Tag Archives: sketch

On the fringe of the world

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The last night of our Sea Wolf adventure was spent on the fringe of the world, a tiny island outboard of Elfin Cove that stands sentinel at the edge of the open Pacific. Its forest is all charm: small spruce and hemlock, an understory of windswept, deer-nipped grass, patches of deer-shredded blueberry bushes, and deer-bitten skunk cabbages. A gravel trail meanders from a beach of granite pebbles to a headland capped by a WWII cannon, still pointing oceanward but drooping down as if tired of watching. I could have spent days there, and am already trying to figure out ways to get back. This painting was started at sunset, the light fading fast, and finished the next morning.

The bear on the beach

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Just returned from a phenomenal expedition with Sea Wolf adventures, a small-ship cruise company with extensive experience and expertise on Glacier Bay and the Northwest Coast. We spent so much time hiking and kayaking (interspersed with eating outstanding food) that I didn’t get to do too much sketching, but this page records one of my favorite wildlife viewing moments of the trip.

The Headache Tree

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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.

A parliament of owls

 

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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.

Otter skull

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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…

Giant sketches, continued

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In August, I was seeing dragonflies everywhere, and I very much wanted to paint one for my giant canvas series. They were so abundant flying over the dusty Gustavus roads that I figured I’d easily find one. But days went by with no luck. I took to inspecting first my truck’s grill, then (surreptitiously) everyone else’s. Nothing.

Finally, the day my folks flew out of town toward home, I found one. But it wasn’t as easy prey as I’d assumed. Here are my notes:

August 14: Clear, sunny, as warm as it has been.

…driving toward 4 corners from airport, saw gleam of wings in road, pulled over, went back to pick up.

It’s a mosaic darner, still alive, seeming disoriented. I picked it up by folding its wings over its back, the way John does, brought it to the car, put it under my hat in passenger seat. At Glacier Bay Lodge, decided it should have a chance to fly if it was just stunned, so I set it on a boulder and went to dinner. Over an hour later it was still there, so I put it in a plastic container and brought it back to the cabin.

Gave it another chance overnight with lid off, then next day (sunny) also with lid off. When I returned it wasn’t moving anymore so I felt OK to bring it in.

I kept the dragonfly for some time; hung it on a thread next to my canvas. Painted on the porch of the cabin in shafts of sunlight. Added details of eyes and legs and wing veins. This was my first experiment with color—just a touch, showing the blue and green shine on the dragonfly’s head, thorax, and abdomen.Image

I kept intending to add words. Still intend to add words. But really the only words I’m happy with for this image (so far) are 

Six days motionless, it is still poised for flight; balanced; waiting

Doesn’t seem like enough, so it’s still wordless.

More from Wrangell

Wrangell-park-sketch-hockerOne of the fun things about traveling in Southeast Alaska is noticing the often-subtle differences in vegetation from place to place. Wrangell is just far enough south so that cedars are a major component of the forest, lending it a a different texture. Here in Juneau, we have to hike quite a ways in to find the little pockets of cedar that exist here.

The fauna's a little different too. Northern flickers are fairly common around Wrangell, but not so commonly seen here. I love watching their wings and tails flash fiery orange as they fly.

Spring, 1 year later

Wrangell-hbird-hockerIt's amazing how quickly a year passes. I've traveled and taught and sketched a lot in the past year, but haven't returned to my lonely blog til now. 

Just got back from a teaching trip to Wrangell, Alaska, for the Stikine River Birding Festival. Bird highlights for me included sandhill cranes chortling overhead, flocks of white-fronted geese descending on the school football/soccer field, snow geese whirling over the Stikine Delta, and a fascinating talk about the wildlife of Wrangel Island, Russia by biologist Vassily Baranyuk. Also, this sad highlight, a female rufous hummingbird that hit a window. I tried to capture her iridescence by starting with white Prismacolor for the feather texture, then layering metallic green watercolor and several shades of Neocolor pastels and water.

Today, two hummingbirds–a male and a female–are tussling over the feeder outside my window, swirling around each other and surrounded by swirling snowflakes. It has been a long, cold spring.Nice to see these little spots of warmth.

Gustavus willow

Hocker-gustavus-willow-sketchI just got back from a great two weeks in Gustavus, where I was working with students and teachers at the school.The school is wonderful; there are just over 50 students, grades K-12.  And Gustavus is a fascinating place: a broad, flat landscape, formed by outwash from the Glacier Bay glaciers over many centuries. The combination of flat land, lush meadows and wetlands, wandering rivers, and pine/spruce/cottonwood forest are an unusual mix in Southeast Alaska.I saw swans and herons, listened to a wolf moan under the stars, and got thrilled (even a little over-thrilled) by moose.

I'll post a series of Gustavus sketches next, starting with an iconic plant: willow.