He’s becoming a regular, arriving after the bossy cardinal couple and before the mourning doves. Red-bellied woodpeckers are year-round residents here, and apparently they have a hearty appetite for seeds. “My” woodpecker is a male, easily recognized by his red cowl. Females display a red patch only on the backs of their necks. (Despite their name, you can watch these birds for hours and never catch a glimpse of their red-tinged belly feathers. But the bold black-and-white bars on their wings and their bright caps make it easy to identify them anyway. Bon apetit, Mr. Woodpecker.)
Meet Sarracenia leucophylla, the white pitcher plant. I drew this specimen following a day at Splinter Hill Bog, 628 acres of whispering longleaf pine forest and bog at the headwaters of the Perdido River in south Alabama. I felt fortunate to have a real, live pitcher plant to work from — when the first botanical illustration of a Sarracenia was made in 1576 by the court botanist to James I of England, all he had for reference was a dried-up remnant of a pitcher plant collected by Spanish explorers in Florida.
In those days, scientists could only guess about the plant’s strange cupped structure — and after a great deal of study, they concluded that pitcher plants were benevolently designed by God to provide safe refuge for small creatures. (Alas, that’s exactly what the plant’s unsuspecting victims probably think, as well.) Three hundred years later, Charles Darwin was the first to guess at the true purpose of the plant’s unique architecture: not a shelter, but a deadly trap. When experiments showed that pitcher plants digested and absorbed bits of venison dropped into its throat, the mystery was officially solved.
Among all the hundreds of families of flowering plants on the planet, only ten include species capable of trapping animals. There remains much we don’t know about these carnivorous beauties: their lifespan is uncertain, for example, because they sprout from a thick, fleshy rhizome that can spread out underground to give the appearance of multiple plants. In the wild, a large stand of plants may be just a few old — but widespread — individuals. And the intricate patterns on some Sarracenia may extend beyond the visible light spectrum; there is evidence to suggest that they actually have other patterns that can only be detected with ultraviolet vision.
So much to learn, but we may not have that chance — pitcher plant habitat is disappearing at an incredible rate. Wetlands throughout the world are being drained for development. Even preserved wetlands often become contaminated with agricultural and residential runoff. Most of the large Sarracenia stands of the past are already gone.
Fortunately for pitcher plants in my region (and for those of us who like to draw them) a number of bogs are being carefully protected. The largest is Splinter Hill Bog, where this beautiful specimen was growing. There’s also a bog at Weeks Bay Estuarine Reserve near Fairhope, and at the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge just north of Gautier, MS.
I live on a hill, and the street that runs past my front door ends abruptly at the edge of the bay, four blocks down. It’s an easy walk, early in the morning, to watch pelicans dive for their breakfast and hear gulls laughing as they sail past overhead. And in the shallows, when the water is calm, the great blue heron stands motionless. I suppose he is waiting for the gleam of careless minnows in the water at his feet, but he might as well be posing for my sketchbook. A beautiful bird, bold enough to ignore a small woman nearby with a fistful of colored pencils, he makes a great model.
I’m honored to be the featured artist in the upcoming June issue of Colored Pencil Artists magazine — an issue that will focus on birds in colored pencil. I drew this heron, and his fisherman friend, with that event in mind.
The heron is drawn in Prismacolor Premiere, the soft-core colored pencils I like to use. After making a foundation drawing in Dark Umber — including all the major shadows and textures — I used just five other colors, layered on over the Umber, to finish the bird. His beak is Yellow Ochre, shaded gently with Terra Cotta (the same combination is used for his fierce eye). I don’t like to use pre-formulated grays, which seem a little flat, but prefer to blend a warm and vital gray by mixing Light Peach and Cloud Blue. All the gray areas on this fellow are created with those two colors. Then I used black, of course, for his dark mask and (very sparingly) to deepen the richest shadows.
The fisherman’s wings are based on the lovely (and enormous) polyphemus moth, a silkworm moth that is common where I live. The richly pigmented, slightly dusty feel of colored pencil is perfect for drawing lepidopterans, from monarch to cabbage moth.
I’m delighted to offer a new workshop, “Draw and Paint Monarch Butterflies,” at beautiful 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center on Saturday, January 12. Working from actual specimens, with step-by-step guidance, learn to create a realistic monarch using gouache and colored pencil on handmade buff paper. No experience is necessary and all supplies are provided. Class size is limited to 10. The cost is $65, and illustrated gift certificates are available if you plan to use the workshop as a Christmas gift. Email me to reserve a spot.
Two more things about the workshop: We’ll meet from 10 to 4, so bring a sack lunch to enjoy on the deck during our midday break.
Also, it’s important to me that you know our butterfly specimens were not wild-caught and killed. They were raised from egg to caterpillar to cocoon to adult, allowed to live a natural life and then after they died were carefully collected for our use. Butterfly farming preserves habitat and discourages destructive land use; it can also be helpful in supporting threatened species. Just so you know.
If you’ve been wondering whatever became of those pencil studies of citrus fruit, here’s a peek at the final result. This old-fashioned fruit crate label was commissioned by Mobile Botanical Gardens to promote a slate of upcoming events celebrating citrus. Like the labels of old, the image measures 10×11 inches. It’s all in colored pencil, using a “speed pencil” technique that I love — all the shading is done in an “underpainting” layer using just Dark Umber pencil, then the color is added at the last in a single layer. The wonderful shadows and highlights are simply the result of the umber drawing showing through the color. Below, the peeled orange is still in the umber stage but the shiny satsuma orange next to it has already received a layer of color… just a single layer of orange pencil! Thanks to the textures and shadows already shaded beneath, you get a lush and complex result. It’s a great alternative to the traditional slow layering of different colors to build depth.
I love drawing the texture of an orange peel. It requires a very light touch and some time spent looking deeply at surface light and shadow. These studies in pencil are a preliminary to a color illustration that will combine all four. Can you name them all? (The answers are at the end of this post.)
The first sketch is a satsuma. The second is a satsuma, partially peeled. The third is a Meyer lemon. The fourth is a pair of kumquats. Now I’m hungry.
I’m delighted to offer a new workshop at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center:
Aquatic Plants in Watercolor Pencil Saturday, September 8 from 10am to 3pm 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center (on the Causeway) Spanish Fort, AL No experience necessary! The Mobile-Tensaw Delta, considered the best remaining delta ecosystem of its kind in the United States, is home to 500 species of plants. We'll focus on some favorites including lotus and pitcher plants, sketching from specimens and reference material and then creating color studies in watercolor pencil. Step-by-step guidance will be provided -- all levels of art experience (or none at all) welcome. Bring your lunch and a small set of watercolor pencils, and all other supplies will be provided. My botanical drawing workshops fill up fast -- your registration must be received to hold your place. The cost of the workshop is $50. Email to sign up: firstname.lastname@example.org
I live in a place where it’s not unusual to hear the “who-cooks-for-you?” call of barred owls, especially just before dawn. Eerily beautiful with their pale faces and dark eyes (they are the only brown-eyed owl in the eastern US) they thrive in neighborhoods. Despite the fears of my neighbors who are convinced that the owl roosting in their oak tree wants to make a meal of their chihuahua, barred owls are usually after rodents… and older neighborhoods, like the one where I live, provide a steady supply. They are large creatures, with wings spanning three feet. Twice, while walking at night, I have seen barred owls soar past just a few feet above my head like silent ghosts, gliding fast, suddenly materializing out of the dark. It is a sight that will stop you in your tracks.
We drew barred owls (along with a number of other owls, and some hawks, eagles and osprey) during a recent workshop at 5 Rivers. By popular demand, I’m going to lead the “Drawing Birds of Prey” workshop once more on Saturday, July 14, from 10am until 3pm. No art experience is necessary, and all art supplies are provided. There are a few spots left at this time… registration is $60 and must be received to hold your spot. Email me for info.
(I’m painting some samples for a June 30 workshop, “Draw and Paint Six Culinary Herbs,” to be offered in Birmingham, Alabama. Join me for a day of creative botanical fun… no previous experience required, and all supplies are provided. Best of all, you get to take home six organically grown potted herb plants at the end of the day!)