Tuesday 6 April 2021

Not just another little brown bird

I have a particular fondness for an unlikely kind of bird ever since I was introduced to the species by a friend who had a pair nesting in her secluded garden. The nest site was the top of a service box on the exterior wall of her house. The nest itself was a simple but artful construction of lichen and moss. The parent birds flitted from perch to perch, quietly keeping a watchful eye on us while we, in turn, observed them respectfully. The sweet little birds I'm talking about are Pacific-slope Flycatchers.

Small, nondescript, brown-ish birds, they're definitely not the rockstars of the forest. They are what one would describe as "understated" as many flycatchers are with the exception of exotic types like the robust, colourful, loud, and in-your-face Kiskadee Flycatchers I got to know when I spent time in Trinidad. 

Like their much bigger and far more boistrous tropical cousins, the distinctive whistle of Pacific-slope Flycatchers makes their presence known. Even those who have never observed them may recognize their voice.

As a self-professed bird nerd, I was wildly excited last spring when a pair of these little darlings decided to use the light fixture above my studio door as their nest site! 

It made getting any work done a challenging for two reasons: 1) I feared disturbing them each time I passed through the door, and 2) the distraction of watching their activities was hard to resist. I could pull up a chair and easily spend hours observing their goings-on.

Thankfully the birds didn't seem bothered by my presence and eventually I was able to control the amount of time I spent gawking at them. The nest got raided once, as evidenced by a piece of broken eggshell I found on the doormat, and I thought they might give up and move to a new location. However the plucky little creatures persevered and eventually a brood of babies hatched, grew and fledged. One morning I discovered they had slipped quietly away into the forest. Life felt a little empty without them. The nest now resides on my studio window ledge.

When a Call to Artists came out early this year from the Art Bird Card project inviting artists to illustrate a bird identification card as part of a fundraiser for the Rocky Point Bird Observatory, I was delighted to see the Pacific-slope Flycatcher on the list. I knew this species would not be the first choice for most artists, or even second or third choice, but I put my hand up right away. The result is this little drawing.

It is one of 35 species included in Set 2 of the bird identification Nature Cards which will be available later this spring. Last year I illustrated a card for Set 1, and that time it was indeed the rockstar of the forest: the flashy, noisy and exotic-looking Piliated Woodpecker.

This is another species that regularly visits my property. A team of them is currently dedicated to using their drilling power to sculpt a dead cedar snag near the road. 

While Piliated Woodpeckers are year-round residents, Pacific-slope Flycatchers are spring/summer visitors who stay only long enough to nest, rear babies, and enjoy the seasonal bounty of insects before migrating south to warmer winter climates. It's early April as I write this, and I'm already listening for the distinctive whistle that will herald their arrival. And I have my fingers crossed a nest will once again be built where I can observe their comings and goings.

If you're interested in the Nature Cards produced by the Art Bird Card project, visit the Rocky Point Bird Observatory website. To learn more about the Pacific-slope Flycatcher, here's a good link to visit where you can also hear their distinctive whistle.

Sunday 21 March 2021

The Three Cs (Plus Three More)

From time to time I have the pleasure of being called upon to adjuticate artworks for juried exhibitions. The experience of reviewing the art that's been submitted never fails to get me thinking about just how important art fundamentals are to the execution of successful art pieces. While on one of my rambling walks recently I came up with with a formula I'm calling "The Three Cs."

1. Composition  No matter what medium or style, the underlying "bone structure" of any piece of art is its composition. Balance, symmetry and movement are all words used to describe it. Rules of thirds, rules of odds, and other rules apply. Some artists have an instinctive knack for composition and are driven by intuition while others approach it in a meticulously calculated way. No matter how an artist reaches his/her compositional decisions, it's well worth the effort of careful consideration. An artist may have perfected their techniques in every other way but if the composition is lacking, the work suffers. Confident artists will sometimes intentionally break compositional rules, but to do that successfully the artist is usually making a deliberate choice.

2. Colour  The use of colour is another fundamental consideration. The choice not to use colour makes its own statement, but when colour is applied it can be easy to see which artists have given it careful thought. The use of complimentary colours is a sure-fire way to energize, while a more analagous palette can tone things down. High key or low key, hot or cool, intense or muted, colour is very much the language spoken by artists. Those who are most fluent have studied its nuances and harnessed its power.

3. Creativity  Whatever, the style, medium, subject or approach, artists must be creative and strive to be unique. Finding one's artistic "voice" can be a difficult task, increasingly so thanks to the sharing of so many digital images and ideas online. It requires the ability to ignore a lot of external forces, including the images that pop up on Social Media and that instructor whose work we are so tempted to emulate. When we stop looking at others, we are more likely to find ourselves.

When teaching, I often use this drawing of mine as an example of The Three Cs: 

  • This composition is not conventional. The placement of the bird's eye satisfies the rule of thirds but having his beak point straight into the corner would typically be a no-no. However, I deliberately broke that compositional rule to create energy and tension. 
  • I used complimentary colours (red and green) to energize the drawing. I developed naturally occuring shades of green by blending blues, yellows and other colours including red. It's also worth noting that black is never just black - it is the presence of all colours. For the bird's feathers I worked in blues, purples and reds to create rich black tones.
  • Lastly, this is one ugly duck but I chose not to concern myself about creating a pretty picture. Instead I celebrated his unique appearance. 

While I believe The Three Cs cover the fundamentals, there are a couple of additional Cs that are also worth acknowledging:

4. Concentration  The fabled 10,000 hours of practice, practice, practice - in the studio, or back bedroom, or kitchen table, or garden shed, or wherever it is we make art - is key to becoming accomplished. When we persevere to find time, to focus, and to keep producing, it shows!

5. Courage  Being an artist takes bravery in so many ways! Artists infuse their innermost-selves into the art they make and then expose it to public scrutiny. They also tend to lead unconventional lives. "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." (Ralph Waldo Emerson) 

And there's one last practical C...

6. Camera  Know how to use one - properly! Understanding how to light artwork is a key aspect for successfully photograping it, whether we're using an expensive high-resolution camera or just a smartphone. We also need to know how to process digital photos so the original art is represented as closely as possible and the file has the correct technical specifications. 
I would add, for those who use photography as reference material for the art they make, that it's very, very tempting to use other people's photos, or public domain photos available online, or even to break copyright laws and swipe an online image. Resist those temptations! The effort of building our own libraries of reference photos will ensure our art speaks from our own experiences, not someone else's. Ultimately it will help with the tricky task of finding our own artistic voice. 

And now I'm off to the studio on this cool, rainy early-spring day to see how I can effectively apply these principles. Happy art making all!

Thursday 4 February 2021

The question of "When?"

It's impossible to exist these days without being acutely aware of the struggles people are experiencing as they cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people appear to be preoccupied with "when" questions: when can they travel, when can they plan vacations, when can they attend events, when can they gather together, when... when... when? We are told there are no clear answers to these questions - not yet, at least.

Artists tend to be solitary sorts of people and true-to-form I have found that staying home hasn't been terribly difficult for me. I can remember when my calendar was always action-packed and every moment of my time accounted for. Now each page is mostly blank. I find I don't really mind. When life eventually resumes a more lively pace, I'll be rested, refreshed and ready for action!

While I sorely miss my friends/family, for the most part I'm reasonably content. That's not to say I don't have the occasional bouts of frustration. However, my mandate is 1) I don't want to get sick, and 2) I abhor the thought of spreading the disease, particularly to someone more vulnerable than I. I'm also not a conspiracy theorist. I observe the numbers of deaths rising world-wide. I trust in science and in the people who have the education and expertise to lead us through these challenging times as safely as possible, imperfect as that leadership may sometimes be. And given the seriousness of the situation - the illness, the loss of life - I feel that the very least I can do is to do my part, and do my best to do it with good grace. When I'm able to see and hug my family/friends, to share a meal with them, to celebate an occasion together, I'll be all-the-more grateful.

My personal survival strategy for these days, weeks and months of mostly-solitary time is this:

  • Get outdoors. Spend time outside each day and go for long walks as often as possible. Breathe the air, observe the birds, and enjoy the physical experience of walking. 

  • Eat well. Prepare fresh, nourishing meals (and limit wine intake to a prudent level).

  • Talk and laugh. Keep in contact with friends and family via whatever electronic means work best. Communicate with at least one human every day and share laughter whenever possible.

  • Pat the dog and the cat. Show appreciation for the four-legged sidekicks and make the most of their constant companionship.

Lily's "when" question is "When will Hugo get out of my bed?!"

I top up these habits with a bit of blessing-counting. Each day I find it's not too difficult to be thankful for some small thing, or sometimes for many. I'm focussed on keeping the glass half-full rather than dwelling on what's missing. 

When the world regains its equilibrium, I hope to carry forward some of these habits.

Not surprising, given my line of work, I'm also committed to doing creative things:

  • Working in my studio. Right now I have a couple of dog portraits on the go and a lengthy list of upcoming projects. 

  • Exploring a new art form. I'm fulfilling my interest in sculptural work by learning about needle felting. Because of my experience with silk painting, it feels natural to experiment with another fibre-based medium. I have a ways to go before I'll feel fluent enough to tackle a significant project but for now I'm having fun fooling around making little birds.



  • Building something. I have ambitions to expand my pandemic-inspired vegetable garden that materialized last spring. My enthusiasm is blossoming as I observe daffodils emerging from the earth, garlic sprouts shooting bravely upwards, and self-seeded cilantro making an appearance. I'm also inspired by the fact that I'm still eating home-grown veggies from my freezer and from my kale patch that has continued producing all through the winter. Soon I hope to be building more beds and erecting additional deer-proof fencing. Recently, when tidying my shed, I discovered an ample supply of hammers inherited from various sources - enough for any carpentry project I could wish to take on (not to mention enough to outfit an army of carpenters should the need ever arise).

I understand each person's circumstances are different and that I'm fortunate to live in a place I love with ample room to roam outdoors. When it's possible to travel once again, I'm confident that I'll always return to this place and be glad to come home. 

I've consciously made an effort to practice living in the moment, given planning ahead these days often ends in disappointment. Living in the moment has got to be one of the most difficult things for humans to do because we tend to constantly project into the future. It's not that I don't have dreams for what's to come but I'm keeping timelines intentionally fuzzy for now. When I'm able to resume making concrete plans I'm confident I'll still remember how. 

As I write this a hummingbird is visiting the feeder outside my window, I can see juncos, sparrows and towhees pecking at seed I scattered this morning, the sun is peeking through the trees, Lily is snoozing in her bed in preparation for our walk, and Hugo is, in the way of cats, somewhere of his own choosing. Across the driveway my studio beckons. Today is much like yesterday, and tomorrow will be much the same. When times change, I suspect I'll remember these days with fondness.

What I wish for everyone during this unusual moment in history is, first and foremost, safety and good health but also that they are able to adopt coping strategies that work for them - strategies infused with grace, caring and thoughtfulness, spiced by dash of optimism and perhaps a pinch of creativity. 

Ultimately, I believe the answer to to the question of "when" can be found in the way we navigate "now".