipped sticks found on the ground into ink to draw trees at twilight while the mosquitoes swarmed?

If you’d been with fifteen of us at the Sierra Nevada Field Campus in Laurie Wigham‘s workshop titled Rock, Wood, Water, Sky you would exclaim Yes! and so much more.

SNFCtent

It’s been a while since I’ve “roughed it”. Some might consider this glamping. I mean, a big tent on a platform, hot showers and all meals provided. Bettina and I shared the tent which was named for a not particularly dangerous snake, the Rubber Boa.

A fork of the Yuba River ran right below us in a roar that drowned out our voices as we spoke to each other across the tent. That, combined with the birdsong in the morning and the stars at night. . .ahhhh!

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When I wasn’t in class I collected memories in my little sketchbook.

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This was no painting -botanicals- in- detail- workshop! Laurie encouraged us at every turn to use new materials and capture the essence of the forest and sky.  We were encouraged to do practice paintings on 5″ tall accordian-folded watercolor paper. I did these trees at dusk with sticks dipped in black and brown inks. Later I practiced sunset colors over the top.

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One evening we had a picnic by our cars to paint the sunset by the wetlands where there was more birdlife than I’d ever experienced in one place! Note that all the black marks on the photo above are not dust, but birds. Swallows, yellow headed and red winged blackbirds, Ibises, Sandhill Cranes, a Harrier or two, Grebes, singly or in massive flight patterns in the skies; all adding their melodious vocals to the night air. . .along with the bass notes of the bullfrogs.

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We lined up with our stools on the one lane dirt road to paint the changing light on our 5X5″ pieces.

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Suddenly it really was sunset and the colors changed so rapidly that each painting was about 3 minutes worth of trying to capture the impossible chromatic changes.

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And then it was over, and  on the drive back we kept calling out colors that we saw and the watercolor pigments that would express them.

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Next morning we spread them out on the table to share.

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Another morning we were up at Yuba Pass (6700 ft) painting the aspen trees with their white trunks and shimmering leaves. The lesson was to try many different ways to save whites. Here we are sharing masking fluids, gouache and special brushes (have you tried the eradicator?)

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Here’s one of my 5″X2.5″ test pieces with a combination of negative painting the white trunks and painting branches in white gouache.

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And here’s the woods with a combination of techniques.

janetwithtortouseshellbutterfly

And did I say that one of the best parts of the week was the people; our wonderful teacher Laurie Wigham and the other students? Here is Janet with the tortoiseshell butterfly on her hat. Happily, we had some nature-nerds along who could identify birds, bugs and plants!

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And although the days were filled with activity from breakfast til nightfall at 9pm, some of us found some time to relax. Like my friend Cathy McAuliff, Laurie’s trusty assistant and veteran nature/urban/etc sketcher.

If this learning scenario sounds appealing to you, you can sign up for Laurie’s workshop nest year or one of the other wonderful workshops later this summer. Check out the workshop calendar.

Stay tuned for more sketch stories from my Sierra week.

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On Becoming a Nature Nerd

I spent that gorgeous day yesterday out on the Las Galinas Wildlife Ponds with John Muir Laws and a bunch of nature nerds. It’s OK to say that because Jack (John) told us to approach our nature explorations and journaling like a nature nerd and he should know. In case you don’t know him, he’s the author of The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, and other nature journaling guides, and the founder of the Nature Journal Club here in the Bay Area.

So what does it mean to be a nature nerd?  Well, it’s things like data collection: location/date/weather. It’s walking along a trail and looking for something weird, something that tweeks your curiosity. It’s not just making pretty colored pictures, but writing down your thinking about what you’re observing.

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What I love about this approach is that you don’t have to know the names of the plants and animals or be able to identify the bird calls. You draw and describe what you see and hear and your questions and guesses, and it’s all in the service of being there in your experience of “the wild”. Like those red patches on the red winged blackbirds that look like military medals or epulets. Or the ole coot dunking his head up and down while fishing, and that sound like an “ow, ow”. Was that the ole coot complaining?

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If I had been there alone i would have drawn the familiar outline of the sleek black cormorants lined up on the pipe. But Jack and the other bird watchers were there with their fancy tripods and telescopes and I got to see what a truly exotic bird this common bird of California wildlands is, with its hooked beak and orange face, electric blue mouth and lavishly patterned back! And then they were doing the orange gular pouch flutter and double crested fluff-up of the mating dance. All that can’t be seen without binoculars of course, and you can’t draw what you can’t see!

The young night heron however was quite visible from the path and not inclined to move. While sketching him/her I couldn’t help imagining that the mother had given strict instructions for him to stay put until she came back.

lasgalinas3 Here’s the setting where Jack is showing us an example of how to draw a quick map of the area and use symbols to illustrate different types of wildlife. Along with the usual Marsh wrens, egrets, geese, ducks and cormorants there were spottings of otters and maybe even an orange tailed weasel?

If you want to be on the email list to find out about these outings and courses, go to the Nature Journal Club, and maybe I’ll see you there some time.