Monday, December 10, 2012

Quick Little Illustration

Great horned owl on a snowy night. 3.5" x 4.75" in watercolor.

As part of my concerted effort to get involved with our new community as quickly as possible, I joined our local art center this summer. Then last month I joined the watercolor society chapter. I was pleased to see it's a fairly active group with about a dozen people at the meeting. Everyone was quite friendly and seemed thrilled to have a new member joining them. At the end of the meeting we were each given a 3.5" x 4.75" piece of watercolor paper and asked to paint a little scene to share at the next meeting - like an ATC (artist trading card) kind of thing.

Since I am still a recovering procrastinator and occasionally fall back into my old ways, I left my little painting until the night before the next meeting. In a panic, I flipped through reference photo after reference photo. I wanted to choose just the right thing as this would be the group's first look at my work. No pressure or anything. I settled on a great horned owl image, and I envisioned a very rich night sky with beautiful stars twinkling in the background. As you can see, only the edges of the paper ended up with the deep rich night sky color I was looking for, but at least the rest of the sky had interesting textures. I'm struggling to master masking fluid, so although the owl mask came out well, (Thank goodness!) what I had meant to be fine points of light in the night sky ended up looking more like snow than stars so I changed my plan a little. Clearly they are just flurries though. Ah well, that's what I get for rushing at the last minute.

Anyway, the recipient of this little painting seemed pleased enough, and I ended up with a lovely sunflower painting from a fellow birder in the group. Everyone seemed to enjoy the project so I hope that we will be doing it again. It would be fun to have a collection of little paintings done by each of my new friends. But I hope to be a little more organized next time.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pelican WIP Continues

American white pelican WIP. I haven't ruined it yet.

I crossed my fingers and toes and continued on with the pelican watercolor. So far so good. I tackled the eye, which to me is always the scariest part of a painting because if you mess up the eye, it tends to ruin the entire piece. There's still a bit more work I need to do to the eye, but it is getting there. 

One thing I discovered during this painting is that American white pelicans have pale blue eyes. I'd never noticed that before.

Old Blue Eyes?

Another interesting fact about the American white pelican is that unlike the brown pelican, it does not dive from the air into the water to catch its food but instead gracefully dips its bill into the water while swimming. When a group of them are feeding, it looks rather like a ballet.

I think I'm on the home stretch with this painting, so hopefully I'll have time to finish it up and post the final piece soon. I think this is the biggest watercolor painting I've worked on to date - nearly 13" x 11". I've really been enjoying the process!

Friday, November 23, 2012


Yup, it's a pelican. And a white pelican at that. Like me, it is happy in both the ocean and the mountains. 

I hate this stage in a painting. I can see the potential in the piece; I like where the painting is going, it looks fresh and not over-worked, but my very next brush-stroke could go either way. It's a real nail-biter. 

Monday, November 19, 2012


WIP very early on.
In between working on two commissions, I'm trying to squeeze in a little time to continue painting some of my own stuff. I've started a new piece; this one's a watercolor on 300 lb. paper. Can you guess what the subject is from this rather messy beginning?

Friday, November 09, 2012

Pastry As Art

A Parisian patisserie display. And yes, they taste as good as they look. But I wonder how they keep tourists from drooling all over their nice clean window...

You may know me as an artist and a nature lover, but I am also crazy about desserts. I love to bake them, I love to eat them, I love to drool over them in pastry shops all over the world. I consider food in general and desserts specifically as art.

There is a point however where my love of eating dessert could lead to some unhealthy excesses, so I decided to feed my eyes rather than my stomach and give painting desserts a try. I figured at the very least it would be a fun diversion from that curlew painting I've been wrestling with. My studio smelled of sugar for days afterwards.

My first ever cake painting. 8" x 8" acrylic on gessoboard. What do you think?

At the Blue Bottle Cafe in the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art, they take dessert as art to a whole different level. Check this out. The desserts are modeled after some of the art pieces in the museum, including Mondrian and Wayne Thiebaud. I guess that's being able to paint your cake and eat it, too.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Tracy Aviary

Front entrance to the Tracy Aviary

I've never been to Salt Lake City, Utah before except while being stuck at the airport between flights. On our last layover there, I was wandering the airport killing time and saw a tourist information sign all about SLC. Well, whaddya know - it turns out they've got an aviary! I tucked that little bit of information into a corner of my brain and continued on with our trip.

A little less than a year later, we had the chance to visit Salt Lake City and the Tracy Aviary was tops on my list of places I wanted to check out while we were there. As it turns out, I'm glad we did. It is an excellent aviary with a nice assortment of indoor and outdoor exhibits and a good variety of birds.

Many of the birds that stop over at the Great Salt Lake during migration fly all the way to Central and even South America. The Aviary has a number of exhibits that display the indigenous birds these migratory birds might see during their sojourn in the south, including Andean condors, Chilean flamingos, and toucans. One exhibit that really caught my attention was the common backyard birds of Argentina. Imagine getting guira cuckoos and southern lapwings in your yard!

Southern lapwings soaking up the northern sun. They are members of the Plover family.

Of course the Aviary had plenty of exhibits devoted to species of birds found in Utah, including hawks and owls, shorebirds, and waterfowl. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get a lot of good blog-worthy photos because my camera couldn't focus past the mesh or fencing around many of the exhibits. This is one of the frustrating things I find at zoos and aviaries. Nevertheless, if I were to visit Salt Lake City again I would certainly return to the Tracy Aviary.

A golden eagle giving me the eye.

The incredibly beautiful iridescence on the white-faced ibis more than makes up for the lack of a white-face on this non-breeding individual.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Autumn in My Sketchbook

Watercolor of fall leaves.

Happy November! We reached 70 F this week so it didn't feel particularly like fall here, but the season is still making itself known in other subtle and not so subtle ways (like snow last week!). Here are a few things I've done lately with an autumnal theme.

Graphite sketch of a horse chestnut.

Last summer when we found out we were going to be moving again, I made a promise to myself that I would hit the ground running as an artist in my new community. I guess I succeeded in that regard because I now have 2 commissions to work on. This is wonderful news of course, but it may mean that my blog posts will be a little more sporadic than they have been lately.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Does This Work?

I can't see the painting for the paint.

Oh my, this painting has kicked my butt. I'm still not sure it is actually finished but I've got to give it a rest for a minute. I've lost count of how many times I've painted the wet sand now, and I'm still not entirely happy with it. I think I need to lighten the curlew's legs a bit. I also think the wet sand may be too dark and too blue, but I've been working on and staring at this painting for weeks now so my brain is starting to go numb. And so Dear Readers, I humbly turn to you to ask does this work? Does the wet sand read as wet sand (especially if I de-blue it)? Are the curlew's feet that have sunk a bit into the wet sand believable? Or should I just toss it in the trash and console myself with an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie? Thank you for your input.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Dragonfly on a lotus bud at the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, OR

Although I am still finishing up the curlew painting, I am already reviewing my reference photo collection in anticipation of my next painting. Each time I go through my reference photos I notice that I definitely like subjects that have wings. I've got lots of good mammal reference shots, and I've even got some interesting fish photos but I never seem to choose those subjects to paint. I'm much more interested in birds and insects and I'm sure if I had any reference shots of bats I'd be painting them, too. (Wildlife artist Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen has done some beautiful bat paintings, but did you know that Vincent Van Gogh painted a bat?) I've just got a thing for wings, I guess.

One of my first attempts at an acrylic painting, inspired by the photo below. 5" x 5" on canvas.

A beetle of some sort on a death camas.

Both the dragonfly photo at the top of this post, and this silk moth photo below appeal to me. (The silk moth would make an absolutely beautiful watercolor, don't you think?) Perhaps one of them will be my next subject. But I also know how fickle my muse can be and I may end up doing something completely different. For me that's the fun of inspiration, but chances are whatever I end up painting will probably have wings.

A silk moth at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge visitor's center, in Montana. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nature IN My Studio

My guest, apparently measuring a little over 1 centimeter.
We can find nature everywhere, even inside our homes. I had an unexpected guest in my studio just the other day. I spotted him (her?) jumping from brush to brush on my desk.

After a quick visit to, I identified my visitor as a Phidippus audax, or a daring jumping spider. I noticed it would extend its two front legs towards its next destination and wave them slightly for a moment before jumping over to it. Perhaps it was calculating the distance?

The red spot on his abdomen is rather handsome.
I had a tricky time trying to get a good photograph of the spider as it was very sensitive to my movements and would hide behind my brushes if I moved towards it at all. As much as I would've liked to have sketched my guest, it was too small to see well from a distance that didn't scare it, so I simply enjoyed watching it explore my desk.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Nearly There

These feets is made for walkin', as soon as I paint them in.
Despite the glorious fall weather outside, I spent the day inside working on the curlew painting. It's getting there, slowly but surely. I'm finding this painting to be very rewarding, but also very tiring. I'm pushing myself beyond my comfort zone in so many ways with this piece that it is taking fierce concentration and energy. One of the biggest challenges is to make the curlew's markings accurate enough for a discerning viewer, but not so perfect that the piece becomes photo-realistic. I don't think I've reached that balance yet.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

My Play Book

A page from my Play Book. It started with painters tape left over from some paint mixing charts I was working on. It looked so cool that I added them to my Book. Later I noticed the way the paint had transferred onto the opposite page and it reminded me of aspen leaves so I had to go with it.

I have a cheap unlined notebook that I use for artistic play, for times when I only have a few minutes to spare but want to do something creative, for getting the creative flow unstuck, for just having fun rather than making "serious" art. I rarely show the notebook to anyone since these creations are just for my enjoyment at the time. However, I know that many artists (like me) are curious about how other artists live their artistic lives and so I share this in the hopes that you'll share in return. Tell me what fun artsy things you do to clear out the cobwebs or to keep yourself from taking yourself too seriously as an artist!

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Ready To Move On. I Think...

Original Background

In the previous post about the new painting I was working on, I was struggling with the background. Since then I scrapped that background completely and started over again. I realized that the rocks in the painting and the fact that you could see the horizon might skew the perspective and scale, making the curlew appear to be a giant species. I checked my hunch in Photoshop:

Isn't Photoshop an artist's best friend?

As much as I liked the background, it wasn't going to work for this painting unless I made the curlew very small, which I really didn't want to do. I spent the weekend repainting the background and then redoing major parts of it to try to get everything to make sense visually. I thought the scale on this version was acceptable, but it just wasn't a terribly dynamic scene:

Background Attempt II

This is what I finally came up with, below. I am hoping that all the foam and multiple layers of water will be interpreted by the viewer as being close in to shore, not breakers viewed from a distance. (What IS the technical term for that final, very shallow foamy part of a wave as it skims the sand, anyway???)

Final Background?

Using Photoshop again, I double-checked how the scene would play out and I didn't see any glaring problems. However, I've been staring at this for a while so I might have missed something. If you see any problems, let me know!!!

Through the wonders of Photoshop, I added my model to check on scale and perspective before committing myself to painting it. Seems pretty good.

Once the curlew is in place in the actual painting, I'll probably add some strips of wet sand and maybe a hint of a reflection, too.I just don't want to make the painting too busy. Funny, I started out with a vision of a very minimalist, abstracted background...

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Could you pick a more beautiful day to paint outside?

On the last day of the art conference, most of the participants opted to paint on location at a historic ranch about 20 miles out of town. Our gracious host allowed us to wander all over this wonderful property that has been in his family for over 100 years. I imagine it must've been a treat for him to see all the different ways everyone interpreted his ranch.

I just love stuff like this.

Scattered all around the main house were outbuildings and relics of ranch life from a different era. I am very thankful for the many modern conveniences we enjoy and especially thankful for the medical and hygienic advances we've made, but at the same time I am drawn to old places. This ranch was almost as good as a time machine.

Many people in the group spent a good part of the day taking reference photos of all of the wonderful buildings and old farm equipment.

There was a beautiful river that flowed through the property and many of the artists decided to paint on the bridge or along the banks of the river. The cottonwoods were stunning in their fall colors.

Looking down at a group of plein air painters (center of photo) from the steep dirt road that led to the ranch in the river bottoms.

Because the dry conditions were not favorable to acrylic painting again, a lot of people brought their oil paints and some, myself included, worked in watercolor instead.

Watercolor sketch of a dead cottonwood tree.

The Wind River area is known for great trout fishing. This seemed like a beautiful spot to cast in. It certainly was a beautiful spot to sketch in.

What a wonderful day this was. I felt a little sad to leave, but since I had 10 miles of dirt road to drive before even reaching the main road back to town, I left a little early so that I would have time to wash off the dust before dinner. However, if I had waited just a little while longer before I left, I could've seen a herd of Rocky Mountain big horn sheep come through! That's the wonderful thing about painting on location - you never know what you'll see.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Background Adventure

Experienced model available. Will work for worms and crickets.

I'm starting on another painting. This one is a 16" x 12", so fairly sizable for me. It will feature a long-billed curlew. It probably comes as no surprise that I'm doing another birding painting. I just can't help it. I mean, check out my model. He's just screaming to be painted. This dapper fellow lives at the Seattle Aquarium and has been my model for other pieces.

Very loose watercolor sketch of my idea for the painting.

Since I am a fan of the Pacific coast and long-billed curlews winter there, this seemed like a good subject to paint.

Background so far, painted in acrylic. Not exactly what I had originally envisioned, but...

I wanted to continue working on abstract backgrounds that just suggest a habitat, but this one got away from me a little. I was just having so much fun with the pallet knife and all the colors in the sand that I got detailed without even realizing it. I'm still on the fence about the sky color (among other things). I think it needs to be more gray, more wintery. We'll see how it all comes together.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Painting and Petroglyphs

The scenery around Dubois was arid but beautiful.

Being surrounded by so many talented plein air painters can be a little intimidating when one is just a newbie, but by Thursday I was itching to get out in the field and give it a go. After another delicious lunch at the conference center, we headed south-east of Dubois to the Torrey Lake area and set up our easels below some interesting boulders and rocks. Painting was a bit challenging, however. The sun was strong and the wind had picked up, so any bit of moisture in my paints (not to mention my skin!) evaporated in record time. I realized that painting in acrylics was going to be nearly impossible so I switched to watercolors and just did some sketches of the area. Not for the first time I wished I worked in oils, but even the experienced oil painters were cursing the conditions.

Watercolor sketch of the boulders above Torrey Lake. I used a lot of dry brush technique on this one without really meaning to!

 In the rocks above our easels, other artists had left their mark hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago. Petroglyphs were scattered on the rocks and boulders around the area we set up in. According to the book "Plains Indian Rock Art" by James D. Keyser and Michael A. Klassen, this ancient rock art is considered part of the "Dinwoody" tradition, found almost exclusively in the Wind River area of Wyoming. I was in awe and wished I knew what the pictures meant.

There was a bird-like figure to the left of this petroglyph. I can't even guess what this one depicts, though.
I spotted these petroglyphs under a rock overhang, sheltering them from the elements.

After sketching for a while, I drove further around Torrey Lake and spotted some immature common mergansers out on the water. Mergansers are diving ducks and have very thin bills with serrated "teeth". They eat fish and other aquatic life. 

An immature common merganser having a nice day at the lake.

It seems like there's always some sort of Murphy's Law of Wildlife Observation at work; if I see some great wildlife, there won't be any place to pull over or safely observe it from. This time however, the birds were kind enough to be near a lake access area so that I could watch them for a while. 

Some pencil sketches of an immature common merganser sunning itself on a rock.

As the afternoon wore on, the angle of the sun just lit up the fall colors around the lake. I took lots of reference photos for future paintings. The trip out to the lake was not particularly successful for plein air painting, but I enjoyed sketching the area and the birds, and the petroglyphs were definitely icing on the cake.

The Fall color was spectacular.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

My Brain Is Full

I just got back from one of the most amazing weeks in my artistic life, to date. I attended the 11th annual Susan K. Black Workshop and Art Conference in Dubois, Wyoming. Five days of watching painting demos, sketching and plein air painting in the beautiful Wind River valley, and rubbing shoulders with some very talented artists! I feel like I could sleep for 12 hours straight as my brain tries to absorb everything I learned, but I can't sleep because I'm so energized to paint, paint, paint!

The conference was held at the Headwaters Arts & Conference Center in Dubois, WY.

I found out about the conference when I took that wonderful workshop with John and Suzie Seerey-Lester in 2010. They urged me to look into going to the SKB conference that year but it took a couple more years for the planets to align. It was worth the wait!

I'm a messy plein art painter, but I do clean up after myself.

As promised, a photo of my painting in the miniature show.

I'll be sharing stories and highlights from the conference in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I've got a heap of laundry to tackle before I can do anything else! 

Thursday, September 20, 2012


When you go out and look for birds it's called "birding", so if you go out to look for mushrooms it's called "mushrooming". Right?

Whatever it's called, it's an activity I look forward to. I have noticed that Fall seems to be the time of year with the highest diversity of mushrooms, at least that's the case here in the northern Rockies. One year we visited Glacier National Park in late September and were amazed at the variety of fungi we found in the cedar forests there, including a magnificent purple mushroom! Unfortunately the forest was so dense that I couldn't get a good well-lit photograph of it.

Most of these photos I took a few years ago in the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho. The trail leads to a very popular hot springs, but I was there to enjoy the fungi.

I find mushrooms fascinating, but I'm no expert at identification. The process of identifying a mushroom is much more complex than birding. It's not enough to simply look at a mushroom and figure out what kind it is from the guide book (plus they don't have calls or chip notes).

Creating spore prints is a common form of identification. Some types of mushroom have a certain odor that can aid in identification. But in some cases, the only way to know if a mushroom is of a certain species is to cut it open and check for coloring in the stem!

If you'd like to know more about the complexities of mushroom identification, I recommend 

And if you can identify any of these mushrooms, let me know!