A Great Blue Heron, the Moon and Towan

It’s been far too long since I posted anything here! It was a busy albatross cam season followed by recovery from albatross cam season. I’m starting to get my balance back.

Here are a few nifty non-albatross images from the last few months.

First I’d like to share the amazing great blue heron that posed for me at the park in May. I was just about to pack up and leave when this incredible bird showed up and spread his (her?) wings. What a thrill! He showed off a drop wing pose that I like to think of as “the satellite dish.”



On to a completely different subject: the moon. I recently amused myself by trying to take a series of photos of the moon. It offers different challenges than birds. I enjoyed the change of pace!




Last but certainly not least, I’m working on a scratchboard portrait of Towan, one of Woodland Park Zoo’s resident orangutans. He has wondrous eyes. This is a detail of the portrait in progress. The finished piece will be 8 x 10 inches and will show him looking out from under a burlap blanket.

Towan of Woodland Park Zoo
Towan of Woodland Park Zoo

I hope you enjoyed this little update. Thank you for taking a look!

Kauai albatross cam map 2015 by rowntreestudio.com

Albatross Season is Here!

Once again the Laysan albatross have gathered to breed on the north shores of Kauaʻi, and once again the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is running a live camera at a good nest site. Iʻm very excited to be volunteering again this year as a cam operator. Weʻve got two nests visible this year plus chicks at two other nests, on site but off view.

I’m torn between going on and on about these incredible birds and just handing you the cam link and telling you to check them out yourself. (Here it is! http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/41/Laysan_Albatross/) They start off as adorable fluffy chicks and over five months grow into elegant birds with seven-foot wing spreads, graceful in the air and a little goofy strolling on land. They are tranquil and affectionate but real show-offs when it’s courtship time.

Since we have multiple nests in view this year we thought it would be helpful for volunteers and the public to have a map of the area. We wanted to protect the anonymity of the site (which is private property) while still making key elements of the site clear. We also talked about making it a book-style map like you might find in the end papers of a fantasy or children’s story. It sounded like an interesting project and a bit different than my usual work so I took it on.

Cam map rough draft rowntreestudio.com
A very rough early map.

We started off by building a clear understanding of the site through very rough maps. I was lucky enough to visit the site last summer while on vacation but alas I’m very far away from it now. Volunteers on site help with photos and explanations to make the layout clear so I could start drawing.

I knew I wanted to use watercolor with ink lettering in the final piece but after experimenting with that I decided to do ink illustrations for the whole thing with watercolor added. Rather than draw out the whole thing perfectly I drew all the elements, sometimes taking a few tries to get something right, then scanned the drawings and assembled them with Photoshop. That’s especially helpful when someone looks at a rough draft and suggests that nest four should really move over to the right a few inches!

Crow quill nib and artwork by rowntreestudio.com
A crow quill nib and artwork.

I did the drawing and lettering with Noodler’s Ink in Bulletproof Black and a crow quill (Hunt No. 102) pen nib on Strathmore Bristol plate paper. That nib is probably my all-time favorite. It’s a variable-width nib with just the right about of spring for my taste. (For a similar feel in a larger nib I recommend the Tachikawa G nib, available through John Neal Bookseller.)

After the drawings were all assembled I printed the image on cardstock and painted the print. It’s not the best paper for watercolor but it worked well enough. I then took that painted version and scanned it. I brought together scanned handwritten text, the map and additional texture and color in Photoshop for the final image.

The map is now available to download through this Cornell site: 2015 Albatross Cam Map.

I would love to read comments and suggestions about the map from cam viewers! Is it helpful? Are there confusing elements or things youʻd like to see included? Your answers will help all of us on the cam team as we plan for the remainder of this season and next.




Tools of the Trade: Watercolor Brushes

watercolor brushes by elizabeth smith of www.rowntreestudio.com
Watercolor brushes, L-R: 20/0 Liner, Princeton; 6 Round, Grumbacher Golden Edge; 2 Round Grumbacher Golden Edge; 3/0 Round, Princeton; 1/2: Angular Shader, Princeton; 1/4″ Angle, Daniel Smith; 2 Flat, Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin; 0 Round, da Vinci Cosmotop Spin; 1 Round, da Vinci Cosmotop Spin; 3 Round, da Vinci Cosmotop Spin; 3 Round, Winsor & Newton Series 7; 00, da Vinci Maestro; 0 Round, Winsor & Newton Series 7; 1 Round, Winsor & Newton Series 7; 2 Round, Winsor & Newton Series 7; 3 Round, Winsor & Newton Series 7; 10/0 Liner, Robert Simmons Sapphire.

An interesting conversation has appeared in NSI circles. For reasons that have not yet been explained by manufacturers, kolinsky sable brushes are suddenly disappearing from the US market. One rumor is that the animal has been listed as endangered. Kolinsky sable brushes are prized by watercolor artists for their excellent paint handling characteristics, so artists who rely on them are understandably disturbed.

I thought this would be a good time to talk about the watercolor brushes I use and why.

I have a small collection of Kolinsky sable brushes, and I treasure them. I also have synthetic brushes, and while I don’t feel as protective of them as I do of the sable, I still use them heavily and value what they add to my options.

Sable: Pros and Cons

Sable is loved by watercolor artists because:

  • Natural fibers hold more paint than synthetic.
  • A well-made sable brush holds a very fine point and springs back to that point easily.
  • Sable lasts for years, even decades, if treated well.

The downside to sable:

  • Somewhere a sable lost its tail fur for that brush. It probably wasn’t asked for permission. This tie to the greater fur industry is very disturbing. My artwork is not so wonderful that animals should die for it, and it’s unclear how much a factor paint brushes are in animal mistreatment.
  • These brushes can be destroyed by moths.
  • Natural fur is expensive up front.

Synthetic: Pros and Cons

On the bright side:

  • Synthetic fiber brushes are inexpensive up front.
  • Synthetic brushes don’t rely on the fur industry.
  • Sometimes the stiffer bristles are just what you want.

The downside to synthetic brushes:

  • Synthetic brushes wear out very quickly. A synthetic brush can lose its point in one painting.
  • Synthetic fibers don’t hold as much paint as natural, and they don’t deposit the paint as smoothly.
  • Over their life cycle, synthetic brushes are likely to involve chemicals and non-degrading materials that aren’t good for the environment, however I have not fully researched this issue.


A Direct Comparison

The following image shows marks I made to compare two size 3 round brushes. It isn’t a beautiful scan of the marks, but it’s enough to see the huge difference in the way the two brushes released the paint. I touched the brush point to the paper, pressed harder has I continued the mark to widen the line, then gradually lifted the brush to taper back down to a fine point. I was surprised at how much of a difference I discovered. The sable marks are silky smooth compared to the synthetic, which dropped paint very unevenly, always leaving a small pool where I lifted the brush tip from the paper. The synthetic brush I used in this instance was one recommended to me as a good synthetic option.

sable vs. synthetic brush comparison by Elizabeth R Smith www.rowntreestudio.com
A comparison of marks on watercolor paper. Winsor & Newton Series 7 Sable size 3 vs. Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin Synthetic Round size 3.

When painting with watercolor, it’s best to put paint down and then leave it alone. The more you have to go back and mess around with the pigment on paper the more likely it is to turn into a difficult-to-salvage mess. With that in mind, the smooth paint deposit of the sable brush is far more appealing than the uneven lines from the synthetic.

brush comparison by elizabeth smith of rowntreestudio.com
With bristles wet to show the points: 3 round Synthetic (da Vinci Cosmotop Spin); 3 round Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky sable; a penny for scale; old beat up synthetic that I only use for mixing paint.

The sable brush used in that little experiment cost about $30, and the synthetic is about $6 online. Sometimes I’m in the mood for the somewhat stiffer synthetic bristles, and I’ll always use synthetic if I’m doing something harder on the brush. I’m happy to have it in my collection.

If I find a synthetic brush that behaves like natural fur I’ll switch, but I’m reluctant to give up the sable characteristics.  On the other hand, for someone just starting to explore watercolors the low price of the synthetic brushes makes them the way to go.





Drawing on Nature: Flora and Fauna

Drawing On Nature: Flora and FaunaDrawing on Nature: Flora and Fauna

Washington State Convention Center, Seattle
January 15th through April 1, 2014

presented by
The Guild of Natural Science Illustrators Northwest
and The Pacific Northwest Botanical Artists

I’m very excited to present this art exhibition, opening January 15th at the State Convention Center in downtown Seattle. Four of my pieces will be included! I’ll post more information about the show as I get it. For now you can read about the show here, at the GNSI-NW website.

Edited Jan. 15th:

I got to go see the show today! It’s gorgeous! Over fifty pieces of original artwork lines two sides of a large primary walkway and is available to view whenever the building is open (5am to 12am). There is no admission fee. There are lovely brochures listing every artist and including a thumbnail image of every piece of artwork, too!

Happy Halloween!

Gertie the preserved fiddler crab in a witch's hat with a broom, sitting on a mini pumpkin
Happy Halloween from Gertie the preserved fiddler crab!

Last year in Natural Science Illustration class I learned that natural science illustrators tend to end up with unusual things on their desks and in their freezers. Gertie the fiddler crab still lives on my desk with her hat and broom on top of the jar. (This photo was taken one year ago.) I’m afraid to open the jar now.

Gertie the fiddler crab rendered in pen and ink, carbon dust and white acrylic paint on drafting film, completed October 2012.
Gertie the fiddler crab rendered in pen and ink, carbon dust and white acrylic paint on drafting film, completed October 2012.

Experiments with Scratchboard

Ink Eye
Ink on clayboard. About 1″ diameter image.

Although scratchboard work typically involves scratching through black ink to reveal a white layer, there are a variety of ways to involve color in the process. An artist can choose inks, watercolor, colored pencil or anything else they can dream up and either add it over the top of a scratched piece, tinting the scratches, or alternating layers of color and scratches for a more full-color approach.

Today I started playing around with colored inks on a piece of white clayboard. I started with a vague idea of what my cat’s eye looks like. It might have been a good idea to use a reference. I painted in a mix of ink, using a mix of black, sepia, green, yellow and blue for the various areas. I gave the ink a couple minutes to dry, then started scratching out highlights and lighter fur with a scratchboard tool.

Scratchboard Tools
A small bottle of ink, a brush, scratchboard nib, and a dip pen.

I went back and forth with the ink and scratching a couple times to fine tune the image, sometimes applying ink with a pen and sometimes with the brush. I can dilute the ink to wash over scratched areas without completely losing the scratched lines or paint over completely to rework an area. Once the ink is on the clay it doesn’t budge and every scratch changes the surface of the clay permanently, so I wouldn’t want to make any major errors working this way.

It’s a fun technique with a lot of possibilities. I look forward to working through a full project this way. The color really pops on the white clay and scratching is perfect for fur or anything with fiddly little highlights.

The ink I tried today is designed for scratchboard use. That primarily means that it doesn’t leave a noticeable residue on top of black inked areas. I applied the ink with a small synthetic brush (dyed blackish a while ago from repeated use with black ink) and a dip pen with my favorite nib, the Hunt No. 102. For scratching I’m using the Speedball Scratch Knife 112, pictured here, and occasionally an X-acto No. 16 blade.

NSI: A Brief Introduction to Behind-the-Scenes Botanical Illustration

In training to become a natural science illustrator, one quickly learns that an accurate illustration begins with good references. Illustrators will work with whatever solid resources they can get their hands on, sometimes traveling to sketch and photograph specimens on their own, sometimes working with specimens provided by a client, and sometimes working with scientific collections like those found in Natural History Museums.

Epilobium ciliatum flower detail
Epilobium ciliatum flower detail in pen and ink.

For my pen and ink illustration of Epilobium ciliatum I worked primarily with specimens from my own container garden. This little weed sprang up all over the place in my pots, and I thought it would be a shame not to take advantage of it! I sketched, measured and photographed the plants in a few sittings over a number of days in order to catch them with the flowers open and to observe changes in the seed structure. I also used this Herbaria collection to learn more about the plant and to see pressed specimens which have been photographed and cataloged online.

As is often the case in natural science illustration (NSI for short), I needed to use magnification to get a really good look at the plant’s structures. A 10x loupe is enough to reveal quite a bit that you can’t see with the naked eye, but for this project I took advantage of a 45x dissecting scope available to me in my illustration classroom. Under that scope the 1mm seeds had a surface texture almost like corduroy and I could clearly see individual specks of pollen in the flower. If you think tiny little flowers are boring, you just need to look at them really close up!

Two photos of one pine cone on different days illustrating the change in shape as the cone dries and spreads.
One pine cone, two different days.

One aspect of working with botanical specimens that might surprise the inexperienced is just how much plants change as you draw them. We expect flowers and leaves to wilt, but they also turn with the light and their buds open and close. It’s a good idea to be prepared with multiple specimens when working with something very changeable. Even pine cones can become unrecognizable within hours if subjected to a change in environment!

It isn’t unusual for me to see interesting plants while I’m out and about and to think to myself that I’d like to draw them sometime, if I can figure out what they are. I could always draw them and let them remain mysteries, but it’s much more satisfying to have a name for my subject. One handy tool that I’ve used for plant identification in Washington state is the University of Washington Herbarium Image Collection. This useful site includes a plant identification key that can help narrow down your search.

This is a long post, but it’s a very small piece of the wide world of plant illustration. I hope that this and further posts about the processes involved in NSI will help people understand what goes on behind the illustrations in textbooks, science journals, field guides and other places where we find science illustration. Thanks for reading!