Friday, February 24, 2012

Field Sketching

One of my favorite field sketches. I look at it and remember how chilly the day was. Dale and I were in Yellowstone, watching a sandhill crane nest. I was scrunched in the backseat of our car so that both Dale and I were on the side of the car facing the black bear. The elk carcass had been hidden by winter snow. When spring came this bear or another pulled the carcass to shore. This bear spent the next few days feasting and sleeping near his treasure.

I recently posted a series of field sketches on "The Sketching Forum" (} and have decided to do it here too. Plus I’m in desperate need of seeing if I can post via Dale’s Mac versus my PC.

Some of these sketches are quicker than others; the purpose of some is different than the purpose of others. So I’ll add a running commentary along with the drawings to explain why I did each one.

It been a good exercise to think about my sketching. It got me thinking about why do I sketch? -- My purpose is twofold. I sketch to capture moments in nature, often to capture a specific event or behavior; and I sketch to get better at sketching. My early sketchbooks tend to have very sloppy ‘just to remember the moment’ sketches and ‘encyclopedia’ type drawings . I tried to draw accurate animals -- stiff. Later I realized the importance of the character of the animal.

Capturing this ellusive character of an animal means sometimes I have to work quickly. I need to allow myself to make mistakes and to feel O.K. about the scribbles that happen along the way. If you thumb through my journals you’ll find a few drawings scratched out … I was way off base. You’d also find some drawings unfinished. If I don’t know where to go with a sketch of an animal I think it is better to quit than to create fictitious information. Mostly you’ll find a variety of loose sketches tucked in between lots of words. Very few pages are properly laid out, neat and tidy. In my mind it is a ‘working journal,’ not a finished product.
I’m sure the more I sketch the more information I put into my grey cells. Hopefully I’m putting them in faster than they are falling out! I don’t say that lightly. During the ten plus years Dale was disabled I didn’t sketch nearly enough and I basically quit painting. I was time challenged. I knew rust was gathering in my veins. Dale got two new hips in 2009. I’ve now had two years of finding a decent amount of time to sketch and do some light painting. I doubt I’ll ever go back to gallery painting. I’m having too much fun sketching and writing. The writing part is new. I’ve scribbled in my journal for years, but I’ve only come recently to writing something for other people to read. For me the writing and the sketching are tangoing together. Both help me see nature and bring me close to it.

For me capturing a bird that I’ve never sketched takes practice. I wish I could just pop a little bird on a branch and know what kind of bird I’m looking at. Sometimes I get lucky, but I get luckier if I’ve drawn it before.
So I practice. Here is an example of several robins, all drawn from life. I’m convinced some of the information remains stored in my head when I do little practice sketches like these.
Here is a different type of practice drawing. I know I’ll find myself in situations where I want to be able to sketch good ravens on the wing. Here I looked at our photos on the laptop and made a series of careful sketches – pencil first and then ink. I probably could have learned just as much with careful pencil drawings in a fraction of the time.
I can’t say this little field sketch is particularly well drawn, but it does capture the interaction. A raven flies low over a vast expanse of marsh, looking for opportunities to steal blackbird eggs. The blackbirds are frantic and mob him. If I want to do a careful drawing later on I’ve got one of the most important elements here.

And now for some quick sketches on one of my favorite birds, sandhill cranes. For the past several years we have been fortunate to know of a nest in Yellowstone. I usually use a spotting scope when drawing the birds. I either sit outside with the scope on a tripod and I sit on a stool, or else I mount the scope on the car window. Either way both my hands are free.

I could have erased the words with photoshop elements, but it gives you a better idea of my journal if I leave them. I look at all these crane sketches and they take me back to a special place where I’ve spent many, many hours. The little arrow by the crane's neck is just a reminder to myself I should have drawn a longer neck.

I’m happiest when Dale is in position to photograph and I’m free to sketch.

Another of my favorite field sketches. I love it when I can say it all with just a few lines. Learning to draw just the essence has been harder for me than trying to include every feather.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


I’ve just run out of fingers to count my bobcat sightings on! Let’s hope I someday run out of toes too. Dale thinks I’ve seen 11 wild ones in my life, but I can’t remember one of the ones he is talking about. I know I missed at least two when I was right with him. Once I was dozing in the front seat of the van and didn’t wake up fast enough. Zip! And the bobcat was gone. The other time I was still in the sleeping bag in back of the van. Serves me right for being lazy that morning!

Today my luck was better. Mid afternoon we were driving on a gravel logging road. Suddenly up ahead trotted a small bobcat. She (?) continued ahead of us for about a hundred yards and then popped into the think tangle of salmonberry bushes that have grown up on a horrendously steep slope. I peered over the edge, but I knew that would be the last of her. She reminded me to think about the bobcats I’ve seen. Half have been quick glimpses like today, but some sightings have been longer.

My first will always have a special place in my heart, partly because it was my first, and partly because it was a beautiful sighting. I was on my way home after teaching an evening art class. When I turned off the main highway and headed down a blacktop road for the last ten miles I entered a world of solitude and snow. The road ahead was unblemished white. There was only about an inch of new snow so I knew I’d get home safely. I drove slowly, feeling as though I was in my own world of snowflakes. The sameness of it all was shattered when a bobcat crossed the road. Our paths crossed on that dark snowy night, soon to be erased by more falling snow, but not erased from my memory.

I even found two bobcats at once. I was walking down a high desert road in northern California. There, in front of me was a bobcat sitting on the crossbeam of a telephone pole … and underneath another. The two seemed more intent on each other than me so I quietly waited. I knew Dale would be coming along soon in the van. The bobcats stayed put until the van arrived, but the van was too much. The one on the ground ran off. Moments later the pole sitter scrambled down too.

Sheepy Ridge(Klamath Basin Refuges, California) was especially good to us sunny fall day. We were parked between a large body of water and the steep incline of Sheepy Ridge. Dale was photographing a shrike on the ridge side. He has me reasonably well trained not to interrupt him when he is concentrating on a photo. But out of the water came a drenched bobcat! Only the bobcat’s head was dry. The rest was lean and soaked. The bobcat had obviously lunged into the water, caught the coot, and now needed a quiet place to eat. He crossed the road to the Sheepy Ridge side. Dale clicked away while the cat headed up the slope to the rocks above.

Maybe my favorite bobcat sighting is the bobcat that never saw me. At least I don’t think he saw me. Lava Beds National Monument headquarters, California, has a large parking lot, visually well blocked from the road. Only the entrance shows. I was walking circles in the lot, getting some exercise while I waited for Dale. When I was at the far end I glimpsed a bobcat through that entrance opening. He was heading east towards the main road. I froze, but as soon as he was out of sight I ran to the entrance and peered around the corner – just in time to see him turn left onto the main road.

I ran to that corner and peered around again. There he trotted, enjoying the easy path of the road, the early morning sun, and crisp still air.

Drat! Off in the distance I heard a car coming. Cars are occasional, so each one can be heard from far off. I knew The bobcat would disappear. He did, but only for a moment. As soon as the car passed he was back up on the road, continuing his path north. I stayed put watching him grow smaller.

A second car came and once again he popped just off the road. He must have been within ten feet of the car. If the driver had looked in his rear view mirror he would have seen the bobcat on the road.

How many bobcats have seen me go by without my seeing them?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Busy, Busy, Busy

Sometimes life gets busy. Good busy, but too busy. It started Saturday, January 28. Dale and I were leading an Audubon field trip, our annual ‘Raptor Run.’ When we arrived at Plat I the sun was beginning to win the morning struggle to burn off the fog. Will-o-the-wisps of steam rose from the damp ground and dissipated into the thinning fog. We both noticed how beautiful … but kept our attention on our fellow birders and the birds. It wasn’t the appropriate time to sketch or take photography seriously.

We returned to Plat I on Monday, but the fog had lifted by the time we arrived.
Our next try was on Thursday, February 2:
Damp. Chilly. Greyness fills the valley. Snags on the far side of the pond are so pale, I can’t see if any eagles are perched there today. The water lies still, repeating every bird on its surface. Sounds carry through the fog, bringing me more birds than those I can see. Above me rides the sun, a faint glow in the grayness. I can see the dark forms of cormorants resting on a spit, great blue herons fishing, and some ducks.
It’s a beautiful morning. While Dale photographs I sketch … and then turn to my paints. I almost succeeded in finishing the little painting at the top of this post before we hurry off to our appointment at Wildlife Safari. We are responding to a call to photograph several new animals that are to be part of their new Australian exhibit which opens next month.
Sometimes volunteering can be fun; hectic but fun. Our first stop was a visit to the wallaroos. I’ve seen kangaroos hopping about on film. A wallaroo looks like a kangaroo, but is only about four feet tall. Bong! Bong! Bong! They almost flow as they jump about. We’re right in the pen with them.
I don’t want all my shots to looks as if I’m peering down on the wallaroos, so I sit on a handy crate. Now I’m eye level with the little fellas. One comes hopping over for a good look at me. He stops and then, “Thump!” He stomps an extra loud stomp. I can’t help but wonder if I’m going to get the next stomp. But, no. Off he goes. What funny creatures they are.
With wallaroos dancing in my mind we move on to the next stop – a cockatoo who thinks people are just wonderful. He flares his crest, opens his wings and bows low. Such a beautiful bird.

Next in line is a kookaburra ( a large kingfisher). He doesn’t think much of our presence. He keeps moving to which ever end of the cage we aren’t. But that is all right. Our camera lenses are big enough to follow

The cockatiels just sit …. But the last bunch of birds make up for the cockatiel’s indifference. Have you ever been is a small room with 200 budgies! It’s deafening. The air actually stirs with all their chattering and flitting about. Some are true to their nickname, ‘Lovebird.’ They cuddle together on a perch looking as if they belong on a Valentine’s Day card. Others are trying to be the best acrobat in the bird world. I feel as though I’m looking at every color in the rainbow. There are green ones, blue, yellow, aqua … So pretty.
Our Wildlife Safari keeper, Shannon, still has a little time so we top off the day by getting a few photos for another department. First cougars! Johnny peers at us when we arrive, and then strolls over hoping we’ll tickle his ears. But this time we have to stay on the other side of the fence and it’s hands off even though he would just love that tickle. His companion, Mesa, just had a little tiff with Johnny. She sits on a high platform and gives us all a good snarl. Oh to be so close to such beautiful cats.

Two more species, bobcat and coati, and then we head home with over 400 photos to weed through, edit the best and turn them in to Wildlife Safari as soon as possible. We did take a day off for the Super Bowl and another to go to the coast, and presented a slide show on Tuesday night. Yesterday we finally turned in the photos and I get to take a deep breath. No wonder I’ve been feeling a little busy, but good busy.