Working on skull skills

hocker-mossskull-in-progress

Another memento mori, in progress. I started out with the same approach I used on the owl skull conversation last month, but the colors in the foreground were too nice to darken, and then it started to become moss, so I’m going with it. Planning to add some more detail (but not too much more) to the moss.

I like the story it evokes: pushing through prickling spruce branches from the bright beach, the cool and so-dark of mossy uplifted-berm forest; a pale glow resolves into a bone-seeker’s treasure. Who brought it here?

The Headache Tree

hocker-headache-tree

I went to a friend’s house yesterday to do some sketching; had a lingering headache from earlier in the morning so I was a little restless. An old cottonwood–a massive black dendrite in the yard–caught my eye, so I pulled out a brush pen and tried to work out the hierarchy of branching directions.

What is it that makes a cottonwood? A certain powerful upward angle of primary branches (trending to bowed lower on the trunk); graceful swoops of secondary branches. And the short, stout bud-branchlets, bristling out almost perpendicular to the more sinuous smallest branches.

By the time I reached the bottom of the tree my brush pen was almost dry, but it felt OK for the drawing to stutter out.

Looking at the drawing today I’m struck by how it feels like a visualization of my headache–the tendrils of pain branching around my neck and head. I like the thought–it’s comforting somehow.

Rare visitor

hocker-YT-warbler

Last September, rangers and other employees at Glacier Bay National Park headquarters looked out their office windows at Bartlett Cove and spotted a very unusual warbler…a stranger to Glacier Bay, to Alaska, and even to the West Coast. It was a yellow-throated warbler (Setophaga dominica), a species whose usual range runs through the southeastern US and down to Cuba. This was the first Alaska sighting.

The bird stayed around for several days, plucking insects off the park buildings and delighting locals and birders from afar.

I was commissioned by a friend to create this illustration as a commemoration of that intrepid little explorer. Wonder if he’ll be back next summer?

A parliament of owls

 

hocker-owl-conversation

I love skulls. Skulls tell stories and evoke emotions. They’re beautiful as whole objects, but they’re also full of micro-landscapes and eerie abstractions that resonate in nameless ways with our own visual and tactile experiences. So I draw them often. But I’ve rarely painted skulls.

I got the urge a few days ago, so I pulled out a few bird skulls and looked them over. I intended to paint a raven skull, but my eye kept getting drawn to the owls.

I started with the one in the center. It was really meant just as an exercise in brush strokes and values. But after I got it roughed in, it looked lonely. I set out a couple of the other owl skulls and added them into the scene…and they instantly gave the whole painting a story. I like the way a single static, lonely skull on a dark field turned into a conversation.

Otter skull

hocker-otterskull-sketch2

I went on the Audubon Christmas Bird Count a couple of weeks ago, and while we didn’t have any stand-out birds to report, it was a banner day for bones and skulls. The day’s discoveries included a murre skull, an eagle skull, a partial sea lion skull, a moose jaw, and numerous bird and mammal bones.

Plus this sea otter skull. Sea otters are increasing dramatically in Southeast Alaska. Fifteen years ago it would have been a shock to find a sea otter skull; I’ve seen at least three on or near the local beaches just this year.

Sea otter skulls are similar to river otter skulls, but there are some key differences. The average sea otter skull is visibly bigger than the average river otter skull, with a bigger nasal opening (I wonder why?) But even without these differences, the teeth distinguish them easily. Eaters of hard-shelled prey such as clams and crabs, sea otters have flattened, smooth-cusped molars where river otters have tendon-shearing carnassials.

This otter was probably several years old, judging from the skull size and the worn condition of its molars. I think the canine tooth was broken post-mortem; the break was sharp-edged and splintery, not worn at all.

Sea otters spend a huge amount of time grooming their fur, which is their primary insulation (they don’t have blubber). Looking at those precisely-shaped, comb-like incisors makes me wonder if their shapes have any special adaptive functions for fur maintenance…

The one that didn’t migrate

A few days ago, a friend called and said she had found a hummingbird in her garage. It had come inside sometime this fall and had either not been able to find its way out, or had just been too weak or cold to survive. It had freeze-dried, hanging by its feet from a wire, with its tail splayed out against the wall. The unusual position, in which it can “sit” balanced on its tail, with beak straight up, made for an intriguing view to sketch.

hocker-hummingbird-sketch2

Little Brown Dude

I like hanging out with naturalists. Say you’re out for a walk and you spot an interesting clump of scat. Where a non-naturalist friend will likely want to take a big step over it and keep on walking, a naturalist will crouch down, help you pick the scat apart and merrily join in discussing who produced it and what they ate for dinner.

Also, you can count on naturalists to not look at you askance when you make odd requests, such as: So…can I borrow that desiccated bat you have in your bookcase?

kh-little-brown-dude

It was fascinating to get such a close look at this little fellow, on loan from a naturalist friend who knew and liked him when he was alive.

Giant sketches, continued

Image

In August, I was seeing dragonflies everywhere, and I very much wanted to paint one for my giant canvas series. They were so abundant flying over the dusty Gustavus roads that I figured I’d easily find one. But days went by with no luck. I took to inspecting first my truck’s grill, then (surreptitiously) everyone else’s. Nothing.

Finally, the day my folks flew out of town toward home, I found one. But it wasn’t as easy prey as I’d assumed. Here are my notes:

August 14: Clear, sunny, as warm as it has been.

…driving toward 4 corners from airport, saw gleam of wings in road, pulled over, went back to pick up.

It’s a mosaic darner, still alive, seeming disoriented. I picked it up by folding its wings over its back, the way John does, brought it to the car, put it under my hat in passenger seat. At Glacier Bay Lodge, decided it should have a chance to fly if it was just stunned, so I set it on a boulder and went to dinner. Over an hour later it was still there, so I put it in a plastic container and brought it back to the cabin.

Gave it another chance overnight with lid off, then next day (sunny) also with lid off. When I returned it wasn’t moving anymore so I felt OK to bring it in.

I kept the dragonfly for some time; hung it on a thread next to my canvas. Painted on the porch of the cabin in shafts of sunlight. Added details of eyes and legs and wing veins. This was my first experiment with color—just a touch, showing the blue and green shine on the dragonfly’s head, thorax, and abdomen.Image

I kept intending to add words. Still intend to add words. But really the only words I’m happy with for this image (so far) are 

Six days motionless, it is still poised for flight; balanced; waiting

Doesn’t seem like enough, so it’s still wordless.

Projects update: a whale of a book, and some giant sketches…

It’s been a while! The book mentioned in the last post, When You See Flukes, is now published, and people seem to be enjoying it. You can take a look at it, and find out more about my latest marine-related art, at Spot the Whale, where you’ll also find another occasional blog, with whale-related entries.

I’ve also been busy with a large-scale (literally) sketching project. Last spring, I applied for, and received, an individual artist grant from the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. The grant was for supplies and time to create a series of large paintings in the style of my field sketch pages. So from July through December, I battled canvas, splashed paint, wrestled easels, and learned a whole lot about painting with big brushes, working with canvas, and getting over my obsession with tiny details and fussiness. It was a wonderful experience! Here are a couple of the resulting canvases. First, the version that’s really just about making the sketch page big, then the version where I started letting go of the idea of tidy page arrangement and tidy notes, and tried to just celebrate looseness of brushstrokes and the connections between words and images. Both paintings are about four feet wide.

Image

Image

I might post a few more of the canvases, and the stories behind them, in the future.