Thursday, May 17, 2012

Drawing lines

I am drawing today, so a few notes about warm-ups, and drawing lines:

Do you have rituals to get you in that creative art groove? I definitely do, as the blank sheet of paper is a scary thing. The very first thing I do is to clean my drawing space...sometimes it starts with my entire house ( depends on how artistically blocked I am), sometimes it is just a matter of tidying up my drafting table. That done, I arrange the materials I am going to use, usually just a 0.5 mm mechanical pencil, and some kind of paper. For warm ups, the backsides of printouts that are in the recycle box work great.
I sit down, I breathe, I straighten my posture by imagining that I am suspended from that string attached to the top of my head. Strong string! It lets the body hang, the back is straightened not by pushing with muscles up, but by suspension from the gods above....lord help me if they remember that I am just their puppet.... I breathe again, deeply, reminding my body that it is oxygen that gives me life. Life, what a wonderful thing: to be able to sit at my drawing table and prepare to draw. Ahhh....
On to the warm-up mechanics. Pencil in hand, paper below, arms hanging at my side, gently. Let go of tension in shoulders, in hands. Breathe. First lines are straight, I pull them towards me, making them flow with my exhale. Breathe in, pull line towards me, making line as straight as possible, relaxed as possible. I fill the page with pulled straight lines. Note: Some have excellent hand-eye coordination naturally, (especially if they haven't had too much caffeine), a few have a natural tremor and will never be able to remove the quiver from their lines.
Next step: curved lines. Same process. Breathe in, relax, exhale, pull the line toward me, but this time in an arc, and drawing the arc from the inside, as if I am the center of this drawing universe, and the line I am creating encircles me. Curved lines, smooth and beautiful, drawn from the inside, like frowns, but with smiley energy. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Next step: parallel lines. Or, more precisely, equidistant lines. This is the tough stuff in botanical art. Master this and you can go a long way. What are stems? Just parallel lines. Draw two lines with one line heavier (wider) than the other, and you have drawn a shaded stem. Start with the straight lines. Try drawing a few lines equidistant from the straight lines you have already drawn. Not so easy, is it? Now, think about what you are doing. You have to look at the line you have already laid down, and let your eyes rest on it a few millimeters (or an eighth of an inch, if you will), in front of the point of your pencil. The eye coordinates with the hand. They eye looks and leads. Leads the hand to follow the course of the line, keeping the second line at the same distance from the first. Parallel lines. If this is tough for you, rest assured, it was tough for me too! Practice, practice, practice. Good drawing skills must be learned; think of yourself as a musician, honing your skills.
Next step. Lines equidistant from the curved lines you have drawn. As in the last paragraph, but follow the curved lines.
Final step. Circles. Draw circles. Let the lines flow smoothly, start and stop without breaking. Try using the whole arm, or whole body to create the circle. The goal is to have a nice round circle, with the lines meeting perfectly. No overlap. Try big circles; try little ones. Lots of little ones (great exercise if you are stuck on hold).
If you have managed to read through this, and are not an artist or an aspiring artist, wow, thank you! I will tie it in to life a bit. Good botanical art needs good lines, good lines come from focus, and practice, and relaxation. Good botanical art is a meditation. An escape? Perhaps. To me, a journey to a place that I really enjoy.

Friday, May 11, 2012

April 2012 took me to the book-signing of the second edition of "The Jepson Manual"--I was principal illustrator. It was good to see other contributors, the production team, old friends, but the real treat of travel was what was to come: I was off to the Sierra Nevada for a botanical foray. When you say you are "off to the mountains," many would think of hiking or skiing or other high elevation adventures. But to the botanist, "off to the foothills," where I was headed, can be equally thrilling. For botanists follow the spring: as the year warms up we visit the desert to see what is blooming, next the low elevations, along the coast, and as the season's temperatures rise, up we go, often ending our botanical year in the alpine.

            Off I went, and on my first morning out, driving up the beautiful Kern Canyon, I was rewarded with seeing the Kern County Larkspur (Delphinium purpusii) for only the second time in my life. It is a big plant, with oddly wrinkled spurs (the reflexed, tube-shaped sepal that holds a nectar reward for pollinators). I was as much amazed by the fruits of this species as by the flowers. By larkspur standards, they were HUGE, and nice and green and shiny too. The canyon had many flowers to see, but was less floriferous than during what botanists refer to as a "good year," where the rain is just enough and comes just at the right times.

            I missed this year's desert trip: it was planned, but there wasn't much rain this year (and it came at the wrong time), I had a debilitating flu, so didn't make it south. But on this trip I had to at least travel over Walker Pass (in the southern Sierra) to see for myself, and found that all the rumors of a dry desert were true. Some shrubs were flowering (they almost always do), but the annuals that on a good year can make rainbows out of hillsides, were tiny and few. I brushed the dust from my boots, turned around, and headed for wetter ground.

            Just west of the summit of Walker Pass there is a spot that the hard-core botanists know of, where the plants are in an unexpected jumble of east-meets-west. Imagine sagebrush (Artemisia--found on the east side of the mountains, especially in the extensive Basin and Range country) meets flannelbush (Fremontodendron-typically on the west side of the mountains). Here there are a few scattered gray pines and juniper trees, sagebrush, and redbud (Cercis occidentalis-another west side species), the latter in full and glorious flower ,as pictured below. I could say so much more about this interesting spot, this vortex in the map of vegetation types, but in words I travel on.

            Up I go, towards one of the Kennedy Meadows (the other that I know of is on the Sonora Pass Highway, north of Yosemite), on the east side of a large ridge, but northwest of Walker Pass. Here there are always some desert wildflowers, as I am higher in elevation. Indeed, the coreopsis was in full bloom, and bush lupine. One of the joys of my botanical forays is that the hours of expected scenes and plants are punctuated by natural anomalies. First there was the fun of seeing Parry's Nolina, an uncommon leaf succulent endemic to southern California, with its flowering stalks ready to burst.

Just below these 8 foot tall monocots,(with their gigantous asparagus-like flowering stalks), there were two bush lupines, side-by-side, one with normal blue-purple flowers, and a genetic variant (not a different species, subspecies, or variety) with pink and white flowers!

      Trying to edit myself down to the highlights (and I say this as a true and full-blooded botanical nerd) is tough. So I will share one more "nerd-highlight," which brings my story back to the character of this particular spring. I traveled from the Walker Pass area north around Lake Isabella, over Greenhorn Summit (which, by the way, was where Purpus--yes, who that larkspur I mentioned is named for--collected the specimen from which Plagiobothrys torreyi var. perplexes was described), headed west towards Highway 99, suffered some freeway time, and then went up into the hills again near Fresno. Here the foothills again gave evidence of little rain and less snowpack (around 50% of normal in the Sierra for the year). Usually at this time of year the rounded granite summits would sheen dark with water, water that seeps through soil and vegetation, over the open rounded rock faces, and collect in streamlets below.

This year there was dry rock, some green, some flowers. But still thriving was the tenacious fern ally, Hansen's spikemoss.

John Game, one of my favorite botanical photographers, has a great picture of the wondrous mats that this little plant forms on the CalPhotos site. Many of thes mats are several feet wide, forming significant continuous groundcover. How much these mats must contribute to capturing and holding water, thus providing more habitat for the growth of other less sturdy plants.
I saw many more species of plants, and I recognized most. This led me to a medium-sized epiphany: it is time to focus more on the actual writing (as opposed to field work) of my book on Sierra Nevada Plants. What a great time to start a blog...perhaps some of you will share this experience with me.
(Pictured below: fruits of Lace Pod, Thysanocarpus curvipes, one of the foothill regulars).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Spring on Lopez Island

Spring on Lopez Island

Report: later than most years, fairy slipper orchids still in full bloom some places, past in others. Spotted coralroot in full swing. Coastal prairies with chocolate lilies almost past, and camas full on. Makes me want to go out and look for shooting stars!

You can be amazed at what you see when you look closely, and for a long time, at flowers...

for more flower based art, see