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.
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…
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…
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.
I like hanging out with naturalists. Say you’re out for a walk and you spot an interesting clump of scat. Where a non-naturalist friend will likely want to take a big step over it and keep on walking, a naturalist will crouch down, help you pick the scat apart and merrily join in discussing who produced it and what they ate for dinner.
Also, you can count on naturalists to not look at you askance when you make odd requests, such as: So…can I borrow that desiccated bat you have in your bookcase?
It was fascinating to get such a close look at this little fellow, on loan from a naturalist friend who knew and liked him when he was alive.
Outside and above the front door of our cabin is a roof beam, protected from rain and wind by translucent porch roofing–a perfect spot to set up housekeeping… especially if you’re a barn swallow. In mid-May of this year, two adult swallows showed up and began the process of renovating and settling into the mud nest.
Yesterday morning at about 6:30 I heard a bit of a commotion out there, and looked out the window. After weeks of crowded nest life, one of the chicks had made the leap, and was clinging precariously to a beam below. Its mother was swooping and fluttering nearby. She eventually convinced the chick to flutter over to the stair rail.
I sneaked out the door and set a chair nearby to sketch the fledgie. To my delight, the three remaining nestlings came out within a half an hour–each one encouraged by the parents, then “herded” to perch on the rail or on a rope hanging over the porch. I felt rather honored to be tolerated so close, sketching busily in the midst of this momentous occasion…
Went sketching with a friend yesterday, at another friend’s house. Felt good to be back out in the field, with the Prismacolors in hand…
Have been sketching-for-sale lately, creating small originals to sell at the Saturday Summer Market in Gustavus. Here are a few samples:
The hummingbird’s rufous sides aren’t very rufous, are they? I picked the wrong watercolor pencils, but then I ended up liking the color combination, so…
I rarely draw or paint puffins. They seem to get so much press already. But this one was fun to do. I liked the challenge of the water, and the challenge of showing some–but not too much–detail on the wing feathers.
The yellowlegs is my favorite. It’s from a photo of a bird down along the Salmon River. I love that it stretched its neck up, creating this unusual pose for a portrait. Something about the pose, or the eye, gives it so much character!
The recent installation of a humpback whale skeleton at Glacier Bay National Park has drawn me out to Bartlett Cove several times now to observe and sketch. At about 45 feet long, it’s is apparently the second largest humpback whale skeleton now on display in the world. The whale was a female, hit by a cruise ship in 2001. After she was towed to a nearby beach, her bones were collected and partially cleaned by the community of Gustavus, then cleaned further, restored, and assembled by Whales and Nails Studio in Maine.
Two trips across North America (about 8,000 miles) seem like a long journey, but if “Snow” made the migration to Hawaii and back every year of her life, her bones had journeyed almost 250,000 miles already.
The bones are fascinating to draw. Difficult because of their tremendous size and the lack of places to stand for a distant perspective, but also easier in a way because I have utterly no preconceived notions of how they should look, and so I am forced to draw what I see.
No fools were present (unless you count the three of us naturalists slipping and lurching among the diatom-slick boulders). Just a pleasant morning at Sunshine Cove, with a minus tide and lots of boulders to explore. We didn’t find anything particularly spectacular or surprising, but it was worth a sketch page…