Student Sketches

sketch show sitkaI just got back from a two-week art residency in Sitka, working with Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary students. It was lovely! For the first week, I worked exclusively with the 4th graders, teaching basic observation and drawing skills; my goal was to get the students excited about keeping a “science sketchbook” and confident in drawing from observation. They drew feathers, skulls, shells, seed pods, and more, and took notes about their observations, their ideas, and their questions.

During the second week the school hosted its annual Project Fair, a chance for students to share their studies in a science fair-like setting. As part of the fair, we set up a table showcasing the drawings from the 4th grade classes. It was really satisfying to see all of that careful observation and learning arrayed together. This photo shows a section of the sketch show; my big example sketches are up on the wall, and the student books are below on the table. Each student chose his or her favorite sketch to show.

Thanks to Keet Gooshi Heen teachers and staff–especially science teacher Rebecca Himschoot, and thanks to the Sitka Fine Arts Camp–especially Program Director Kenley Jackson.

Working on skull skills


Another memento mori, in progress. I started out with the same approach I used on the owl skull conversation last month, but the colors in the foreground were too nice to darken, and then it started to become moss, so I’m going with it. Planning to add some more detail (but not too much more) to the moss.

I like the story it evokes: pushing through prickling spruce branches from the bright beach, the cool and so-dark of mossy uplifted-berm forest; a pale glow resolves into a bone-seeker’s treasure. Who brought it here?

The Headache Tree


I went to a friend’s house yesterday to do some sketching; had a lingering headache from earlier in the morning so I was a little restless. An old cottonwood–a massive black dendrite in the yard–caught my eye, so I pulled out a brush pen and tried to work out the hierarchy of branching directions.

What is it that makes a cottonwood? A certain powerful upward angle of primary branches (trending to bowed lower on the trunk); graceful swoops of secondary branches. And the short, stout bud-branchlets, bristling out almost perpendicular to the more sinuous smallest branches.

By the time I reached the bottom of the tree my brush pen was almost dry, but it felt OK for the drawing to stutter out.

Looking at the drawing today I’m struck by how it feels like a visualization of my headache–the tendrils of pain branching around my neck and head. I like the thought–it’s comforting somehow.

Rare visitor


Last September, rangers and other employees at Glacier Bay National Park headquarters looked out their office windows at Bartlett Cove and spotted a very unusual warbler…a stranger to Glacier Bay, to Alaska, and even to the West Coast. It was a yellow-throated warbler (Setophaga dominica), a species whose usual range runs through the southeastern US and down to Cuba. This was the first Alaska sighting.

The bird stayed around for several days, plucking insects off the park buildings and delighting locals and birders from afar.

I was commissioned by a friend to create this illustration as a commemoration of that intrepid little explorer. Wonder if he’ll be back next summer?

A parliament of owls



I love skulls. Skulls tell stories and evoke emotions. They’re beautiful as whole objects, but they’re also full of micro-landscapes and eerie abstractions that resonate in nameless ways with our own visual and tactile experiences. So I draw them often. But I’ve rarely painted skulls.

I got the urge a few days ago, so I pulled out a few bird skulls and looked them over. I intended to paint a raven skull, but my eye kept getting drawn to the owls.

I started with the one in the center. It was really meant just as an exercise in brush strokes and values. But after I got it roughed in, it looked lonely. I set out a couple of the other owl skulls and added them into the scene…and they instantly gave the whole painting a story. I like the way a single static, lonely skull on a dark field turned into a conversation.

Learning new skills


A friend who is a book artist and professional bookbinder has been kindly teaching me some of her arts. It’s much more precise work than I’m used to… I’m a rather sloppy worker, despite all the details of my sketches. But it’s fascinating stuff, and I’ve emerged from it with a couple of my own handmade sketchbooks and a much greater appreciation for the work involved in making and repairing books. It’s sacred work, at least to those of us who still prefer boards and paper to luminous screens…

Otter skull


I went on the Audubon Christmas Bird Count a couple of weeks ago, and while we didn’t have any stand-out birds to report, it was a banner day for bones and skulls. The day’s discoveries included a murre skull, an eagle skull, a partial sea lion skull, a moose jaw, and numerous bird and mammal bones.

Plus this sea otter skull. Sea otters are increasing dramatically in Southeast Alaska. Fifteen years ago it would have been a shock to find a sea otter skull; I’ve seen at least three on or near the local beaches just this year.

Sea otter skulls are similar to river otter skulls, but there are some key differences. The average sea otter skull is visibly bigger than the average river otter skull, with a bigger nasal opening (I wonder why?) But even without these differences, the teeth distinguish them easily. Eaters of hard-shelled prey such as clams and crabs, sea otters have flattened, smooth-cusped molars where river otters have tendon-shearing carnassials.

This otter was probably several years old, judging from the skull size and the worn condition of its molars. I think the canine tooth was broken post-mortem; the break was sharp-edged and splintery, not worn at all.

Sea otters spend a huge amount of time grooming their fur, which is their primary insulation (they don’t have blubber). Looking at those precisely-shaped, comb-like incisors makes me wonder if their shapes have any special adaptive functions for fur maintenance…

The one that didn’t migrate

A few days ago, a friend called and said she had found a hummingbird in her garage. It had come inside sometime this fall and had either not been able to find its way out, or had just been too weak or cold to survive. It had freeze-dried, hanging by its feet from a wire, with its tail splayed out against the wall. The unusual position, in which it can “sit” balanced on its tail, with beak straight up, made for an intriguing view to sketch.