Sunday, May 22, 2016


“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” ~ Orson Welles

Forced to retreat
I have had an eye infection for the last few weeks that has been healing quite slowly, sometimes seeming stubborn and sullen and uncooperative.  O, the lessons I am learning…

Do you know how important eyesight is to a visual artist?  How it is their bread and butter as well as dessert?  And do you know how at 62 years old, I am kicking and pouting and being a poor example of adulthood to myself and the kids I teach on Sundays? 

Yet the restriction of using my eyes has opened new doors.  I have been thinking about limits and boundaries, about how artists are continually restrained by media, talent, or culture.  About how artists live in a physical body that limits what we can do, how we can express ourselves, how we can create.  About the boundaries of physical reality for all life.

I tell my drawing students that limitations are good for artists because they force us to be creative, to be excellent problem-solvers.  We discover things we may never have tried if left to trundle along in our comfortable wheel-ruts.  We reach a little higher and dig a little deeper, think sideways instead of left-brain linear.  We grow and we evolve, the honorable goal of all living things.  Limitations are vital to growth; the contradiction is that they assist in our unlimited-ness.

Fluffing and freezing - "I am big and invisible."
Because of my forced inaction, I have been tuned to the life-and-death dramas around me in the immediate natural world, dramas I normally miss because I am busy, busy, doing human things in a human world.  Yesterday as I rested my eyes, I heard a change in the drama soundtrack: birdsong had erupted into screeching warfare.  The source turned out to be a blue jay fledgling under the car, guarded by a housecat.  Tiny bird rescued and cat banished.  What to do? 

Ah, Google.

If bird appears unhurt (yes), has some feathers (yes), hop and flap their little-almost-wings (yes), then we are to leave it alone and let mother bird continue to feed and watch over their little one.  It is okay to move the bird to safety (I did).  It is a myth that parents will abandon their young if handled, and yes, mother bird did come back and feed her baby bird.  She also dive-bombed me several times during the move to safety, grabbing my scalp and hair with sharp little claws. 

The drama continues to unfold.  This tiny puff of blue jay fluff and pin feathers has become a kind of pivot point in my life.  Mom stays around and protects and feeds.  Baby hops about half-heartedly, waits for more feathers, and opens wide.  One night was tough, it rained and I worried.  I pace and urge them both to get on with it so I can relax and know that all is well.  I feel constrained by common sense and desire to help.  More limitations.  But then I remember the maxim of doctors, first do no harm.  As hard as it is, I leave things alone to unfold as they will.

Learning lessons
Patience, patience, awareness, and connections deepened are lessons I am learning.  I am attached to a tiny bit of God-life in a bird-body.  I am learning that it’s okay to age and to have the physical parts break down a bit here and there.  It is what it is.  It’s okay that first we live and then we die. To suffer loss.  It is what it is.  Limitations lead to freedom eventually.  Freedom leads to letting go…

Click on image to view larger
Watercolor sketch from photo
Daniel Smith watercolors
Arches cold-press 140 lb. wc paper

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Floridian in Montana ~ I am found and lost again

"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time."    ~  Thomas Merton

Upper Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park
I recently traveled to Montana through the generosity of a new friend, and had the opportunity to visit the towns of Bozeman and Gardiner and then Yellowstone National Park.  My past memories of Yellowstone include black bears begging for treats along a road filled with a line of family sedans from the 50’s and 60’s.  I also vividly remember the colors of minerals in the hot springs, the many earthy tones of rock, and the unforgettable fragrance of pine and spruce needles wafting up from the warming forest floor. 
Sketching the page above.
Although I love to sketch, one of my complaints is the process of separating oneself temporarily from immersion to get out drawing materials and begin.  And although I love to share my experiences, it is also difficult to set oneself apart in order to think and write coherently.  If only there was a way to share without that process!  Once started, my hope is that I can regain that immersion, that feeling of connectedness that is unexplainable. 

Along the road in Yellowstone,
this is actually the Gardner River.
Quick composite sketches from
the passenger side of the car.
All I can do now is to point at something that caught my eye and to use my ungainly words and making-of-marks to communicate.  So bear with me… (ha, no pun meant here)…
There is something in the geography and geology of the northern west that feels like completion.  That along with the quote above are about all I can say that will make sense right now.  I came home to Florida in time to be present at the death of a good friend, and on top of that my brain is still processing the depth of beauty of the northern spaces of Yellowstone Park. 

Tatanka (Lakota word for bison), car-sketching.

Aspen, skull, rock, and wooden birdfeeder.
Sketching in Yellowstone did enable me to both find and lose myself while I was there, and I am still mucking about in my right brain when I least expect it.  Those handy left brain skills have jumped ship and left me to scratch out misspellings, gape at proportion errors, and wonder why I’ve become non-verbal.  In the meantime, life moves on… and on.  There are cats to feed, laundry to tend to, phone calls to return, and life in general that requires finding myself when I so long to be lost.  Just for a bit longer…
Click on any image to view larger.

The two sketchbooks here:
Strathmore Toned Tan spiral sketchbook, 80 lb, 5.5 x 8.5 in
Sakura micron Pigma black 01 ink pen
Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer and General Pencil’s Kimberly watercolor pencils
Niji waterbrush M

Aquabee Super Deluxe spiral sketchbook, 93 lb, 6 x 9 in
Sakura micron Pigma black 01 ink pen
Sakura Koi coloring brush pen (sap green)
Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer and General Pencil’s Kimberly watercolor pencils
Niji waterbrush M

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A fondness for ferns

 Only spread a fern-frond over a man's head and worldly cares are cast out, and freedom and beauty and peace come in.  ~ John Muir

With this quote comes a vision of resting in a grotto on mossy rocks, arching ferns casting a delicate tracery of shadows below my feet.  Why are ferns so magical?  Is it because of folklore, its fractal-like intricate leaf patterns, or do we sense the ancient echoes of prehistoric environments?

Fern folklore
An old folklore belief is that because fern “seeds” were invisible, then one could become invisible when these seeds were eaten or carried.  Several inventive and amazing rituals were created to capture these elusive seeds.  An Irish legend reveals that ferns are flower- and seed-less because St. Patrick cursed them for harboring snakes.  The cross-section of the fern stem is said to bear the name of Christ, and thus provide protection from goblins and witches.  The shapes of fern spikes and the lobes of its leaves were thought to provide healing elixirs for snakebite (the spikes resemble serpents), and ailments of the spleen (resemblance to the organ).  More legends, wild myths, and wishful thinking is found in a fascinating text “The Economic Uses and Associated Folklore of Ferns and Fern Allies,” by Lenore Wile May in Botanical Review (Oct.-Dec.1978).

Fern leaves
A fractal is a “self-similar” pattern that repeats at different scales, and fern leaves often appear to be fractal-like.  They are not true fractals as fern leaf patterns do not repeat to infinity.  Drawing fern leaves is an adventure in patience and persistence!  Perhaps that’s why I created only a representation and focused instead on the furry rhizome and the wavy leaf margins of this Serpent Fern.  Ferns don’t produce flowers and seeds like the many plants we use for food, medicine, and decoration.  They have a complex reproductive cycle and spread by spores instead of seeds.  You can look at a visual image of this reproductive process here at

A smaller leaf, only about 3 inches long.
Fern evolution
Ferns first appear in the fossil record 360 million years ago, but the ancestors of the species we know today didn’t emerge until over 100 million years ago, when flowering plants began to dominate many environments.  A researcher at Duke University in North Carolina has discovered a unique protein called a neochrome in ferns.  This protein enables them to respond to both red and blue light waves (both ends of the visible light spectrum) and enables them to thrive in the shade of other plants.   You can read more about his study and about ferns and this protein here.  

The fern I sketched is the Serpent Fern (also known as polypody fern, cabbage palm fern, gold-foot fern, or hare-foot fern), Phlebodium aureum or Polypodium aureum.
The scales on this root are a reddish golden brown -
red from the sun?
The scientific names derive from the Greek for:
phlebodium = full of veins
polypodium = many footed
aureum = golden (golden “hairs” or scales on the rhizomes)

This is an epiphytic fern, often growing in the “boots” (old leaf bases) of cabbage palms.  It’s found in Florida and ranges into Central and South America.  It has been studied at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, and the University of Miami School of Medicine as having chemical properties that protect our skin from damaging UV rays, something Florida has in abundance.  

A microscopic view of the sporangia

Top and bottom sketches:
Strathmore Toned Tan spiral sketchbook, 80 lb, 5.5 x 8.5 in
Sakura micron Pigma black 01ink pen
Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer watercolor pencils (walnut brown, white)
Sakura Koi coloring brush pen (sap green)
Niji waterbrush M

Middle sketch:
Aquabee Super Deluxe spiral sketchbook, 93 lb, 6 x 9 in
Various watercolor pencils
Niji waterbrush M

Monday, January 25, 2016

Weaver's Station revisited

Mondeluz and Inktense watercolor pencil in my Aquabee sketchbook.
Our sketching group met during the first part of January to draw and paint a part of Florida that is a part of Florida history.  Across from the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is a little-visited area that was formerly known as Weaver's Station.  I had sketched a bit of this area back in previous years, and you can read about the history of this place in my post here.

I drew part of this same rustic structure from a different angle two years ago (below).  While it's still standing, the large door has collapsed further into the interior. 

It felt good to revisit this place and to know that some things continue on, especially a piece of Florida history along the Tamiami Trail (US 41) that many drive by every day, not realizing the significance of the road they travel.

Water-soluble pencil on watercolor paper.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Sketching with friends ~ Freedom Park

Ink and watercolor pencil sketches from the boardwalk.

Even though it's July, I wanted to catch up and share a sketching trip to Freedom Park in July with friends. The springtime blooms faded, summer flowers were filling up the nooks of bright green foliage.  This is along the wetlands side of the park, all seen from the boardwalk.

On the opposite page I made notes, and all the memories flooded back...

Butterflies fluttering: flashes of white peacock, the orange and yellow of sulphurs, a gulf fritillary with its silvery underside splotches and orange and brown topside, Florida whites shining in the sun.
Birds seen and heard: cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, a hawk (red shoulder?) patrolling low and calling to another hidden in the trees.
Blooming: creamy ivory pond apple, bright yellow and orange cannas, glowing violet pickerel weed and an unknown heathery-looking plant, dusty pink camphorweed, clear yellow hypericum and primrose willow, small pointy lavender alligator flag flowers.
More color:  the captivating red/bronze/pink blush on the pristine green of young red maple leaves, the clear deep red-brown tannin-stained flow of lazy water, the fleeting sparkle and flash of light and color from vivid red and blue dragonflies, the slower leap of bright yellow adult lubber grasshoppers.
Heard in the background: an opera of occasional bird call underscored with the drone of cicadas, with a background of road traffic murmuring through the gaps.

It was becoming a hot and drowsy day...time for lunch with friends at a nearby cafe!

The above sketch is done with:
6 x 9 inch Aquabee Super Deluxe sketch pad
Watercolor pencils: Mondeluz 12 pencil set
Micron Pigma 01 black ink pen

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ding Darling inspires us!

We had a special visitor to my class, Watercolor Pencil Introduction: Botany through Art, at the NaplesBotanical Garden.  He brought treasures that we might experience once in our lives: the original sketchbooks of Jay “Ding” Darling, up close and personal.  You can see a video of this visit, as well as comments from three of us, below!  Be sure to full-screen the video to see the sketchbooks better (the little square bracket icon on the bottom bar far right is for full-screen.  Press ESC on your keypad to return to the small size at any time).

Samuel Koltinsky, owner and Executive Producer of Marvo Entertainment Group LLC came to share his experiences along a path of discovery that started with the production of a documentary video “America’s Darling: The Story of Jay N. ‘Ding’ Darling.” 

Starting with a brief biographical sketch of Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, he next showed us a video short clip about the creation of the first Duck Stamp.  From there he led us on a tour of Ding’s behind-the-scenes work: small sketchbooks, studies, handmade greeting cards, travel scrapbooks/sketchbooks, and more. 

The sketchbooks are unique.  Ding appeared to sketch everywhere he went, on cruises, in restaurants, during vacations.  There is a series of wave studies in one of his small sketchbooks (surely no larger than 4 x 6 inches) that caught everyone’s eye.  He began with very simple lines, trying to capture the water’s movement.  Several drawings later – there it is!  A perfect capture!  One feels the roll of the ocean, the mist of salt air across the face… all in a few pencil lines…

Field sketchbooks and studies are fascinating because to me they reflect the hand of the artist more than any other artworks they create.  From the paint splatters to tentative lines to decisive pencil strokes to the first splash of rain drops – it’s all there.  These marks tell an amazing story of their own.  As artists and sketchers ourselves, we relate to the stories they tell.  We relate to the artist behind them.

Those of us who live in Southwest Florida are familiar with the name Ding Darling because of the J. N. "Ding" DarlingNational Wildlife Refuge on nearby Sanibel Island.  My connection with Ding is through childhood memories of his cartoons.  Growing up in Iowa, those cartoons were a familiar sight: a book on the coffee table, a reprint in the paper, an illustration in a magazine.  Although his heyday was a generation or two ahead of mine, his influence persisted. 

Ding enjoyed a long career at the Des Moines Register as an editorial cartoonist, and his work was known world-wide.  He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 and 1943.  His cartoon artwork commented on cultural and historical events of the time, and promoted the idea of environmental conservation to the masses.  Although he passed away in 1962, his legacy left an imprint on anyone from Iowa with an interest in nature, wildlife, and conservation.

If you’ve never heard of Ding Darling, do some exploring.  He was a renaissance man for his times: a cartoonist, a fine artist, a conservation pioneer, a metal and wood-worker.  He worked at the Federal level, appointed as the Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey.  During his administration, three million acres of public land were set aside as wildlife refuges, the first network of game refuges.  Ding founded the NationalWildlife Federation, the largest grassroots conservation organization in our country.

Darling had a winter home in Florida on Captiva Island for many years, a stilt home he designed himself.  The Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island was later officially renamed and dedicated to him.

Thank you, Sam, for bringing Ding Darling to life for us, and thank you for the unique opportunity to see his sketchbooks in an intimate setting!  We all have a new appreciation for this man, and for seeing the world through his eyes.  As artists of all levels, we connect to the stories he tells through his pencil, pen, and brush.

Video clip above courtesy of Samuel Koltinsky, MarvoEntertainment Group LLC.

For more exploring:

 Eleven thousand cartoons are currently represented in this collection, which also features selected audio recordings of Darling’s dictation – a chance survival documenting his voice, vigor, and attitudes.

This spectacular 6,300 acre nature preserve is home to over 200 species of birds, alligators, mangrove forests, and more.  Named one of the top ten birding spots in this nation, the refuge is one of the most visited in the nation, with almost a million visitors annually.

DingDarling Wildlife Society, Friends of the Refuge   

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Catching up…

Time has been slipping by so quickly – which is what happens when you are busy!  In Florida, our busy season reflects an increase in population when our winter visitors flood the city and beaches.  So I’ve been busy on several other fronts, which leaves me little time for sketching and posting.  So…maybe I can catch up here!  Here’s an update if you’re interested.

Butterflies, gardens and nature journals
In November I was invited to speak at the 14th Annual SW Florida Butterfly Conference held at the EdisonFord Estate in Fort Myers, Florida.  I shared some inspiring journal pages from various artists on gardening for butterflies, with observations on caterpillars and nectaring butterflies.  I also included some images of early and contemporary naturalists as well as butterflies interpreted through an artistic lens.  I left feeling that participants were inspired to start their own nature journals, perhaps documenting their own butterfly gardens or just capturing images from their travels.  I was inspired in turn by the warm response and friendly comments, and learned quite a bit about butterflies!

Watercolor Pencil Workshop: Botany Through Art
Through November and December I had the opportunity to teach a workshop on watercolor pencils via nature journaling at the fabulous NaplesBotanical Garden.  We had a wonderful group of participants, each one adding a unique viewpoint to experience.  I love the mix of perspectives: a college science teacher, a pulmonary physician, artists whose specialties are acrylic and watercolors, a professional writer, and more.  Each of us sees the world in a slightly different way, and our journal pages are shaped by our personalities as well as our life experiences.  Each week was a joy.

Something different! 
I was invited to paint a ceramic piece for the annual Empty Bowls Silent Auction held in January.  For every dollar that they raise, the Harry Chapin Food Bank turns it into $6 worth of food for the local food banks in Collier County.  Painting on clay is a very different and challenging experience!  This is the third year I’ve done this, and each time I’m delighted with the variety and creativity of the ceramic pieces offered.

A twisted bald cypress tree at the edge of a cypress dome.
Back to the Fakahatchee
Our sketch group met for one more time in the Fakahatchee in January, choosing the same location as last November.  Last fall Ipainted a view of the Lake Gloria extension, edged by a cypress dome on one side.  This time I chose a lone cypress tree that caught my eye.  All the trees around were straight and tall, but this particular tree had such an interesting twist to it.  The morning sun caught each ridge of the delineated trunk.  What made this tree grow so differently?  Why the twist?  It seemed a striking testament to the will to survive and thrive, each curve and twist reflecting some event in its growth cycle.  Sort of like the scars, gray hairs and wrinkles we accumulate as we move through the events of our lives.  I could relate to this tree!

Environmental Art and the Food Forest
Later in January I was invited I was invited to share my sketch journals and give an introduction to watercolor pencils at a class at Florida Gulf Coast University.  After a slide show and short discussion we adjourned to the Food Forest to sketch.  This is an amazing place, and I cannot possibly tell you all about it here.  Look for more details in a future post.  I was so impressed by the groups of students in the class as well as the students who created and maintain the garden.  Let me say that if you are interested in gardening and what young people are doing with it, you need to read more or better yet, arrange a visit.  You can visit their webpage here, see the listing on the FGCU site here, and finally, check out their Facebook page for the latest news.  I appreciate Professor Mary Voytek for arranging this wonderful opportunity, and for encouraging and inspiring her class of artists and environmental studies students to explore their natural surroundings through art. 

Also in January
I had an opportunity to share my sketchbooks and talk about nature journaling at the Family 4-H Day event, Lehigh Acres.

I presented a Nature Journal Workshop for the FNPS Coccoloba Chapter at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve.  I met a group of friendly and native-plant knowledgeable folks who did a great job with just a few hours of introduction to a new media. I can only visualize how far they’ve taken their new skills and where they will take them!

A gopher tortoise emerging from his burrow.
And in February…
A group of us went to TheNaples Preserve to sketch.  I had a chance to meet and sketch with an online friend, and we ended up taking part in a promotional film clip for the Preserve.  The Preserve is an amazing place, a little patch of scrub and pines right smack in the middle of the city.  If you live in or visit Naples, you should visit this rapidly disappearing habitat. 

And now for March…
I started another Watercolor Pencil Workshop at The Naples Botanical Garden in March, which is ongoing through April.  We have another great group of artists of all ranges and backgrounds, and I’m enjoying this class as well!  There are old friends and new, and the Garden is at it’s flowering peak.  One of our challenges is that there are too many subjects to sketch!
Leaf demonstration in watercolor pencils at the Enabling Garden..
At some point I hope to get back to sketching more regularly.  I get so much joy from teaching and sharing what I’ve learned, though.  I just need a few more hours in each day…

Thanks for stopping in to catch up!

The above sketches are done with:
6 x 9 inch Aquabee Super Deluxe sketch pad
Various watercolor pencils: Faber Castell Aquarelle and Albrecht Durer, Derwent Inktense
Mechanical pencil
Micron Pigma 01 black ink pen

Click on any image to view larger.