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.