Male Dark Phase Dimorphic Jumping Spider (7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor on W&N 140Lb HP Paper)
Male Dark Phase Dimorphic Jumping Spider (4.5 x 3-inch detail from 7×10-inch watercolor)
“My name is Matt, and I like Jumping Spiders.”
Typically when people see my photos, sketches or paintings of jumping spiders, I hear the same things: “Yuck!” “The only place I want to see that is on the bottom of my shoe.” “Gross!” “Creepy.” “Scary!” I assume they are talking about the spiders, but I suppose they could be talking about me!
It’s okay. Someone needs to paint jumping spiders to show off how amazing they are. These little gems are definitely under-represented in the art world. I love painting birds, but there are tons of bird artists out there. Not many creative types paint insects and arachnids. Sure, butterflies and dragonflies get a bit of attention, but other than an occasional bumble bee or honeybee, the rest are largely ignored.
The lack of a market for finished paintings is probably partly to blame. When the subject matter consists of creatures that seem to serve as a lightning rod of hate, it’s no surprise. Now I’d understand that response if I were rendering the Ebola Virus or Malaria (both of which I’ve done a few times), yet these little creatures are not only harmless but beneficial. On top of that, they have some serious cuteness in a Jim Henson-creation sort of way. The only other artwork of mine that has evoked similar comments of revulsion are illustrations of eye surgery and polycystic kidneys. Now that is bad!
As I paint these little guys, I realize that it’s purely for my own entertainment. If I’m rendering something like a Northern Cardinal, I think to myself, Someone might want this on their wall; yeah… I could see the print or original selling before too long. When I put the same effort into a jumping spider, I think, I’ll be getting some visceral responses relaying people’s complete disgust and fear when this gets posted, and then the painting will spend the rest of its life sitting next to a stack of similar paintings in my son’s closet.
Who cares—I know it’s cool! I like this spider. I had fun painting it. Good enough for me.
So here it is. This is a dark phase male Dimorphic Jumping Spider. A painting of the other phase can be seen here along with information on the two “flavors” they come it. It’s hard to believe these two morphs are the same species.
The time-lapse video compresses 6.5 hours of painting into about 8 minutes.
Work really picked up for a while, so I fell behind with posting paintings and sketches. I have a back-log of sketches to scan and write up. This is a Tree Swallow from Ottawa NWR in northern Ohio. I can really burn time watching swallows swooping around in a seemingly effortless hunt for insects. I have a hard time not imagining them making little zooming jet engine noises to themselves as they chase down their prey. Unfortunately for my wife and kids, I often start making those noises as I’m watching them. Sorry! (Honestly, I do try to stop if other people are present.)
I always think of two things when I visit Ottawa NWR: Fox Snakes and pork. No, that isn’t a unique regional dish in Ohio, although someone may have tried it in the old days. I think of Fox Snakes because that’s one of the first places I ever saw one. I think of pork because of the opulent visitor’s center that was put in about 10 years ago. Let me tell you, no expense was spared there. If you are ever in the area, don’t miss the bathrooms. They are spectacular! When Liesl and I first visited there in the ’90s, the only publicly assessable structures were a kiosk with information on Fox Snakes and Bald Eagles and—if you were in luck—a Porta Potty. They certainly needed an upgrade from next to nothing, but someone went way overboard and no doubt got re-elected due to the income driven into the area to build the place.
I’m rolling almost 3/4 of the way through my sketchbook now. It’s looking pretty beaten up. I’ve had to duct tape the binding, and the edges are wearing through now.
Female Black-throated Blue Warbler Transparent Watercolor (7×10 inches on Arches 140lb HP Paper)
Female Black-throated Blue Warbler Transparent Watercolor Detail (7×10 inches on Arches 140lb HP Paper)
Back to the drafting table! This is a small 7 x 10-inch transparent watercolor of a female Black-throated Blue Warbler. I’ve painted a male before; those bright colors were asking for it. The females, while drab in comparison, are still beautiful little birds and are definitely worthy of a painting.
On the same subject, below is a male Black-throated Blue Warbler painting I did a while back. The lichens on the branches were a lot of fun to render in transparent watercolor. This one had four types of lichen in the painting: Furrowed Shield Lichen, Limp-tufted Lichen and two others I can’t remember the names of at the moment.
Black-throated Blue Warbler, Furrowed Shield Lichens and Limp-tufted Lichen (Transparent Watercolor on W&N 140lb NCP Paper about 10 x 7 inches) Original currently available
One of the most common questions visual artists get is “How long did that take?” This is a fairly natural question to ask, I suppose. Humans like to quantify things. Paintings should be no different. Well, for a number of reasons it is always a hard question to answer. Do I count the time I spent taking the reference photos that I used to make the painting? I couldn’t do it without them—well at least not without totally plagiarizing someone else’s work and running into copyright issues. Do I count the time researching proper plumage and typical poses? The photos as reference often have issues—the bird is molting or in an awkward pose.
To get things to look right you need to accurately represent the species. This can take a lot of time. Do I count the time making the sketches? Do I count the time making the time-lapse and blog post? The time-lapse video I made this time has 8.5 hours of painting compressed into 9 minutes or so. That is only the painting portion of the process. A large portion of time spent isn’t on the painting phase. I guess the best analogy I can think of is music, which is a big part of life in our house. My son Timmy is 12. He’s obsessed with pipe organs and has been playing for several years. When he performs a complicated piece like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, no one asks how long it took to play it, because that is obvious. The real question is how long it took to learn nine pages of dense black notes and be able to play it correctly phrased at tempo!
Years ago I had a painting in a show, and one of my painting students, who I’ll call “Morty,” saw it and the price I was asking for it. The price was totally reasonable and was right in the ball park for what I sold framed works for at the time. He said, “That’s a small painting for $XXX.” I played along and said something like, “I know what you mean. It is small, but it’s packed with detail, so it took a very long time to complete.” Without a pause Morty asked just how long it took. I beat around the bush a little. At the time I seldom tracked the exact time I put into painting projects. He persisted and eventually I threw out a guess of 14 hours. His eyes lost focus momentarily, rolling slightly up and to the left accessing his mental abacus; then they quickly snapped back to reality, and he said. “That’s $XX.XX/Hour!”
I have to say I was conflicted. I wasn’t sure whether I was more impressed by his speedy mental math or complete lack of tact! Both were out of this world. Now let me say, I genuinely liked Morty. He was a good painter, a hard worker and an eager learner. He was smart and funny, but topics of monetary nature were best avoided with him. I simply had no response at the time. After stammering for a moment or two I jokingly said, “Well, Morty, you don’t have to buy it!”
As time has passed I’ve thought of a lot of witty responses, all a few years too late. Perhaps my favorite rebuttal is “Paint your own and see how long it takes you!” It is hard to quantify things like this. Like a musician playing a complex Bach piece, we don’t see the time put into practicing to get to the point of being able to pull off Toccata and Fugue in nine minutes.
It’s been a while since I last posted. I guess that’s good and bad. It’s good because that means I’ve been busy with illustration and animation work. It’s bad because I’ve had less time to paint. In addition to work, the warm weather has meant my time is further stretched thin as I’ve been out on the trails with the mountain bike, photographing or doing less exciting things like mowing the lawn. While I have a brief window between projects, I thought I’d get to the backlog of sketches I’ve amassed.
Wilson’s Snipe and American Woodcock are in the sandpiper family. Woodcocks frequent wet woods where they hunt for earthworms and other invertebrates. Wilson’s Snipe, on the other hand, like wet fields. I took photos of this bird at Burke Lake Banding Station last fall. Though they catch Woodcock there occasionally, this was their first Wilson’s Snipe, and it came as a big surprise. The habitat was wrong, but it seems that anything can happen during migration. I try to get there at least once a week with the kids during fall migration. It’s a great way to brush up on confusing fall warblers. Fall birding is awesome. Although some are harder to identify, the volume of birds it so much greater than in the spring, after six months of “natural selection” has thinned out the population.
A friend recently asked, “So, what did you do at work this week?”
And I replied, “Uh, this is going to sound weird. I made a hat shaped like a hummingbird.”
I’ve made a bunch of these hats for our kids at Halloween. Over the years, many emails have rolled in from people who saw them online and were curious about them. Many have asked about buying an existing hat, renting one or commissioning one. The problem is that they aren’t just hats. They are mid-sized, detailed sculptures that take a ton of time to make. The most recent one took almost an entire week from start to finish. Plus, shipping the larger hats is expensive. Given the cost, it didn’t surprise me that no one wanted to take the plunge and invest in one… until this year. Someone recently decided to go for it and commissioned a Ruby-throated Hummingbird hat for a hummingbird society meeting in Arizona. I’m happy to report that it arrived without a hitch, and she loved it.
Over the years I’ve actually made a lot of hats. For the kid’s Halloween costumes alone, I can think of 14. In art school a design teacher gave us several hat assignments. At that time he was without a doubt the most feared professor at the art school. He had a history of merciless comments that were like jagged lacerations… memorable and painful, cutting deep and leaving permanent scars. I learned an incredible amount about design in the first semester of his class, and I still have some of the projects I made for him.
His first assignment was to build a “Hat for Two.” This was an unusual design problem: a hat that two people wore at the same time. To add to the degree of difficulty, it had to allow the wearers to discreetly share their opinions (positive or negative) about art pieces at a gallery or art opening. The next hat assignment was perhaps even more interesting and challenging: this time everyone had to build a hat had capable of catching a ping-pong ball and then delivering it to the hat of the person next to you in class. On the day the project was due, the teacher would randomly assemble us in a circle, and the critique would begin. This was somewhat problematic because you had no idea what everyone else would bring. Some people were tall; some short. Some hats had tiny places to receive a ball; others large. Function was crucial, but it’d better look good too if you expected a halfway decent grade!
The day of the critique was always stressful. Some people brought in beautiful pieces that simply didn’t work. Others brought in contraptions that functioned well, but were ugly. Some had ideas that didn’t look good OR work. There were always one or two students who didn’t finish. The hat I remember best was shaped like a fish, constructed with balsa wood and paper. It had a mouth that opened and closed to catch the ball, which then rolled out the“back end” to deliver it to the next student. The only problem was that the wearer couldn’t see where the ball would drop. Designs that relied on gravity often allowed the ball to roll out before the next hat was ready. The most successful designs allowed the wearers to control precisely when they would deliver the ball and to see exactly where it would be placed.
Here are some other interesting assignments:
Musical Shoes: We had to design, fabricate and wear shoes that made music while you walked.
The Whacky Stack: Like many of his assignments, the actual assignment was cryptic, and you had to read the instructor’s mind to figure out what he wanted. This one was a limerick, which for some reason I still remember 20 years later: “There was an amazing stack/ that came in its very own pack./ Such a balancing feat/ proved incomplete/ until the pack was part of the stack.” This makes the class sound fun, but in reality I think everyone in there would agree that there was a ton of stress involved. When asked what he wanted to see from the assignment, the instructor would refuse to answer and just point to the limerick.
Locker-folding Critique Seat: This assignment required building a chair that collapsed to fit into one of the art school lockers. You were required to bring the seat to all the class critiques. If yours broke during the semester, you’d have to fix it or replace it with another invention. If you made something painful, well then you’d have a semester full of critiques to rethink things!
SHMOE and more: The second semester went off the rails with some truly bizarre assignments. Half the semester was spent making a play where all the actors’ words were acrostic poems starting with the letters S,H,M,O and E. Now SHMOE may sound random, but those happen to be the first letters of the Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Erie. Ok… I guess it is sort of a random choice, but his idea was to provide an order and structure, arbitrary as it may have been, to the whole play. Yeah, that was a long semester.
I’ve made a lot of hats over the years, and I’d have to say the bird hats have been the most fun.