Why I’m Glad I’m Not Painting Polar Bears

Underpainting of a sleeping jaguar, somewhere around dawn in the leaf litter on Barro Colorado Island, Panama. I've never seen a jaguar there, but they have them there, or at least one. Oil on canvas, 48" x 24".

Underpainting of sleeping jaguar in the leaf litter of Barro Colorado Island, Panama. I’ve never seen a jaguar there, but they do prowl that forest, as do ocelots and pumas, keeping the coatis and agoutis in check. That glare at the left is wet paint. Oil on canvas, 48″ x 24″.

Are you staying warm? No? Me neither. It’s freezing, hasn’t gotten above 25 degrees F in more than a week, hovers mostly around 10, not counting sub-zero wind chill. It snows  just enough to close the public schools every few days. Very unusual around these parts. I’m trying to shiver my way through a new painting right now, wearing long underwear and a fleece neck gaiter and fingerless gloves. This is inside the house. I think we have a little insulation problem. Our windows are double-hung antiques and the chilly scenes of winter outside are all wavy and whitish. Ice grows like psychedelic mold on the inside of the panes. Like I said, a little problem.

Another warm scene. Crimson fronted parakeets flying past a sunny patch of heliconia leaves. Oil on canvas, 24" x 30".

Another scene to warm your hands over. Crimson fronted parakeets flying past a sunny patch of heliconia leaves on BCI. Oil on canvas, 24″ x 30″.

And while hot tea and mulled cider affords a decent bit of inner glow, so does painting tropical subjects. I’m glad I’m not trying to paint snow scenes. That would freeze me to death.

Happy Friday.

Posted in Art, cats, mammals, natural history, Nature, oil painting, Oklahoma, Panama, rainforest, tropics, Weather, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

August, Osage County, Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

Blooming ironweed on a sunbaked tallgrass prairie in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, rendered in pastel. The wind, miraculously, was quiet for the day.

Blooming ironweed rendered in pastel out on the lonesome prairie in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The wind, miraculously, was quiet for Oklahoma, and for August, the heat wasn’t too bad.

With singing dickcissels every fifteen feet (it seemed), giant swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) flapping over blooming ironweed, and goldenrod pushing up through clumps of big bluestem- and where off in the shade bison rested, the bulls getting itchy, ready to rut- where else could this be but Oklahoma’s Osage County on a late summer day, out on the rolling green acreage (39,000+) of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve?

The most abundant, or at least the most obvious, bird on the prairie that day- a dickcissel sings its own name. I was looking for Henslow's sparrows- they nest here, but no go.

The most abundant, or at least the most obvious, bird on the prairie that day- the dickcissel. A bird that sings its own name. I was looking for Henslow’s sparrows- they do nest here, but they were too elusive for me.

I drove out here last August for a day of scouting and sketching. It’s a long way from everywhere and mostly removed from everything, a truly wide open prairie, no fence for miles, hawks circling in endless skies. And of course, as I was enjoying the solitude, my phone rang. I was in the middle of drawing a dickcissel perched at the top of a solidago spike, and because it was my hairdresser and really hard to get an appointment with her, I took the call. After I hung up, the dickcissel was still on point, emitting a two-second song clip every ten seconds or so. I resumed sketching.

Second pastel of the day, at a waterhole by the side of the road. Favored by sneaky bison, apparently.

Second pastel of the day, at a waterhole by the side of the road. Favored by sneaky bison, apparently.

If you paint in a wildlife refuge with charismatic megafauna (more than 2,500 bison here) wandering around wild, look over your shoulder from time to time. Late in the day I set up by a bucolic waterhole and began a new painting. My car was parked a dozen steps away. As I worked, a pickup pulled alongside and a ranger leaned out the window. “You might not want to stand there” she said, “you’re on a bison trail. They’re hanging out under that copse of trees just around the bend.” I asked her if there’d be time to pack my things if they appeared on the trail. “You might have time to reach your car. How fast can you run?”

"Waiting for Bison, Tallgrass Prairie Waterhole"; mostly plein air pastel 15" x 14"

“Waiting for Bison, Tallgrass Prairie Waterhole”; mostly plein air pastel 15″ x 14″

Rather than staying to find out, I packed everything up and finished the pastel at home where no buffalo roam. But the painting, I’m pleased to say, has been juried into America’s Parks II, a traveling exhibition March 16-April 13 at the Ella Carothers Dunnegan Gallery of Art in Bolivar, Missouri, going from there to the Wildlife Experience in Parker, Colorado, May 24 to August 10, and finally showing at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson September 13 to October 26. Catch the show if you can- there are 100 wonderful works of art celebrating America’s parks and refuges, with an emphasis on the American Southwest, which includes Osage County. Hope you get to see it. I’m just glad I got out of there with two paintings and my skin intact.

Happy Friday.

Posted in Adventure!, Art, Artists, Cowboys, Drawing, field sketching, mammals, natural history, Nature, Oklahoma, painting, Pastel, plein air, Sketching, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

New year, with various cats

Smilodon californicus, sabertooth cat replica skull with tar pit finish. Measures 14 1/2" long, and those sabers are 6". Best Christmas gift ever- thank you Ant Man!

Smilodon californicus, sabertooth cat replica skull with tar pit finish. Measures 14 1/2″ long, and those sabers are 6″. Best Christmas gift ever- thank you Ant Man!

I’m a cat lover, which doesn’t mean anything but it’s a nice excuse to share kitty pics with you. The Smilodon skull above is a fabulous museum quality cast of a fossil, purchased from the Museum of Osteology’s gift shop. Ant Man gave it to me as a token of love, and nothing says love like an extinct mega predator with six inch canines. It goes nicely with last year’s allosaurus, and bison skull.

Clydesdale consorts with kitten, impossibly cute scene in a barn in Yukon, Oklahoma. An enormous horse named Prince affectionately gnawed the nape of an unnamed barn cat, which purred as the piano-key teeth surrounded its head and chewed lightly. Watercolor over pencil.

Clydesdale consorts with captivating kitty in an Oklahoma Clydesdale barn. Watercolor over pencil.

Last spring I wrote a feature for Oklahoma Today Magazine on a Clydesdale team in Yukon, Oklahoma. The barn cats there were super happy- they could sleep high up on the backs of huge, sweet-smelling, hoofed, heated sofas. I sketched a friendly beast named Prince, who used his big yellow teeth like a row of piano keys to fondly gnaw the head of a purring tabby.

Heidi the cat sniffs at her portrait, in water-soluble graphite in a Stillman & Birn sketchbook. Christmas Day, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Heidi the cat sniffs at her portrait, in water-soluble graphite in a Stillman & Birn sketchbook. Christmas Day, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Christmas in Nebraska, where Ant Man’s people are from, is a regular tradition. A new cat joined the cast this year; she’s a friendly long-haired tabby with a bullseye on her flank. A nice poser, too. Heidi’s her name. We got along well.

Sleeping jaguar, drawing and initial underpainting. Oil on canvas, 48" x 24".

Sleeping jaguar, drawing and initial underpainting. Oil on canvas, 48″ x 24″. Note the bison skull on the wall behind it.

I think this painting might be life-sized. Remember my day at the Tulsa Zoo? I got this nice sketch of a jaguar just before it scared the pampers off a little girl who smacked her hands adorably against the glass as her doting mother smiled. Still warms my heart to remember it. The zoo sketch is now on its way to being an oil painting.

Gizmo, safely asleep. Pastel on paper, about 30" long. Cute!

Gizmo, safely asleep. Pastel on paper, about 30″ long. Cute!

And did you know that there’s a spot on the corner of your wrist that, if a cat bites it slightly, your whole hand goes numb? Gizmo taught me that. She’s so adorable, curled adorably on my lap this very moment. I’m trying not to wake her, since she has an occasional hair-trigger reaction when you bang on the glass, so to speak. Did I mention she used to be a barn cat? If I were a giant Clydesdale horse, she might enjoy a tooth massage, too. I have a great deal of respect for cats, all of them. They’re cute and captivating. And terribly sharp.

Happy Friday.

Posted in Adventure!, Art, cats, Diversions, Drawing, fossils, museums, natural history, Nature, oil painting, paleontology, self-indulgence | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Motmot Holiday Gift Bag is a Bookcase

A little festive commemorative ornament to download, cut out, and hang up. Cheers!

A little festive commemorative ornament just for you: download, print out, cut on the dotted line, and hang up. Cheers!

A few last minute gift ideas for you or the lucky bird artists in your life:

Clockwise from left: The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, Drawing and Painting Birds, Capturing the Essence

Clockwise from upper left: The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, Drawing and Painting Birds, Capturing the Essence

The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, by John Muir Laws, Heyday Press, covers so much ground so comprehensively that the next time I teach a bird drawing course, this will surely be the textbook. Proportions, angles, anatomy and birds in motion (there’s a cute orange-and-toothpick visualizing exercise you can do at home) are explained with abundant, beautiful illustrations. Laws is a great instructor and motivator, and this is my new go-to book when I’m stumped on eye-shape of a foreshortened flycatcher or the secret tricks of wing-drawing. Highly recommended.

Capturing the Essence, by William T. Cooper, Yale University Press. Cooper is the king of parrot painting, and if you haven’t seen his Parrots of the World or more recent  Australian Parrots, those would make splendid gifts, too. Capturing the Essence goes into anatomy and field sketching, and Cooper describes design process through thumbnail sketch compositions and good step-by-step painting demos of birds in watercolor, acrylic, and oils. Huge plus: we get loads of gorgeous sketches and paintings of Old World/Down Under species: bowerbirds, hornbills and birds-of-paradise. Admire and study this wondrous book.

Drawing and Painting Birds by Tim Wootton, The Crowood Press. A terrific blend of practical instruction and inspirational work by Wootton and other fine bird artists (disclaimer: I’m on pages 15, 24, 73, 83, and 121). Lots and lots of field sketches to ogle at; cool skeleton drawings reveal the internal scaffolds of various avian body types. There’s a super-helpful articulated gull model to copy, cut-out, assemble and draw from (and freak out the cat with). Demos and discussions of field sketching techniques, how to add color in the field and compose a painting, plus a slew of exercises to warm up your hand and eye prior to sketching real live birds. Awesome book.

Other than peering at a quetzal through new binoculars while wearing hand-tooled cowboy boots, I can’t think of a nicer way to spend the holidays than curling up with one of these volumes, unless you throw in a mug of cocoa and plate of cookies, which I will gladly catch.

Happy Friday.

Holiday wishes from Gizmo, Ant Man (who took the picture) and the Motmot. Cheers!

Happy Holidays from Gizmo, Ant Man (the photographer) and the Motmot. Cheers to all!

Posted in Art, Artists, bird art, bird-drawing technique, birding, birds, Drawing, field sketching, How-to, Illustration, natural history, Nature, Shopping!, Sketching, teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Orchids and Flycatchers, revisited

Trying to make sense of a head pose, drawing from videos. Rusty margined flycatchers have insanely flexible necks. Like pretty much any bird. But this is a good illustration of what they can do with it.

Trying to make sense of a head pose, drawing from videos. Rusty margined flycatchers have insanely flexible necks, like pretty much any bird. But this is a good illustration of the feature. Pencil on paper, 8″ x 6″

Drawing from videos: very useful if you don’t have live birds in your studio. While painting a pair of rusty-margined flycatchers, I was troubled by a weird head position in the field sketch. What looked okay in the drawing looked bizarre in paint. So I launched a field video and sketched to see what was going on. A passerine’s tucked-up neck is relatively long and flexible. This flycatcher turned to the left and looked at something behind it, then swiveled and looked at the same thing from the other side. A flycatcher needs a circular view. Or, maybe spherical. Looks weird in practice, though. In the end I changed the pose.

Orchid drawing updated with some light pastel in the background and a few highlights. 14" x 20" pastel and graphite on Ingres paper.

Orchid drawing updated with some light pastel in the background and a few highlights. 14″ x 20″ pastel and graphite on Ingres paper.

Drawing and painting are two different art forms, and what’s on my easel lately is mostly painting. Even though I like lines so much, in the painting, outlines tend to squash the illusion of reality.

I added a little pastel to the orchid drawing, around and within the lines. Chalk or conte or white compressed charcoal works. The starting point is a mid-toned paper, like the Ingres above. It’s still a drawing, but the dry media adds light and suggests volume. A tip: when combining pastel and graphite, never go darker in pastel than your darkest graphite value. Dark pastel placed next to dark graphite sets up a struggle between the matte pastel and shiny graphite. The graphite always loses.

Catching a few more head poses of a rusty margined flycatcher, drawn from a video taken on Barro Colorado Island last May.

Catching a few more head poses of a rusty margined flycatcher, drawn from a video taken on Barro Colorado Island last May. Pencil on paper, 8″ x 6″

Video drawing birds, by the way, is a great tool. Here’s the flycatcher video if you’d like to try. You can see it swivel its head around and hear the engine of STRI’s BCI-Gamboa shuttle boat Jacana at the dock nearby. At the end, you might even catch the sleepy roar of a far-off howler monkey troupe. Normal sounds of Barro Colorado Island, always there in the background.

Happy Friday.

Posted in Adventure!, Art, bird art, bird-drawing technique, birding, birds, field sketching, How-to, natural history, Nature, oil painting, painting, Panama, Pastel, rainforest, Sounds & Movies, Stupid Critter Tricks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Drawing Orchids, Wanting So Much More

Vanda Orchid drawn at the Myriad Botanical Garden's Tropical Conservatory. 14" x 20" 6B pencil on celery green Ingres paper.

Vanda Orchid drawn at the Myriad Botanical Garden’s Tropical Conservatory. 14″ x 20″ 6B pencil on lovely celery green Ingres paper. Sometimes, drawing the thing you desire is as good as having it. Sometimes.

This week I did something I knew I would regret. I fell for an orchid.

Ant Man’s favorite expression,”Ever desiring, ever desirous” sounds a little redundant, but he claims it’s from the Tao Te Ching. ( he uses it on me whenever I shop online). Pressed for clarification he said, “It’s the obsessive, unquenchable nature of desire: the more you have, the more you want. The notion you’ll be happy when you finally get what you want is now known to be untrue. You can just read any novel, but there’s science behind it.”

Vanda orchid, "Robert's Delight Big Black". It grows from a small basket hanging in the air under a live tree branch at the Myriad Botanical Garden Tropical Conservatory in OKC.

Vanda orchid, “Robert’s Delight Big Black”. An epiphytic orchid, grown in a basket under a branch at the Myriad Botanical Garden Tropical Conservatory, the glassed-in jewel box centerpiece of Oklahoma City. It still bears a tag from the original grower. I looked it up the minute I got home.

Let me first say I garden avidly, but I’ve resisted orchids on the principle that I won’t grow anything that needs more attention than I do. So after dropping off two paintings at the Myriad Botanical Garden’s fundraiser auction, I spent a couple of hours in the tropical conservatory glasshouse at my easel, right next to this blooming jezebel. I drew the shining clumps of strappy leaves and the cascade of lurid purple flowers, and I clearly heard their siren song. Have you ever noticed that when you draw, you go into a more open, vulnerable state of mind? The more I drew this orchid, the more I wanted it. Ever desiring, ever desirous. Or so it’s said.

Drawing the alluring Vanda from the top of the catwalk at the Myriad Garden's Tropical Conservatory. I could hear the siren song of the orchid above the sounds of a rushing waterfall under my feet.

Drawing that alluring vamp, Vanda, from the catwalk at the Myriad Garden’s Tropical Conservatory. By the way, a great place to warm up on a cold day.

When I got home, I looked up Vanda orchids: highly prized, showy, expensive. Not for beginners. Phalaenopsis orchids looked promising, though, and I even found a Martha Stewart video on making orchid wall-hanging gardens. Downside: daily watering. I browsed the pages of orchid devotees and their tiers of humidity trays, misters, grow lights, whole rooms of floral life support. Being the obsessive type, I know I could go there, too. But I have my principles. I won’t grow anything needier than me. So, for now, I’ll stick with irises. They’re showy, too.

Although Homeland has some reasonably priced phalaenopsis this week…

Happy Friday.

Posted in Art, Art materials, Artists, Drawing, garden, Nature, Oklahoma, plein air, rainforest, Science, self-indulgence, Shopping!, Sketching, tropics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Happy Turkey Day, with or without feathers

Turkeys are wildlife, too. These didn't get eaten- they were honored guests at the backyard feeders of my friend, Cindy.

Turkeys in the raw: wild turkeys at the New Hampshire backyard feeder of a friend and fellow bird artist. Thanks for the turkeys, Cindy.

Ant Man is lamenting the unusual size of our turkey. When agri-giant Butterball declared 2013 a bad year for turkeys to explain their smaller-than-usual production of (presumably) wizened, skinny little poults, I ordered a fresh, organic, free-range bird from our local natural foods store, just large enough for dinner for four. Delivered was a behemoth of almost 18 pounds, with an apology for the unexpected near-emu. It was certainly a fabulous year for organic turkeys, which gained more weight than usual. I guess we will, too.

These didn't get eaten, either. Lovely bronze beauties, perfectly at home eating bird seed, but wild and wily. Benjamin Franklin's favorite bird- he lobbied for it to be the national bird of the USA, but the bald eagle prevailed.

Lovely bronze undomesticated beauties, wild and wily, cagy and uncaged, right at home on a lawn, free and uneaten. The wild turkey was Benjamin Franklin’s favorite bird- he admired its intelligence- and lobbied to have it designated our national bird. The bald eagle won instead. Which is just as well, since you shouldn’t consume your national symbol.

The size expansion kind of derailed Ant Man’s original plan- he was going to roast the turkey flat, butterflied a la Mark Bittman. But this big bird, laid out flat, would flop over the side of every pan we own. Therefore it is being roasted in the traditional Thanksgiving turkey fashion: on its back, tanning like a sunbather on a nude beach.

Wild turkey hen on nest, Petersham, MA. She was surrounded by raspberries, not cranberries as is traditional. Watercolor over pencil, 8 1/2" x 11".

Turkey hen on nest, Petersham, MA. She was surrounded by raspberries, not traditional cranberries, and eventually hatched out a dozen fluffy chicks and walked them down to the woods pronto. Watercolor over pencil, 8 1/2″ x 11″.

Our little feast will be celebrated in the delightful company of a student from Croatia, experiencing her first Thanksgiving, and our beloved niece from Boston, who gamely decided the perfect place to spend the holiday is out on the prairie with her aunt and uncle. Ant Man is going with the flow, roasting up the biggest turkey he’s ever tackled. All is harmony. We’ll eat like kings. For days and days.

And speaking of giving thanks, I’m thankful, as always, to have you here. Wherever you are, wherever you live, whether you eat turkey or not, have a fine, peaceful, and harmonious day, too.

Posted in Art, bird art, birds, Diversions, Drawing, Family, Food, Home, Oklahoma, Pop culture references, self-indulgence, Shopping!, Uncategorized, Wildlife | 6 Comments