Nature Journaling

Bud Book

Apparently the flip side of Corvids, those noisy crows and such, is Buds. At least that’s the case in my little Pentallic Accordian sketchbook which helped me to weather the first two weeks of sheltering in place.

Whenever the sun was out I took my pens, mini-watercolor palette and sketchbook out to the garden to watch what news was happening there. While I sketched buds I noticed other things, like the bumblebees hiving up in the birdhouse next to my studio door, and the pipevine swallowtail butterfly newly emerged from it’s chrysalis and drying its wings on the passionvine trellis. . .

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I stood and watched it with its stuck-together wings blowing back and forth in the wind until they were dry enough for it to fly away, leaving me standing, hair on end in awe.

grapevine

The vintners here in wine country call it bud break when this particular spring marvel occurs, as it did along my house this month. So I started there in my little book.

succulent

I must admit that spring fever got to me while sketching these. I kept looking up to see the honey- and bumble-bees and loosing my place in the complexity of the succulents, but that was precisely the point, to catch the spring fever rather than the viral fever, right?!

 

rhodyapple

The apple tree behind my studio is one of those ancient hollowed out ones that still produces large quantities of apples. In February it attracts the bluebirds and in March, when the apple blossoms bud out, the butterflies seek them out for nectar.

euphorbia

Euphorbias of all kinds love my otherwise rather wild and untended garden. The flowers are blooming now in a riot of miniature bow ties of different sorts.

pipevine

But my favorite spot in the garden is the pipevine, which is blooming and fruiting and attracting the butterflies in ever greater number each year. Here is what is found at this stage. The little orange eggs are “deposited” in the pipevine bank by the butterflies, like the one in the picture above, and next month the hungry munchers with the orange polka dots will be hatched and systematically eat the entire hillside of pipevine to the ground!

chrysalis

And what is this magnificent sculpture? Another chrysalis on my studio wall which I noticed at the same time as the emerging butterfly. But this one is another species – the Gulf Fritillary butterfly, also known as Passion butterfly here on the wall where my passion vine grows. Last time I looked it was a yellow green color, but now is daily turning orange, the color of the butterfly, slow enough that there’s no point in watching it, but I do check in regularly.

budbook

So I can’t help thinking that all this spring metamorphosis provides yet another silver lining to those of us who, while ruminating on the dreadful pandemic news, have time to notice the small things like insects and buds.

Evacuation and beyond

Alas I had in mind the blazing colors of autumn growth when I painted this in Muse Group a couple weeks ago. The theme was the “tree of life” and we were painting on crinkled Masa paper. We’d had a lovely uneventful “fire season” at that point and even a few drops of rain. But by now you probably have heard about our massive Kincaid fire, evacuations, and lengthy power outages. The sentiment is strong here. . .oh no not this again!

treeoflife

acrylic and collage on crinkled Masa paper, 10 X 10″

When the neighboring towns of Windsor and Healdsburg evacuated and the winds were blowing our direction, we packed up our photo albums, hard drives and important papers and headed down to a hotel in Daly City, just below San Francisco where we figured that PG+E would not cut the power. There we stayed for four days, glued to the news and texts from friends, to await the terrifying spread of this firestorm.

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While our brave fire warriors battled the flames and thousands of courageous evacuees buttressed themselves against the sudden drop in temperatures without heat and power, we hunkered down in Daly City and made a hotel our temporary home. To manage the anxiety I sketched, starting on Day 2.

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On Day 3 we visited sketch buddy, Laurie Wigham and John, in nearby Bernal Heights. Laurie took me up the hill to enjoy 180 degree views of the city. In her good company and from that vantage point I could feel more philosophical about the possibility of losing our home.

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Daly City is well endowed with malls and access to a freeway that is a major artery to SF and the bay area. The eating establishments within walking distance of our hotel included Inn n Out Burger, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Mr. Pickle and Miss Tomato sandwich shops. The waiting and constant attempt to get updated news was exhausting. We wandered malls to find dinner.

By Day 4 I decided to go for a nature walk around nearby Lake Merced. It turned out that the “trail” was next to rushing traffic, BUT the lake was teaming with birdlife! So I spent a delightful hour in nature therapy, listening to bird conversations and arguments. I couldn’t quite tell which they were.

I have no more illustrations for after that. The winds died down. The fire is mostly contained. No one died in this fire though around 87 homes were lost. We’re out of danger for now, though our hearts are now with southern California as the fire monster is not ready to rest yet. The population of Sonoma County is back home with electricity mostly restored, grocery stores at least partially restocked and air that so far is mostly breathable.

And now we know, that all can change once again. There’s not really a home free anymore.

S.F. Botanical Garden

On Sunday I spent the day at Golden Gate Park’s Botanical Garden with over 40 nature journalers and John Muir Laws.  If you don’t already know, Jack is a Bay Area treasure; a naturalist, artist, author-illustrator of numerous nature guides, and entertaining guy who helps people to wake up and interact with the natural world by journaling about it.

 

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You can’t help but fall in love with the massive tree that greets you inside the gate. While Jack was talking, my eyes were tracing the curves, like a warm up doodle. I must admit, the tree got compacted to fit on my paper, but it didn’t seem to mind, and neither did I.

 

Next there were docent-led tours of the park to get us started thinking about what we might want to sketch.

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With such a multitude of exotic species to choose from, it was particularly hard to pick a subject to examine and sketch. I decided to try some of the more exotic varieties that would never be found growing in Sebastopol.

And started with a close up of this Snakebark Maple, which was labeled RARE. When you take the time to look closely, not only do you start to see so many different patterns and green mixes, but bright pinks and reds as well.

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The Ancient Plant Garden gives the opportunity to go waaay back in time and trace the evolution of plant life. Admittedly I used a bit of artistic license in the coloring here, but this giant fern was mostly in the shade.

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The leaves on this Gunnera plant from the Jurassic era were about four feet across, but I was drawn in by the reddish “fruit” cones, and the fact that there was a bench with a good view of this. There was also a lady from the sketch group who was drawing there. We engaged in lively conversation, which made it difficult for my eyes to follow the lacy folds . . .and I got quite lost and had to make stuff up. Once again lots of red in all that green.

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With just a few minutes to spare and no time to draw, I took a different approach, sketching a familiar plant, Anemones, from a distance and with watercolor. As my eyes began to focus better I caught sight of the familiar figure of St. Francis in the background.

Back Yard Nature Journaling

It’s raining hard now of course, but earlier this week I treated myself to an hour in my studio garden without feeling compelled to pull any weeds! But I’m not one for idleness, so I found the largest Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar munching away on a vine, and brought him and the vine to the garden bench where I had my sketch stuff.

He/she hardly paused in the munch munching while I held the vine in one hand and sketched/painted with the other, observing up close the wonder of that marvelous insect body with all it’s colored spikes and feelers and legs it employed in the balancing act of moving the fat body sections along the stem. I have a hard enough time coordinating the movement of my four limbs. It’s hard to imagine all those parts moving in concert!

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The leaf was almost gone by the time I finished the painting and moved to the Matilija Poppies which were fluttering their ballerina tutus in the wind. And then I added the “adult”, parent? of the caterpillar. They were fluttering around the garden too quickly so I’ll admit I pulled out my phone and got a picture to source the image of that beautiful midnight blue and black butterfly.

There was no idleness anywhere around on this spring afternoon. The air was filled with bird song, that monotonous cooing of the doves and loud buzzing of scores, hundreds? of bumblebees.

Well actually there was the idleness of Phil the cat, who dozed while I sketched and later woke up to get his picture taken and claim some credit for the art.

philhelps

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.

 

Audubon Sanctuary, Tiberon

On Tuesday this week I joined the nature journal folks in Tiburon for one of John Muir Laws (aka Jack) lectures on “How to Draw a Forest”. Jack is a master naturalist and accomplished nature illustrator whose teaching methods are engaging as well as informative.

Jack says “The process of attention is what makes you fall in love with the world. It’s through attention that we create memories. The sketchbook helps you to preserve the integrity of those memories. ” 

Tiburon

Jack does these workshops all over the Bay Area and leads monthly nature trips as well. The Richardson Bay Audubon sanctuary in Tiburon is a heavenly spot on the Bay across  from San Francisco. I was ready to try out the “how to draw a forest” techniques but was so wowed by the yellow house on the bay that I couldn’t resist, damp and cold as it was that day! And then it was lunchtime.  The inside of a forest sketch technique will have to wait.

And how bout skies?! Laurie Wigham will be teaching the next Nature Journaling class “What’s in a Sky?” next month.  Laurie knows how to capture the mystery and eloquence of skies and break it down in steps for the watercolorist.

And if you’ve been thinking about taking my Watercolor Painting Tips for the Urban Sketcher workshop May 11, now is the time to decide! There’s one spot left. For more information and to register for my workshop or any of the other 10 X 10 Bay Area Urban Sketch workshops this spring visit my blog post here.