Bat Map

I have always loved that crossover between the ariel insectivores, between the swallows and the bats. Between the diurnal and the nocturnal. In a word: twilight.

Looking to the southwestern skies, framed by silhouetted redwoods, I watched for the appearance of the first bat. The change over of swing to graveyard. At 8:30 PM there were still a few violet-green swallows catching insects on the wing. At 8:32 the unmistakeable flap-flap-flap of a flying mammal appeared from stage right, while the last swallow made it’s last foray. This is the time of the bats!

I wanted to sketch a bat map, a record of bat movement over a finite time period. I mean really finite, I mean three minutes.

Before the bats appeared, I sketched the silhouetted redwoods as a way to frame the composition and as a way to give me points of reference when it came time to map their flight across the sky.

I may be able to identify all the common species go birds by sight and sound that inhabit the area around my cabin but I have no clue how to identify the 12 common species of bats that live in Santa Cruz County. There are over 1,400 species bats worldwide and the are the second numerous order of mammals after rodents! I know, by default, that they are micro bats because mega bats don’t occur in North America.

Once the two bats appeared it was about going from the eye to the hand as I traced their path in the twilight sky, a sort of flittermouse Etch A Sketch. I felt like a vessel and the bats were dictating the line through their flight path. The bats were creating the sketch, I was just taking notes!


Nature Notes

Being out in nature, whether I am birding, hiking, or simply nature loafing, always rewards the observant sketcher. I notice interesting behaviors from common species, which I have never seen before.

On a recent “big loop” hike in Fall Creek State Park, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I decided to created a few pages based on field notes from observations in the park.

I hiked up the Fall Creek Trail and then headed up to the ridge on the Big Ben Trail and then skirted the edge of the Fall Creek watershed on the Truck and Ridge Trails and then looped back to the trailhead.

I made three observations on my six mile hike that I wanted to illustrate: a singing Pacific wren, a western grey squirrel climbing up a Douglas-fir, and two observations of North America’s largest woodpecker: the pileated woodpecker.

I made my sketches once back at the cabin and I used the Grinnell Method as a guide for my notes. The Grinnell Method was created by Berkeley Field Biologist Joseph Grinnell as a way to make precise notes about species behavior.

As I was headed down the Truck Trail (named I assume, because you could drive a truck on this wide fire road) I noted a western gray squirrel on the ground off to my left. When it saw me, it does what most arboreal squirrels do: head to the nearest tree. In this case it was a Douglas-fir. I noted that he squirrel did not head straight up the tree. Instead it corkscrewed up the bole at a 45 degree angle, keeping the tree between itself and the threat (me). It appeared on a short branch about 20 to 25 feet above the ground and observed the observer.

Now this squirrel is common species in Redwood/Douglas-fir forests but because I was present and open to nature, I wondered why this behavior benefits the squirrel. Was this a latent response to hunting? How would the squirrel react if the threat came from above, like a red-tailed hawk or great horned owl? I may not have any answers but it always pays to question nature because the answer always make sense, even if we cannot quite figure them out.

The Truck Trail turns to the left and the Ridge Trail begins. About 0.5 of a mile down the trail I heard a must sought after bird. I heard the raucous almost prehistoric call of the pileated woodpecker. I got a brief look of the crow-sized woodpecker as it flew south down the tail.

Further down the trail I had an even better sighting. Another pileated flew to a Douglas-fir snag near the trail. The male stayed at the top of the snag and started drumming. Woodpeckers drum as a way to communicate with other woodpeckers as a way to proclaim territory and also to attract a mate. The pileated’s drum is powerful and loud. The male’s drumming was answered by the drum of another, presumedly the other pileated I had seen further up the trail.

These two sketches where not done in the field. The sketch on the left was from memory and the portrait of the pileated is from a Peterson’s A Field Guide to Western Birds (1941).


Trees of Life

“To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed.” ~Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

When a sketcher is in the woods it’s hard not to sketch trees.

There is something special being at the base of a coast redwood and looking at it massive bole which would take an extended family, with linked hands, to encircle the circumference.

Looking up, following the redwood to it’s crown is literally a pain in the neck! Coast Redwoods, after all, are the tallest trees in the world.

On a Monday morning I hiked out and sketched an impressive specimen of Sequoia sempervirens in Fall Creek State Park, a redwood named the Big Ben Tree.

The Big Ben Tree is a giant amongst many second growth redwoods. The tree stands at one if the highest points on a hiking trail in Fall Creek.

From the trail junction, the tree is impressive. I walked around to the other side and the massive bole was scarred by fire, perhaps many centuries before. Here I wanted to sketch this scar, a record of the tree’s history. Redwoods can live to 1,500 to 1,800 years. They do have a long life line; a very long history.

Sketching is a language that is created over a series of experiences. I have sketched redwoods many times and over time, I have gotten to understand their language. Their shape, mass, contour, and there undefinable essence. This helps me create an artistic shorthand to render the infinite, finite.

A bench view sketched of mixed woods of redwood and Douglas-fir from the end of Shire Way.

Back to Basics: Graphite

Most of my sketches start with graphite (pencil) but soon disappears under ink work and watercolor and any stray graphite lines are erased.

My generation is very familiar with graphite in the form of the Number 2 pencil used to shade in answer sheets on standardized tests in school. An HB pencil is the equivalent to the old school Number 2 (I really shouldn’t say “old school” because the Number 2 pencil is the go-to pencil for my students today). The HB pencil is usually the first pencil I start with.

It was time to sketch with a form for drawing stemming from the 17th century. This form of mark making was given it’s name in 1789 by a German Mineralogist named Abraham Werner. Graphite comes from the Ancient Greek graphein, meaning to write or draw.

Sketching in graphite and painting in watercolor bears some similarities. Both conveys depth through the building up of layers and use the white of the paper for highlights. But graphite is much more forgiving, you can erase your mistakes in graphite and you can’t in watercolor. The nuances of blending the graphite with a blending tool such as a blending stump or tortillons, make etherial and realistic tonal transitions.

Now that Palace Arts was now open after three months, I headed over to Capitola to pick up some graphite drawing tools and drawing paper. On the way back to the cabin I stopped at Whole Foods to pick up two Bosc pears, not to eat, but to draw.

A graphic sketch of a quail sculpture that my grandma collected, I often hear the “Chicago” call of California’s state bird: the California quail from my deck.

The Wreck of the La Feliz

Along the Santa Cruz coast, just northwest of Natural Bridges State Beach, is a historic relic that is just shy of 100 years old.

It looks like a weathered flag pole that is leaning slightly shoreward, placed on a cliff above the rocky reefs. In reality it is the mast of the 72-foot freighter La Feliz, leaning against the cliff.

On the night of October 1, 1924, violent waves pushed the coastal freighter onto the rocky reef below where the Seymour Center at the Long Marine Laboratory (temporarily closed) now sits. Locals helped rescue all 13 crew members from the floundering ship.

Sketched and painted in sepia from a period photograph of the salvage of the La Feliz.

The mast was laid against the cliff in order to salvage the cargo and other equitment of the La Feliz. The cargo consisted of 3,100 cases of sardines from Cannery Row in Monterey.

There have been over 450 shipwrecks recorded in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Few relics of these wrecks exist today, except for the La Feliz auxiliary mast.

A beautiful Sunday morning, looking to the Northwest.

I did what I always do when I want to learn more about something, I sketch it! I hiked out to the mast on two different occasions and sketched it both times. It is always nice to sketch something more than once. I feel each time that I understand the subject at little more and each time I learn more and more about the mast of the La Feliz.

A Friday after work sketch of the mast of the La Feliz, looking south.

For my first sketch of the mast, I first drew with pencil them inked in the lines with a Uni-ball Micro Deluxe pen. I erased the pencil lines and then added watercolor the scene.

On my next sketch (featured image) I did the exact opposite. I loosely sketched in the scene with a water-soluble colored pencil (walnut brown) and then I painted the scene, letting some of the watercolor washes run into each other. Once the paint dried, I added ink lines with my Uni-ball. Both were sketched on location.


It’s Not Easy Being Green

It’s not easy bein’ green
It seems you blend in with so
Many other ordinary things
And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re
Not standin’ out like flashy
Sparkles on the water
Or stars in the sky

~Kermit the Frog

In the past I have always used green straight out of the tube for my watercolor paintings. I usually use Sap, Hooker’s and Olive green.

Sometimes these greens can look too intense and at other times, too plastic. I wanted to try mixing greens and doing test paintings using a confer tree line against a cobalt blue sky.

To mix green you combine blue and yellow. And there are lots of blues and yellows to choose from. For instance, Daniel Smith lists almost 20 different Yellow and Blue hues. Now I was going to do a little watercolor alchemy on my quest for a green.

The watercolors I used for mixing green: (from left to right) Daniel Smith Phthalo Blue (Green Shade) and Cobalt Blue, Winsor & Newton French Ultramarine, Daniel Smith Payne’s Blue Gray (to darken mixes). For Yellows I used Daniel Smith Hansa Yellow Light and Azo Yellow.

I painted in a background sky with cobalt blue and then mixed blues and greens to make a green mix that I painted with a 3/4 inch flat brush create a conifer tree line.

By far my favorite mix is shown in the featured image. It is with the very potent Phthalo Blue (Green Shade) and Azo Yellow. I left varied mixtures of each hue, sometimes letting a bit of yellow dominate and letting the Phthalo blue take over in the shadows.