Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Putting things in perspective

Ok, here's the thing: Perspective is simple...and it's not. Like many things, once you understand the principles, it is easy to sketch something without using all the "rules." Or conversely, once you understand those principles--and a  few more--you can make a perspective drawing as complicated as your heart's desire.

But to get you started, I'm going to break it down as simply as I can.

First, if we look at a person standing at the end of a street, a block away, that person appears smaller than if he is standing right beside us. We know this to be true. It is also true of an object, like, say, a box. If we are very close to the box, then we might not see that the far end appears slightly smaller than the near end, but it does. If we were to draw the box with all sides equal, it would look funny to us. This is called "orthographic projection":

It almost looks as if the box is trying to fall forward, off the page--an optical illusion. But if we draw the box so that the measurements on the far side are smaller--in perspective--the box looks less odd, and more like it is sitting on the ground. Here are the two ways of drawing the box, side by side:

This is a classic example of the tension between drawing what we know to be true (all sides equal) and what we see (things in the distance appear smaller).

To learn to draw things in perspective, it helps to go through some exercises to see how to draw a box from different angles. First, you must imagine that there is a horizon in the distance, and that if something is actually on this horizon, it is so far away and small that you cannot see it anymore. This is called the "vanishing point" (abbreviated in these diagrams as "V.P."). If you place a box in front of you, looking at it straight on, and you could imagine that you could scoot it back toward that horizon line, it would grow smaller and smaller, until finally it "vanished." It would look something like this, which is called "single point perspective":

You will notice that I have drawn guidelines from the front of the box (shaded) all the way back to a single point on the horizon--the vanishing point--and then drawn a horizontal line across those guidelines to represent the back of the box. After that, it is easy to connect the top front of the box to the top of the back of the box with two solid lines, et voila', I have drawn a box in perspective.

But we don't always look at boxes (or buildings, or sidewalks, or fence lines...) straight on. Usually, in fact, we are looking at them from one side. When we do this, we have effectively turned the box so that we now have two vanishing points--one for one side of the box that we can see, and another for the other side that we can see. It looks like this:

How extreme the perspective is depends on how far apart we place the vanishing points:

If we want our sketches to look "normal" we probably won't have room on our pages to place the vanishing points, so we have to imagine where they are, off the page.

I have drawn all these images from the viewpoint of looking down on the box. I've drawn them this way for clarity in illustrating how to use the guidelines to draw the boxes. But we seldom see things from this viewpoint (unless we are high in a neighboring building, or standing on top of a hill). More often the horizon line is "eye level." And we also draw other things besides buildings in perspective. Suppose, for example, we were to plant one tree at each corner of a box, and then look at the placement of these trees in perspective? Here is what that "box of trees" looks like, looking at them from both eye level, and from above:

This has real life applications, as shown by this sketch by a former student in this class, Jay Daniel, of the trees in the English/Philosophy courtyard:

These are the most basic rules of perspective drawing, and once you grasp them, it suddenly becomes easier to see the objects you are drawing in perspective. After you have practiced using guidelines a few times, you will find you seldom need the anymore. However, there are occasions when it helps to use them to draw things that are more complex than simple boxes. For example, you can use guideline to draw evenly spaced fenceposts or trees:

To draw the shadows falling from trees:

And so on. It turns out that artists have been playing with ways to draw very complex scenes in perspective for centuries. But it wasn't until 15th Century that Italian artist and engineer Fillipo Brunelleschi codified the laws for all the rest of us. Leonardo da Vinci, another artist/engineer. was also famous for his complex perspective drawings:

If you are a person who likes puzzles, or making order out of complexity, I urge you to find a book on perspective and start playing around with this ancient art. Or, if you just want to be able to sketch a street scene and not have it look like it is falling off the page, practice until you get a feel for the basics, and then throw out the guidelines. Either way, have some fun.

Look around. Everything you see is follows the principles of perspective. Sidewalk lines. Houses lining a street. Mailboxes in the front yard. People sitting at a dining room table. Life itself.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Thought exercises

I think sometimes that people are afraid to write in their journals because they don’t know what to write. Or perhaps they think that what they write has to be fully formed, or grand, or flowery—something special. That can be really intimidating, and it is one of the reasons I have placed so much emphasis on simply recording our observations. But the observations are really just the foundation for our experiences in nature. It is a wasted opportunity if we don’t use them to shape our understanding of the world.

One way to get past the intimidation factor is to set up simple thought exercises for ourselves. For example, in my garden, I sometimes find fox scat (poop), and it is almost always on some elevated structure, like a garden stone. So I could just record the presence of the scat and that would be that. But I could also ask myself some questions about it. Why, for example, is it often on an elevated structure? This is different from what I have observed about coyote scat, which I tend to find in the middle of a trail. I would write these observations and questions down in my journal. I don’t have to know the answer—it is enough to have the questions. I can speculate on answers, though. For example, I have often hypothesized that the coyote leaves his scat in the middle of the trail to mark it as his territory. Perhaps it is the same for the fox in my garden. If it is in the middle of the trail or on top of a rock, it is certainly noticeable, after all. I would write these speculations down, too. Later on, when I have access to the internet or a library, I might try to find the answer. Surely somebody has studied this.

You can take this even farther though, as poet Pattiann Rogers does in what she calls a “poem of supposition.” Rogers rescued a baby cardinal one day and returned it to his father. Afterward, she began to wonder how her view of the world might have been shaped if she had been a baby cardinal, and the bright red color of his father was the color of safety, shelter, food, and life itself. If red is so important to the baby cardinal’s life, would it then influence how he sees all the red in the world?

So Rogers wrote a poem about this, “Suppose your Father was a Redbird” (“Redbird” is a colloquial name for cardinals). Below is a link to Roger’s poem in its entirety. Please read it and come back here for a discussion. I’ll wait. 

She begins the poem with a close, detailed observation of the father bird, as seen by the baby, and describes watching the father fly off. At first, in the stanza below, she describes the miracle of watching the father’s wings unfurl from his body, transforming him into something else—something that can fly. Then as he flies away, you watch him eagerly, hopefully—because, remember, your whole life depends on the red color of his body returning:

Suppose, before you could speak, you watched
The slow spread of his wing over and over,
The appearance of that invisible appendage, 
The unfolding transformation of his body to the airborne.
And you followed his departure again and again,
Learning to distinguish the red microbe of his being
Far into the line of the horizon.

How then, would this desperate searching for the red microbe--this red miracle--shape how you see everything else? Rogers speculates:

Then today you might be the only one able to see
The breast of a single red bloom
Five miles away across an open field.

In other words, because you have been studying the color of red since birth, because it is important to your survival, you are so finely tuned to the color of red that you can see a single bloom of a red flower five miles away.

Go back now and re-read the poem with this understanding. I’ll wait.

Rogers ends the poem with the point of it all, the prize for taking a supposition to its conclusion, the thing you can take to your heart and from which you can learn:

If your father was a redbird,
Then you would be obligated to try to understand
What it is you recognized in the sun
As you study it again this evening
Pulling itself and the sky in dark red
Over the edge of the earth.

Maybe it seems a little unclear why this is the prize, but here, too, we can speculate. Why, for example, are we humans drawn to sunsets? Is there something in it that we are obligated to understand that we have forgotten?

I like these supposition exercises. They don’t have to be written as poetry, though I think it is fun to try that. The purpose of them, though, is to make us look more deeply at what we have observed. Why don’t you try something like this? Go to your backyard or a park and make some observations. Then start asking yourself a series of questions. The questions should lead you toward looking at the world through a different lens—one that is not your usual way of seeing. And then, the ultimate question: with this new way of seeing, how are you obligated to understand the world?

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Drawing birds

It is hard to sketch birds in the field if you have not first studied them. Birds are not like plants, which very graciously stay in one spot for us, and allow us to take all the time the world to draw them. As you have learned from trying to identify birds, they can move around quite a bit. They also come in all shapes and sizes. But there are some commonalities we can count on that help us to take "short cuts" in sketching them while they move. There is a general shape to their heads, bodies, and wings, and how a species looks is primarily a function of variations on that shape. Here is a "stick figure" bird showing the basic shapes and placement of eyes, bill, wings, tail, and feet:

Note that I have drawn the head as a circle, divided latitudinally in half (an equator) and longitudinally into four sections. Note also that the bill sits slightly below the equator, and in this bird, the eyes are just above the equator, and just behind the first line. If the bird is a predator, the eye placement might move slightly forward (for binocular vision--we talked about this in class). You can give this bird "attitude” simply by tilting the angle of the equator and longitudinal sections:

It is still just a circle, and still divided longitudinally and latitudinally, but these lines are tilted. Try drawing a few circles, then the equator and longitudinal lines at different angles, and then place the bill and eyes accordingly and see what happens.

Now that you have a sense of the basic bird shape, it is useful to study how different species are variations on these shapes. I find it useful to use photographs for this. There are countless available on the internet that you can use, but this is a photo of a yellow house finch that was coming to my feeder one winter (same as a red house finch, but an anomalous color--it happens sometime):

I decided to focus just on the head to try to capture the pose:

I drew a circle, drew the equator and longitudinal lines, and then made some adjustments to the shape of the head:

This is the infused product:

You can do the same with the whole bird. In fact, you can even add a grid to a photograph to help you get the proportions right. You should recognize this bird--a white winged dove that came to my backyard one snowy day. Here is the whole sequence for drawing it, start to finish:

Find a photo of a bird and try this grid method. Once you have practiced this a few times, you begin to get a feel for how to draw different species. You form a "template" which you can use to draw birds quickly and accurately. 

If you know you are going to see particular birds in the field, find different photos of them in different poses and practice drawing those until you can do some quick sketches of them. Here are some practice sketches I did of the Lesser Prairie Chicken shortly before going out the field to watch their courtship display. I knew from experience that I would need to have a template of the chicken in my head that I could draw quickly in order capture their behavior. The first two pages are the practice, and the second two are actual field sketches of their behavior:

If you are able to get out and go to a park, or even if you are stuck in quarantine and can only look out your window, make a note of the common birds and study them with your binoculars. Then find some photos and practice drawing those species. When you feel like you have a good template, try drawing the birds from life. Here are some sketches I have done of birds in the field using this method of study:

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: The quarantine diary

We are meeting here online because of COVID-19. This course is ostensibly about keeping a naturalist’s notebook, but our experience with nature does not exist in a vacuum, and it would be an incomplete picture if our journals did not reflect this in some way. I found this article in the New York Times and thought it was worth adding it as an optional assignment (find the link below). Consider doing a “quarantine” entry to document this moment in your lives. This is NOT a required assignment, so if you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you don’t have to. But you can certainly consider this as one of your options for a journal entry. And the “expedition” journal entry is still one of your requirements. Some of you had an opportunity to go on your expedition before we went into lockdown, and if you want to write about that. Or maybe you have an idea for an “expedition” that is workable in whatever situation you are in at the moment. But keeping a quarantine diary—a diary of this very unqiue experience is certainly big enough to count as its own kind of expeditionary tale.

The Quarantine Diaries

Naturalist Notebook: Drawing the flowers in your garden

It occurred to me that by now some of you may be in cities and towns that are requiring you to shelter in place, and it may be hard for you to get out and about to find some nature. But there are probably things right in your own backyards that you can be recording and drawing. For example, there is a shrub in our backyard, Mahonia aquifolium, also called Oregon Grape.

This hardy plant puts on tiny yellow flowers in the spring that always brings a smile to my face, but when I thought about it, I realized I didn’t actually know very much about the plant besides its name. So a couple of years ago I decided to do a study of it. At the time, there were some native bees working the blooms, and I also decided to include them, as well as some natural history notes about the plant that I found.

The mahonia is blooming now, as is another perennial, called Iphieon uniflorum, or Spring Star Flower. This plant shows up every spring, too, and is related to onions—it smells that way, too, when you brush up against it. It grows in the middle of our lawn, and provides a cheerful burst of blue. I love seeing it so much, I make my husband mow around it until it stops blooming. This, too, would make a wonderful study. Here it growing in front of my compost bin. 

But the flowers that caught my eye today were some I have growing in a bed in a part of the garden I call “the farm,” where I grow vegetables in the summer. I had planted these tulips a couple of years ago and forgotten all about them.

And I saw tulips again when I went for a walk on campus:

It would be nice if we could get outside and find some wildflowers to draw, but in the absence of that opportunity, here is another. Flowers are busting out all over in gardens right now, and there may be some in yours, too. Pick one you like and do a simple study of it for your journal. Include the leaves, as well, because leaves also help identify flowers. As an example, I chose some Carolina jessamine that grows on the side of our house. I snipped off a piece and brought it inside to my studio (by the way, the same rules about washing your hands after handling flowers you are not familiar with pertains to your garden flowers, too—Carolina jessamine is toxic if ingested. Remember, when in doubt, wash your hands!). I am including a step by step drawing, so that you can see the process for drawing a tubular flower. At the end, I’ve also included on the left side of the page steps showing how to draw a leaf that curves. It is sort of an optical illusion—try it out and see what happens. As I have said before, drawing things is mostly knowing how to do the magic tricks.

Give this a try. Be sure to look up some info about your plant, and include it as notes in your journal page, as I did above with the mahonia. For a really stunning example of how beautiful a sketchbook study of a plant can be, check out this, from artofnorka. It is a work of art all by itself:

For inspiration, I am including a real treat—you are so lucky! There is probably nobody better in the world at painting tulips than Scottish artist Fiona Strickland. She has graciously sent me photos of 
her step by step process for painting one of these. (Click on the image to embiggen.) This is a very special bag of magic tricks that she is sharing. It is as if Johannes Vermeer were to say, “Sure, I’d be happy to show your students how I paint that light streaming through the window.” (If you don’t know who Vermeer is, you should look him up. If you are looking for a good movie to stream, here is one about Vermeer and one of his most famous paintings: Girl with a Pearl Earring. You should look up up Fiona Strickland, too; she is a Vermeer for our time, though there is no movie about her. Yet.)

Naturalist Notebook: The Life List

This next module is both easy and challenging. On the face of it, it can sound very simple, and perhaps not that interesting. But many people, once they get into it, begin to see it for the fun game that it is. I’m talking about keeping a birding life list. Simply put, a life list is a compilation of all the species of birds you have seen, and the date and place you first saw them. There are many variations on the life list that you can have. Some people keep a “yard list,” that is, all the birds you see over a lifetime in your own yard. Nearly every serious birder has a yard list—it is often how they got interested in birding. And “birding” is different from “bird watching” because it is in large part about participating in the listing game, whereas a bird watcher is mostly just interested in watching birds. But there are birders who are bird watchers, and vice versa. When I started out, I was a birder, in large part because I fell into a group of local naturalists who were very serious about the game. Over time, I let my list slide, and became more of a bird watcher.

It started out as a hunting game—to see how many birds hunters could kill on Christmas day—but over time, as the cost to the population of birds became clear, the killing turned to counting, and in 1900, the Christmas Count was born, the brainchild of ornithologist Frank Chapman. The Christmas Count in turn has spawned all kinds of listing games.

Most birders keep a yard list, but they also keep a city list, county list, state list, North American list, and World list. And there are even variations on these, mostly constrained by time limits. For example, most birders keep a list of how many species they see in a year, called, predictably, a “year list.” Some birders who are very competitive will sometimes go for what is called a “Big Year,” where they are competing to see who can see the most number of species in a geographic region (such as North America or the world) in a single calendar year. There are even competitions for “Big Days.” At the top of the game, the birders are very, very, very good. They know the species they are looking for so well that they can predict the date, time of day, and location they can expect a high probability of seeing a certain species, and they map out their game plans accordingly to maximize the greatest number of species they can see in a time frame. It is not at all unusual in big day competitions for teams to go twenty four hours without sleeping.

The top birders all have North American life lists that are at least over 700 species, and it is usually usually much higher than that. In the North American Big Year competition, the top competitor for 2019, John Weigel, saw 837 species.

In a single year.

A new record.

I will tell you flat out that birders can get crazy nerdy doing this. In fact, there have been books and movies made about about wacko they are with all this listing business, including this one, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson: The Big Year

If you are looking for something to stream to pass the time, you might consider watching this movie on Prime, which is funny as well as a true story of three real people competing to see the most number of species in a single year.

(By the way, the movie is based on a non-fiction book that follows the three competitors over the course of the year, and as is often the case, the ook is better than the movie. If you think you are interested, skip the movie—read the book. It gives much better background and infomration.)

You don’t have to go off the rails with making a life list. But I do encourage you to start one and see if you enjoy it. Playing the listing game is probably the single most important thing that set me on the path to becoming a naturalist. And even though I eventually stopped listing (because I had transferred my list to a software program that crashed and I was too daunted by the task to re-create it), it left me with a knowledge and love of birds I otherwise might never have had.

There are many ways to keep a life list, including special, often pricey software programs (but be sure to back them up!). But you can also just start with making notes alongside the species in your field guide. This is the way I started out, and it worked for a good long while...until the field guide was updated, and I had to transfer my list. This was manageable until I got up into the hundreds of species range. I found that one of the most expedient method for me was a dedicated birders life list/diary, like the one shown in the photo at the top of this post. These not only have a list of the species that occur in North America, they have spaces for notes as well:

But in my heydey, when I was actually starting to travel around with friends just for the express purpose of adding to my life list, I kept a simple check list, like this one at the back of an ABA (American Birding Association) field notebook:

Those were some crazy—and exhausting—trips.

There are many versions of birders’ journals available on Amazon, should you decide to get serious.

For this module, I would like you to start by going through the lists of birds you have already compiled, and come up with an organized way of creating your life list. Then I would like to participate in the listing game by trying to see how many new species you can add to that list by the last day of class. (So this is the module you would turn in during the last week.) Remember to include date, time, and place in your list.

The rules I learned for listing a new species is that it has to be a bird that you can identify yourself, and that you actually see it well enough to identify it. In other words, you can’t just be in a group and hear someone call out a bird they see and then count that. You can also count birds that you identify only by sound. There are ethical reasons for doing this—some birds are very shy, and in order to see them you would have to harass them, and cause them stress. So the American Birding Association allows for counting birds (for examples, owls), even if you have only identified them by sound. And speaking of the ABA, if you really get interested in listing, then you should look into their organization.

That’s all the info you need. If you are still able to get out to some parks, then do so, but even if you can’t, you can use those binoculars to see how many birds come to your backyard. You can even set up a feeder. If you do, look for bird feed that is black oil sunflower seed—it will attract the most species. Feed that is mostly millet will only attract house sparrows and house finches. And all species like some water in the yard, especially if that water is moving. So consider setting up some sort of simple bird bath. If you do this, be sure it is away from shrubs that can hide cats and other predators. When birds’ feathers are wet, they are not able to fly as fast, so they will not come to water where they cannot see if there are predators.

Good listing! Don’t forget to look up!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: In Plain Air

Landscape painting done outside (as opposed to in the studio) is said to be done en plein air, which is French for "outdoors." In its native language it is pronounced like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wVm9ECfaiI

Nearly every American I've ever heard talk about it, though, just calls it "plain air." Now, I can be a snobbish as the next person, but the truth is, this is one time I prefer the bastardized version. There is something about the words "plain air" that sounds refreshing.

Artists have always painted outside, but the real heydey of plein air painting got going in the nineteenth century, probably as the result of having paints and canvases that were more portable. It was also the time that the so-called "French easel" was invented--a box and easel that could fold up into a single, cartable package. That is a French easel in the photo above, with a box of pastels in front. And below is the small pastel painting that came from that little field trip:

You don’t have to have a fancy easel or pastels, though, to paint or draw landscapes in the plain air. You can use just your journal and a pencil or pen if you like. If you want to branch out, you could take along watercolor pencils or even a small water color set.

I like using watercolor pencils when I take my journal on trips. They don’t take up a lot of room, and they add just a dash of color that livens things up. All you need to do is add a little bit of color with the pencil, then use an inexpensive brush and a dab of water to turn the pencil drawing into a painting. You can see that they look like ordinary colored pencils:

And you can use them that way, but if you add just a dab of water, they become watercolors. Here are some little sketches I did on a canoe trip using watercolor pencils: 

Sometimes I like to sketch inside a small box, called a "thumbnail" sketch. Something about keeping it confined to a small space makes it less intimidating. You might try dong some thumbnails to see if you enjoy it:

I also like to keep my journal landscapes simple. One trick I use is "tree doodles." I know we have spent some time drawing trees properly, but sometimes to sketch a landscape, it is good to step back from the details, and to keep the forms simple. Tree doodles help with that. Below is a sketch I made of a place you might recognize, Urbanovsky Park. I was sitting at a bench by the architecture building, looking across the street. You can see from the photo that the scene is actually quite busy looking. But what I focused on were the simple shapes of the hill (did you know it is the highest point in Lubbock? I'm not making that up) and the evergreens across the top. I drew this simple landscape using my tree doodles:

Finally, at some point you may want to experiment with the most traditional medium for plain air, oil paint. Here is a small painting I did at Lubbock Lake Landmark one winter day. Sandhill cranes were flying overhead and so I put them in the painting as well:

Notice that in all my plein air work, I strive to keep it simple. This is not like the "Where’s Waldo.” pen and ink drawing in the module about sketching what you see out your window, though I simplified things a bit there, too.

Looking at a landscape and figuring out what should stay and what should go so that you can show the essence is the key to good landscape painting, and a good metaphor for life. In my mind, nobody does this better than artist Marc Bohne. With his permission, I have reprinted a couple of his small oil on paper "sketches." Notice the extreme simplicity of the paintings, and yet, they are evocative. They have the power to move the viewer, and you get the feeling that the artist and the landscape had a connection. Marc Bohne does not paint plein air. Instead, he goes to a place and spends time looking at it, sometimes over a period of days. Then he paints it in his studio. In this way, it becomes more of a painting of a memory of a landscape--a very clear memory, but a memory nonetheless. What better way to distill something down to its essence?

This small painting below by Marc Bohne is one I actually own. I am not a wealthy person, but some time ago, I decided I wanted to spend some of my discretionary money collecting art that I love. This is one of those pieces, and it hangs on my living room wall. It reminds me of landscapes I saw in my New Mexico childhood. The blue ridge in the background is very like a view of the mountains I saw every morning. I can actually see myself out walking in it, exploring the world, skinned knees, cattywampus hair and all:

You could try sketching a landscape from memory, too. Go out for a walk, and if you find a place that speaks to you, stop and study it as long as you need to. Look for the shapes and colors that make it that particular landscape. Distill it in your mind to its essence. As I said above, a good metaphor for life.