Tuesday Morning Bird-American Goldfinch

Rose Goldfinch, watercolor on paper

The male American Goldfinch sports beautiful bright yellow plumage in the summer and is not to be confused with the European Goldfinch popularized by the book and movie. Only the males have the sunny yellow color to deflect attention from the more green color of the females. The females are much more difficult to spot as they blend in quite well with the leaves and stems of the flowers. A few years ago, I learned the hard way about how much goldfinches love zinnia seeds. Beside my patio, I planted several varieties of zinnias. The riot of color was wonderful, it was a pleasure to sit out in the mornings checking out the early sun reflecting off the still dew covered petals. Then one day as I came to sit, I noticed the patio was strewn with the multi-colored petals of the zinnias. Checking out the flowers, there were a number of them with the exposed seed cones and none or few petals left. At first I thought the wind was blowing the petals away. But then it was happening on the days when there was no wind. It became a daily occurrence. I set out to solve the mystery!

Goldfinch and zinnia

It took a few days but I finally caught up with the culprits. There was a pair of them, male and female, having a feast off the zinnias. Every time I tried to get a good photo, they were off. A couple of quick evade artists, the two of them were. Eventually, I was able to use my phone to catch them in the act. What a laugh they gave me! Now I try to always plant zinnias for the goldfinches. When I put the photo to the right up on the computer, I noticed his leg position and the zinnia formed a heart. I think he was thanking me for the feast he and his lady were able to enjoy from my garden. When my sweet friend, Christy Tucker, told me about the work she was doing with her organization, Rose Goldfinch, in helping women escape human trafficking, I knew that little goldfinch from the zinnias would be the inspiration for a painting for Christy to help in her work. Maybe that was why the little guy was sending out his heart!

Goldfinch, oil on canvas

The painting for Rose Goldfinch led me to search out more information on the Goldfinch since he became popularized by the book and movie. I confess that I did not make it through the book and did not see the movie. I am a fool for happy endings and sappy chick books. Moody books and movies just don’t make into my brain. Call me chicken but there it is. And the painting that became the inspiration for the book by Donna Tartt, was by 17th Century Dutch artist, Carel Fabritius. The painting appeared to me, to be horribly depressing and after looking it up, I found out why. Fabritius has depicted the common practice at the time of keeping the birds as pets by tethering them by the leg which is the case in the painting. No wonder it is depressing! Here is a story about the history of the painting: “The Secret history behind the Goldfinch painting.” The book received a Pulitzer and by all accounts it is an amazing work of art.

But why the goldfinch? The beautiful little bird of both the American and European varieties appears in folklore as a happy little guy. Some sources say he is symbolic of happiness and friendship. Religious writings say he is a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. The little bird is also given the significant meaning of indicating a rising from the sick bed. Animals Matter to God gives a detailed description of this important meaning attributed to our little yellow friend. Perhaps the most significant of the Resurrection Symbolism comes from a painting by Raphael called Madonna Del Cardillino or Madonna of the Goldfinch. some sources say a goldfinch flew by Christ at the Crucification.

As a whole the goldfinch is a positive little happy bird who only wants to eat zinnia seeds and sing his little heart out. The beautiful singing the goldfinch is known for became the inspiration for a concerto for flute from the great, Vivaldi. Flute music, to me always reminds of the singing of birds and this concerto is no different. A great way to sit back and relax is to plant some zinnias and turn on Vivaldi and watch the goldfinches feast on the zinnias and sing away. The colorful carpet they created on my patio from the multi colored petals of the flowers were an added source of beauty and enjoyment. It reminds me of the purpose of flower girls in a wedding, spreading carpets of flower petals for the couple to walk on. With zinnias and goldfinches around, colorful carpet and beautiful music will always be present.

The zinnias are over for this year but the goldfinches stay throughout the winter. Their bright yellow feathers turn to a brownish green so they blend with the winter landscape. I have put up the thistle feeder so that the finches can eat all winter too. No petals to spread but at least I can keep watching the happy little guys through the cold months too.

Here is Vivaldi’s concerto: Goldfinch

And here is a comparison of the actual birdsong to Vivaldi’s version. How did he do?

If you would like to make a donation to the work of Rose Goldfinch follow the link to their Facebook page.

And then there were three

3 Sunflowers, watercolor on paper

One lonely sunflower became two sunflowers. Two was not enough. A third was added using the same process. Who knows? Maybe there will be a fourth and a fifth until there is a whole field of flowers. Or this is enough and a new painting will start with three and become four. The technique previously outlined in Drawing Expansion, makes it so easy to add more flowers without fear of messing up the original. The second flower was added first and completed before the third flower was brought in. Some people would say it should be done altogether in the beginning. It could be. Then again what if you didn’t know you wanted to add more until you saw the first flower. Drawing them in one at a time gave me the ability to choose to add more or see what a difference each would make while I could still change it.

2 Sunflowers with 3rd drawing

The two sunflowers together looked more fun than the single sunflower. But they just didn’t quite cut it. They needed a third friend. My great aunt, Sade, was a wonderful cook. She used to say, “if one stick of butter would make it good, two would make it better!” In this case, three would make it better! But the third friend wanted to be a bit different so it turned toward the sun in a different direction. One of the many fascinations with sunflowers is that they turn each day to follow the sun as it moves across the sky. This third sunflower decided to get a jump on the other two and start turning before they did. As in the previous painting, I started with an outline drawing to see how the third flower would fit into the overall painting before I committed to add it.

2 sunflowers with completed 3rd drawing

After I settled on the placement, I put the details in with a 7H Musgrave Unigraph pencil. The third drawing went much faster as the structure of sunflowers has become more familiar. Each new flower made the details that much easier. The difference on the the third flower was the depiction of the back of the bloom. That was another reason to turn the flower. The beautiful green on the back needed to show off. In doing the first two face on, the back didn’t get a chance to show. Now it will. Once I decided I liked the three together, I downloaded them to Fine Art America to see how they looked on different products. I don’t know if I like the tote or the pillow the best but I’m definitely getting a sunflower face mask. Maybe a mug too. In these days of everybody wearing a face mask, sunny sunflowers are one way of cheering up a masked face. Someone came to the sunflower painting class at Cheekwood with a different sunflower mask. For the next sunflower painting class, I will have my own sunflower mask!

Colorful Fridays-Accidental Blue


There are connoisseurs of blue just as there are connoisseurs of wine.” Colette (fromThe Painter’s Keys)

Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” relied on a newly discovered blue. Picasso could not have managed his “Blue Period,” without this very unique blue paint. Many artists look for ways to save money on supplies without compromising quality. Such was the case with eighteenth century Berlin artist, Diesbach when he stumbled upon the ingredients for making a new blue paint later called Prussian Blue.

Blue was expensive for artists in the early seventeen hundreds. Painters used very little blue in their works, reserving it for the most reverent religious depictions. Diesbach was actually working on a mix for reds when his local chemist sold him iron sulfate and contaminated potash. Oil made from animals was the contaminant. It was this potash that set up the chemical reaction that became Prussian blue. It gained in popularity throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Winsor & Newton began selling Prussian Blue in 1878. The name derives from its use as the color of the uniforms of the Prussian Army in the early eighteenth century on.

Chemistry World gives a detailed description of the actual chemical reaction that creates Prussian Blue. Since I barely muddled through college chemistry, I won’t attempt to describe the process and suggest following the link to Chemistry World for a fascinating account. Their essay also outlines the use of Prussian Blue on patients with certain radioactive poisoning or thallium contamination. Good to know if you are ever in that situation!

Prussian Blue’s name was changed by Crayola to Midnight Blue in the 1950’s because it was felt few would understand the name. Prussian Blue continues to be a popular paint to many painters, myself included, though some complain that its light fastness might be lacking. I exercise care when using Prussian Blue because of its ability to quickly overtake other colors. For some fun reading on Prussian Blue tryJoshua Cohen’s “Thirty-six shades of Prussian Blue” (though not to be confused with a book of a similar title concerning grays!).

And if you would like to imitate those eighteenth century artists and make your own Prussian Blue, here is a YouTube demonstration by Dr. Mark Foreman:


Drawing expansion

Sunflower with drawing, watercolor and pencil

There are times when I look at a painting and know it has to go further. Its just not done. But its also a bit scary to think of adding another flower or some other item to a painting. What it I mess up? What if there are too many mistakes in the new addition that ruins the whole painting? Both are distinct possibilities. How can i minimize the likelihood of mistakes that will bring down the whole piece? There are some steps that can decrease these possibilities. Today, I worked on a way to incorporate a new flower into the painting without destroying the whole thing. I followed 3 easy steps to bringing in the new flower.

sunflower sketch

First, I went to my drawing pad and began the drawing of a new flower. I made a preliminary drawing and worked on the proportions and size I wanted the new flower to be. I did not concentrate on details or even worry about them much at all. What I wanted was to get the size right. How would it look if the new flower was disproportionally small or large? If I tried to go directly to the painting and did not get the proportions correct, I would have to do a bit of erasing. And if I still didn’t get it right, more erasing. More erasing means higher chance of torn paper or other damage that would effect the paint later on. Getting the size and basic outline of the drawing first makes sense.

Sunflower Tracing

Once I had the size and proportions like I wanted them, I went for the tracing paper. Tracing paper is my favorite go-to for keeping a particular flower or other subject for future paintings. I put the tracing paper over the drawing and traced it. Next I remove the drawing from under the tracing paper and turn the tracing paper over to the back side and trace it again so that I have a drawing on both sides of the tracing paper. It is important to use a good dark pencil but preferably not a soft one. A soft one may have bits of graphite that will smear on the painting. For this tracing I used a Musgrave 600 NEWS pencil. Sometimes I will use a Prismacolor Ebony pencil. Either is a good choice for the tracing paper.

Sunflower Drawing

With the tracing paper drawing, I can play a bit with how I want the flower to be positioned in the painting. The tracing can be placed in several locations until I decide where I want the new flower to sit compared to the current one. Once I have decided on the placement, I take an H series pencil and trace the drawing over the tracing paper onto the painting. It is important in this stage to press just hard enough to make a mark that is visible but not so hard as to indent the paper or make the drawing so dark that erasing becomes necessary. For this drawing, I used the Musgrave Unigraph 7H pencil. Once the outline from the tracing has been transferred, I put the tracing away for future reference. I may want a sunflower in something else so I’ll keep the tracing for that. Once the basic outline is in place, I begin to add the shading using 3 different H series pencils, a 2H, 4H and 7H, 7H creates the lightest most delicate shading with the 2H in the darkest of shadows.

Once I have completed these 3 steps, I am ready to begin the paint process. Following these steps has allowed me to add another flower to the painting with a minimum of risk of damaging the rest of the painting with the new addition. It was so easy, I may add two or three more flowers to the painting before I call it complete.

These are the pencils I used in this exercise:

Musgrave Unigraph in 2H,4H and 7H
Musgrave 600 News

For the small amount of erasing, I used a white polymer eraser. I never use any other kind of eraser in a drawing for underpainting. The white polymer will do the least amount of damage to the paper.

Tuesday Morning Bird-Seagull

Ring-Billed Gull, oil on canvas

Audubon says the accurate term for this beautiful bird is “Gull” without the “sea” we are all so familiar with. The inspiration for this painting was actually flying over Old Hickory Lake just out side of Nashville, TN and is a Ring-Billed Gull according to Cornel’s All About Birds. The folklore surrounding gulls or seagulls is fairly thick from music to fables to plays to guitars and more. Why?

Ring-Billed Gull on Blue, oil on canvas

Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a cult classic fable when I was in school because of its theme of the freedom to fly off into a place where one could find one’s self. The Road Less Traveled became a popular book about the same time or shortly there after and we were all into freedom and following a different drummer and all that. The Frost poem became popular again. But how did gulls become the symbolism for that? Neil Diamond created some beautiful music for Jonathan Livingston Seagull that is still moving today. Bad Company recorded a sadly sweet song simply titled, “Seagull.” Neither really tell us why the seagull? Why not a pigeon? Or a robin? Or some other bird? Maybe its the way the gulls seem to soar into the setting sun out over water and back into shore. But that doesn’t explain their rude behavior at picnics and other places where they will swoop down and rip into a bag of potato chips and make off with them before you can get there to scare them off.

Laughing gull going after phone lady

You had better not let your guard down around a bunch of Laughing Gulls or they may just grab that phone right out of your hands as this lady nearly found out. Folklore surrounding gulls may be partly to blame for the mysticism. Native American folklore says the seagull is a symbol of a carefree attitude, versatility and freedom according to One Kind Planet. According to Morman tradition, a flock of gulls came down and devoured an invasion of crickets saving the food supply and earning the event the title of “The Miracle of the Gulls” and naming the Seagull as the state bird of Utah. Gulls raise their young in packs of “nurseries” looked over by the males until they are old enough to fly off on their own.

Anton Chekhov wrote a play in 1896, with the title of “Seagull” that I haven’t read or seen and don’t think I want to. The theme of lost opportunities and the clash between generations sounds thoroughly depressing to me. The song by Bad Company with the same title has the line, “You fly through the sky never asking why,” is a little more hopeful than the play and the music is hauntingly beautiful. We may never really know why the gulls are so fascinating and annoying too but does it really matter? We can just enjoy their beauty and sometimes funny personalities.

The description for the book, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” on Amazon says it all with this description: “Jonathan Livingston Seagullis an icon—a phenomenal bestseller celebrating the strength of the individual and the joy of finding one’s way.

This is a story for people who follow their hearts and make their own rules…people who get special pleasure out of doing something well, even if only for themselves…people who know there’s more to this living than meets the eye: they’ll be right there with Jonathan, flying higher and faster than ever they dreamed.”

For now, I think I’ll stick with the Richard Bach book as I paint more gulls, following the correct Audubon description and listening to Neil Diamond’s beautiful soundtrack from the movie. But my favorite line on seagulls is from the song by Bad Company, “Into the misty morning sun,” which sort of fits my first Seagull painting at the top of the page.

Here is the complete track to the Neil Diamond sound track to the movie:

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Here is the Bad Company song:


And if you get the urge to play one of these songs you can get a genuine “Seagull” guitar from:

Seagull Guitars