Last week I set a challenge for myself - to draw/paint birds only from direct observation and memory, not from photos. This is quite a challenge because, as you know, they don't stay still for long.
I've been watching birds at my feeder for a few years now. With my backyard bird guide I've learned to identify most common birds in our corner of Pennsylvania, I know a few bird songs, and with my new challenge I decided to study bird anatomy, especially their skeletal structure. I felt ready.
Then, a great gift fell from the sky. The day after I set this challenge, my family found a deceased blue jay on the sidewalk near my children's bus stop. I came home as soon as I could to get to work.
I learned so much from my time with this jay. I made this painting from direct observation. When I was done, I gave her a proper burial.
I figured out in the following days that she was one of the regular birds that came to our bird feeders because, sadly, now only one blue jay comes when there used to be two. While I am certainly not glad that this dear bird died, I am grateful for the time I had with her and it just seems so uncanny that she came to me just when I felt ready for her.
Goldfinches are normally a very rare sight in our yard. Once or twice over the last two years, the kids and I have seen one fly through. So, the fact that one came to our bird feeder on Monday (and it returned briefly yesterday!) is very exciting news. Could it be related to the fact that we "adopted" a goldfinch through the Audubon Society as a Mother's Day gift the day before? I don't know, but sometimes the universe does work in mysterious ways.
This sketchbook page is a part of a new art habit that I hope to continue. I have about 25 pages left in the book to use for a daily practice of capturing animals and plants in my yard. I was brainstorming with my son about starting a project to document all of the flowers in our yard, and he replied, "Well, you and dad better stop planting new ones then." Very sharp he is.
Each sketch teaches me a tremendous amount. It channels my attention to detail, whether its the markings on a bird that tell its gender, subtle differences in a flower species or a plant's leaf shape. Details help refine google searches, thereby opening a wealth of information. Field guides help too!
In the meantime, this practice helped me to celebrate the "nest warming" of my new neighbor. I hope I can spot her again real soon.
Back in the 1900s, my husband and I lived in Washington, DC. Not together. In fact we hadn't met yet.
A little over a week ago, we took our kids to see the Cherry Blossoms there. (This lovely sparrow came so close to us!) It may have been the first time either my husband or I made it to the Tidal Basin in time to see them at the height of their bloom.
Inevitable whining aside, isn't it crazy how thrilling it is to (re)discover the world with our children?
One adaptation I will happily make to our predictably unpredictable seasonal weather patterns involves being ready for a glorious (65 degree!) outdoor painting day in early February.
Yesterday I not only took my morning drawing class outside, I also painted this watercolor en plein air in my backyard in the afternoon. This "business" in my backyard keeps my heart lifted, even during the dark days. For three winters now I have maintained these bird feeders and I've come to think of my regular visitors as my family's outdoor pets since we do see them every day.
The birdbath also has special significance for me. It was my grandfather's and I acquired it last year after he passed away. For many years while I was growing up I didn't fully appreciate his dedication to his backyard birds on view through his kitchen and back porch windows. Now I get it. I feel like I am continuing his practice every time I rinse and refill that birdbath.
So while yesterday was an unseasonably balmy winter day, today is a snow day. The kids are off from school. I will be doing my bird watching from inside my house. However, I'm keeping my outdoor easel and plein air bag at the ready. One never knows when the next fair weather opportunity will arise.
I've always been pretty mesmerized by the depth and simplicity of Aesop's Fables. These ancient Greek stories reveal so much that is true, and therefore often contain a darkness.
This story about the Tortoise and the Birds has a third character, the Crow. The Eagle is happy to help the Tortoise in his move (for a price) because he doesn't think he is able to eat this creature with a hard shell. It's the clever Crow that tells the Eagle that if he were to drop the Tortoise on the sharp rocks, they could share a meal.
Despite the serious look on the Eagle's face, I chose the short happy moment before the Crow's intervention. It would be quite thrilling for a tortoise to fly, right? However, the moral of the story, and there ALWAYS is a moral with Aesop, is to never soar aloft on an enemy's pinions (flight feathers). Consider yourself, and everyone else who has heard this story in the last 2500 years, warned.
So I think the population of house sparrows at my bird feeder doubled this week. I observed about 30 of them today. Earlier this week I noticed that a happy host (the collective noun for a group of sparrows...who knew?!) of sparrows moved into the bird house on our garage.
These aren't parenting sparrows...I think they are chilling together this winter kind of like a group of college roommates. These four are vying for the sweet spot with protection from the cold (I saw them on Monday when it was freezing out). Looking at the way they feed and dive into the birdbath all day long, I see a clear pursuit of pleasure and freedom from the responsibility of taking care of any progeny. I'm glad to see them having a good time.
While this scene took place right outside my window, it did not take place today. I took a journey back through my son's photos and found one from 2014 when we first gave him his camera. At 7 years old he showed a strong interest and aptitude for taking pictures. He gravitates toward taking pictures of animals, most often birds. (He makes a mama proud!) I love how this shot captures a gorgeous Northern Cardinal almost huddling under the protection of the bird feeder in the snow.
I was hunting for a good Cardinal photo reference in honor of Christmas this Sunday for visual reasons...color, in particular. Turns out these beauties are native to North America. While European settlers saw them and named them after the guys in red (Catholic Cardinals), Native Americans know that these faithful maters make good matchmaking medicine. And, don't they just look beautiful in the snow!
This Nuthatch marks the completion of one entire year of One a Week posts.
It's been such a great way to keep in touch with so many of you! This year of pressing weekly deadlines (I currently have 20 minutes to finish this post and cook dinner before I teach class, did I mention that I'm also helping my kids with their homework?) really ensures that something gets done in the midst of competing demands on my time!
I just looked back at my first post where I described this project as "original works made in real time." I suppose that I have kept to that...most of the subjects that I painted were observed the week the painting was posted.
So, an announcement. You will notice some changes next week. This week closes the One a Week project, but expect to see the start of another project next week.
"Nuthatch" is 5 x 7 inches.
Today I took some time to acquaint myself a little better with a sparrow in my yard. I was compensating for a bias I've developed. Sparrows are so ubiquitous I often overlook them for more "special" birds. Nonetheless, these populous European imports (at least two were released in Central Park in the late 1800s and now they populate the most of the continent) possess some elegance. And, rather than rage against their turbulent banter or worry about how they might be pushing out other more delicate birds, I can take a breath and accept them as a part of my landscape...kinda like observing our election circus.
"Sparrow" is 5 x 5 inches.