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!

Windy at the Lake Watercolor and Nature Journal Club

watercolor of the lake on a windy summer day

Hearty winds whip across the lake,
Kayaker struggles.

Seagulls hover in the air,
Clouds race above.

Reflections can’t form in this wind,
Dragonfly skips on waves.

I messed my ankle up last Monday, so I’ve been off my feet for almost a whole week. I’m starting to go stir crazy. Yesterday was the first beautiful day we’ve had in a long time….cool…breezy…just perfect, so I had to get out at least in the car to paint some nature. I decided to go to a near by lake which had the perfect spot to paint.

Before I paint, I like to sit still and listen. I empty my brain of any preconceived ideas about what I should experience and I soak in the surroundings, slowly. Then I make notes… I feel you, strong wind. I see you red-winged blackbird. I hear you American goldfinch, but I don’t see you yet. Etc.

The notes are just as important as the watercolor sketch, even more so I think.

So, what have you experienced in nature lately?

Remember a few months ago I was wanting to somehow start a nature journal club? Well, I think I’ve figured out an effortless way we can all participate! If you upload a picture of your nature journal page on your Instagram and use the tag: #letspaintnature, we can do a search for that tag (or follow) and see all of the artwork together. When I upload an image, instead of using a location, for privacy purposes I only type in the state I live in: Illinois. If you do the same, we can tell what part of the world your nature sketch is from.

Let’s form a nature journal club by using #letspaintnature!!!

😀

My Native Front Yard – Blue Vervain Watercolor

Watercolor sketch of blue vervain native plant

Today blue vervain (Verbena hastata) is in bloom in the native garden. I absolutely love its flowers. Up close they look blue-purple. From a distance they look purple to pinkish-purple. The actual flower itself is tiny but grows in clusters on a spike. They start blooming at the bottom and work their way upward.

Toooooooooons of insects love this plant. (Listed above, information taken from The Illinois Wildflower website). I have witnessed many enjoying this plant but not yet small butterflies nor moths. My plant is in its first year so it’s tiny. I am looking forward to the coming years when it can fully develop to 5 feet tall.

Blue vervain likes moist soil, so I planted it at the end of a dry stream bed which is connected to my rain gutter down spout. When it rains, the water collects in the stream bed and the vervain benefits from the moist soil. Too bad in Chicago it has been super hot and super dry lately! We need rain!

It’s difficult to see but the baby blue vervain plant is circled in orange at the end of the dry stream bed.

In your garden, you don’t have to transform your whole lawn to help insects. Just incorporate one or two native plants in your yard and you will be blessed with butterflies and other pollinators. Turf grass has very shallow roots, therefore it cannot hold rainwater so it becomes runoff pretty quickly. The runoff takes with it pesticides and fertilizers which go directly in the waterway. This is why many nearby ponds have a thick green film in the summer because it has too much nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runoff, creating algae blooms, resulting in fish kills and other aquatic deaths. Native plants have long, deep roots. The roots hold rainwater, cleaning it before it reaches the water table or has a chance to become runoff. Yay native plants! They’re superheros in more ways than one.

If you would like to see blue vervain in the wild, check near ponds that have full sun. Or check prairies that have moist soils.

Update on the black swallowtail caterpillar from last weeks post:
Unfortunately it’s gone. No chrysalis, no relocation to another plant. Just gone. In my human  failings I anthropomorphized my caterpillar, like it was my baby. I was so upset!! Like really upset. Birds do not eat this caterpillar because of its bitter taste. Perhaps a raccoon came by to have a juicy meal. They’re omnivores and will eat just about anything. I have many raccoons in the neighborhood. I don’t know.

Bottom line is: God’s ways are not my ways. This caterpillar was needed elsewhere. It is well with my soul. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD. Job 1:21

Whether a happy ending or not, I am thankful to be able to share my nature adventures with everyone through this platform. Truly thankful.

 

My Native Front Yard Wildlife Edition – Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

watercolor sketch of a black swallowtail caterpillar eating golden alexander leaf
sketch of the black swallowtail caterpillar

The native plants are working! Look who I found munching on some leaves…. a big juicy black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes). That means a black swallowtail butterfly must have laid an egg under the leaf of my Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) plant when I wasn’t looking. I’m so excited! See my sketch and story about the Golden Alexander plant here.

black swallowtail caterpillar

Isn’t it beautiful?!? I found it about a week ago. He or she is eating everyday and growing bigger and bigger. I will keep my eyes on it to see where it forms its chrysalis. 

eaten leaves and flowers from the golden alexander plant

I know this is pretty difficult to see, but inside the red circle the leaves and flowers have been chewed off. This is a BIG clue that you have a caterpillar on your plant. Never get upset if your native plants have holes or missing parts all together. It’s a GOOD thing! The native insects need food. They’re just doing their job.

Black swallowtail caterpillars can be found on any plant in the carrot family: Golden Alexander, Queen Anne’s Lace, Parsley, Carrot, Parsnip, Dill, Celery.
A shout out to my nature friends in Oklahoma and New Jersey…..the black swallowtail butterfly is your state butterfly!

When my butterfly emerges, he or she is going to need nectar from milkweed, clover, or thistle. I’VE GOT YOU COVERED….THERE IS MILKWEED IN THE BACKYARD! 

 

 

I’ve been trying to record all of the insects that visit the Golden Alexander. Here we have some type of bee to the left and a hover fly to the right. Both are excellent pollinators.

On a side note…I have a girlfriend who has been having a lot of anxiety about the world and the various headline catastrophes in the media lately. I tried to calm her fears and point her in the direction to pray and have faith because God is an ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:4).

She denied this advice claiming that God is not here. You can not see Him, therefore He does not help her.

Oh, but can I lovingly plead my case??

Jesus told us: “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

and…

Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5).

When I sketch nature, I study every inch of my subject. Today I learned that the black swallowtail caterpillar has some black spots that touch each other with a very thin line on the dorsal part of the body, some that don’t, and on the sides the black dots are always separate. Why? I don’t know. But God does. Can man create a butterfly from an egg? No, it must go through stages. Every stage is necessary. The whole life-cycle is a plan.

There remains a plan to the chaos in the world. God is in control yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Do not fear.
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things. (Philippians 4:6-8).

When I paint nature, I am meditating on those things that are lovely…
May the peace of God protect and guide you. And may you never lose your mustard seed of faith.
Amen.

Update on the black swallowtail caterpillar:
Unfortunately it’s gone as of July 7, 2020. No chrysalis, no relocation to another plant. Just gone. In my human  failings I anthropomorphized my caterpillar, like it was my baby. I was so upset!! Like really upset. Birds do not eat this caterpillar because of its bitter taste. Perhaps a raccoon came by to have a juicy meal. They’re omnivores and will eat just about anything. I have many raccoons in the neighborhood. I don’t know.

Bottom line is: God’s ways are not my ways. This caterpillar was needed elsewhere. It is well with my soul. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD. Job 1:21

Whether a happy ending or not, I am thankful to be able to share my nature adventures with everyone through this platform. Truly thankful.

 

It’s a Boy! Update on Polyphemus Cocoon

Do you remember last year when a Polyphemus caterpillar visited my house? (Click on the link to see post with video of caterpillar eating maple leaves.) I was completely shocked as I just happened to find it on my siding. Suddenly, in a matter of minutes it spun a silk cocoon right there. Worried a racoon would eat the cocoon before it hatched because it was so close to the ground, I protected it with a barrier.

That was August 15, 2019. I had no idea it would overwinter! I assumed it would emerge in a couple of weeks, but it did not.

Sometime during December or January, we had a sever winter storm with strong winds. The gust knocked down my barrier AND the cocoon. I just happened to find the cocoon about 20 feet away. As I picked it up, the cocoon rattled inside. As if there was a hard ball inside…you could literally shake the cocoon and hear something inside. Wanting to protect this cocoon, not knowing if it would even make it, I placed it inside a flower box.

It remained for 10 months….until TODAY!!!!! He emerged!! And it’s a boy!!

Funny, I didn’t even recognize him hanging from the ceiling of my front porch. I asked my son, who is 6’5″, to knock off that brown leaf. He said, “That’s not a leaf, that’s a moth.”

Me: “What?!?” Could it? Is it? Is it my Polyphemus? It’s huge!

I ran to the flower box to examine the old cocoon. Sure enough I found an exit hole!


(cocoon is on the far right)

IT IS HIM!!!! ❤ ❤ ❤

I know it’s a male because his antennae are huge, like giant feathers. He is beautiful, but he wont live long. As a matter of fact, this moth will only live about 1-2 weeks. His sole mission is to find a female and mate. He wont even eat a speck during this time.

I am so thankful to my Heavenly Father for allowing me to host a place where this Polyphemus moth can overwinter, emerge, and fly away. He should leave tonight as they are nocturnal.

Well wishes my moth friend.