Monday, April 3, 2017

What's not to love about watercolor pencils?

'Get out of the comfort zone! Do something different.' Well, that's what my inner muse told me anyway. My two artistic nemeses are landscape painting and watercolor pencil, so - you guessed it! - I'm tackling them both at one time. An invitation to teach a new class - the afternoon of June 14th, Camp Bullfrog Lake - started it all.

I really enjoyed teaching the colored pencil workshops for the American Society of Botanical Arts grant a few years ago, and this will be an extension of that program. The workshop is being sponsored by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, with whom I will be working as Artist-in-Residence for 2017, visiting and drawing their beautiful campgrounds. This is a new venture for both of us!!

Watercolor pencil combines both the best and the worst of colored pencil and watercolor. It has unique challenges:
•  the colors of each pencil is often no clue as to how the tones will look once water is applied;
•  each set of 12 we tried (across 15 different brands) had different color ranges;
•  some pencils do not easily release their pigment into the water, leaving a lot of residual texture;
•  overlaying colors and then adding water to them can cause pigments to separate instead of blend;
•  if you're working outdoors, you have to bring a brush and a container of water (more on that anon);
•  cost is not always a predictor of quality;
•  paper makes a big difference in outcomes - the heavier and less textured the better;
•  finding a limited palette that had a clear, cool, yellow; a cold red or magenta; and a true blue, that when mixed with the red or magenta, would produce a vibrant purple, turned out to be more of a challenge than anticipated. But we persisted. Following are the results from our trials.

Our criteria were the following:
•  an inexpensive, easily-available medium for spontaneous creative expression
•  no special tools, training, or talent required beforehand - basic skills to be learned in the workshop
•  compact and portable kit for sketching on the spot in color and black and white

We tested 15 different brands to determine which was the best brand for the least cost.

Just a note - in the side-by-side comparisons, there are some blank spaces. Those brands did not have that color in the range provided. In the color wheels, a couple of the brands that we had on hand were 24, not 12, sets. And some, such as the Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils, were open stock. But we tried to find colors that were fairly consistent across the range, so that we were comparing apples to apples. Sometimes it worked out well, and sometimes not.

The images above were scanned, not photographed, to help preserve the best color integrity. You are welcome to try this at home, so that you can see for yourself just how different each brand performs!

In the color wheels, each entire circle was first filled in with either a single color, or, when necessary, a blend of two adjacent colors. The outermost crescent - outside the large circle - was blended with a wet brush, as were the lozenge shapes formed by each overlapping circle. This is intended to show how differently the colors appeared before and after wetting and blending. Most brands blended well upon wetting - a few did not. We'll go into particulars when we cover each brand.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Nature Conservancy pollinator bandana 2015


It's probably time to update on how orchids have been faring here in the Midwest. Despite continued development resulting in habitat loss, there are some balancing factors to celebrate: increasing numbers of young people are taking up the conservation challenge, bringing new energy to long-stewarded sites in Cook County, IL and other areas. Healthy spring rains and decent winter snowpack have nourished wet soils, creating decent conditions for moisture-loving native orchids. Volunteers are becoming new stakeholders and advocates within forest preserve systems, and getting excited about new orchid discoveries.

The long-term, highly-respected rare plant monitoring program out of the Chicago Botanic Garden, Plants of Concern, is entering its 15th year. (I've been with it for the last 14) Hopefully we'll have an update soon on how our native orchids are doing overall, and how different management approaches benefit them (or not).

In the meantime, if you find an orchid in the wild, leave it be. Inform the stakeholder (forest preserve staff, private property owner, managing agency). Advocate for them - they're canaries in the mine for habitat change and when they start to decline, be sure that something is amiss with surface water or other important conditions that will impact us too down the road!

Sunday, July 15, 2012


We're venturing into new territory, designing natural areas plant family pages for our restoration volunteers. Sometimes it's nice to have a 'score card' to tell the good guys from the bad ones!