Tree Swallow Transparent Watercolor & Time-Lapse Video

Tree Swallow (10x7 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Tree Swallow (10×7-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Tree Swallow (detail from 10x7 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Tree Swallow (detail from 10×7-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

This was a quick watercolor-and-ink painting. I had been concentrating on doing highly rendered watercolor paintings for a while and thought it would be fun to whip off a less-detailed, quick, inked piece with bragged-up colors. This Tree Swallow was at the top of the “to be inked” list.

This particular bird was at Ottawa NWR sitting on a teak bench. We were on a family birding trip to Northern Ohio for spring migration in 2016. Since all four of us love wildlife, especially birds, we take day trips and occasional overnight trips to go birding during migration, seeking out birding areas wherever we travel.

When I was a kid our family vacations were fairly predictable. Aside from a few exceptions, we went to a beach for a week. My dad loved the coast, swimming in the ocean and sitting around reading books. My mom welcomed a week with a change of routine, but I think she still had more than enough on her plate, not the least of which included wrangling three boys. Since my grandparents and cousins lived in NYC and the surrounding  area, that often meant that we’d vacation on Long Island and visit with relatives as well.

I tended to get bored pretty easily at the beach. My brothers would read, but as a kid I wasn’t into books, unless you count B.C. and the Wizard of ID. At the end of the day I often had a lobster-deep sunburn and, after being tossed around in the surf for hours, a diamond-abrasive clump of 60-grit sand in my swimsuit. On the plus side, those beach trips let me enjoy seeing all sorts of shells, sandpipers, sanderlings. I also loved climbing in the dunes and looking at the storm debris that got washed up high on the beach, finding feathers, crab exoskeletons, fish and bird bones among the detritus. 

Seeing washed-up jellyfish was always cool, although when I was really young I’d give the dead cnidarians about four feet of cautious space. I was fairly certain they might spontaneously explode or perhaps come back to life, jumping on to me, ferociously attacking with deadly, fiery tentacles. Surprisingly, that never seemed to happen! My dad loved telling a story of going to the beach with his cousins while on family vacation. As young boys tend to do, he and his younger brother Joe discovered a “fun” game. They’d find a wooden slat from a sand-break fence, then use it to flick a small, dead jellyfish at their victim. Better yet, if needed, they would use their fence stick to section a bigger, putrefying jellyfish into an appropriate size, thus honing their future skills in the surgical field. Once on the end of the stick, they would flick the gelatinous corpse at the nearest unsuspecting youth. Supposedly a relative took a hit to the mouth once. The tale might be more legend than fact, but that never stopped me from asking him to tell it again and again.

We never did any wildlife-specific trips when I was a kid, but we would often have them tangentially. One of the more memorable was seeing sharks on the beach of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. If you see me in person, feel free to ask the long, convoluted story, which is way too long to share here. During that same vacation we went on a ranger-led hike that was fantastic. The Park Ranger explained the dune system and pointed out tons of interesting plants and animals. That was one of my favorite parts of that trip. We’d always go to zoos and aquariums wherever we went. I loved those day trips. No matter where we went, we always managed to have a lot of fun. 

The one bird-related event that was predictable and always greatly enjoyed when we were really young kids happened when we visited my grandparents in the Bronx. My grandmother would grab a loaf of old bread and ask in her thick Irish brogue, “All right boys, who wants to go to the cemetery?” Now a trip to see gravestones with a stale roll of pumpernickel might not sound like a great way to spend your day, but we knew better. This meant we would be going to feed the ducks that hung out there. Honestly, she seemed to enjoy it just as much as we did. It was definitely a different sort of “birding vacation,” but you have to start somewhere. Little things like that surely got me hooked.

Veery Transparent Watercolor & Time-Lapse Video

Veery (7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Veery (7×10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Veery (detail from 7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Veery (detail from 7×10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

This Veery painting is another transparent watercolor on Arches 140lb Hot Press paper.

I’ve been teaching a watercolor course this year for a small group of homeschoolers. It’s been fun to watch the kids’ progress. They have produced a lot of great art of varied subject matter. It also has been interesting to me to have to verbalize things I’ve been doing subconsciously for 35-40 years. There is quite a bit of subtlety to how you hold a brush and use it that I didn’t think much about until seeing someone else try it and having to explain how to do it with greater precision.

Many fine artists look down on watercolors as being amateur materials, or a beginner’s medium. There definitely is a bias toward oils and acrylics in art schools and galleries. Sure, works on Belgian linen are going to hold up longer, but the majority of oils and acrylics are done on cheaply made pre-gessoed canvases on lousy stretchers and inexpensive canvas. I painted for years in acrylics and oils. I liked them, but they always lacked the luminescent, transparent qualities of watercolor. Neither of those “finer” media could offer the control I can get with watercolors.

For many watercolor is a frustrating medium. I’d be the first to agree that you have to play by the rules to have paintings work out well. The easiest things to do in oils and acrylics, like a completely even, flat application of a single color, can be confounding with watercolor. If you stick with it, watercolor’s idiosyncrasies start to get sorted out, and you’ll find a flexible and capable medium.

I think one of the things that thwarts many people’s attempts is using cheap paper. I’m fairly capable when it comes to the medium, and I don’t think I could get a satisfactory result on cheap paper. I initially learned watercolor from my mom. While painting in several different media over the years, she predominantly used watercolors. She ALWAYS used Arches 140 lb Cold Press (CP) paper. For years I followed her lead and used the same paper. The CP papers really drink up a wash well, making gradients and flat, even application of color easier. Cold press paper also stands up to re-working well, and the pigments seem to hold better and are less likely to lift.

As the years passed and I started developing my own style, I began to feel limited by all those annoying bumps in the CP paper. The tooth got in the way of the detail at times. When I was in graduate school for Medical Illustration, we had a watercolor course. To say that medical illustrators like detail is an huge understatement. I knew that using the usual CP paper was going to be too bumpy to allow for crisp detail. Wanting a really good grade, I ended up getting a sheet of Hot Press (HP) watercolor board and gave it a shot. I ended up doing an illustration of a bronchoscopy procedure and really liked working on the hot pressed surface despite some limitations. I ended up doing all of my projects for that class on Hot Press (HP).

Hot press paper is smooth, but it definitely doesn’t absorb a wash like CP paper. Unless you have a very gentle touch, the pigment can lift when glazing. That’s okay. It’s so smooth it allows for a ton of detail! I was converted. I’ve not bought cold pressed paper since.

For a while I bought blocks of 140lb paper made by Winsor and Newton called NCP (Not Cold Pressed). This was the Holy Grail of paper. It was almost as smooth as HP paper but took a wash perfectly like the CP paper. Alas, they stopped making it about a decade ago. Lana makes a nice HP paper that takes washes better than the Arches HP, but it doesn’t come in blocks. In the end I went back to the Arches 140lb HP paper blocks and had a bit of adapting to do. It definitely doesn’t take washes as evenly.

I have found that certain adaptations are necessary for Hot Pressed papers. Your technique has to be spot on, or you’re going to have uneven washes and lifted paints when glazing. This means you’re going to have to go through a certain amount of paper just getting your wash technique down. Practice!

Sometimes you need to approach things with 3-4 washes to build the tone you really want, especially for darker saturated colors. One pass doesn’t always cut it. I find the working time on HP paper is less than the CP paper. For HP paper you need to really follow the basic rules of watercolor to the letter. Always work light to dark. Always start wet and work toward drier, more opaque colors. You can get away with bending the rules a bit on CP paper, but if you stray on HP, you’ll be lifting colors and making a mess.

Red-bellied Woodpecker Transparent Watercolor and Time Lapse Video

Red-bellied Woodpecker 7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor

Red-bellied Woodpecker 7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor

Red-bellied Woodpecker (detail) 7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor

Red-bellied Woodpecker (detail) 7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor

It’s taken me a while to post this painting, my first of 2017. Don’t worry, I’ve been hard at work and very productive, but posting completed projects has been neglected. This Red-bellied Woodpecker was fun to paint. Using a 400mm lens I took photos of a cooperative female in the backyard, but I decided to change it up and paint a more colorful male. I always love the opportunity to paint red feathers, so the temptation of rendering a male won out. In my photo reference you could actually see some of the “red” belly, but this guy, like most, is definitely more “pink bellied.” The naming of these birds could use a little improvement.

Many birds, like this guy, have names that are misleading for a bird watcher. In the field you can almost never see the red belly. It’s usually snugged up against the tree. Years ago while in grad school for medical illustration, I had a work-study job in the Bird Division of the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan. I prepared study skins for their collections. I learned a lot. The staff were incredibly nice, and it was interesting work. My time there shed light on the confusing names that some birds, like the Red-bellied Woodpecker, are saddled with. When you see the study skins in the collection drawers, they all are positioned on their backs with the belly pointing up. In the specimen drawer that red belly is the first thing you notice. Suddenly that name made more sense, as well as some of the others that featured rump and belly colors, like Black-bellied Plovers and Crimson-rumped Toucanets. Of course that doesn’t make the name any more useful in the field.

During this time I was also taking gross anatomy at the medical school a few blocks away. This made for an interesting comparison. Dissecting a 150+ pound cadaver was a lot different than the several-ounce American Goldfinch. Some skills were transferrable. I remember one of the med students being amazed at how easily I could trace out the tiny nerve bundles. I recall saying, “Compared to dissecting a goldfinch, this is a breeze!”

The smells in the cadaver lab were always WAY worse than anything in the bird division. Formaldehyde, formalyn or whatever witches-brew of weapons-grade hazmat chems they used there was uber-nasty. The bird division, on the other hand, usually didn’t have a very objectionable smell. Occasionally, you’d do an olfactory double-take when entering the skinning area; it would reek of skunk. That scent is definitely out of place in a museum. It invariably meant a Great Horned Owl was being processed. Skunks don’t have many natural predators, but the Great Horned Owl has a taste for the stinkers. Lacking a sense of smell comes in handy for these owls.

The only other time it tended to get stinky in the bird division was when we did oiled birds. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, truckloads of dead, oiled birds were bagged and frozen as evidence. After a period time they were no longer needed for the court case, so the federal government offered up the birds to universities and institutions for study. UM sent their wish list to the feds and then had a freezer-full of bagged, oily carcasses to process. Honestly, it was pretty hard to tell what was in some of the bags. A Bald Eagle bag was pretty obvious, but determining whether a black, oily glob was a Murrelet or an Auklet was all but impossible for me.

After being measured, the Exxon birds that were badly decaying were skeletonized by dermestid beetles. It must have tasted fine to them, because everything but the bones disappeared, but really, I suppose their standards are just exceptionally low. The birds that were in better condition were cleaned up and processed like any other bird, except that the cleanup took WAY longer. This gave me a real admiration for the cleaning power of Dawn dish detergent. Though it took a while, Dawn was actually able to muscle through that thick, stinky glop. I couldn’t imagine a living bird having to go through that. In the end, though, the specimens were beautiful and even smelled clean! There were also some surprises. As we were cleaning the birds, we’d frequently have to call someone from the Entomology Department. They’d be awfully excited when we’d find an occasional parasite attached to a bird.

My artistic skills occasionally came in handy in the Bird Division, particularly pen and ink. When a study skeleton is prepared, every bone has to have the museum’s super-long collection number written on it. Think about it: even something as big as a goose has some small bones. Now imagine writing that same number on the tibiotarsus of a Winter Wren. OK, some of the tiniest bones were put in glass vials with the number written on a slip of paper, but for accuracy you always wanted to physically write the number if it was at all possible. My manual dexterity for detail is the same now, but my vision was much better back then!

Working at the Bird Division of the Zoology Museum may sound challenging and a bit on the gruesome side at times, but it was incredibly interesting and a great place to learn about birds. I’m hardly a bird expert, but having that hands-on experience helped with knowing the anatomy when drawing and painting birds. It would be hard to get that any other way.

Fall Northern Cardinal Transparent Watercolor & Time-Lapse Video

Northern Cardinal 7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper

Northern Cardinal 7×10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper

Northern Cardinal (3x4 inch detail from 7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Northern Cardinal (3×4 inch detail from 7×10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Everyone seems to like cardinals. I think the only time I wasn’t happy to see one was when I was birding in Hawaii, where they are an invasive species.

This was an unusual painting for me. Anyone looking at my portfolio will tell you that I love saturated colors and contrast. In almost all of my paintings there is some saturated color as well as some subdued color. In this painting I thought I’d try something different. Male Northern Cardinals are so outrageously colored, why not do a painting dominated by saturated colors? I chose a vivid fall foliage background with lots of yellows behind the bird and some reds in the background. I threw realistic colors out the window, rendering the branch dominated by purple tones and bragging up the blue-green lichens covering the branch. It was a fun experiment.

When I was in high school I wanted everything to be photographically realistic. With time I have found that less and less appealing. I’m drawn to images that have a literal look but but allow me to see the paint and some of the characteristics of the medium used to create it. I suppose that is why I’ve all but given up on the airbrush. I like the look of a hand-done wash. 

I was reminded recently of my high school art teacher, Winona Yahn. She had the patience of a saint. I went to a small Catholic high school in southwestern New York. The place was run on a shoestring budget but managed to get an incredible amount done because of the efforts of people like Mrs. Yahn. From my understanding she volunteered her time to run an art program at the school. The necessary supplies always magically appeared for her classes. I’m sure she financed the majority of the program, and art supplies aren’t cheap. She had a great, subtle sense of humor and a high tolerance for the kids’ hijinks. Her job wasn’t easy. With her gentle nature, she tried to lead the kids by example. Some responded better than others. On her own time she painted a lot of well-received religious art.

I loved art class and would opt out of study hall whenever possible for an extra art class if she had one in session. At one point I had a rather large and elaborate pencil drawing of a huge, scaled, menacing dragon. It was standing on a landscape of carnage—dead knights, skeletons and skulls—with the dragon eviscerating one especially unlucky warrior. Behind it was burning castles, siege engines, gnarled dead trees and crows. A real upper! I did a dozen similar themed drawings like this. I was a teenage boy after all. Mrs Yahn came by, looked at the drawing, sighed and said, “Matt, I think you need to paint something happy. How about a smiling purple dragon for your next project?” I remember thinking she was nuts. I’m sure the disgust wasn’t well hidden on my face. But now, after more than 35 years, I see where she was coming from. She just didn’t have “Dude, lighten up!” in her vocabulary.

I might still have that drawing around here somewhere. At this point it would be totally embarrassing. I remember signing it with huge gothic calligraphy. Subtle! Looking back at my own efforts at that age, I’m pretty lenient when judging high school artists. Mrs. Yahn died last year; I never saw her after graduation. I’m not sure if she found out that I went on to make a living from art. It’s possible that she heard it from my dad, since we lived in a small town. I really appreciate all of her efforts for us, and it’s fun to look back at the people who guided us along the way.

Immature Ring-billed Gull Pencil Sketch p74

Ring-billed Gull Pencil Sketch

Ring-billed Gull Pencil Sketch

I haven’t painted many gulls. Only two come to mind, Herring Gull and Ring-billed Gull. Ring-billed Gulls are almost dirt common. I’ve heard them called rats with wings. Despite some of their less appealing behaviors, I really like Ring-billed Gulls. 

I went to a small college in upstate New York. College can be tough in many ways. I’ve made it through life without drinking alcohol, so my college experience and diversions were pretty different than most people. The highlights of my college life were also probably vastly outside of the norm, which is fine by me.

Anyway, for my sophomore year I lived on the fourth floor of a dorm. My room overlooked a section of the dorm’s roof. The view was ugly, but the location came in handy. We got a lot of Ring-billed Gulls on campus. The huge flocks often kept an eye on the cafeteria in the hopes of scoring some food from the students. Lord knows the meals weren’t fit for human consumption, so it wasn’t a shock that some people snuck food out for the birds and dogs that frequented the area hoping for just such a treat. Though it didn’t appeal to many of the humans, apparently it had some desirability to the “wildlife” in the area. I guess it was more palatable than the dried up worms on the sidewalks of campus.

There was one especially porky husky that my friend Bill called the “Nordic Wolf.” That metabolically challenged dog waddled over from some nearby neighborhood for every meal, even in the worst of weather. Always looking for a handout, he knew the cafeteria’s schedule better than most of the students. I watched people bring complete hamburgers out for him to eat. He probably died of atherosclerosis at the age of four, but he went with a smile on his face. Yes, a big, fat atherosclerotic smile.

To make things more bearable, we came up with inventive names for the dishes at the cafeteria. Here is a sampling of what I remember of the menu: 

  • The Elephant Scabs: What they passed off for veal Parmesan. It had a tumorous, lumpy red sauce and some sort of compressed meat. In hindsight I’m pretty sure it was woodchuck or opossum.
  • Chicken Pucks: Another extruded, compressed, disk-shaped “meat product” they passed off as chicken. Now, I’m not sure what was in those, but I think a chicken could look at the ingredient list and not be offended.
  • Spackle: Mashed potatoes with little gastric appeal and the texture of joint compound—perfect for your next drywall project.
  • Lincoln Logs: Sausage links that were always blackened, hard and bark-like on the outside, yet occasionally pink on the inside! Yum… full of tapewormy goodness! 

I’ll spare you the names we came up with for fried clams. Let’s just say they were rather horrific.

What does all this have to do with birds? Well, one day there was a bunch of Ring-bills bathing in a puddle on that dorm roof top. I watched them for a while as a welcome distraction between classes. When I hit lunch, the choices were, as usual, less than appetizing. I decided to go to the “last-ditch” cafeteria station and make a PB&J. Three or four bags of bread were there, but all were empty except for the heels. Nuts! Apparently I wasn’t the only one unhappy with the choices. I decided to cut my losses and eat from the care-package my grandmother had sent. Thinking of the gulls, I grabbed all of the bags with the heels and went back to my room. Yes, the gulls were still there. I carefully cracked opened my window and threw out a heel. I was initially disappointed when the gulls exploded off the roof in fear. But, this wasn’t the first bread those guys had seen. One of them looked back and immediately U-turned like a Luftwaffe pilot, landed and started wolfing down the bread. The others were soon hot on his heels. I threw more bread out. Let me tell you, the fastest learners on campus were not paying tuition—they had wings! I was out of bread in no time. 

Well, I decided this was so much fun that I should do it regularly. A couple of times a week I’d liberate some of the bread heels from the cafeteria and create a feeding frenzy of gulls on the rooftop. A few times I felt generous enough to smuggle out some French fries, knowing that was the gull’s “natural diet.” Well, the gulls caught on almost instantaneously. The number of gulls got insanely high at times, as did the noise level of the screaming combatants fighting for the food. One day I noticed that I wasn’t the only one watching. Other students were looking out their windows because of the huge racket the gulls made. It was quite a spectacle, and someone was bound to complain to the residence life staff. 

I now had a dilemma. Obviously I wanted to keep feeding the gulls. It was too much fun not to. The trick was going to be reducing the schedule enough to evade the wary eye of the staff while keeping the gulls interested. As Pavlov knew, a well-conditioned response needs repetition! At the same time, if I did it too often and attracted too much attention, “The Man” was going to shut down my little operation. While the resident assistants were happy to look the other way for a multitude of infractions—like keg parties, the Ozone Rangers smoking pot all day long, or those breaking the purely hypothetical quiet hours—they wouldn’t tolerate something like this. In the end I was feeding them about three times a week at different times of day. Alas, winter came, the water froze and the gulls hit the road.

Winters are really long in Syracuse, New York. I resumed the feeding frenzies in the spring. A week or two before finals I met the guy who lived on the floor directly below me. His room was Ground Zero for the rooftop feedings. He yelled, “Wait… YOU live in 403?! You’re the one feeding those $%&#$ gulls all the time right outside my window! They drive me nuts.”

I replied, “Your view must be FANTASTIC!” After that I apologized, knowing that with my anonymity gone it was the end of the fun. At least I had made it until almost the end of the semester. In the following years I never had a decent vantage point to watch or feed the birds. After leaving that school I’ve pretty much had “normal” bird feeders, but there was something exciting about the sheer volume of screaming gulls zooming in for completely inappropriate food.