Spring Bird Sketches

This time of year is full of distractions for me; I sit down to read a book, but the bird activity outside every window draws my attention and makes it hard for me to focus on the written word. I am occupied nearly all day long “reading” the wonders of nature, of new life and of hard-working parent birds, in addition to the glories of spring flowers of all sizes and colors. The birds are singing their most vociferously, and they are coming and going from our feeders all days long.

This spring we have a Robin pair nesting in the entrance to my garden shed, right under the deck below our front door. I’m trying to minimize how much we go in and out that door, so as to lessen disturbances that frighten the mama off her nest. When she’s not on her nest I sometimes slip over quietly to take a quick photo so I can then sketch the nest. I prefer to sketch from life for my sketchbook, but I can’t see into the nest without disturbing the mother, so photos have to suffice in this case. (If you click on the image you’ll be able to read my notes about when the eggs were laid and when they hatched.)

We have two pairs of Bluebirds nesting in natural holes in stumps of dead trees in our woods. One pair is in the woods on the western side of our yard and the other in the woods on the eastern side, across the stream.

The nesting hole of the Bluebirds on the western side of our woods (BW) faces east toward the back window of my bungalow where I start my mornings in prayer and Bible reading, and they have provided plenty of distraction, since I can watch their comings and goings unobserved. I watched early on as the female was clearly spending most of her time incubating eggs, with the male going back and forth, then I was able to see the last baby being fed before he (or she) finally left the nest to join his siblings in the trees. Now the parents are constantly back and forth from our deck, filling their beaks with seed or suet, then flying back to the trees.

The Bluebirds on the eastern side (BE) have their nest higher up in a much taller, thinner stump. Their nest hole also faces east, so I haven’t been able to observe it easily, since I have to go way back in the woods to see it. What I have been able to observe, however, is the differences in behavior of the two pairs.

The BW male seems to be dominant, and he frequently perches on top of the tall corner posts of our deck, from whence he chases the BE male away. Once I saw the BW male chasing the BE female away, and I’ve seen the BW female chasing the BE female away. The BW male also seems to have become so territorial that he often starts tapping at his reflection in or kitchen window. Fortunately leaving the kitchen lights on seems to lessen the reflections enough that he desists from that vain effort and returns to feeding his family (and fortunately our lights are LED’s so they don’t use much electricity and don’t generate much heat).

We’ve also been enjoying the beautiful singing of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks! On April 29th we had a beautiful, mature male stop by. We haven’t seen him since, but a female showed up briefly on May 5th, and then yesterday and today we’ve had a first year male singing off and on all day, including while standing atop out feeder pole! I haven’t sketched him yet, but here are my sketches of the mature male. As with all the Bluebird sketches, the sketches were done from life, with color added later.

 

Zoo Sketches

Much as I enjoy landscape painting, my favorite subjects are animals, especially wildlife, and, more than anything else, I love sketching them from life, when I can observe their behavior as I capture them in my sketchbook. It’s not easy to sketch live animals unless they’re sleeping, but that’s a challenge I enjoy. I tend to have many partially done sketches on a page and may or may not complete any, but those are some of my favorite sketchbook pages to look back at. Even looking at sketches from years ago, I can almost always remember the specific animals and their actions.

While I prefer to sketch wildlife in the wild, I appreciate the variety of species I can observe, learn about, and sketch at a well-run zoo. Here is a sampling of my Zoo sketches, most from the Bronx Zoo, some from the Trevor Zoo that’s run by the Millbrook School here in Dutchess County, and some from the St. Louis Zoo. These are all sketches done from life, sometimes in freezing or raining conditions. Generally I leave them as I’ve done them at the zoo, but sometimes I add watercolor later. I don’t consider these great art, but they were great fun to do, and I look forward to more sketching at the Trevor Zoo and the Bronz Zoo now that Covid restrictions are easing.

The hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” by Cecil Francis Alexander is a favorite of mine that I think about often as I enjoy many aspects of God’s creation, and it seems a fitting conclusion to my A to Z Blogging posts.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all. 

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

The purple headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Author: Ce­cil F. Al­ex­an­der, Hymns for Lit­tle Child­ren, 1848

A to Z April Blogging Z

You

Who are you? I’m sure you can readily answer that, especially if I were to meet you and ask who you are. You’d say your name and perhaps where you’re from, what you do for a living or for enjoyment. And I’d be glad to meet you and would thank you for reading my blog.

But who are You? I wouldn’t yet know the real You after a brief introduction. In yesterday’s post I wrote about xanthophylls, the beautiful yellow pigment of autumn foliage, hidden beneath the green of chlorophyll in leaves all summer, that we can’t see until the chlorophyll fades. Who are You beneath the vibrant, visible exterior? The inner You who will still be there when all else fades, as it eventually will for all of us?

If I were to lose all of my abilities and even the roles that are part of my identity (wife, mother, friend), I would struggle tremendously with the loss of all that, but there would still be the core or essence of who I am that can never be taken from me. The real Me that’s been there all along, not always visible, but nonetheless active and alive. I suppose I will be growing in the knowledge of who I am my whole life; so far, the more I know my inner self, the more I am thankful for the life I have been given.

Who is the real You, the essence of who you are, and how do you think of yourself? I find it encouraging to meditate on how God thinks of You and of Me:

God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

For we are God’s handiwork… Ephesians 2:10

For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” Zephaniah 3:17

A to Z April Blogging Y

Xanthophylls

I’m always happy to draw an X in Scrabble, but so far this has been the most challenging letter for this A to Z challenge. I considered writing about the obvious– X-rays, but don’t have any cool X-rays I could use, and besides, what would I say about X-rays? Hmmm…what if I could have X-ray vision? Maybe not so exciting if all I could see were bones, fascinating though they might be for a science nerd like me, but what if I could see not just bones, but all that is hidden inside all sorts of things…

But, lacking X-ray vision, I decided on Xanthophylls, a group of yellow and orange pigments found in many plants and animals. Lutein is a xanthophyll pigment that makes egg yolks yellow and that we have in our eyes that protects our eyes from the damaging effects of ultraviolet light. It’s also found in dark leafy green vegetables like kale, turnip greens, and collards, which is one of many reasons they’re good for us. Salmon and shrimp get their pinkish-orange color from astaxanthin, another xanthophyll, that has anti-inflammatory and other healthful effects.

More interesting to me as an artist, xanthophylls are the pigments responsible for the beautiful yellow and golden colors we see in fall leaves. What I find fascinating is that they are there in the leaves all through the summer, but there’s so much green chlorophyll that the yellow pigments (as well as red pigments) are masked, until the chlorophyll begins to degrade in the fall. But even though we can’t see the xanthophylls all summer, they are performing valuable functions for the leaf.

One function is to capture light of wavelengths that the chlorophyll can’t absorb. After converting that light to energy, the xanophyll passes the energy along to the chlorophyll, which uses it to make sugars. I really like the idea that the xanthophylls quietly perform this important support function for the more visible chlorophyll. Another function the xanthophylls perform is to protect the leaf from excess sunlight which could damage it. They do this by converting the light into heat and dissipating it.

Along with many other landscape painters, by the end of the summer I am tired of painting green. It can be difficult to mix greens to realistic foliage colors, and too much green in a painting can be monotonous. I’m always eager for the kaleidoscope of autumn colors to appear and transform the landscape. It fascinates me to think of those colors that I so eagerly anticipate being there all along, working quietly behind the scenes.

Thinking about that now, as green is emerging everywhere, makes me wonder how much beauty there is in all the world, and even in people, that is currently hidden from my sight. If I just had X-ray vision that would enable me to see beyond the ordinary to the beauty beneath the surface!

A to Z April Blogging X

Waterfalls

I am not really into collecting things. I used to have a brass collection, but gave it away after it spent several years in a box collecting dust, which is the only collection I have around the house these days. (I just came across a couple cans of brass cleaner, so if anyone has a brass collection in need of polishing, I am happy to give you some cleaner.) But I do collect waterfalls. Not in their wet form, of course, but in my memory and in my sketchbook, which helps my memory of them.

I find waterfalls challenging to paint or sketch, but it’s a challenge I enjoy, and, whether or not I am sketching, I am always entranced by waterfalls. I remember standing above Niagara Falls many years ago, transfixed by the water pouring by below me as it rushed toward the falls. I could have stood for hours, awed by the immensity of the power. And then two years ago a lifelong dream came true, as Stephen and I stood across from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. I had read about Victoria Falls and often said I wanted to see it someday, but I knew that would never happen. And then it did! I will never forget the wonder of seeing that incredible wall of rock and water with a rainbow glowing in the mist rising from the rocky gorge.

As exciting as those immense waterfalls are, I still find even tiny waterfalls that I can easily hop over eye-catching and worth watching, as I am filled with wonder at the ever-changing flow of the water.

My brother Alexis is a photographer who loves to search out and photograph waterfalls, some in exciting places far from home, but many in hidden spots right near where he lives not far from Washington, D.C. You can see and read about some of the beautiful waterfalls he has visited on his website: Alexis Thompson

Here is a sampling of my collection of waterfalls, some very simple, some more detailed, all holding memories of rocks, tumbling water, and wonder.

Niagara Falls-Sept. 2000
Fishkill Ridge Trail along Dry Brook (which isn’t dry)- 2015
Fishkill Ridge Trail along Dry Brook– 2015
Fishkill Overlook Falls- 2018
Grotto Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park- 2011
Rainbow Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park– 2011
Looking Glass Falls in Pisgah National Forest, NC- 2019
Indian Brook Falls- 2018
Riga Falls– 2012
Kaaterskill Falls– 2015
Bash Bish Falls in watercolor — 2013
Bash Bish Falls gouache- 2020
Victoria Falls–2019– a place of wonder!

A to Z April Blogging W

Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve always loved Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings and admired his mastery of color and texture, so was thrilled when my father took me to a Van Gogh exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was fabulous seeing so many of his paintings, drawings, and sketches, and I felt I gained a more intimate knowledge of him through studying his drawings and sketches.

When I read Vincent Van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art, by Carol Berry, I found much that inspired me about his art and his life. Early on Vincent became a pastor/evangelist because of his love of and compassion for the poorest people he could find—miners living in darkness and misery. He determined to live with them and as they did, in abject poverty and identifying with them as he ministered to their bodies and souls, caring for the sick and sharing the love of Christ with them, to the great consternation of his family and the religious establishment of the day. From his letters to his brother Theo:

I wish I could get a position there as an evangelist, just as we talked about it, preaching the Gospel to the poor—those who need it most and for whom it is so well meant                                                                                                                              (Laken, on or about November 13 and 15, or 16, 1878; Quoted in Berry, p. 41)

Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one. I tell you that I think it absolutely necessary to believe in God in order to be able to love. What I mean is, to believe in God is to feel that there is a God, not dead or on display, but a God who is alive, who with irresistible force urges us toward an “aimer encore.” (Etten, November 23, 1881; Quoted in Berry, p. 69)

Vincent’s drawings and paintings often feature poor miners and peasants, as he sought to serve them by emphasizing their worth and the value of their labor. He felt that by drawing the poor and destitute in the harsh reality of their existence, rather than by romanticizing their lives, those who were more fortunate would come to love and care for them, loving their neighbor as themselves.

Peasant life is something serious, and I, for one, would blame myself if I didn’t try to make paintings that would give serious things to think about to people who think seriously about art and about life… One must paint the peasants as being himself one of them, as feeling, thinking as they do themselves.
(Nuenen, April 30, 1885; Quoted in Berry, p. 119)

Another aspect of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters and paintings that strikes a chord with me are his thoughts about and depiction of nature.

But in the meantime I’m always fed by nature. I exaggerate, I sometimes make changes in the theme, but in the end I don’t invent the whole content of the painting; on the contrary, I find it all completely there in nature—but it has to be disentangled.  (Arles, on or about October 5, 1888 ; Quoted in Berry, p. 151)

There is at times something indescribable in those aspects—it is as if the whole of nature is speaking—and when one goes home one has the feeling as if one has read a book by Victor Hugo, for example. As for me, I cannot understand that not everybody sees it and feels it. Doesn’t nature or God do it for everyone who has eyes and ears and a heart to understand? It seems to me that a painter is happy, because he lives in harmony with nature, as soon as he can express, to some extent, what he sees. (The Hague, November 26 and 27, 1882; Quoted in Berry, p. 176)

An artist friend of mine who has copied well over 300 of Van Gogh’s paintings plans to paint replicas of all of Van Gogh’s almost 900 paintings, and he has given many as gifts to friends and coworkers. Seeing his work has inspired me to try copying some Van Gogh paintings in order to learn from his style. Here is my copy in gouache of Van Gogh’s “Old Yew Tree”

My goal in studying any artist’s style is not to change my style to be just like theirs, but to learn from them and incorporate into my own style what fits with who I am. This is similar to how I learn from and incorporate lessons from people I respect, whether in the realm of art, or their approach to daily life, or how they live out their faith. As the Apostle Paul said, “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” Philippians 3: 17

Here are a few paintings I have done as I try to figure out what I want to incorporate into my painting style from Van Gogh’s example:

Vassar Farm White Oak- gouache

A to Z April Blogging V

Understanding

I’ve been enjoying studying Spanish for the past couple of months, and I’m progressing pretty well at the beginner level of the program I’m using. I know a fair number of words now, but when I hear a few sentences of Spanish spoken at a normal speed using those words, I’m completely lost. I understand the meanings of the individual words, but I am nowhere near any real understanding of Spanish, even using simple words. Thinking about that today got me pondering “understanding.” How often do I mistake dictionary definitions for understanding?

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle describes how when she read Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, “I was determined to understand it. I read intelligently, with a dictionary beside me, stopping to look up the scientific words which were not familiar to me. And I bogged down. So I put aside the dictionary and read as though I were reading a story, and quickly I got drawn into the book…and understood it far better, at a deeper level, than if I had stuck with the dictionary.” (p. 36)

I’ve been birding for years now and can easily identify most of the common bird species in our area by sight and many of them by their songs. I know some of these species well enough to sketch them without even looking at them. But while I’ve slowed down and been taking retreat time this past week, I’ve been sketching the various Downy Woodpeckers that come to our feeders, and discovering little differences in their plumage, so that now I can distinguish three different females and three different males, each unique. Before, I knew what a Downy Woodpecker was, but now I’m coming to know them as individuals, and I’m guessing that as I observe them further, I’ll discern differences in their behavior. It may not be particularly profound to know individual woodpeckers, but pondering that makes me think of understanding people. Do I content myself with knowing facts about people I “know,” or do I seek to understand them and who they really are?

When I was homeschooling my children, I wanted to teach them French, but wasn’t sure of the best approach, so I called my high school French teacher, Mr. John Creary, for whom I had a great deal of respect and with whom I had stayed in contact. I thought Mr. Creary might suggest either a particular curriculum, or some more general approach to teaching French. Instead, he said, “French is language, and the purpose of language is communication. The most important communication is with God, so make sure you teach your children to know and communicate with God before you teach them French.” How often do I settle for a comfortable level of comprehension, missing deeper understanding that builds relationships with people, and more importantly, with God?

“Give me understanding, that I may live.”
Psalm 119:144

A to Z April Blogging U

Time

Musings on Time

Twenty-four hours, with bookends of bed
Birth to death an unknown span

How do I use it?
On what do I spend it?
Do I buy it? Can I save it?
Is time a commodity
its value in doing?

What do I spend as I try to buy more,
only to end just where I started?
What do I lose as I spend what I have,
only to find this moment has passed?

Day length and length of days
One is fixed, the other a mystery

A to Z April Blogging T

Stephen

Wednesday, February 10, 1982 was bitter cold, with a typical Finger Lakes icy wind blowing off Cayuga Lake, numbing my hands and bare legs. I had dressed up for dinner at our favorite nice restaurant, The Boxcar Restaurant. Usually we just went to Joe’s to get chef salads, but every now and then we’d dress up and go to The Boxcar. Dressing up meant a knee length dress of some sort of homespun cotton, very much the style I’d still wear, knee socks, and my thin down jacket that let the wind blow in through every seam. Not adequately warm for that strikingly clear, nearly full moon night with temps hovering near zero and the ever-present wind rushing up from the lake.

I was young and starry-eyed enough to willingly brave the cold when Stephen suggested we walk up to the overlook above my apartment after dinner. Below us Ithaca’s lights spangled the night between where we stood and the darkness of the lake. And then Stephen asked me to marry him, and I said yes. Actually, it wasn’t quite that simple…

When Stephen had called my parents’ home earlier that day to ask my father for my hand in marriage, my father had replied, “You may ask her, but she has to call me before she answers.” My mother later said she’d told my father that requiring me to call before answering was the most bizarre thing she’d ever heard. With a mother’s intuition she had immediately known why Steve was calling, whereas my usually astute father had been taken off guard.

So when Steve had dropped to one knee, taken my numb hands in his warm ones  and asked if I would marry him, he immediately followed his proposal with, “But you can’t answer yet; you need to call your father first.” We hurried to my apartment to find my roommate on the phone, so then ran to a friend’s apartment, where the phone was thankfully available. I called my father, got his blessing (he just wanted to ask me if I was happy), after which we went back out into the clear, cold night, where I said, “Yes!”

These 39 years have held plenty of challenges, some due to our immaturity at the time we  married, some to the normal stresses of raising children, especially while Stephen was still in grad school and we were living in a very cramped, cold, thin-walled apartment (we used to have an inch or more of ice on the inside of the sliding glass door and the bedroom windows), and some due to childhood issues that erupted like a volcano years after we got married.

But now, nearly four decades later, our lives have melded into one life- two lives in one- each richer and more steady than we would be alone, more complete as individuals because of the other, at the same time incomplete without the other. Stephen is my favorite subject to sketch and my favorite person to spend time with.

The following sketches were all done from life, most of them while Stephen was reading to me, which he has done nearly every evening for many years. His birthday present to me one year was that he would read a book of my choice to me in the evenings. After some thought I chose The Hobbit, knowing that we would then want to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which we did. By then we were hooked on reading aloud as a companionable way to close our day, and I’m guessing he has since read at least a hundred books of various genres aloud.

A to Z April Blogging S

Retreat

“You have no events scheduled today.”

When I see that in my Inbox, I feel as though I have been handed a gift. And I have—a gift of time, time to disengage, unwind, rest, play, or read. To walk with Ramble, to sit with Acadia purring on my lap and a cup of tea in my hand, to sketch and write. When that gift is combined with solitude and silence, I begin to find and draw forth the quieter parts of myself, the parts that slip into the background when I live with noise and the busyness of daily life and my inner compulsion to keep constantly connected with the world via the email, texts, and phone calls (thankfully I am only occasionally on social media these days, so that is less of a factor than it used to be).

I’ve set aside a few days as a retreat. While I won’t have complete solitude, much of my time will be alone, and I will see that welcome message in my Inbox each morning, if I look at my email at all. The first day of a retreat is more of a puttering day for me, as I gradually disengage from my usual responsibilities. Even though my calendar may tell me I am unscheduled, my mind takes a bit longer to let go. That’s why I try to set aside three or more days of retreat once or twice a year. So today I puttered around the house and in my garden, my mind gradually slowing down and moving into a more relaxed state.

Tomorrow I expect to be more and less focused. Less focused on “shoulds” and more focused on trees and birds and spring flowers and what they reveal about myself or about God. By day three I am usually more “in the moment” and in a more relaxed attitude of prayer and contemplation than I typically am, better able to let go of the “This is a retreat; I want to make the most of it,” frame of mind and instead just walk through the day appreciating the life I have, in a more natural connection with the quieter parts of who I am and in communion with God.

I generally find that for the first few days of an extended retreat I am withdrawing from people, cherishing the respite I feel from being over-connected and over-committed. After that I begin to look outward again, as my inner being has become rested and refreshed, and I find myself looking forward to connecting. But I’m not there yet, so now, I will step away from my computer and into the peace of my retreat.

I wrote this piece two days ago on the first day of my retreat. Below are my sketches from Days 1 & 2. And now I will once again step away from my computer and return to the refreshing rest of retreat.

Musings after spending several hours sketching an oak tree

 

A to Z April Blogging R