Carolina Wrens: 7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor and Time-lapse Video

Carolina Wrens (7x10 in Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP Paper)

Carolina Wrens (7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP Paper)

Carolina Wrens (3.5 x5 inch detail from 7x10 in Transparent Watercolor original)

Carolina Wrens (3.5 x5-inch detail from 7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor original)

Carolina Wrens are fun little birds. They seem to be clever. My office and studio are in the basement of our house. It’s a nice space with one drawback: I have a only a small window well for natural light. I suppose the benefit is that I’m not staring out the window all day instead of working. I can easily lose an hour looking through a window. Well, the Carolina Wrens occasionally pop into the window well to hunt for insects and spiders. Their visits increase dramatically in the winter, when food is scarce and they get the added benefit of some heat from the house and shelter from the wind. As a matter of fact, one just appeared while I was writing this. At only 7° F, today is a cold one. If I put a suet cake in the window well, they’d probably never leave! In the past I’ve been tempted to put some freeze-dried mealworms out there to keep them going on the coldest winter days. Carolina Wrens are especially hard hit when temperatures drop.

I got the reference photos for this painting using a 400mm lens from the kitchen window. The wrens stop in to visit the suet feeders and for occasional forays to the seed feeders. They investigate everything.

My photos had plain blurry green backgrounds. While pretty for a photo, this can result in a “Bird-on-a-Stick” painting that can be dull. I wanted to paint a pair of wrens, but compositionally, items are best painted in odd numbers. Bird duos occur naturally in nature but make for a design no-no. Their pairing in a painting can lead to the dreaded “dumbbell” composition, which keeps your eyes ping-ponging between two items. To counter this I usually try to bring in other elements that will help move a viewer’s eye around the page. In this case that meant imagining an entirely new background and setting for the wrens.

I tried to arrange branches with lots of diagonals running parallel to the birds’ poses. In theory this adds more movement and energy to the painting. I also wanted to strictly control what the background was doing relative to the birds and branches. This meant having the background decrease in contrast and detail with distance. At the same time my hope was to have the warm brown tones of the birds against cooler colors so they’d really pop off the page. It’s challenging to strike the right balance between getting a good clear image while still having the bird work well in its natural environment.

Struggling with this painting’s composition got me thinking. When I was in art school various popular artists were routinely trashed by students and teachers alike. It was a little too early for Tomas Kinkaid to (deservedly) receive the full wrath of the art school glitterati, so Normal Rockwell was raked over the coals regularly. Although I can’t think of anything positive to say about Kincaid, I was familiar with some of Rockwell’s work and never understood the rage it engendered. Years later I got a few books out of the library on Rockwell to see if the vicious remarks were deserved. While some of his compositions were much more complex than others, the art was always well rendered. I suppose the first strike against Rockwell in the art school setting was that he was an excellent draftsman and was realistic. “Back in my day” art schools seemed to focus on abstract expressionism. Any applied and representation art was considered lowly, unimaginative and derivative. There are a lot of illustrators who get thrown under the bus because of this.

The art school folks dismissed Rockwell’s work, complaining that he painted many popular scenes of average life. So what? Plenty of great artists like Bruegel the Elder, Hopper, Vermeer and others have been genre painters but were celebrated for it rather than being condemned. Rockwell used photos for reference, but so did Vermeer… essentially. Critics also complained that his work evoked the emotional response of the viewer. There is some hypocrisy there, since so many of the avant-garde like Serrano seem to want to have us have a visceral response to their work. Perhaps Rockwell was too patriotic and optimistic for them? I can’t claim to know what they are thinking.

The thing that totally won me over for Rockwell was how well he composed, prompting your eye to move around the page in many of his paintings. Everything in the images works together to this end. That doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a lot of skill, effort and experimentation. In my option many of his works were fantastically designed. If his work is bad… then I hope mine is as bad as his someday!


Veery Pencil Sketch p73

Veery Pencil Sketch

Veery Pencil Sketch

Who could possibly pick a favorite type of thrush? I love them all. Veery are especially pretty and have a beautiful call to match. If Mozart were a bird, he’d have to be a thrush. Veery have a musical descending call that rolls down in a cascade of rapid, ethereal notes. On the less charming side, I’ve also heard it described as a “flute going down a toilet.” While lacking in appropriate admiration of its beauty, that does describes it perfectly. It’s also easy to remember.

While on a birding trip with the family this past spring, I took photos of this cooperative bird at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. It was a lot less crowed than Magee Marsh.

Growing up in rural western New York, we heard a lot of thrushes whenever we were out in the woods. Calls of Wood Thrushes and Veery were everywhere. I still get to hear those in Michigan, but one thing I definitely miss is hearing is the drumming of Ruffed Grouse. They can really scare the pants off you as they explode into flight. It’s like a perfectly camouflaged acoustic anti-personnel mine waiting to detonate in the woods. If you get too close, blammo!

Years ago I had the displeasure of coming across a hidden Ruffed Grouse while riding a horse. I was enjoying a relaxing ride at walking pace up a forested hillside in western New York. The earliest of the fall colors were starting to emerge, and it was incredibly relaxing… until the horse almost stepped on a hidden grouse. Let me tell you, that grouse exploded into flight, scaring the life out of the horse and myself. The horse went bonkers and started running full blast through the woods. I was pretty sure I was going to have my head torn off by a low-lying branch. After a bit of coaxing, the horse settled down. What probably was only seconds seemed like minutes as we ripped through the woods getting smacked by saplings, while I anticipated a painful lumber-lobotomy.

Male Dimorphic Jumping Spider (Dark Phase) Transparent Watercolor & Time Lapse Video

Male Dark Phase Dimorphic Jumping Spider (7x10 in Transparent Watercolor on W&N 140Lb HP Paper)

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 in ch detail from 7x10 in Watercolor)

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.

Tree Swallow Pencil Sketch p72

Tree Swallow Pencil Sketch

Tree Swallow Pencil Sketch

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 & Time Lapse Video

Female Black-throated Blue Warbler Transparent Watercolor ( 7x10 on Arches 140lb HP Paper)

Female Black-throated Blue Warbler Transparent Watercolor (7×10 inches on Arches 140lb HP Paper)

Female Black-throated Blue Warbler Transparent Watercolor Detail ( 7x10 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 in) Original available

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.