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Watercolor Workshop-Finishing the Osprey Painting

Saturday, February 25, 2017


This is the second part of a two-part post, a step-by-step of a scene depicting a Scottish osprey spending his winter in Senegal. It’s for an upcoming book by Alan Poole.  

Here is an ultra close up of the beach and wave interface. You can see the masking fluid, dried, still adhering to the paper. You can also see that I’ve sprinkled kosher salt into the dark wet wash. Salt is hydrophilic; it attracts water. With the water travels the granules of pigment, and as the water dries around the salt crystals, wonderful things happen. The salt grain resists the pigment, so there’s a little star or snowflake effect around each grain. The bigger the grain, the bigger the salt snowflake it makes. For some applications I use table salt; for this I wanted kosher (larger grain). I keep kosher salt around in a shallow dish on my stovetop. I like to pick it up in my fingers and throw it in whatever I’m cooking. My fingers are extraordinarily good at knowing just how much salt I’m using; it’s a lot less work and has less uncertainty than a shaker.

 Time for that masking fluid to come off. I peel it off with my thumb. I’ve really gone crazy on these waves, leaving myself a lot of work to integrate the masked areas into the painting. The hard-edged crests will soon be softened by scrubbing with a wet brush and clear water.
Some nice cloud shadow action here. I use the same colors I used in the water and sand, because the clouds are bouncing light from the water. So their bellies will be ocean-colored. Just for fun, I masked the upper edges of the clouds, to give that hard silver lining you see in backlit clouds. 


 All that foreground trash waits to be painted. I’m leaving the horsecarts and the bird for dessert!

 Dune grass, and I’m beginning work on the wave crests. The painting is beginning to come together. My favorite part is still the water/sky interface.

That is, until I get to the horsecarts! Oops, I’ve done it again—painted without shooting progress photos. Got a lot done, too! You’ll notice how much softer those wave crests look. I’ve busily scrubbed them out with a clean wet brush. And suddenly, it’s a whole lot windier—the brilliantly lit clouds, the smeared wave crests, and the diagonal directionality in the sky wash all work together to evoke high winds, typical of coastal areas. I’m pleased about that. Of course, painting the horsecarts is the most fun of all. I manange to discern some of the crops—onions and turnips, maybe? I have a guy in close who’s already headed back from market, perhaps having sold out early. I turn his head so he seems to be looking at this exotic visitor from Scotland.

The finished painting. I’ve used the foreground trash to echo the colors of the pony carts and the sea, to lead the eye toward the main subjects of the painting. Now I can hear the surf pounding. I can feel the wind and taste the salt. I can hear the shouts of the vendors. And through it all the osprey sits, pleasantly phlegmatic, unperturbed, spending his winter dining on fresh catch of the day in a place entirely unlike Scotland.

Watercolor Painting Workshop-Osprey!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I’ve been blessed with a commission, doing five or so paintings for an upcoming book by Alan Poole, one of the world’s foremost authorities on ospreys. You may remember him, last seen cooking local bay scallops for me and Erin in his lovely coastal Massachusetts home. I’ve worked with Alan for a decade starting in 1991, in his former capacity as Editor of The Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st Century. I got to draw North American birds doing things that were hard to depict in photographs. Drawing birds for ornithologists was a blast, and made for a nice steady trickle of income in a freelancer’s life. I drew a lot of nest scenes, good training for doing the paintings for Baby Birds.

Alan wanted me to paint some scenes that couldn’t really be depicted well in photographs. Oh boy. Perfect assignment for me! We batted about ideas for illustrations and came up with a short list. The first one I tackled was ambitious, but I hadn’t done a painting in several months and I was jonesing for a watercolor adventure.

Ospreys from Great Britain and elsewhere often spend their winters on Africa’s west coast. One area, Lompoul Sur Mer in Senegal, hosts good numbers of ospreys, who share the beaches with lots of people. We’ve found this out through satellite tracking of little solar-powered packs on a harness between the bird’s powerful shoulders. Alan and I decided we didn’t need  to depict an antenna sticking off the bird, but that’s how we know they go to this part of Africa.

At Lompoul Sur Mer, the packed sand near the tideline serves as a handy road for vendors traveling to and from farmer’s markets. I was delighted at the prospect of painting an osprey with an ocean backdrop, populated with colorful vegetable carts, people and horses. Here, the Google image search stood me in good stead, and I found lots of drool-worthy images to mix, match and combine in a composition that would evoke the place. Though I’ve never been to Africa’s west coast, I have dipped my toes in the Indian Ocean off South Africa, and I was eager to paint this scene.

Masking. Any complex watercolor of mine is going to involve masking fluid and film. So I may paint freely and quickly, I spend a lot of time masking off areas I don’t want to get covered with color. This would include the bird, wave crests, horses, carts, people and garbage. Like it or not, the photos I found from Lompoul Sur Mer had a lot of garbage in them. I’d try to find a way to work it into the composition without its being too distracting or ugly. It's part of the story, too.

Three ways to mask: Kraft paper covers my ocean and sky; masking film covers the horse and cart; and masking fluid protects the garbage. Now I’m spatter-painting with a toothbrush, as well as flinging paint off a watercolor round brush. I’ve laid down a basic background wash for the dunes and main beach flat, and I’m throwing paint into it as it dries. Obviously, the paint thrown on wet areas is going to feather out and spread, and paint thrown on drier areas will stay put as droplets. If I make a spatter I don’t like, it’s no problem to suck it back up with a damp brush. Lots of fun, and no worries or pressure in this kind of work.

This always happens when I’m painting skies and water. I get carried away and forget to take progress shots. More to the point, I simply can’t stop long enough to shoot a photo—it’s the fast, wet work in watercolor that makes it so special.  I've gone ahead and put in the ocean and the sky, too--the work of less than an hour. 

When I get the ocean and sky wash laid in, you can see just how much masking I’ve done to prepare this painting.
Speaking of working fast, there are wonderful things that happen when a brush drags once across damp and drying paper. 

These marks are called “scumbling” and they’re among the things that make watercolor my favorite medium. Just like that, the brush drags across the rough tops, the teeth of the paper’s surface, and you have sparkles dancing over the water where the sun is glancing in the distance. Or you have little mackerel clouds. Boom. And all you did was lighten up on the pressure as you quickly dragged the brush across.

These are the elements—the little “mistakes” and omissions of paint—that caused early critics of Winslow Homer’s work to label it “primitive” or “savage.” Nothing of the sort. They just didn’t know how to appreciate watercolor.

Next up: Finishing the painting: tricks, tips, and techniques.

I've Got a Girl Crush

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Yep, I stole the name for this post from a popular song. I first heard it on the Grammy Awards show and was smitten. If you don't already know it, I think you'll like it.

Interesting that many country radio stations won't play this hypnotic waltz, because some listeners accuse stations that do give it airtime of "promoting the 'gay agenda'." Good grief. It's a song about longing and disappointment, tinged with jealousy; it's a song about yearning and grappling with rejection. It's a song with multiple edges, co-written by the brilliant Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lee Lindsey.

But I digress. When we last left Ms. Zickefoose she was gasping at the beauty of a certain doe, hoping hard she'd see her again, and be able to photograph her in decent light.

Sometimes dreams come true.  The very next morning after I took those photos of the doe on alert, I raised my east blind in the bedroom, to give me and the orchids some light. I made the bed and came back to the dresser for clothes, looked out the window and saw THIS. Oh oh oh oh oh!! Four deer with black briskets!! Could it be...?

I took off like a scalded ape for the studio where my Canon lives. I have this special run that I do, very rapid small steps, turning corners on two wheels, coming back with a death grip on the big rig, skidding to a halt and shooting out the window. It probably sounds like there's a gigantic squirrel on the roof. 

One of the Blackbrisket fawns was a buck. See his furry button bumps? An older doe is standing behind him, her coat grayer than Mama's. His grandmother? My mind was racing.

One of the fawns was a doe. Both were built like their mama, tall, long-legged and clean-lined. 

They moseyed about the sideyard, heading in a leisurely way toward the main meadow. Heaven. 

The doe fawn and her mama, ears canted exactly the same way, in step with each other. Me and Phoebe, noticing all the same things, alert to it all.  The resemblance between the two, uncanny. 

And the little buck, with the same beautiful lines, great big intelligent eyes and perfect proportions. 

And along came Mama.  When I looked at her face, I heard the angels sing.

Y'all know I love Buffy and Lord knows I loved Ellen. Neither of them perfect by any means. Perfection is not a prerequisite for my love. But I am, in the end, a slave to beauty. It's what I chase down most of every day. It's what I get out of bed for. This animal makes every cell in my body sing Hallelujah. 

You'd think that all deer are pretty, and they are. But there's pretty (Buffy)

and then there's this doe. This doe is Sophia Lauren,  she's Jessica Lange, she's (desperately updating myself) Blake Lively. Her eyes, the bones in her face, her proportions, all perfect beyond perfect.  I thought about her for a couple of days before I came up with her name. 

It had to be Jolene. 

If you'd like to hear Dolly Parton's gorgeous ballad, there's a version from January, 1988 here.  And dig that amazing dress, and her theatrical delivery!  I really prefer the 1973 version from the Porter Waggoner show, though. There's a sweet, pleading sadness in that one, a purity, and pain undimmed by theatricality and swagger. Ain't the Net a wonderful place?

I was talking about deer. Music is always wanting in.

 I found one tiny notch in her right ear, halfway down the curve. Not that I'd need it to recognize this exquisite creature, but at some point I may need to distinguish her from her beautiful daughter.
Here they are lined up, and I want you to look at the topline on this statuesque doe. Straight as a Kansas highway, no tuck-under at the rump.  Her coat is luxuriant and dark. If whitetails were bred for excellence, Jolene would be a founding doe. She's as good as they get.


Let's take a look at the older doe, appearing here in the lower left of this photo. She's hanging closely with the group. Her coat is grayer, lighter, but there's something familiar about her lines and her face. 

She can only be Jolene's mother. All the beauty is there, the slightly slanted eyes, the long face, the proud carriage. She's seen a lot more seasons than her beautiful daughter. And now she's helping with her grandfawns. Yes, these are all guesses on my part, but what's the harm in building a story on what I'm seeing in their faces, in the line of their backs and the length of their legs?

For now, I’m drinking them in. I never know when I’ll see these animals again. I never expected the Blackbriskets to walk right under my bedroom window, the day after I’d finally gotten photos of them!

Look at the difference in coat color between dark Jolene  (grazing at left) and paler Grandma (in the middle). Fawns are behind. Right there, she sticks out for you.

There’s such intelligence in Jolene’s face. She smells a rat, feels someone’s watching her.  She starts down the path and gives the signal to depart.

Jolene leads the charge down the lower path. All flags up!

I hate to see her go, but I love to watch her leave.

Having put a sufficient distance between themselves and the imagined threat, they stop to reconnoiter. Jolene’s tail is still flared. What a long-distance signal flag that tail can be.

I’m grateful for this rare and perhaps never to be repeated chance to document Jolene and her family at close range. 

 I can only hope we meet again.

Love at First Sight

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

I first photographed them on January 25, 2017, way out in the meadow. I could only see enough on them to know I didn't recognize them: three deer: a doe and twins, with black briskets. Black briskets are something I see in deer now and then, a trait that seems to run in families. They show up well in poor light and at a distance. I have to think such distinguishing characteristics help deer tell each other apart when they're too far away to pick up scent.

The doe's in front. Mark her're going to see her again.

On January 29, I spotted a fawn in the meadow along our driveway just before dark. It looked like an Ewok to me. I couldn't miss that black brisket in the gloaming!

Then it turned and flounced away,  tail wagging side to'll remember this photo.

February 2.  I'm walking out to catch the sunset which is doing some very nice herringbone patterns in cobalt violet and indanthrone blue with a peach underlay when I decide to turn around and head out the driveway. Call it a little voice. I wondered if the deer family I was calling The Blackbriskets might be there now.

I can't believe my luck as I make out the backs of three grazing deer. The first one to pick up its head is a fawn. I notice wide black rims around its ears and an appealing face.

Next, the doe stops feeding to see what her child has noticed. The second fawn is still oblivious.

Mama's partially obscured by branches, but as she comes to full attention, she stops my heart and takes my breath away. She's big and rangy and smooth and oh my gosh she's beautiful.

Being a doe, she decides to investigate, and she moves forward a bit to get a better look at me as I stand perfectly still, my camera to my eye. She can't make me out very well. Good Lord. What a beauty she is!

She's seen enough. Her fawn has been whistle-snorting this whole time-PHEW! PHEWW!! which means "Let's get lost!"
They turn and run as a family.

I have no right to expect it, but I hold my ground and am thrilled when they stop and whirl around to have one last look back at me. What luck! I get all three in one photo again. Now I know that I've got two sets of photos of The Blackbriskets. And all I want is to see them again. I'm dying to photograph that doe in decent light. I've never seen anything quite like her. The word "Perfect" comes to mind.

Happy Valentine's Day! Are you as saturated with YOU MUST DO THIS OR MISS OUT hype as I am?   Sodden. A good reason to ditch social networking for awhile. 

Well. No candle-lit dinner on the docket. Who can afford that? Can't take chocolate any more. Keeps me up. Same with wine. And hold the dozen roses. I already grow my own. I'll take two of these peppermint beauties live and on the hoof over a dozen longstems.

Love what you've got.

Smuggled this back from Brattle Square Florist in Cambridge MA in early December. Couldn't leave it there.

Who needs cut flowers when there are live ones to be snorgled, great fat new buds opening daily?

Gardenia "Golden Magic" whose flowers age to bright yellow, who smells divine, a grocery store find from last spring.

                                                                      Bloom where you're planted. 

Four gardenias pumping out a heady tropical fragrance under twinkly lights,  little gas heater warming it all with Marcellus Shale special high BTU free gas.

 There are deer in the meadow, perhaps a timberdoodle dancing, too. 

That's a Valentine to remember.

The Zen of Shed Hunting

Sunday, February 12, 2017

This is how it feels to find a beautiful shed. "Shed" is what country folks call dropped antlers. You start looking for them in December, and you keep looking for them, off and on, all year long.
This was my first in years. Decades.  Found Feb. 6, 2015. 

You're walking along, and there it is. That's my favorite thing about finding them. Your mind can be a million miles away and suddenly it's right there, buzzing, every cell focused on this gift on the ground before you.

Chet, come back here and see what Mether found.

If you will look at my pawdyprints in the photo above, you will see that I already found this. Would you like me to bury it for you? It is fresh and it needs buried.

Sheds are gifts from the deer. Imagine growing such a fine rack of bone on your head, and then having it just fall off. Maybe it feels wonderful to be free of it, once the blood supply ceases and the bone deteriorates. Maybe they walk off without a backward glance. But sometimes I wonder if they wish they had a means to carry them around.

The beauty of shed hunting is it gives me an excuse to get out and cover miles in the woods and fields at the time of year when the skies are low and weepy and I tend to be, too. There's nothing that will light up your day like finding a shed antler. Or "shed," as we who hunt and find them like to call them.

There are all kinds of places you can take shed hunting. I have friends who make a goal of finding BOTH antlers off the SAME buck. Now THAT is shed hunting. 

Fantastic as that would be, to me that's taking it a bit too far. It seems too much like hubris, to expect that you're going to be able to root around and find a matched set of antlers from the same buck. True, the hormonal and blood supply changes that cause antlers to drop tend to occur on both sides simultaneously, but what if he carries one around for another week before dropping it?

April 14, 2015. It was a good spring for shed hunting. This antler now hangs above my drawing table from a loop in a bit of monofilament. It's my back-scratcher. I use it many times a day as I'm working. I keep one in the bedroom, too, for those morning itches. Sorry if I just made your back itch. Had to reach for my antler and give myself a good scritching.

And one amongst the bluets!!~ I found two this blessed warm April afternoon. What could be more beautiful than polished bone in bluets? Ahh, April. Come she will.

You can carry shed hunting well into spring. You hope when you find them they still have that polished bone sheen that makes them a smooth delight to handle. Old weathered antlers are referred to as "chalks" and the weathered chalky surface means they aren't near as nice to hold. 

April 16, 2015. Just two days later, I came upon this magnificent antler partially buried in rubble beneath a barbed wire fence crossing. That makes sense, that it would fall off where the buck either leapt or struggled through wire. Sudden jolts, as in jumping, or impact with objects can jar them loose, help them fall. But only when they're ready to drop anyway. And that time is anywhere from January through April.

I took a four-mile hike yesterday down into Dean's Fork. I say "down into" because Dean's is a deep holler. When I began my walk at daybreak up top of the ridge, it was positively balmy. I was shooting without gloves! The snow was melting fast and I was seduced by the warmth and the gentle hints that there might be enough sun to go on a good hike. So I began my descent into the holler.

I had my long lens with me, which is a heavy habit I've picked up since surgery and shingles slowed me down in December and January. I figured if I couldn't go at a decent pace, I might as well lug the big rig and come back with some decent shots.

As I climbed down, the temperature dropped and dropped. It was easily 15-20 degrees colder down by the creek than it had been up top in the hayfields. Snow still adhered to everything. The cold air had just settled in the Fork and was lying there, waiting for me. Brr!! Well, I was committed to the hike and it was beautiful, and best of all the mud down there was still frozen, making for much nicer walking.

I put up two big deer and something in the heaviness of their thudding hooves and their build and overall darkness told me they were bucks, though there were no antlers to confirm that suspicion. 

This is where the camera tells me so much. If you click on this photo you can see his nuts. Aha!

Big as he was, he floated like a butterfly. I never tire of photographing deer on the fly.

Further invading his privacy as a certified cervid paparazzo, this  handstand shot revealed even more. Do click to enlarge the photo. 

But the best? Click on this one to see his fresh, still bloody pedicel scar, February 12, 2017. There's likely an antler or two in that black raspberry thicket somewhere, and chances are I'm never going to find it.

While we're admiring him, check out his barrel chest and muscular forequarters. That's something you won't see on a doe. I'm getting better at sexing antlerless deer from a distance, but there's always more to learn. This kind of knowing is where hunters have it all over most naturalists, and why I love talking with hunters. They know things that you can only know by doing a lot of naked-eye observation, by getting your hands on the animal and inside it, too. 

Falling far short of learning by killing, I absolutely love the things I'm learning about deer just by studying my own photographs. I could never put together their stories or understand what little I do of their natural history, their social bonds, and their behavior without my trusty Canon 7D.  These big, fascinating animals walk among us, and they've got stories to tell if only we will slow down, stop, watch and listen to what they're saying.

Speaking of seeing...a nice set of fresh bobcat tracks from the little cemetery just a mile down our road, February 10, 2017. The forepaw (right) is just under 2" across, and the span between fore and hind tracks is around 8".

And dead fresh tracks from Feb. 11, on my way down into Dean's. My gosh. I looked all around to see if the cat was still visible!

And last evening, I just couldn't come inside. I decided to stalk deer out in our meadow. And it occurred to me that it was a little more than a week early, but it was just the kind of night--60 degrees and loamy--that a woodcock might decide to fly. Nothing but silence and distant coy-wolves yipping, until at 6:27 pm, the weak sunset still illuminating the west, I heard the twitter-fall of a single woodcock, testing the evening air. No peents, just a brief liquid song and wing-twitter, as if he'd been flying over and just had to take a quick tumble over this likely spot.

February 11, 6:27 pm, Whipple Ohio--the first woodcock flies.

It was a Hey There! from heaven, straight to my leaping heart.

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