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The (Foolproof) Jewel Orchid

Sunday, February 28, 2010


Had enough of this relentless winter? Had enough of being punched in the face with snowfall after snowfall, of shoveling, of white-knuckle driving, of wallowing helplessly in your own driveway, of having your kids hanging around like dirty shirts because their school has been canceled 17 days and counting? Yeah, me too. On days like these, my flowers save me. I took these photos on one of the four sunny days we've had in February.
Ludisia discolor, the jewel orchid, is becoming a favorite of mine. I have to admit that, being a snob about flowers (they must be large, colorful and fragrant to catch my attention), I resisted its modest floral charms until my plantfreak friend Jason brought me one three years ago. I had to admit its foliage was stunning--it's named for the jewel-like texture of its iridescent leaves. They're reminiscent of some flower petals which, upon close inspection, reveal sparkling gems or prisms that catch the light. The jewel orchid is a terrestrial, native to southern China, Myanmar to Indonesia. Many people pot it in regular potting soil with perlite added, or use an African violet mix. Mine is thriving in a bark medium made for orchids.

I wasn't terribly impressed with the short bloom spikes the plant threw out on its first try. But it was just a baby then. This year's bloom, whoa. Thick, fleshy pink asparagus-like stalks started reaching for the sky, and I reached for a sturdy stake to keep the plant from toppling over. Up and up they grew, elongating and throwing blossom after blossom. No, sadly, they're not fragrant, but they're charming nonetheless.

almost there...There! Whoo-eee! The whole affair in full bloom now stands 28" high, with 17" flower stalks! I do believe it likes my bedroom.

Better yet, the plant has thrown out five shoots from its rhizome, and I understand that these can be cut off, rooted in water or potting medium, and given to friends. Nothing pleases a gardener like gifting a friend with an offshoot of a treasured plant. Plant propagation: my only vice.

Luscious, that's all it is, just luscious, the leaves with garnet veins and a ravishing red reverse, and it couldn't be easier to grow.
Here it is in situ, in a south-facing window in the orchid bedroom. When the sun glares in too harshly (rare for winter in the mid-Ohio valley), I drop the Venetian blinds and keep them at a horizontal slant, to let bars of sun pass over my plants. Humidity trays are kept full beneath the collection, and I mist the plants a couple of times a day with filtered water. Doesn't leave spots on the leaves. Makes them look squeaky clean and dust-free.

If you're timid about orchids but you can grow African violets, do try the jewel orchid. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. And then it's on to Phalaenopsis! Laeliocattleyas! Dendrobiums! Brassaevolas! Oh! Oh! Oh!

For more encouragement, see this excellent article, "A Foolproof Orchid," on the American Orchid Society's web site.

The Best-Dressed Dog

Thursday, February 25, 2010


I rarely dress my dog so he looks cute. I dress him to keep him warm. The cuteness comes with the package. We both like this little Woolrich coat. Woolrich makes the best dog clothes, at least the best ones I can find. All hail Chez Target. And having a dog who's small enough to dress, and who kind of enjoys it.

I have written before about Chet Baker's uppity nature where other dogs are concerned. For some reason, this basic trait of his is amplified when he's got his gang colors on.

Cooper Davis is his best friend. But look out when Chet's wearing a coat. Maybe he's making a pre-emptive strike in case Cooper decides to say something out of the side of that long black snout about Chet's adorable little letter sweater. Cooper can be sarcastic, under the polite veneer.

All afternoon, Chet seems to have something to prove. We approach one of his favorite climbing logs, and Baker's on it in a flash. Try this, Cooper Davis.

Coat or no coat, I climb very well. I would bet that a dog like you could not climb this log.

No one is stopping you from trying, but do not get your hopes up. This is difficult.

I might not move aside should you try. (note how Chet's normally recumbent turd-tail holds the coat up. He's feeling uppity.)

You probably could not go as fast as I can. Many dogs have fallen from this log.

Because most are not as sure-footed as the Boston Terrier.

You are doing all right for a cattle dog, but you will never attain the grace and speed of me, Chet Baker.

It is misty in Goss' Fork
and the bluebirds are already going to bed in what's left of the shagbark hickory on the hill

One looks out of his roost hole

at the distant foggy hills

and when we get home Chet Baker writes his name on the studio birch. Now everyone knows he's the Top Dog

letter sweater and all.

The Highest Use

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


As an illustrator, I am accustomed to seeing my artwork in service. Not standing alone, on an easel or wall, but working, getting a message across. I absolutely couldn't wait to turn the prairie chicken poster over to Bird Watcher's Digest's talented Production Director, Claire Mullen. It would be in a poster design that this painting would see its highest use. Claire works her magic on the magazine six issues a year. When you've been confined in the pages of a magazine, designing a poster has got to be fun, like painting a mural would be for me, and Claire leapt at the opportunity to moonlight this job.

Claire worked off the excitement of the battling birds and took the poster to the wild West with a vigorous, eclectic, fun design. Let's hear it for Claire! And if you're anywhere near Woodward, Oklahoma in April, please come see the vanishing lesser prairie-chickens and the anything but vanishing Zickefoose in the flesh.

Painting Prairie-chickens, Part Three

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Seeing Bird #1 finished, the underpainting for Bird #2 will make more sense to you. Yes, he's blue and gold and peach to start with. I wish I could leave the painting like this. It looks like Bird 1 is fighting his own ghost, or an angel. I like the way Bird 2 looks illuminated. The light I've envisioned is beginning to work now.

I started this day of painting thinking I'd have it all done by nightfall, but it's all I can do to get Bird 1 done and Bird 2 started. Wow. Thanks to all the markings on the birds, this would be a challenging enough painting even without special lighting effects. But I'm finding that I'm burning extra mental wood just trying to figure out how to light my subjects. It would be so easy if I were just copying a photo, but that's not how I work. I build the birds and then figure out a lighting regime that pleases me. Sometimes I have to make clay and cardboard models to see how the light would fall on them.

Still cranking away on it. There are a few things I have to enhance, a few I have to fix, but after painting Bird 2 and diddling away at the grass some more, I'm done in. The work will go into another day.

I like this bird. He's really lit up. I've had fun tracing the outline of his portly belly on the near wing, and letting the sun blast through his secondaries and primaries.

Now it's time to diddle around in the grass a bit, darkening here, toning down there...trying to weave it all together with some well-placed lit grasstops. I decide to quit before it gets too fussy.

I think it's going to make a good poster. They can put type right over the grass, it'll look fine if they drop it out to white or even yellow. And when I give a painting workshop at the festival, I can share with everyone how the show poster was done. That'll be cool. Just another way blogging for you sweetens my real life.

Speaking of real life, come meet us and hear our music, willya? The Swinging Orangutangs are all het up. We've been rehearsing for our appearance at the Ohio Ornithological Society's Waterfowl Symposium this coming Friday, February 26, at Columbus Audubon's beautiful Grange Center. Whether you're a birder or not, if you're in the Columbus area you should come out and see us at this fundraiser for Nature Iraq. There will be fabulous Middle Eastern food, specialty beers, great people to hang out with, and live highly danceable eclectorock from Bill of the Birds, the Science Chimp, and the rest of the Orangs. Who will be in fezzes.

photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

You can attend the Friday night musical fundraiser for only $10, or you can go for the whole weekend enchilada of field trips and talks about waterfowl. Ought to be a blast. You can register here. Who knows--maybe after you've partied with birders, you'll want to take in the whole weekend, maybe even get yourself a fez. They're very comfortable.

Painting Prairie-chickens: Part Two

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Since not everyone reads the comments, I'd like to thank those who've commented for their support. And I'll reprint my response to them, because I think it pertains to the how and why of these how-to-paint posts. I'm not pretending that this is the be-all, end-all bird painting--even the finished product is far from what I wanted it to be. And my process is almost as scary to write about as it is to go through. I don't mean to present it as the only way to paint--it's just the way I go about it. But I'm producing something, however imperfect, and I want to share that process. My ulterior motive is to inspire the artist within my readers, and let them know that it's OK to be shaky and uncertain and scared, facing the blank page. Showing the stages, I hope, makes it more accessible, makes painting feel less risky. With that said, I'm more than ready to have some fun with this painting.

At some point, I get tired of slogging through the grass and decide to move on to the birds. I can always fuss with the grass after the birds are done, and that's what I wind up doing. Phew. What a relief to pull the masking film and compound off the clean paper and paint something I'm more comfortable painting.

You can see where the masking film leaked on the flying bird's flanks. Baaah.

I start with the underwing of the lower bird. Yes, it's quite blue. Remember, all this is in deep shadow, except for the lit-up parts.

Moving on with the underpainting for Bird #1. I model it all in lavender-blue-gray.

The bird is heavily barred with brown, but I've got to get the whites keyed right on it so that it reads as being in shadow, so that's why the underpainting is shadow-bluish. I'm leaving the extended wing white because the sun will be coming through it.

As you can see from this detail, I've been working on the grass, too, while painting the bird. As the bird comes into focus, the grass has to, too.

Now you can start to see which parts of the bird will be lit up. The light is coming from behind him, and that means his translucent wing--the one toward the sun-- will be lit up as the sun shines through it. The near, foreshortened wing is in shadow.

At last, I'm having fun. Heavily barred birds are fun to paint. The challenge, as with painting grass, is to keep the barring from looking too mechanical or orderly. You don't want the bird to look fake or manufactured, just as you want to avoid that look in your habitat rendering.

See how I've left a rim of light all around the bird's outline? When something is backlit, it's got a halo of light around it. And the other thing about backlighting is that lights are very light, and darks will be correspondingly dark. Lots of contrast.And a yummy close-up to close this part of the series. Next, we'll move on to the flying bird, but that's another day. I've got to dream up what's going to be for dinner and not think about prairie chickens and low light for awhile.

Today's fun: digging a stuck car out of our driveway. It had to happen sometime, and we're amazed to have been able to get in and out the 1/4 mile long unplowed corridor for this long. There's only so long you can keep mushing through 4 fresh inches a day, though, and today's the day of reckoning. I look at my thickening waist (and Chet's) and try not to think about the fact that, in a normal February, I would be walking a balmy meadow, listening to the peent and twitter of American woodcocks right now, catching the scent of red maple flowers, hearing the small wet sounds of nightcrawlers under leaves. I hope the woodcocks are holed up with a hot toddy somewhere in Alabama right now, because they'd need a front-end loader to get to the nightcrawlers in southern Ohio. Fie upon this steady 24 degrees, fie upon thigh-deep snow. Fie upon putting out 20 pounds of bird seed a day, upon incessant shoveling, closed schools and young brains going to mush. We want out.

Painting Prairie Chickens--Part One

Sunday, February 14, 2010

It's been awhile since I've done a painting in progress for you all. It isn't that I haven't been painting. I've painted a lot, thanks in part to my resolution to blog less and paint more. For a good step-by-step blog series, I have to be working on a larger, more complex painting, because there's not all that much to say about painting small illustration vignettes.

So when I was asked to paint the poster art for the Lesser Prairie-chicken Festival in Woodward, Oklahoma (for which I will also be presenting a keynote and workshops April 16-21), I thought that would be the perfect subject for a step-by-step treatment for the blog. Here's how it came out.
Original is 14" x 18"

As with all of my watercolors, I cook the painting in my head for a long time--sometimes months--before I take brush in hand. In this case, I'm pleased, looking back on my initial thumbnail pencil sketch, to see how closely the final painting adheres to the original concept. Of course, it never turns out exactly as I've envisioned it, and I might take a completely different approach if I had world enough and time to do it over, but I try mightily to get close to the vision.
And the vision was action, drama, and low dawn light.

The day I started work on it was dark and rainy, and I had left my good camera in town, drat! So I fuddled through with a couple of unfabulous shots of the opening washes.

Of course, I've masked the birds out with film and liquid masking compound, so I can paint freely over them without sullying the paper where they'll be.
This part is always kind of scary, wondering if you've sealed the edges of the masking film sufficiently to keep your wild wet washes from intruding. (I hadn't.) Not to mention that you're doing an underpainting in a bright color that has little to do with the final look of the piece. Yikes.
Today, having just put the final touches on the painting, I'm SO glad it's done. There's a whole lotta work between this splashy, fun-looking part and the finished painting. This one turned out to be a weeklong mama bear of a project. The original is 14" x 18," which is pretty big by watercolor standards.
Obviously, I did a lot of work between the splashy yellow stage and this next one, but it was pouring outside and I couldn't take the painting out to photograph it. Also, I forgot about photographing it. When you're wrestling with grass, the nemesis of many a wildlife painter, you have to just get down and deal with it.

While grass-wrasslin', I paint a wet-on-wet Oklahoma prairie landscape and sky behind the grass. That came out OK. Back to the grass.

I hate painting grass. Always have, probably always will. It's so easy to get too mechanical with all those little blades, and it's really, really hard to paint them so they look acceptably real but not repetitious. It's important to vary your color. I probably varied mine a bit too much here. Whatever... I know I'm going to err, so I try to err on the side of going too loose and splashy with it. At least that way it won't end up looking like a plugged hair transplant.

There's this tension in many of my bird paintings between the rendering of the bird, which is usually pretty tight and specific, and the rendering of the habitat, which is often much less so. The tension comes when there's too great a disparity between the two. You don't want superrealistic birds in a completely loopy landscape.

The other thing that's going on here is that my vision for the birds includes strong backlighting, the kind of low, intense light you get at sunrise. Above all, the painting has to say sunrise, because that's when prairie chickens get busy on their booming grounds. So I'm continually darkening and darkening the foreground because I want the birds to be lit up against it, and to pop out of it. That's why we're looking at purple grass here. I have to keep the faith while painting purple grass that this is all going to work out in the end.

Next: I move on to the birds, but keep working on the grass. Always the grass.

I got a very special Valentine from Chet Baker when he waded out this morning through belly-deep boilerplate snow and presented me with some (dog) chocolates. This, after four days of holding out. I had shoveled a Pee Alley with foot-high walls right out the front door, but the little gentleman much prefers the back meadow for more important business. You all have my permission to exhale now; I know you were waiting to hear this, and worrying right along with me.

I have been shut inside this house with my school-free kids, our brains slowly liquefying, for oh, about a month too long, and heard this morning there might be another 8" on the way. Of snow. Eight more inches of snow. Isn't that romantic?

Here's wishing you a happy Valentine's day. For those of you who get to spend it in a tete a tete in a fancy restaurant, drowning in wine and red roses with someone you're mad for, good for you. Good for the fancy restaurant, good for Hallmark, good for the florists. For we ordinary mortals, whether you're kissing a human, a horse, cat, dog, bird, or small furry rodent,** just make sure you kiss somebody, and tell them you love them.

**this list not meant to be comprehensive


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Welcome to my new bloghome!

Thanks for all the great feedback on the blog redesign. I'm cackling, thinking of all of you loading this page for the first time, no warning, just boom! New look! That's how we do things around here. No fanfare until the fanfare. If you missed the prior post explaining what has happened here, scroll down--I put up a little howdy-doo Thursday morning.

It keeps snowing and snowing and snowing here. I looked out this morning on our seemingly permanent foot-and-a-half of snow, with more drifting down. Considered the fact that the kids have been out of school almost a week. And thought that this is kind of like being in a hospital. You look out and think, man, I'd love to go for a long walk in the sunshine!

but no. You have to stay in your room, and there is no more sunshine. You can't have sunshine, and you can't have a walk. Egad--just getting around to all nine bird feeders in this crusty, powdery, slushy/slompy stuff makes me huff like a steam engine. It is decidedly un-fun to walk outside. It isn't actually walking--it's more like controlled staggering.

Chet Baker has taken to peeing in the snow right on the front porch, or right on the back deck, less than three feet from the door. He minces out and unloads and then expects to come right back inside. The next time he does it I'm going to smack that little black rumpus of his. I shovel out pee alleys; he'd darned well better use them. I don't know when he last pooped. Not my problem. It is not yours to tell the world about my elimination situation, Mether. A Boston terrier has no fur on his underside, and he must be excused all manner of rule infractions when the snow is so deep that it hits his most tenderest bits when he tries to walk in it. You try going out naked on all fours and see how you like it.

Chet hates the snow. I mean, he's happy to romp for oh say three minutes and then he's on the front porch bouncing up and down like a kangaroo needing in NOW. NOW NOW NOW NOW NOW. As I write he's clawing all the blankets on my bed into a huge Jedd-like pile and circling five times before flopping into them.

He is a dog of comfort. I would like to discover his secret for staying sane without putting miles of trail under his boots. I would like to bottle it and drink two quarts of it. I'm trying the sleep cure, and it does help to konk out with a book on my chest at 8:30. Just get this winter over with. My God, the woodcocks are due this week. I hope they stay in Alabama.

Back to our regularly scheduled program:

Bill of the Birds is good at talking girls into things. However he is good at talking men into things, too.

This is the Testosterone Express. David, Sherm, and Bill in a never-to-be-repeated lineup on the Green Menace. Zane wisely decides to race alongside.

Look OUUUUT BELOW!!! It's the BeefSkid! Oh, the manly grunts of pain that emanated from the Express as it hit the bumps.

Unfortunately there are no photos of the Estrogen Sled, which bore me, Margaret, Mary Jane and Beth in one epic ride. Wouldn't you know we went into the groundhog burrow. ow ow ow.

Phoebe and Liam ready for a run.

Daddy gives them a mighty shove.

And they trudge back up the slope. Sledding is great exercise; you have to climb that awful hill each time you want another ride. And hooting and hollering and laughing your head off is the ultimate cure for cabin fever.

Girlfriends in the snow: me, Mary Jane and Margaret. Mmm.

Phoebe takes a breather. Her groovy hat-scarf from Taos is a snow-caked liability now, offering weight and wetness without much warmth.

Liam readies some snowballs. There are always snowballs, especially with Daddy around.

Dusk falls on the pasture.

The kids are exhausted. So are the adults. And we've been down and up the slopes half as many times as they have.

There are roses in the snow. You have to kiss those cold lips to bring them magically back to life.

We go to say goodbye to Abby and Veronica

who watch and wonder
the snow collecting on their backs.

Veronica snorts and shakes her heavy little head

and turns to get a little warm comfort in the gathering dark. She's a little old for it, but Veronica has nothing better to do.

We head for home to do the same, but ours is spaghetti and firelight.
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