Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Plein Air in the Shenandoah Valley

The Shenandoah River from Culler Overlook, watercolor, 10" x 14"

This past Saturday was the Plein Air Paint Day organized by Art in the Valley Gallery in Front Royal. The event coincided with the Annual National Public Lands Day, so everyone could enter the Shenandoah River State Park without paying the usual entry fee. This was a perfect opportunity for me, since I'd yet to visit this state park some five miles south of our town.

It was drizzling lightly when I woke up, and I was worried that our plein air day would get rained out, but the forecast didn't call for rain, just cloudy and overcast. So I packed up my gear in the car, made a sandwich for lunch and headed down to the gallery for our check-in. The gallery owners and staff are so nice! They had coffee, tea and scones to munch on at the gallery, and they had prepared goodie bags for all of us artists with water and snacks to take with us.

I arrived at the State Park and proceeded to Culler Overlook, which I'd been told gave the best panoramic views of the river. The view didn't disappoint--the wide bend of the river here reminded me a bit of the famous view of the Chama River in New Mexico, except that our hills here are covered with greenery, and show little of the underlying rock.

Two painters were already standing at the overlook--one gentleman had his painting well under way, and I recognized the other gentleman as Armand Cabrera, whom I'd met in the gallery at one of the opening receptions. Armand had not started on his canvas yet. I figured it might be a little too crowded with three of us there, so I walked down the trail leading below and found a nice spot under the shelter of some trees, just below the boardwalk--perfect!

I went back to my car and brought my gear and chair down. My working surface was relatively small--one quarter of a watercolor sheet, so I decided to paint only one side of the bend of river, to simplify the composition, and that worked.

After about an hour or so, another painter came down to the same spot to join me. I'd met Laura at the gallery before, but had forgotten her name. She told me she'd started blocking in the composition for her oil painting the day before, and set up behind me. Unfortunately, she seemed to be using turpentine (yuck!) rather than the less vapor-laden turpenoid and the fumes wafting down weren't pleasant. I tried my best to ignore it--thank heaven we were outdoors, and I could get up and walk around a bit to get away from it when it became too much.

After a while a young man showed up, who introduced himself as Casey and told us he was working with the gallery to take photos of the artists during the event. We obliged him by carrying on while he took his photos. Around twelve-thirty I took my lunch break, drove down to the visitor's center to use the bathroom and came back to eat my sandwich.

As the afternoon wore on, Laura and I chatted and I felt comfortable enough to tell her that she should ditch the turpentine because of its health hazards, and use turpenoid instead, with gloves on her hands to keep from absorbing toxins through her skin (she was picking up a lot of paint and turpentine on her hands). All these useful things I learned from my previous association with the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association (MAPAPA), bless them!

The one good thing about having a cloudy day was that the light stayed consistent throughout the day, allowing for plenty of time to work on our paintings. It rained all of the next day-- almost an inch of rain-- so we were very lucky to have had the plein air painting on Saturday after all.

The paintings will be on exhibit at the gallery starting Oct. 12--can't wait to see what everyone else came up with!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Presage of Fall

Hardy Begonias

Another very rainy spell brought almost five inches to our area this past weekend. The welcome cooling was a presage of the fall equinox rapidly approaching. Other signs are present in my yard as well.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth caterpillar?

I noticed that something was eating the leaves of the lovely Viburnum 'Brandywine' and found the culprit--a caterpillar I've never seen before. After consulting an insect identification site I think this may be a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth caterpillar. The coloring is a bit different than the photos on this site, but the small spots on the sides are identical, and we have seen these moths flying around our yard, so it's likely this is one. My first impulse was to get rid of it, but since this is part of the moth's life cycle, I don't mind sacrificing my Viburnum leaves for its sake. Butterflies and insects are, after all, part of the balance in a garden.

Beetles on Hoary Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum)

Some are nuisances, like the milkweed beetles which feed on the seed pods of the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) but are also appearing on other plants such as the native Hoary Mountain Mint. I read that these beetles a not a threat to the plants except for its seeds, so I'll probably just pull off the seed pods and see if that doesn't get rid of the beetles.

Seed pods of Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) covered with Beetles

Other fall-bloomers are beginning to make a show, like the sedums and mums. Crabgrass has multiplied like crazy during this unusually-wet summer, and it's been just about impossible to keep up with the weeding.

Sedums 'Neon' and 'autumn Joy'


I guess it's time for me to get to work digging holes for all the new plants I bought this spring that summered on the porch and the deck in pots. Tomorrow is the fall Equinox, and I'll be painting Plein Air with a group of local artists at Shenandoah River State Park.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Working on a New Painting

Rhododendron maximum

 A couple of weeks ago I started on a painting of the native Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) flowers that I'd planned for some time. This tree-sized Rhododendron flowers late in the year, from mid-June to as late as July, depending on the location and exposure. The photo above is my specimen, and it was taken during a trip to Mountain Lake Biological Station a few years back. I had been saving this image, with a few other supplementary ones, until I had some time to develop a painting.

I "edit" my photos whenever possible so that the composition is already close to what I want--in this case, a branch with two lovely flower clusters. The problem here was that there was another branch crossing  the focal one, which had to be "edited" out in the drawing. After the usual steps of drawing and transferring the line drawing to the watercolor paper, I was ready to start laying in some color.

Step 1

I began with some pale washes of lavender on the central cluster to articulate the form of the flowers, and after that was dry, put in the touches of pink. The buds of this plant are tinted a beautiful, pure pink at the tip, which fade to a pale pink, or even white, after the flowers open. After the flowers were dry, I added the characteristic dots on the petals, and the darks of the bud scales behind, to define the outlines of the petals.

Step 2

Then I repeated the same process with the second flower cluster. This one shows more of the unopened bud covered with their orangey scales. Once this was done, it was time to start on the leaves. The leaves of this Rhododendron have a dull shine, but they still have some blue reflections from the sky. I started with a wash of light blue and a bit of yellow-green for the main vein and let it dry. Rewetting  one half of the leaf, I then began to fill in the leaf with dark green, lifting portions of the wash to suggest the shape and the veins.

Step 3

The leaf  was not very successful, so I re-wet it and lifted more color for better balance. After it dried again, I added touches of deeper green here and there to bring out the veins. This process was repeated for each leaf except the one on the right, where the underside of the leaf shows--the color of the underside is yellower and has no shine.

Step 4

Step 5

After the leaves were complete, and the woody stem, the flowers appeared too pale in comparison, and my composition seemed to have a "hole" at the top of the focal cluster. I added two unopened buds for a bit more interest, but the flowers still need something more to punch them up. I'm in the process of using colored pencils on the flowers (light gray and sepia) to try to define and bring out the edges more. I'll post the finished piece soon.

Friday, August 24, 2018

New Fall Pastels

Golden Beeches, pastel on sanded board, 9" x 12".
Rock Creek Reflections, sanded pastel board, 12" x 9"

Here are two new pastels of old favorite subjects painted for the Fall 2018 Art at the Mill show. It seems my old standard Wallis sanded paper is no longer available anywhere, so last year I bought these sanded pastel boards to try out. The new boards have a finer sanded surface than the Wallis paper, and they are the thickness of a regular mat, so they don't curl and can be handled much like small oil panels. This may make them more portable.

I may try using pastels for the Art in the Valley Plein Air paint-out in September, just to see how the boards perform outdoors, though I'm not committed to this medium--pastels are messy to handle  and I don't like wearing gloves if I can help it. It's always a risk to carry pastels in the field, since they can break and shatter easily if the box is dropped. I usually work with three different sets of pastels: a Sennelier half-stick set of 80 colors, a 45-stick set of Rembrandt landscape colors and an ancient 60-color Grumbacher portrait set I inherited from my mother-in-law. Sometimes it's hard to find just the right color, even among all these to choose from.

I may stick with watercolors for the Plein Air, they're definitely cleaner to handle and more flexible.

Monday, July 23, 2018

One for the Birds

Carolina Wren on hanging basket.

This summer I found a Carolina wren nesting in one of my hanging baskets of flowers on the porch. She spooked and flew by like a rocket when I was watering the baskets, grazing my cheek! I took the basket down, peeked in and found a tiny nest with one egg in it. I hung the basket back up and tried to make sure I didn't disturb her too much, though the baskets need to be watered every couple of days at this time of the year.

One morning a couple of weeks later, as I was opening the window blinds, I saw the wren perched on the chain, holding an insect in its beak. The baby or babies must have hatched--she dove down head first into the basket, then some motion with only the tail visible, and she flew off again. Moments later, another wren appeared--the same bird or its mate?--with an insect in its beak, and repeated the performance.

What a marvelous opportunity to get some photos of this! I ran upstairs to get my camera. I was lucky to capture these few shots. My photos were taken through the glass of the window, poking the lens through the blinds, so they're not as clear I would like, but even so, it's a privileged glimpse into the habits of these small creatures.

In the one above, you can only see a bit of the tail, as the wren feeds her young. She then emerged and perched for a few seconds before flying off in search of more food.

We've also noticed a nesting pair of red-headed woodpeckers perching around one of the old oak trees in back of our property. It's harder to get photos of them, since the tree is quite a distance from the deck, and my camera can only zoom in a little, but it's fun to watch their antics. I've seen up to five different birds flying in and out of the area, it seemed that at least two were males with the classic red head and beautiful black and white plumage.

Red headed woodpecker in the evening

In the shot below I managed to get one pair--a male and a female or juvenile. They were diving down into the blackberry bushes just below and then flying back to the trunk of this old oak tree at the edge of our property.

A pair of Red-headed woodpeckers in the morning.

I've also seen some ruby-throated humming birds in our yard, but these have proved impossible to photograph. I'm still learning about the birds in our area. Quite a few species are new to me, and so much fun to watch!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Red Pinesap

Red Pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys), colored pencil, 14" h x 10"w.

Last year Herb and I took a day trip to Pandapas Pond near Blacksburg, a site well-known to botanists for its amazing fungi and other unusual species. Pandapas Pond is about a three to four hour drive one-way from our home, and I had seen Yellow Pinesap there on a previous excursion to nearby Mountain Lake Biological Station a few years back. This time I wanted to look for the red form of Pinesap. Although some botanists believe the yellow and red varieties are two distinct species because they flower at different times of the year, the species have not been reclassified so far, both are known as Monotropa Hypopitys. The Yellow Pinesap blooms in early August, whereas the red form blooms in early to mid September.

I had asked Gloria, a local lady whose blog Virginia Wildflowers I follow, to let me know when the Red Pinesap was flowering, and in early September--its usual blooming time--she confirmed that the spikes had emerged, so I could plan my outing. Gloria gave me some very helpful hints on the places where the plants could be found.

Pandapas Pond

We took along along a picnic to enjoy in this lovely setting, and after lunch, we set out to find the Red Pinesap. We took a trail that led up a hill behind the pond and found ourselves in a forest thick with Rhododendron maximum as the understory.

Rhododendron trail.

The moist shady areas under these Rhododendrons constitute an ideal environment for plants that lack chlorophyll, such as members of the Monotropa family, as well as fungi. On the trail near the pond I saw a beautiful clump of Indian Pipe, another member of the Monotropa family, and knew we were on the right track.

Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora).

As we continued up the hill, I looked closely at the forest floor--these diminutive plants blend so well with the duff that it's hard to pick them out from among the dried leaves. Eventually, the slanting sunlight helped to highlight several clumps of Red Pinesap off to the side.

Red Pinesap on the forest floor

Some of the clumps were huge! Getting closer to photograph them, I could see the delicate bells of nodding flowers were a soft coral outlined in creamy yellow, the stems a more vivid red. After the flowers have been fertilized they begin to turn upward until they become upright, then the seed drops through the capsule down to the ground. There were flowers here at all stages of development. It was a good thing few people were about--I must have looked an idiot lying down on the forest floor trying to get the best angles on these plants!

Clumps of Red Pinesap.

Close-up of fertilized flowers.

Lovely clump of Red Pinesap
Same clump from a different angle

I took photos with both my camera and phone, and it's interesting to note that the colors of the phone photos are more garish that those from the camera--the colors seem very artificial compared to my camera's which appear more natural to my eye. That is why I chose to use the camera photos as the basis for my painting.

We wandered along off trail, finding more and more clumps of Red Pinesap all over, some were incredibly lush! After taking lots of shots for my painting, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking back slowly towards the pond, enjoying a wealth of other plants and fungi, some of which you see here.

Emerging mushroom?

Destroying Angel (Amanita bigosporigea)

Coral mushroom
Yellow Waxy Cap mushroom (Gygrocybe flavecens)

I chose colored pencils as the best medium to illustrate the Red Pinesap because pencils afford the precision I needed to show all the intricacies of this tiny, delicate plant. I can work as slowly or quickly as I want with pencils, since I don't have to worry about drying time, and my illustration was completed over the course of a week. It will be offered for sale at the upcoming Art at the Mill this fall.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Work in Progress - Carolina Silverbell

Step 1 - Pencil drawing

Four years ago I planted a tiny Carolina Silverbell Tree (Halesia carolina) in my yard so that I could enjoy and paint this lovely native tree. It was so exciting to see it bloom for the first time this spring! But the flowers opened during such a rainy week that all I was able to do was take photos of it. About a week ago I finally started working on my painting.

The first step is always a pencil drawing--working from a set of my photos, I chose part of a branch that showed an array of blossoms at different stages of development, from buds barely open to spent blossoms whose petals have fallen, leaving behind the fertilized style on the stem.

Once I have a shaded drawing, I trace it, rearranging parts of the composition to show another branch with leaves unfurled. At this point, I went out to my garden to look at the tree once more, and noticed that it had developed the characteristic four-sided seed pods (it's alternate botanical name is Halesia tretraptera)... hmmm, it would be interesting to add some of these seed pods to the painting. I took some more photos and added a few seed pods to the left side of the branch, along with a few more mature leaves, to show the seasonal progression.

Step 2 - Refine the composition

I then re-traced my drawing to begin the final line drawing in ink. At this stage I did further refinements to the composition, moving the lower right hand branch a bit. Looking at my drawing, it seemed to me that my photo had led me to enlarged the branch too much--the flowers were about twice life size. It would look better if scaled down a bit, so I went to our local copier shop and had them run a copy at 95% the original size.

The line drawing was now ready for tracing onto the watercolor paper. A half sheet of watercolor paper was about the right size, and, as usual, I use my studio window as the "light table" for tracing.

Step 3 - Line drawing in ink

After tracing the drawing onto the watercolor paper, I again corrected the drawing, referring back to my photos to refine the edges and shapes of the flowers and leaves. I had selected a palette of Cobalt Blue, Winsor Lemon and  Permanent Rose for the primary colors. I mix all the other colors to be used in a painting from these three primaries for a harmonious blend of colors.

Now, I was ready to start painting. This is always the hardest part--where to begin? I chose the uppermost flowers, laying a very light wash of pink over some of the petals to bring out the shape of the flowers. I go do something else for a while until the wash dries completely, usually a walk around the garden. Another light wash of lavender for the shadows of the inner petals creates more depth and definition, then I wait again. Then to lay down some color for the trunk and branches, and a wash of green on some of the leaves.

Step 4 - Laying down washes.

It's hard to restrain myself and wait for adequate drying time, so sometimes I work on other parts of the painting, being very careful not to get close to the wet areas--a risky process. Sometimes I cover parts of the painting with tracing paper to protect it from spills. After the initial washes are completely dry, I lay more washes of color to add a sense of depth to the flowers, petioles and leaves.

Step 5 - Modeling the flowers and leaves.

Gradually, as more elements and details are brought in, the painting starts to emerge. More layers of washes go on other flowers and leaves, deepening the color and defining the edges. Then adding the green seedpods on the left...

Step 5 - Adding more leaves and seed pods.

This is as far as I've got with the painting for the moment. At this time I'll probably wait for the seed pods on the tree to ripen more so that the last seed pod on the left below the others can be shown at its mature or dried stage--I expect this won't happen until around the end of the summer or early fall. In the meantime, I'll start working on other paintings--I usually have at least one or two paintings in the pipeline.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

June's Jazzy Colors

Red Asian lilies

This has been the wettest month to date since we've lived in this area--my rain gauge has measured over 12 inches of rain so far, and the month is not quite over yet. My garden is usually a riot of colors at this time of the year, but this year, as you can see, the rains are making it spectacular! The Asian lilies started their display about two weeks ago, with red leading the way. Bright orange and yellow-orange follow as the red flowers begin to fade, and finally the yellow and pink varieties come into bloom.

Red and orange lilies
Orange and Yellow lilies

Earlier in the month the late-blooming native Azalea bakerii put on a show with orange-red blossoms, while the Azalea 'Weston's Innocence' (an Azalea viscosum hybrid) gives the eye a rest with its white scented blooms.

Azalea Bakerii
Azalea 'Weston's Innocence'

The Little Indians border continues to develop into a fanciful layer of colors. The pale gold of the Stella d'Oro daylilies complements the airy blue spikes of the Catmint. The wavy cream wands of the Itea virginiana 'Little Henry' bushes are beyond, with bright orange Butterfly Weed (Asclepias) that are just starting to bloom. I've seen a number of butterflies visiting these, including some lovely Spangled Fritillaries. Six years ago when we moved here the arbor vitae were these sad, stunted, deer-chewed evergreens, but with lots of fertilizer and TLC they have grown to more than seven feet tall!

The Little Indians in June

This pink Bee Balm (Monarda) that I had planted five years ago was not prospering in the 'Badlands' as Herb calls the weedy rear flowerbed--it had never bloomed there. Last fall I dug it up and transplanted it to the east bed where the soil retains more moisture, and lo and behold, this year it's blooming profusely! The Mexican Feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) planted a couple of years ago seems to be spreading, with new clumps cropping up here and there--this is one of the loveliest ornamental grasses, specially striking when you see its delicate blades waving in a breeze.

The east bed in June
Pink Bee Balm (Monarda)

The yellow Daylilies under the red maple tree are lush. The new bed beyond was planted earlier this spring with a group of discontinued Daylilies on sale from the Gilbert H. Wild & Son catalog. A few flowers of these new varieties have opened, but it will probably take at least another year, maybe two, before they can match the splendor of the older bed.

Daylilies (Hemerocallis) under red maple tree.
West side garden

The native Wafer Ash tree (Ptelea trifoliata) I planted last fall died back to the ground and took such a long time to re-sprout I thought it was a goner, but it's finally making some progress with all this rain. It should eventually grow into a small tree; I wonder how long that will take?

Wafer Ash tree (Ptelea trifoliata)

The new raised bed for veggies is also coming along, with the sugar snap peas almost ready to harvest. The artichokes are growing so slowly, I don't know that they will yield much in the way of edibles, but it's fun to try something new anyway.

New raised bed for veggies
Lavender in the front yard
Front yard on a rainy evening

The lavender in the front is so lush--the bees love it! The front yard is finally shaping up as I envisioned, a Persian carpet with an intricate interweaving of colors and textures.