Saturday, October 29, 2011

Botanical Illustrations

In September I started taking classes at Brookside Gardens' School of Botanical Art and Illustration. The program offers an optional certificate upon completion of three years of study and submittal of a portfolio. The program was developed a few years ago by well-known botanical artist Margaret Saul, and the classes are usually held at McCrillis Gardens in Bethesda.

Since childhood, I've loved and admired plant and flower illustrations. My interest increased after my sister Silvia gave me a wonderful book about Margaret Mee, an amazing botanical artist who explored and painted the flora of the Amazon jungle. Recently, while I was hanging my show at the Brookside Gardens Visitors Center, I met the director of Brookside's adult education programs, and right then I decided to join the school and try my hand at botanical art. It's a rigorous study, as it requires a certain knowledge of botany and great precision of rendering as well as artistic ability.

They make everyone start with Drawing 101, regardless of how much experience one may have. I enrolled in the Saturday classes, which are two classes back-to-back and last all day. We're now doing Drawing 102, and here's a couple of practice sketches of leaves and sprigs from my homework.  Unfortunately, the pencil line drawings did not photograph very well, but I'm having a lot of fun with it. Can't wait until we get to work with color & shading.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Plein Air Buddies Paint Out

Huntington Creek Lake, oils on canvas  panel, 11" x 14."
A group of artist members from the Plein Air Artists website called Plein Air Buddies MD/DC/VA/PA/WV got together this past Sunday for our first paint-out. The group was formed by PA artist Jeanean Songco Martin with the idea of providing opportunities for its members to get together on a monthly basis to paint at a different location each time. I had suggested the Catoctin Mountain area for us because I'd hiked and painted there a few years ago and remembered how lovely it was in the fall; in addition, it is easily accessible from PA on US Rte. 15. Jeanean remembered the waterfalls at Cunningham Falls State Park as another beautiful site for painting.

Our outing took place last Sunday and what a gorgeous day! Bright and sunny, with just a touch of crispness in the air. The season was more advanced in the mountains than in the lowlands and many trees sported bright fall colors. I had a bit of a late start, despite packing my gear the night before, and by the time I arrived at the lake, Jeanean and two other painters were already set up and painting. In fact, their paintings looked to be fairly well-developed.

I walked around the picnic grounds looking at other views, but the spot where Jeanean and her friends were seemed to have the nicest, so I joined them on the strip of beach. Shortly after, a few other painters arrived and set up near us. I think we were about eight in all. We all worked until a little past noon and then brought out our lunches to eat while we showed our paintings and got to know each other.

Artists share the morning's paintings: (l to r, Jeanean, Carol, Mary Ann, and unamed artist)

 After lunch, we organized how to get ourselves and our gear to the falls. The trail from the lake is about a mile's hike through the woods, a little too long for carrying all the gear we artists usually pack. There is a small parking area for the handicapped close to the falls, and a couple of the artists had legitimate permits, so we car-pooled up there to take advantage of this. I rode up with Paul Tooley, a wonderful watercolorist from Braddock Heights, near Frederick.

The falls were swarming with people on this warm afternoon, many climbing up and down the rock faces and crossing the creek--it was hard to find a quiet spot where one could set up away from the crowd. I got off the boardwalk and stepped on some rocks over the stream to reach a quieter spot at the base of the falls, where I could feel less hemmed in.

Cunningham Falls (work in progress), oils on linen, 12" x 9"
 Painting the falls was far more challenging than painting the lake--difficult to compose and render so that the water looks like water, and the jumble of rocks gives a sense of the folds where the water spills down. The very high horizon of this piece is something I've not dealt with before. I didn't get a chance to finish this painting, and as the others were wanting to leave, I wrapped it up when I had this much down, hoping to have a chance finish it later. I think it needs a few people on the rocks to give it scale, and many other touches, I'm not sure what all at this point.

I had not realized just how tired I was until I got home, but it was such an inspiring day! Thank you, Jeanean, for planning it and for the opportunity to meet and paint with you and the other artists. I hope we'll do another paint-out real soon.

If you are interested in joining us, become a member of the Plein Air Artists website--it's free--and sign up for the group Plein Air Buddies MD/DC//VA/PA/WV.

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Here is the finished version of the Cunnigham Falls painting. It only took me a few weeks to get around to it; I added some laciness to the foliage and a few figures to give some scale to the falls. The color key of the painting wasn't changed, but this version was photographed on a sunny day so overall the painting looks warmer (the study was photographed on a cloudy day).

Cunningham Falls, oils on linen panel, 12" x 9."

Friday, October 14, 2011

An Excellent Adventure at Soldier's Delight

Soldier's Delight area

Last Sunday was a gorgeous fall day such as we haven't seen in weeks. Herb and I went out in afternoon to enjoy it and since I wanted to get some field practice for the classes I've been taking at Brookside Gardens' School of Botanical Illustration, we decided on a hike at the Soldier's Delight Natural Area west of Baltimore, one of the few places in Maryland where the endangered Fringed Gentian can be found.

We hadn't visited this area in several years, so after we parked, we were heading for the visitor's center to pick up a trail map when a young park ranger came up to us and asked if we needed to use the restrooms. "No," we responded simultaneously, "but we do need a trail map, if you have one." He got one for us and then said if we were interested, he was about to show an eagle they had "out back" for a presentation to a small group. Naturally, we were intrigued and followed him.

Sticks, as the young ranger styled himself, instructed us to stand behind some picnic tables at the back of the visitor's center to give the eagle a bit of space, since he said this bird "wanted to kill him" and had in fact attacked him a few times before. The bird was a golden eagle, which along with the bald eagle is the largest bird of prey on the east coast. This poor creature had been shot by poachers for his feathers, prized by native Americans, and lost one wing. He would never fly, and defenseless, would have perished long ago had it not been for this DNR facility that keeps these disabled creatures for their "Scales and Tales Aviary" educational programs.

The presentation was fascinating, and the eagle quite vocal--Sticks explained that a particularly plaintive souding cry was actually an aggressive warning, that he wore those 1/4" thick special leather gloves because the eagle's talons could put something like 600 pounds of pressure per inch on his hand. This one was a male and weighed about four pounds; the females are generally larger than males in this species.

There were some other rescued birds in the cages out back: a bald eagle who had been shown earlier and was in a holding cage waiting to be put back in a more spacious cage, some vultures and a beautiful barred owl. After the presentation, Herb and I went back to see them--the owl flirted with us, batting the loveliest feathery eyelashes I've seen.

Fringed Blue Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita)

With the better part of the afternoon gone, it was time to look for Fringed Gentians. The trail from the visitor's center was closed, so we took another part of the Serpentine Trail that follows the top of a ridge, and walked down to the stream where I remembered seeing the Gentians growing. The Fringed Gentian is a biennial, only plants in their second year of growth bloom, and October seemed a bit late in the season to find many. We were lucky to find one very nice clump with a few blossoms and some spent  flowers that appeared to be setting seed.

I took out one of my new ultra-fine lead holders and sketch pad, and sat down on my camping stool for a closer look. Herb kept me company reading nearby, sitting on a Daniel Smith chair. The warm afternoon flew. While I was putting in the last flowers on my sketch I noticed that the petals were already starting to close as the sun went lower on the horizon.

Fringed Gentian pencil sketch

I took more photos of the clump after I finished my sketch--the flowers had closed even more. I looked around for other plants farther upstream, but saw only two more. It seemed to me there had been more Gentians growing here just a few years ago. The posted signs did say non-native invasive vines as well as foot traffic were taking their toll on this population of Fringed Gentians. I wonder if there might be a way of cultivating these rare plants and then reintroducing them to their original sites to ensure their survival? This makes me want to document other rare and endangered species with sketches as much as possible.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Patapsco After the Floods

The Patapsco After the Floods, oil on linen, 14" x 11"
Last Friday the sun finally came out. I drove out to the McKeldin area of Patapsco State Valley Park to paint at my favorite spot, this bend of the river below the rapids. There was much evidence of the record rains and flooding of the past weeks along the trail--many trees, branches and leaves down everywhere.  Just above this spot there was one enormous tree lying across the stream where the flood had eroded the bank so much, the tree had been uprooted. This gave me a clear idea of how the water must have raged through here at the height of the storm.

Today, the water was back to its placid, normal flow. A sunbeam lit the ripples of water flowing over the sandy bottom, giving it a reddish tint. The leaves, though lush, were starting to show those yellow and bronzy tones of early fall underneath. It was so quiet--I encountered only a couple of elderly hikers on the trail. Later in the morning a group of preschoolers with their teachers hiked through my spot (I'd had to set up in the middle of the trail since there was very little bank left).

When I glanced at my watch I was surprised to see that it was almost two o'clock by the time the painting was complete. After I got home and looked at it again, I realized there was something not quite right about it--the values of the shady bank on the right side of the painting are too light. The land mass should have been darker than the water, and the greens there don't seem to belong with the color key in the painting either.

I had hoped to repaint that passage in the following days, but unfortunately, with my hard week-day schedule and having to work overtime this past weekend, I didn't get the chance. So here is the previous weekend's piece, mistakes and all. I'll post the corrected version for comparison later on.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Pink Poet Antiques, oils on linen panel, 14" x 11"
A couple of weeks ago Plein Air Olney staged a show in the Laytonsville's Town Hall on the day of the Town Picnic. Laytonsville is another historic town in our area that still retains a rural feel. Our paint-out had been scheduled for the end of August but was called off because of hurricane Irene. I had wanted a chance to paint one of the lovely old  homes there, but hadn't had much opportunity to get out because of all the recent rain.

The day before the picnic dawned clear, so I finally set out to paint in Laytonsville. I chose The Pink Poet Antiques for its style, so typical of Victorian vernacular architecture in Maryland, a simple clapboard saltbox with a bit of fancy woodwork on the wraparound porch. The appealing array of odd bits around the house piqued my interest and the shady sidewalk on the opposite side of the street was another plus.

The sunlight was soft and hazy on the facade when I began, producing wonderful lilac shadows on the creamy yellow clapboard and the trees framing the house gave it a welcoming air. As the morning wore on the day became cloudier and the shadows were lost.  I saw the owner puttering in the yard tending her plants, and at one point, hard-pressed for a bathroom, I went over and asked if I might use hers, which she kindly acceded to. That gave me a chance to take in her merchandise, which ranged from lovely old linen and tableware to quaint toys and decorations. The Pink Poet Antiques is definitely worth a visit from anyone in the market for unusual gifts or home accessories. I may shop there myself when I have a bit of spare change.