Bees, blooms and “Mad Honey Disease”


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blog dragonfly One of my favorite parts of drawing garden subjects is the unexpected discovery of some startling bit of botanical history — a story that pops up like an unexpected seedling and demands to be shared. It happened recently during preparation for my online course, The Heirloom Garden in Colored Pencil. A strange story about rhododendrons wrapped its roots around my imagination and wouldn’t let go.

Rhododendrons (and their popular relative, azaleas) produce pollen that contains a small amount of potent neurotoxin. Called grayanotoxin, it’s not harmful under ordinary circumstances… but occasionally, when concentrated by honeybees as they make rhododendron honey, it can cause a nasty illness marked by hallucinations and digestive distress. Although rare today — the most recent US cases on record happened in Seattle in 2011 — “mad honey disease” has a special place in history.

A clever first-century general defeated an entire invading army by putting grayanotoxin to work. During a battle in the Black Sea region in 67 BC, Pompey ordered his troops to leave honeycomb laced with “mad honey” along the path of approaching Roman soldiers. The hungry invaders took the bait. Sickened and disoriented, the Romans were no match for the waiting enemy.

The rhododendron, then, is much more than just a pretty face. Grow them, celebrate their history… but don’t put your beehives too close by.


Live watercolor workshop

Yippee! Only 10 days until The Essential Bird and Flower in Watercolor takes flight at Mobile Museum of Art. We’ll pare down our brush technique to the fundamentals, then learn some new ways to paint quickly and dynamically by flicking, blowing, splashing and flowing pigment across the paper’s surface. It’s messy! It’s fun! It’s inspired by Asian brush painting. You will love the results.

Full information is available from the Mobile Museum of Art:

Drawing the Heirloom Garden


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Rose and pencils2

This week, we’re drawing old-fashioned roses in my online course, The Heirloom Garden in Colored Pencil. Romantic, gorgeous and wonderfully fragrant, these blooms have been a favorite throughout human history. Roses appear in ancient stone carvings… they were painted on the ceilings of Roman banquet rooms… knights carried them during the Crusades. The Empress Josephine was a passionate rose breeder. So was George Washington.

Don’t let the many-layered structure of rose “architecture” scare you off. There’s a natural sequence to drawing them, starting at the heart of the bloom and working your way to the edges. It’s a slow and enjoyable journey. Colors are layered, too, beginning with the lightest ones and building up a luxurious intensity. Put on your favorite music and make a cup of coffee, then sharpen those colored pencils. Think of it as drawing therapy.

The Heirloom Garden in Colored Pencil, a course consisting of 10 interactive lessons plus a bonus lesson, will be offered again in March. Click here for more info.

Hooray! Two-day watercolor workshop at Mobile Museum of Art


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roosterIf you liked the “essential watercolor” technique from Birds in Watercolor and Beyond, I have some very good news for you:

The Essential Bird and Flower in Watercolor

A two-day workshop with Val Webb

Friday, January 9  from 1 to 5pm

Saturday, January 10 from 10am to 3pm
Mobile Museum of Art
$150 members / $180 non-members
Inspired by the bird-and-flower paintings used centuries ago as a form of meditation by Buddhist monks, learn to see the essential parts of your subject and paint them in a series of simple, richly colored brush strokes. Learn to use the spontaneous flow of watercolor to paint birds and blooms that are loose and dynamic, yet surprisingly accurate in their appearance. Use techniques borrowed from traditional Chinese painting — dropping, blowing, and mixing color directly on the paper — to paint vibrant botanicals. No experience necessary, and you do not need to know how to draw. There is a very short supply list, and instructor will also provide some supplies. There is a possibility that you will get paint droplets on your clothing, so wear “studio clothes” or bring an old shirt along.

Info and registration here:

WC Bird

Because you asked: 2015 calendars!


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If you have followed my studio blog for a few years, you may remember the monthly printable hand-drawn and lettered Illustrated Garden calendars. They looked like this:

calendar juneAnd this:

2013 Jan FBI loved drawing them. I loved sending them out to you. Then my illustration work increased and my online art courses blossomed, and I had to reluctantly put them aside. But you never forgot them… For nearly two years, emails have continued to arrive asking for the calendars to return.

“Please bring them back. My office is in a high-rise in New York City, but I can look at your calendar and feel connected to nature.”

“I loved these calendars! I used them to keep records of planting and harvest at a community garden.”

“Your calendar makes me smile.”

With such encouragement, how can I not draw new calendars for 2015? Sometimes, you just have to leap.

The 2015 Illustrated Garden calendar includes an 8 1/2 x 11 page for each month and will be emailed to you in printable pdf form on New Year’s Day, every inch hand-drawn and lettered in ink, watercolor and colored pencil. Besides lots of garden and bird lore, it marks the full moons, dates of the Solstice and Equinox, along with major holidays and some not-so-major but highly interesting ones.

The cost is $12. You may mail a check* (Val Webb, P.O. Box 2212, Fairhope, AL 36533) or click the button below to order through PayPal:

Buy Now Button with Credit Cards

*If you choose to send a check, be sure to include the email address where you would like to receive your calendar.

An old garden and a new adventure


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The autumn breeze that stirs stalk and leaf in this 18th Century garden carries a drowsy hint of lavender. Four sprawling raised beds are arranged in the good German tradition: a square hemmed with pickets, divided by a stone pathway in the shape of a cross.
MDGarden1It’s early October in the kitchen garden at Schifferstadt, an imposing Maryland farmhouse built in 1758. Most of the season’s harvest has come and gone, leaving brown skeletons to rattle their dried-out seed heads in the chilly sunlight. But the hardiest botanicals are still green and several remain stubbornly in bloom: French lavender, flowering tobacco, calendula, yarrow.

Nearly three weeks into my road trip, I’m now in the valley just beyond the easternmost ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from the presidential retreat at Camp David. I’m gathering material on heirloom plants for my upcoming online course, The Heirloom Garden in Colored Pencil. And so I spent an afternoon sharing the Schifferstadt plots with the bees and mantises, marveling over colonial plants I rarely see in my own subtropical climate zone.

MDGarden2The biggest plantings were those varieties offering the widest range of practical uses in the farmer’s household. One particularly choice slice of garden real estate was occupied by Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), a feathery groundcover with an astonishing job description: it is a vegetable rennet for making cheese, a delightfully honey-scented mattress stuffing material, the roots produce red dye and the flowers yield a yellow hair rinse reputed to be popular with young milkmaids.

MDGarden3I’m traveling in my camper studio, “Beatrix,” with two canine co-pilots, Atticus and Jo. Two weeks ago, we made our way up through the fall wildflowers of Georgia and Virginia to spend some time in the rolling ridges near Washington D.C. Tomorrow, we’ll turn the steering wheel southward and roll down through Tennessee and Mississippi, back home to coastal Alabama and the little farmhouse at the end of the road. I have lots of fresh material for the Heirloom Garden course, courtesy of Maryland’s abundant flora. It has been a good journey.

Fall sketch

A parting look


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owl finishedRemember this fellow, who had just been started in an earlier post? I thought you might like to see him completed. I love using this watercolor technique: first painting the entire paper with the background color, then using clean water and a dry brush to lift away the lighter areas. Once that’s done, the detailed work begins with a #4 round brush and some rich browns. Highlights in white gouache are added in a final step.

A member of the breakfast club


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Red bellied sketch1He’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.)