Infected Pines Watercolor

3 Infected Pines
watercolor in a cold press sketchbook

Sometimes nature is not always beautiful. It has as we perceive them, imperfections. One day, I noticed young red pines (Pinus resinosa) in a nearby park that had brown patches all along the bottom perimeter of each tree. I did not pay much attention nor give the situation importance. But then, I noticed that every red pine along my 50 minute commute to school had the very same problem. Every very last one of them. Suddenly the tiny issue at the park took a much greater significance.

I’ve heard it could be a fungus. I don’t want to pinpoint what the problem is because I’m not completely sure. When contemplating how many pines are involved, I began to worry. But then I remembered the question a young summer camp attendee once asked me as we were hiking in the woods. She noticed a dying tree and asked, ” Why don’t we just cut it down?”

This response is so human. The tree is imperfect…why don’t we get rid of it? What value does it have? It’s not serving me, so let’s do away with it.

I began to describe the plethora of wildlife that depends on dying and dead trees. From birds to beetles to worms to microscopic organisms to fungi and eventually to the soil itself. The next generation of new plant growth needs the minerals from this dying organism.

So what exactly is imperfection?

One of my favorite verses of all times:
For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the LORD.
Isaiah 55:8

So, could it be that everything has a purpose? Who knows, maybe in the future if thousands of these pines succumb to a dismal fate, many organisms will be, at that time, in need no longer. So be it.

Nature is beautiful the way it is. And I do believe there is a plan. One in which, thank goodness, I don’t have to be in control of.

winter pines as night descends watercolor

Night Descends #1
watercolor on Arches cold pressed 140lb block

Winter is one of the most beautiful seasons in existence. Not for flashy obvious reasons like autumn’s bold colors, but for very subtle quiet reasons which must be sought. One of my favorite aspect of winter is that dramatic twilight sky…the one that changes second by second. When you find yourself under a winter twilight sky, don’t move, watch the colors melt and grow dark until night takes over. Try to do this in silence with no distractions like the cellphone, television, or radio. It truly is a sacred moment.

This tiny watercolor (3.5 x 5″) looks like a pine under the Northern Lights. I’ve never seen the Northern Lights in person. What a blessing that would be if I could one day! Wow!
The paper I used (Arches cold press block) has a lot of texture. I was surprised at how much I liked it. With these two paintings, I experimented with a wet on wet sky. It really made the transition between colors smooth.

Night Descends #2
watercolor on Arches cold pressed 140lb block

The texture of the paper is really visible in this painting. I held the painting vertical so that gravity could pull the dark blue sky and make it “fall” down. It almost looks like sheets of rain. While the sky was wet, I painted some distant pines which made them out of focus…perfect for distant pines.

Let’s embrace the beauty of winter even if the moment is fleeting. I hope you find yourself under a dramatic twilight winter sky soon.

May God bless and protect you in 2021,
Christine

The Greatest Love Story

Oscar and Griffin (my dogs), Niles and Vinny (my cats), all have different personalities. Each one is distinctly unique. But they all have one thing in common…their need for love. Even Niles, the anti-social cat, needs love in his own good time.

Every morning we sit together (except for Niles) on the living room couch as I sip my tea or coffee. We stare out the window and watch Canada geese feed across the field. I take the time to pet each one of my animals and tell them I love them individually.

When one of them is getting attention the others seem jealous, especially Vinny, who sometimes interrupts me by throwing his body on me and shoving his head in my face so that I can kiss him.

What is this power – love?

The Word states that God is love. (1 John 4:16)

That means every being, human and non, yearns for God without even knowing it.

As I contemplated the idea that God is love, I literally read about it a few moments later in John, chapter 10, The Good Shepherd.

Jesus talks about the role of a shepherd. He states that if a hireling (someone paid to watch sheep) encounters a wolf he will run away, because he’s afraid of the wolf and he really doesn’t care about the sheep. But the good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. (John 10:11)

I think to myself, we are the sheep and He is the Shepherd.

Jesus goes on to say that He doesn’t have to lay down his life…nobody can take it from Him, He willingly gives it up for His sheep. And this pleased God.

Why?

To cover a multitude of sins.
Not just for Christians, or Jews, or any particular race, but for the world…

It says that He (God) made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we may become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor 5:21) This makes us pure to God, not of our own works or ways, but because of what Jesus has done.

True love.
And a free gift.

As I write this Vinny is strewn across my writing arm and pressed up against my chest. I can feel him breathing and he must feel me breath too. He is content and happy being as close to me as possible.

This need for love, which every creature possesses, played out on a cross 2 millennia ago, as blood must have dripped down this cross by a Shepherd willing to lay down His life for His sheep.

Today it’s a derogatory remark to call people sheep. I hear it a lot when one wants to convey that people are blindly following someone or something. I smile when I hear this. I remember Jesus said, “When he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him for they know his voice.” (John 10:4)
I hear and I will follow.

May you hear His voice and begin to understand this love story which was orchestrated for you.
Amen

Let’s Paint a wondrous winter sunset

Have you ever seen a winter sunset so gorgeous that it left you breathless? Just for a second? One particular sunset did just that as I drove home the other day. I held my breath as I admired all of the colors in the sky, for I know how quickly the sky changes from minute to minute.

What stuck me was this thin layer of deep red in between tree trunks in the distance. It was mesmerizing.

Hey! Do you want to learn how to paint this wondrous winter sunset using watercolors in 10 easy steps?

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Draw an outline. The sky is my focal point in this watercolor painting, so the horizon is 2/3rd the way down. For some reason, I really like a slanted horizon instead of a flat horizon. Maybe it’s because I’m from the most flat state in the US: Illinois!

After you draw your sketch out, wet the sky with clean water.

Step 2: While your sky is wet but not so wet that the paper is shiny, take a large flat brush and paint a few sections of yellow sky, then go around the yellow with a blue/gray mixture of paint. Do not touch the yellow paint with your brush when applying the blue/gray mixture or the colors will mix.

Step 3: Paint a red horizon. Next, paint another layer of the blue/gray mixture just above the red horizon and above the yellow patches in the sky. This will dry much lighter, so don’t be afraid of how dark it looks.

Step 4: Take some turquoise or viridian green paint and add some color to the snow. Don’t cover all of the snow, leave some pure white paper showing. I love viridian green, by the way, it’s such a good winter color!

Step 5: Using a thin flat brush and some blue/brown paint, paint many tree trunks in distance right above the snowy horizon. Don’t worry if they do not look perfect. It does not matter.

Step 6: Using a thin rigger brush, paint some branches. This too does not have to be perfect. Most of it will be covered anyway.

Step 7: Using a small round brush, paint some foliage on the trees. These could be young oaks which hold on to their dried leaves all season long.

Step 8: While the oak trees are still wet, take a cloth towel or paper towel and blot up some paint, by pressing on the paper lightly. This step gives dimension and a little bit of mystery in the background.

close up of blotting with cloth towel

Step 9: Paint in your tree using dark colors such as: blue, purple, and brown. Don’t worry about covering every single line you made in your sketch at the beginning. Add extra branches if you want or add less. Have fun and stay loose.

Step 10 Final: Here comes the exciting part! Add a little magic snow! I used permanent white gouache paint, saturated my brush, and spattered some falling snow by tapping my paintbrush on another paintbrush. Next I painted some accumulating snow on the branches of my tree.

I hope you enjoyed this free step by step demonstration on how to paint a winter sunset using watercolors. This painting doesn’t take a long time, especially if you keep it small. You can do it! My painting was only 3.5×5″ and I’m using it for a Christmas card.

May you have a wonderful Christmas and Happy Holidays. May your 2021 be much better than 2020!

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 6:23

When snow turns to rain – watercolor

winter watercolor of tree and field

It is a spiritual thing to walk in the woods while it rains. You are alone with your thoughts, the drops echoing under your hood, and the Lord walks by your side…

The other day I awoke to a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. I never tire of that happy childlike feeling I get as I open the curtains and gasp in awe. I knew I had to get to the woods before it melted because the rain was coming.

The rain saturates leaves on the ground giving them a distinct earthy aroma. Rain keeps most visitors away, encouraging wildlife to come out. Rain also makes designs on the snow as it’s melting it, sort of like pockmarks. I love walking in the rain after snow.

winter landscape
Winter landscape. Part of the DuPage Forest Preserves.

This photo was the inspiration for the watercolor. The ground was quickly being exposed. I snapped the photo and painted at home.

Hopefully you can get out and enjoy the season…even if you can’t walk about, just sitting in your car in nature can help.

October Picnic watercolor sketch

An impromptu picnic at the East Branch Off-Leash Dog Park, part of the DuPage County Forest Preserves near Chicago. I was not planning on visiting here, but our semi was being serviced a few blocks away. Taking advantage of such an unusually warm autumn day, I brought a picnic lunch. We did not have our dogs with us, but oh did we make the dogs there jealous with our food! A couple of dogs got their revenge, for our unwillingness to share, by shaking their wet fluffy bodies right next to us. Ha ha ha!!

The wind was strong, but the temperature warm. There was a haze covering the sun and at about 1pm the colors seemed drained. None the less we enjoyed a beautiful view.

I’ve been missing from this blog due to a full school schedule. I miss painting. I miss hiking. When I started sketching this watercolor, it felt like home. It seemed like the feeling I got was…..yes, this is what you should be doing. Oh how I miss it!! I guess time away just make you appreciate it even more.

Enjoy autumn while you can. The colors are breathtaking. Life moves fast. One strong windstorm can steal the leaves from the trees and April is a long time away… Capture this season by force! Grasp the colors and lock them in your mind for safekeeping.

Morning Mist Watercolor Sketch

Morning’s revelation brought a thick carpet of mist. How marvelous! It was a living and breathing thing. Rolling as it moved east…then unrevealing itself as the sun emerged. Unrevealing to nothingness. Then I wondered about all of the things which we cannot see…

Swallows and Striders on the Fox River Watercolor Sketch

Watercolor sketch of the Fox River

As the river flows
A flight of tree swallows swirl.
Zooming up, down, sideways fast.
But the water striders below,
On water they twirl.
Zooming front and back, side to side fast.

Yesterday I had the chance to ride my bike along the Fox River and stopped for a bit at Glenwood Forest Preserves in Batavia, IL. The day could not be any more perfect…mild, sunny, breezy. As I stood ever so still along the bank of the river, I couldn’t help notice movement everywhere; The speed of the river, the agility of the swallows, and the acceleration of the water striders. Magnificent!

Photo of an island on the Fox River

Let’s Paint a Simple Summer Sketch

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Let’s learn how to make a simple summer sketch for your nature journal!

Yesterday I was able to get out to my favorite secret pond where I noticed tons of cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) growing along the edge of the water. Cut plant is pretty amazing! Its leaves form a deep cup where large amounts of water accumulate after rainfall.

So let’s get started!

Step 1: This watercolor journal is pretty small, only 7″ x 5″ (17.78 x 12.7 cm). Here I started with a sketch of the landscape on the left and a sketch of the cup plant on the right. I love when the proportions are off kilter. The cup plant is the main subject so it’s large, but I also want to include the landscape where I found it.

Step 2: I start with the sky using a nice deep cobalt blue color. I painted around the tree and around the petals of the cup plant.

Step 3: I mixed the cobalt blue from my palette with sepia and painted the trunk of the cottonwood tree. Next, I painted the foliage with some light green and dark green pigments.

Step 4: I mixed some cobalt blue to my dark green pigment and painted the shadow foliage on the tree.

Step 5: We are going to add shadow to the tree trunk by mixing a bit of purple to the trunk color. I did not cover the whole trunk, but skipped around allowing the “sunlit” areas to shine through.

Step 6: There’s a lot in this step but don’t worry, it’s not difficult. (Working from the bottom of the page upwards) First, using a lemon green mixture paint in front of the tree. This is where the sun is hitting the grass. Next, using a green color without yellow, paint behind the tree. Then, paint a darker green color for the plants growing along the water. If you drop some blue into this section while the paint is wet, you will have a nice variation of plant color. Finally, take a small brush with pure yellow and paint some dots above the plant line and within the plants. This represents the cup plants from a distance. Because the landscape is not the main focus, we don’t have to include too many details. That would distract us from the large cup plant, which is the main focal point.

Step 7: While the background is drying, paint the petals of the cup plant with pure lemon yellow. Paint the stem (which is square) lemon yellow and light green.

Step 8: A neat feature of cup plant is that the top of the leaves which face the sky are more blue than the bottom of the leaves which are green. So paint the top of the leaves cobalt blue and a little green. You can use the same color on your palette as the shadow foliage from the tree. While the leaves are wet, take a sharp object (I used a pointed paintbrush end) and scrape some vein lines. Easy peasy.

Step 9: Using the same lemon yellow, paint every other petal to give the flower definition. Because some petals have two layers of paint they will appear much darker. In the center of the flower, paint some yellow ochre dots.

Step 10: Paint the bottom of the leaves with a green color. I think I still had some yellow ochre on my brush when I picked up some green, it made a nice combo. While the bottom of the leaf is wet, add some vein marks with a sharp object.

Step 11: In this step I was not satisfied with the bottom of the leaves. They looked too light, so while it was wet I added a bit of blue/green to just the base of the “cup”, then I painted that same color on the stem in two lines, leaving the middle of the stem light. The stem is actually in the shape of a square. I hope one day you can see it in real life. And even though the stem goes through the two fused leaves, water remains in the cup. Pretty neat!

Step 12: Now it’s time to anchor that tree and add shadow. The sun is shining from the left of the tree and the shadow is cast to the right. The sun was so strong that the shadow ran all the way up the plants growing on the edge. Using purple, paint a shadow under the tree and to the right of the tree, running up the cup plants.

Step 13 Final: Because I want the cup plant to be the focal point, I outlined it with a black micron pen. I also wrote details in my nature journal so that I would always remember this day. Even though this journal sketch is quick and messy, it brings me right back to that spot where I sat in the shade on a hot summer day.

Here are the photos from that location:

There’s a lot going on here. As artists, we don’t have to include every detail. I really liked the large cottonwood tree and the cup plants growing on the edge of the pond which you cannot really see. I decided to eliminate all other shrubs and trees…too much.

Here are some detailed pics of the cup plant.
Did you know that the American Goldfinch loves the seeds from the flower head? They also love to drink the water in the leaf cups when available.

I hope you enjoyed this free step-by-step demonstration on how to paint a simple summer sketch using watercolors. Don’t worry how your sketches turn out. They are meant to jog back memories of your nature outings, not to be framed pieces of art. Have fun and enjoy playing with watercolors!

It was there and then it was gone – Monarch Caterpillar Watercolor

watercolor sketch of monarch caterpillar anatomy

It was there… I was looking at the reward for planting common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in my backyard. Several times the hubby almost pulled it because he thought it was a weed (well it is), I pleaded for him to leave it and to look the other way.

photo of monarch caterpillar on milkweed

And there it was. A monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus). To say I was ecstatic was an understatement.

photo of common milkweed along a sunny white fence

The first year, one single milkweed happened to grow unexpectedly. Year two, it multiplied to a few plants. During year two, I took the seeds from the pods and spread them all over the sunny side of the backyard. This year, year three, there are many milkweed…even four which happened to grow on the other side of the fence.

Unfortunately, a few hours after I discovered the monarch caterpillar it was gone. I looked above and below each leaf of every milkweed. Gone.

There are two possibilities:

  • (The pessimistic option) I saw a stink bug on one of the milkweed plants. I had NO idea that stink bugs/soldier bugs were natural predators of the caterpillar. It was only after it was missing that I thought to do some research on what could have eaten it. Because the “milk” sap from the milkweed is toxic, I didn’t think I had to worry about this caterpillar. I was wrong. The Monarch Joint Venture website even has a picture of a stink bug attacking a monarch caterpillar. The site also lists a host of other natural predators.
  • (The optimistic option) This caterpillar looked pretty big. It possibly was in its 4th or 5th instar stage. When the monarch caterpillar reaches 5th instar it will leave the host plant to pupate. It will travel up to 10 meters away, pick a nice spot on another plant or even a man-made structure, spend some time in a J-hang formation, and develop its chrysalis.

To prevent my heart from being broken over another lost caterpillar (click here to read about the black swallowtail caterpillar), I’m going to stick with the optimistic version.

To make sure I help the Monarch butterfly population and any other butterfly, I ordered a butterfly cage. Hopefully I will have updates on some success stories soon!