Tuesday Morning Bird-Sparrow

House Sparrow, oil on canvas

As a child, whenever I was troubled about some worry or other, my grandmother’s standard comeback was, “If His eye is on the sparrow, He watches over me.” That was her way of telling my child self not to worry. Many of her answers to my troubles came from the bible and many responses were about birds. She’s been gone since I was 16, but her admonishings remain. The sparrow response was always puzzling because I could never see anything particularly special about these abundant backyard guys fluttering around my grandmother’s garden. She would throw out the toast crusts from breakfast to feed the sparrows every morning before doing the dishes.

Little did I know about the lowly little brown sparrow until I began to read up on these frequent visitors beneath my bird feeders in the winter. Its hard to pay attention to these drab fellows when constantly distracted by the bright green of hummingbirds or the brilliant yellow of goldfinches. The hummers are all gone south now and the bright yellow goldfinches have turned dull winter green. Cardinals are remain distracting with their bright red, but it becomes easier to spot the little chirping sparrows without the presence of all the eye catchers.

LBJ’s are what sparrows are known as to birders, according to The Spruce. LBJ’s, code for Little Brown Jobs, got that designation because of how notoriously hard to identify they are. Birds and Blooms, in a wonderful article by Sally Roth, says there are over 33 species of sparrows. Oh my! No wonder birders call them LBJ’s! House Sparrows like the one I painted are the most abundant according to All About Birds and have lived around humans for centuries. Audubon says House Sparrows live in military-like units with an identifiable male leader marked by the most distinct black head markings. Now I’m going to be out searching for him!

Sparrow in a tree

Sparrows come up in multiple stories from folklore. Owl cation has a great round up of the details of sparrow legend in many cultures. Ancient Greeks felt sparrows were associated with the goddess of love while Indonesians believed a sparrow meant coming marriage or the birth of a baby. In China, sparrows are harbingers of good luck. The Celts thought sparrows kept ancestral knowledge. To Egyptians, sparrows carried the souls of the deceased to heaven. The Bible and other ancient writings believed sparrows were symbols of God’s presence and His love for everything. When examining a sparrow on someone’s tattoo. the meaning could be any one of the above. Or at one time, sparrows were common tattoos for sailors who believed if they died at sea, a sparrow would carry their soul to heaven.

When seeing a representation of a sparrow, now you will have to stop and think what the intended meaning is. Is it good luck? Somebody’s pregnant? Could be any one of several meanings. To my grandmother, there was one meaning and one meaning only. God was watching over us all so worry was useless. She was evidently on to something because Audubon says the House Sparrow is one of the most abundant songbirds in North America for one reason: it associates with humans. Hmmm…

Sally Roth has a great book titled An Eye on The Sparrow that can be purchased from Amazon, (mine is on the way!) and you can read more about the book at: Goodreads

As for me, I think I’ll paint some more of these LBJs while I listen to their sweet singing in the shrubs outside my front window!

Colorful Fridays-Rich Man’s Blue

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When the color achieves richness, the form attains its fullness, also.” Paul Cezanne (from The Painter’s Keys)

From King Tut’s tomb to 14thcentury illuminated manuscripts to the luxurious robes of the Byzantine Madonnas, ultramarine blue has been used to illustrate the importance of the person or object depicted. Ultramarine blue earned this place in art from the high cost of its chief ingredient, lapis lazuli.  The introduction of the semi-precious mineral into Europe likely came from Marco Polo through Venice, say some accounts.

According to the website of The University of Hull (UK), Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) painted only with true ultramarine.  Vermeer’s pure whites were achieved by the mixing of ultramarine with lead white.  Hull reports that due to the high cost of ultramarine blue most artists had chosen to use a less expensive blue made with azurite.  However, this did not have the brilliance of the true ultramarine.  Vermeer chose only the pure form.  And his “Woman with a Water Pitcher” beautifully exemplifies this choice in the woman’s white head covering and her rich blue gown.  Hull’s in-depth description of ultramarine is a fascinating read.

Another website, EssentialVermeer.com has a more in-depth description of the process Vermeer utilized in the painting, “Woman with a Water Pitcher” and others.  Essential Vermeer has detailed and enlarged portions of Vermeer’s paintings where the artist has used ultramarine in the shadows of pure white objects to maintain the luminosity of object.  The more famous Vermeer painting, “Woman with a Pearl Earring,” also had the characteristic use of ultramarine.

Gamblin states ultramarine is a great glazing color and calls it one of the few mineral colors to be “completely transparent.”  Golden Paints gives ultramarine blue an excellent permanency rating and a lightfastness of one (very lightfast). Synthetic ultramarine is what is now produced by both companies, as well as most other art suppliers.

Synthetic versions of ultramarine didn’t arrive until the early 1900’s when the cost came down markedly.  If you want to make your own ultramarine blue, the pure pigment can be purchased from the Dutch company, Kremer Pigmente.  Kremer specializes in reproducing, as close to exact as possible, pigments of the original Old Master’s paint formulas.  Kremer’s pigments are widely used in the restoration process of Old Master’s paintings.  A word of warning though, if you are planning to purchase original formula Ultramarine Blue pigment, you will quickly see why it isthe rich man’s blue.

Purchase Kremer pigments here

The painting “Woman with a Water Pitcher” is in the original collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tuesday Morning Bird-Pelicans

White Pelican, oil on canvas

The white pelicans are arriving in my part of the US on a daily basis. They will hang out here for the winter. Large numbers of them come to Kentucky Lake and Reelfoot Lake every year. The numbers of winter arrivals have been increasing in recent years. The white pelicans are mostly people-shy and stay well away from populated areas, hanging out in large flocks. It hasn’t been easy to get decent photos to paint from. It will take a longer lens to catch up to these shy guys. There are comparisons between the white ones arriving for the winter and the brown ones more associated with the Gulf coastal areas. The brown pelicans I have encountered in coastal areas are not nearly as camera and people shy as their white counterparts. Some brown pelicans appear to actually pose for the camera. While the white ones remain on the far side of the lake shore the brown ones will sit around on the docks and and the water’s edge begging for scraps.

Brown Pelican, Marco Island, FL

Pelicans have always appeared to me to be a bit prehistoric in their look. Turns out they may actually be prehistoric as fossils have turned up that are almost 30 million years old. Of course the ones we are now familiar with have evolved a bit over the last 30 million years but are similar enough to the fossilized version to be easily identified. That’s pretty old! Maybe that is part of the reason that make these birds fascinating survivors. Quite adept at fishing, the brown ones are also good at hanging around the docks when the local fishermen bring in their daily catch patiently waiting for the fish cleaning process to leave bits for them to quickly pick up.

White Pelican, miniature oil on canvas

As an ancient bird, pelicans have figured in folklore for many centuries. It was believed that a mother pelican, lacking food for her young would actually pierce her chest with her beak so that the babies could drink her blood. That myth was eventually proven false but remains a legend still. It is believed that the pelican is a symbol for the passion of Jesus as she spills her blood for the survival of her children. Saint Thomas Aquinas even adds the pelican to his hymn, “Humbly We Adore Thee.” Queen Elizabeth I in medieval times is said to have taken on the symbology of the pelican and is seen in one portrait wearing a pelican broach. The pelican is the national bird of Romania and the state bird of Louisiana. Louisiana is known as the Pelican State. Several countries in the Caribbean have also adopted the pelican as their symbol. The pelican is quite revered as a symbol of self sacrifice, in spite of its rather awkward and ancient appearance.

Juvenile Pelican coming in for a Landing, Alligator Point, FL

Even with all the noble history and folklore surrounding the pelican, I tend to think of them as more comical. In this photo, a juvenile brown pelican was trying to perfect the art of landing on the water and having a bit of a struggle. He eventually mastered it and made for good entertainment as he repeatedly practiced. It was a great moment when he landed without so much splashing and thrashing. I wanted to cheer him on!

Pelicans were the subject of a witty limerick that has several variations. The original was written by fellow Tennessean, Dixon Lanier Merritt in 1910:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

Cheers to the wonderful pelican!

Colorful Fridays-Shady Green

Afternoon in the Park, oil on canvas

“Like emotions, colours are a reflection of life.” – Janice Glennaway (from Irene Osborne)

Most greens fall into the yellow spectrum following the colors of leaves, grass and other growing things of the natural world.  These greens usually produce a nice mud color if mixed with red.  The discovery of Viridian green changed that, creating a clear bluish green perfect for cooler uses and making a better glazing green.  Mixed with alizarin crimson, viridian makes a beautiful gray, similar to Payne’s gray.  Viridian next to red creates an energetic drama.

In the early nineteenth century, painters began looking for a less toxic green than the highly toxic emerald green.  Painting Through the Ages states that Viridian is Chromium oxide Dihydrate and was first patented in 1859 by Guignet of Paris.  It quickly became a widely used color.  So popular now it is even seen in the paint of cars as in the new Chevy Volt.  For artists, viridian’s uses vary according to artist but remains very popular and a “must have” right next to alizarin crimson.

Golden Paints says viridian green has excellent permanency.  And Gamblin says viridian is very good as a tint.  Paintmaking.com and others state viridian is excellent for oil painters but not the best green for water-based media.  Its transparent qualities and tinting ability do not hold up as well in acrylics, watercolor or gouache.

The writer of the website Paintmaking advises to pay attention to the quality of viridian as some manufacturers may not fully purify the pigment leaving problematic traces of borate and chromate.  In the case of Viridian, apparently, you will get what you pay for so test the different brands.  The quality is worth the price.

For oil painters, viridian makes a beautiful cool green for shade, water and other areas the yellowish greens would tend to heat up.  Few artists use it straight, usually diluting it with titanium white, ultramarine or alizarin.  Straight or mixed, viridian will grab attention, even in the shade.

For the daring, here is a guide to mixing your own viridian from Painting Through the Ages.

A color guide of the many beautiful mixes that can be made with viridian is demonstrated by Colorbay.com.

Wetcanvas.com has an excellent discussion (here) posted of artists explaining their uses of viridian green. Very informative!

Happy shady painting!

Falling for fall

Leaf drawing, pencil

When Fall arrives, it is a fresh opportunity to reflect on Nature’s beauty as the landscape changes from greens to reds, oranges and browns. To some it is the end of summer. To me, it means the beginning of the next phase of the year with new things of beauty to discover. Every year my Fall leaf collection grows. My favorite place to keep my leaf collection is in Gardner’s Art Through The Ages. I have two versions of the book. Occasionally, I need to check an art reference in one version or the other and leaves fall out every time I open either one. Just walking in a parking lot in October may yield new additions to the book! Some specimen have been in the books for more than 10 years. I can’t bring myself to ever throw any out. I love being outdoors and making art in the Fall. The crisp air and changing colors are perfect for nature journaling.

Fall Leaves, Ink and bamboo brush

There are so many ways to capture Fall leaves and other bits of Nature that seem to line all outdoor paths this time of year. Naturalist, John Muir Laws literally wrote the book, and course and workshop and more, on Nature Journaling. Laws believes that the way to get kids and others to appreciate and care for Nature is by journaling and creating art out in the wild, parks, or even your own back yard. His premise is the process of painting, drawing and identifying nature in its natural location leads to a greater understanding and love of Nature. And with greater love of nature, there will be more of a desire to protect and care for beautiful spaces where nature can be free to live and grow in its natural habitat. No artist’s or nature lover’s library is complete without a John Muir Laws book, workbook or reference book. Teachers will find a wealth of resources at Laws’ website. Fall is a great time to introduce working outdoors in nature and Laws has the tools to get started.

Maple Leaf, watercolor

.Another great resource, for taking your art outside to nature is Clare Walker Leslie. Leslie, also a naturalist and artist, believes one of the best ways to learn about our natural world is to keep a Nature Journal. She has books and other great resources on her website to help you get started. Leslie’s Nature Journal books are fairly simple to follow and can even work well for children. One of the great things about Nature Journaling with children is that it is also a great way to teach botany and other sciences. Her book, The Nature Connection, is a wonderful tool to use with kids and adult beginners. Teachers will find it full of resources and wonderful projects for classroom and field trips. I have a copy and love it. There are so many wonderful projects and tips. Nature Drawing is another favorite of Leslie’s for me.

Fall Leaves, watercolor pencil, water brush

My favorite tools for field sketching are watercolor pencils with a water brush. They are the easiest to carry requiring minimal supplies. No worry about water jars or easels. No special chairs or tables to go. When going to work in the wild you never know how far you will have go to find the plants and things to paint, so the fewer heavy things to carry, the better. A good mixed media sketchbook or journal with a hard cover is the best to work in. All that will be needed is a box of watercolor pencils, one or two water brushes, filled, and a pencil sharpener. Don’t forget to pack a snack and drink for yourself. You may get so engrossed you won’t want to go back to civilization too soon.

Fall Cypress Trees, oil pastel

Other tools for getting down your outdoor artistic expressions are many and varied. While my favorite is the watercolor pencils, I have also used oil pastel and oil paint. Oil pastels are also easily portable for outdoor use. The definition and detail of plants is more difficult with oil pastels but landscape impressions are perfect. Oil pastels capture vivid color, so necessary in Fall, in a way no other tool can. There are some very cool carrying cases available for oil pastels with shoulder straps. Mine is made from wood and is a thing of beauty in itself. I found it at Plaza Art Supply in Nashville. It is small and easy to carry. A mixed media sketchbook works well with oil pastels too.

Fall Park, oil on canvas

Plein Air painting was the choice of the Impressionists. In fact, the the name came from their habit of painting outdoors to capture the “impressions” of what they were seeing. The term, though meant as derogatory, was embraced by the Impressionists. The Artists Network has a great description of Plein Air painting. There are many wonderful plein air painting groups who will go together to beautiful places to paint as the Impressionists did. Check your area to see if you have one locally. If not, start one! Nashville has the wonderful Chestnut Group. Check out all the wonderful things the Chestnut group does. The Forgotten Coast of Florida has a yearly Plein Air event at Apapalchicola and Carabelle, FL.

Nature Painting at Percy Warner Park

We took our Botanical Style Watercolor workshop from Watkins College of Art at Belmont University to Percy Warner Park in Nashville last week end. Even though it was cold, rainy and dreary, we had a wonderful time doing field sketches with watercolor pencils. We collected specimen and worked at the picnic tables under a shelter. The next day, we took our field sketches and made finished watercolor Botanical Style paintings in the studios at Belmont. It took a while to thaw out Saturday night but it was still a wonderful time. There is just nothing like being out in nature to paint it. I prefer the studio for finished work but field sketching creates a sense of actually getting in touch with nature. Pick your favorite tools or try some new ones. Then get outside and get to work!

Check out all the fun we had last week end!

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