I’ve been having fun, creating examples for different watercolor techniques as I build up material for the Draw & Paint Fairies online course. This little naiad (water sprite) is balancing on a bubble that resulted from dripping alcohol into a layer of ultramarine blue gouache. Instant gratification — and a handy way to avoid trying to paint around all those round shapes! I photographed the process, step-by-step, and will weave it into a lesson on color wash backgrounds. I “borrowed” her spiny wing structure from an Asian flying fish.
There’s nothing fancy about the boat-tailed grackle, a lanky relative of the blackbird and the oriole. Grackles populate the coast from Texas to Long Island, and are the goats of the bird kingdom — they will eat just about anything they find, from small crustaceans to scavenged dumpster fare.
But if you have a hankering to try drawing an iridescent surface, the boat-tailed grackle is your ideal model. A sheen of shimmering blue, purple or copper play over these birds in sunlight. Microscopic structures on their feathers break light apart, like a prism, and create a reflected rainbow.
(This fellow was drawn with Prismacolor colored pencils on medium-weight Bristol vellum. He was the demonstration drawing for my online course, Birds in Colored Pencil.)
Eyes are challenging to draw, but they are also a lot of fun — and the eyes are often the key to expressing human emotion in a drawing. Here’s a short, step-by-step tutorial on drawing realistic eyes in pencil. For your model, cut a pair of eyes out of a magazine photo or crop a pair from an online image. Cut away the rest of the face so that you won’t be distracted as you concentrate on this drawing exercise. When you have finished, I’d love to see your results! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.