Archive for the ‘Art & Nature’ Category

Drawing the natural world

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Tablet and insect

A few weeks ago I attended a NESCBWI workshop on drawing animals, which took place at the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab at the Rhode Island School of Design. The lab is an amazing place, a huge room filled with preserved animals, insects, fish, fossils, seeds, stones — a virtual survey of the natural world. For this particular event there were also several live animals brought in, including a huge tortoise, a ferret, and a parrot.

Most of the afternoon was spent drawing, and people wandered freely about, drawing whichever animals interested them. The entire room, with its ceiling-high glass cabinets and boxes of specimens, had the feeling of a 19th Century naturalist’s study, and one could imagine Darwin walking through the door at any moment.

Animal at the nature labAs an artist who loves animals, I found the preserved animals unnerving and fascinating at the same time. You feel a mixture of awe, curiosity, sympathy, and connection with the once-living creatures, you wonder where they came from, what kind of life they led. There is a long history of artists drawing deceased animals, from Leonardo to Audubon. You can observe an amazing amount of detail from such close observation, though the drawback is that the drawing often ends up as lifeless as its subject.

The whole day was very inspiring, and seeing so much of the natural world crammed into one room really makes you think about how much is alive all around us, and how everything is connected. Hopefully these kind of creatures will remain alive and healthy in the wild, so that nature centers like this don’t become the only places to find them.

Here are some of my photos and sketches from the day. Thanks to Christina Rodriguez for organizing such a great workshop!

insect drawings by John Lechner

stick insect drawing by John Lechner

insect drawings by John Lechner

tortoise drawing by John Lechner

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Nature Lab at RISD

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Parrot in the Nature Lab

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Ocean creatures

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Ocean creatures

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Butterfly collection

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Butterfly

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Longhorn Beetle

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Stick Insect

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Giant Tortoise

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Finally, here’s a short video taken at the end of the day – exercise time!

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Hymn to the Earth: the evocative photographs of Ron Rosenstock

Friday, February 24th, 2012
Morning Mist by Ron Rosenstock

"Morning Mist" © by Ron Rosenstock

Black and white photography allows us to see the world in a different way. By removing all color, it highlights other qualities of the world around us – texture, contrast, composition. It simplifies and abstracts what we see, revealing the world in its pure form.

The images on this page are by renowned landscape photographer Ron Rosenstock, who currently has an exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum. Here is an excerpt from a review in The Boston Globe by Mark Feeney:

The effect Rosenstock strives for in these pictures, mostly taken in rural Ireland but also in places as diverse (and beautiful) as Italy and Maine, Morocco and New Zealand, is of a higher, purer reality. You could almost describe it as a kind of unreality, given that exaltation and ineffability are forms of reality so rare as hardly to qualify as real. That Rosenstock achieves his aim so often is as much a tribute to the depth of emotion he brings to his work as it is to exacting technique.

The exhibit runs through March 18th, and I highly recommend it. You can see a lot more of Ron’s work at his website.

Landscape by Ron Rosenstock

Photo © by Ron Rosenstock

Noon Shadows by Ron Rosenstock

"Noon Shadows" © by Ron Rosenstock

Photo by Ron Rosenstock

Photo © by Ron Rosenstock

Monks Robes, Abbey of Sant' Antimo by Ron Rosenstock

"Monks Robes, Abbey of Sant' Antimo" © by Ron Rosenstock

Stone Circle at Sheeffry, County Mayo, by Ron Rosenstock

"Stone Circle at Sheeffry, County Mayo" © by Ron Rosenstock

The Witness Tree Project – art inspired by nature

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

The Witness Tree Project (photo)

A Witness Tree is a very old tree that has “witnessed” great events in history. There are such trees all over the world, which are treasured by those who know them. One example is a honeylocust tree in Gettysburg, which is the only tree still standing that was there when Abraham Lincoln dedicated the battlefield cemetery in 1863. Witness trees are living links to the past, yet they don’t last forever, and it’s always sad when we lose one to storms or disease.

Ancient pecan tree being taken down

Ancient pecan tree at the Hampton National Historic Site

In 2009, two professors at the Rhode Island School of Design, in collaboration with the Hampton National Historic Site, created what would become the Witness Tree Project, now in its third year. Professors Dale Broholm (Furniture) and Daniel Cavicchi (History) and the National Parks Service designed a program where students study and produce artworks from witness trees that have recently fallen. It is interdisciplinary learning at its best, as students study the history and culture surrounding the tree, and use that to inform their work.

As their website explains: “In addition to classroom study, the Project variously involves field trips, guest lectures, exhibitions of students’ objects, and other events that highlight the significance of material culture, landscape, and design in learning about American history.”

The first tree used in the program was a pecan tree that had lived for over 150 years at the Hampton National Historic Site, a former plantation near Baltimore (see photo above). In 2010, they worked with trees from both the George Washington Birthplace National Monument and Sagamore Hill (the homestead of Theodore Roosevelt). This year, students are working with an historic Elm from the Olmsted site.

Below are just a few of the pieces created by students from 2010, and you can see many more amazing pieces here. Artwork from the current year’s project will be posted to their website later this year.

by Athena Lo

Athena Lo

Elish Warlop

Elish Warlop

Ben Kicic

Ben Kicic

Clara Zavani

Clara Zavani

Brett Dunnam

Brett Dunnam

Christopher Gent

Christopher Gent

Brendan Kiem

Brendan Kiem

Desmond Delanty

Desmond Delanty

Yu-Chuan Liu

Yu-Chuan Liu

Ming Yi-Wong

Ming Yi-Wong

Additional reading: Students Collaborate with National Park Service (article).

The Winter’s Wind – a poem by Keats

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

As the new year begins, I present for you a poem by John Keats, inspired by a cold winter’s wind but encompassing so much more.

The image I’ve chosen to accompany the poem is a famous one by Casper David Friedrich called “The Wanderer Above the Mists”, painted around 1817. Obviously the artist is captivated by the misty mountains, but then why place a person in the very center of the image, blocking our view? And we can’t see his face, we can only wonder at who he is and what he is thinking. It’s this kind of mystery, along with the expert composition and technique, that make the painting great. There’s a bigger idea at work here, a puzzle that the viewer must unravel.

The poem is also open to interpretation, but I won’t even try to analyze it. I’ll let the poet speak for himself.

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O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind,
Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist,
And the black elm tops ‘mong the freezing stars!
To thee the spring will be a harvest time.
O thou whose only book has been the light
Of supreme darkness, which thou feddest on
Night after night, when Phœbus was away!
To thee the spring shall be a triple morn.
O fret not after knowledge. I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge! I have none.
And yet the evening listens. He who saddens
At thought of idleness cannot be idle,
And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.

– John Keats (1795-1821)

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Arthur Rackham’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Friday, November 12th, 2010

TreeNovember always puts me in the mind for Arthur Rackham, one of my favorite illustrators. I especially love how he draws trees, which are like living, breathing creatures with personalities all their own.

With a limited palette and spare lines, his paintings are full of raw emotion, and he finds beauty in the most gnarled and thorny landscapes. His palette was mostly due to the limited color printing process at the time, though you can tell he’s right at home with it, and can channel a thousand subtleties in its limited range.

These illustrations are all from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. For a tale so entwined with nature and magical creatures, Rackham is the perfect fit. Notice how the characters and backgrounds are seamlessly blended together, so that the landscape becomes a character in itself. When not illustrating, Rackham did a lot of sketching landscapes outdoors, and it shows in his work. I encourage you to find books with his illustrations, to see all the amazing detail.

Also see my post from last year about Arthur Rackham’s amazing trees.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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The Sibley Guide to Trees

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

The Sibley Guide to TreesAutumn is a great time to look at trees, and a new tree guide was published last year by David Allen Sibley, best known for his bird books. The Sibley Guide to Trees is more than just an identification guide, it is a veritable encyclopedia covering over 600 kinds of trees found in North America. Best of all, the book doesn’t use photographs, it uses illustrations, all painted by Sibley himself.

Why take the time to draw each tree and leaf rather than photograph it? As the author explains in the video below, an artist has the ability to create a more representative image by combining many examples, and can show the object in the best light for the viewer to see and understand.  The artist can also emphasize certain details, allowing us to see things in a new way.

Art and science were far more closely aligned years ago, in the days before cameras, when the only way to document the world was to draw it. But the benefits of drawing have not gone away. To draw something is to know it better, and a drawing can often teach us things about the world that a photograph cannot.

Sample page from The Sibley Guide to Trees

Sample page from The Sibley Guide to Trees

The illustrations by David Allen Sibley for his tree guide (as with his bird books) are accurate and precise, yet also have an artistic flair all their own. They capture the essence and texture of the natural world. And he doesn’t just depict trees from a distance, but also shows the individual leaves, the bark, the seeds, the flowers, and whichever details are most pertinent to that tree. And the pages are large enough to let you really see the art. The text perfectly complements and explains the pictures, and both work seamlessly together.

Below are some additional links to learn about the author and his work:

David Allen Sibley official website

The author’s information about trees

An interview with the author about his tree book

Another interview with the author about his books

Finally, here is the author talking about how he created his tree guide, and why he prefers illustrations rather than photographs.

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The untended garden

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Vincent Van Gogh, "Landscape With Olive Trees"

What exactly is an untended garden?  The phrase often has a negative connotation, like Shakespeare’s “unweeded garden” overrun with foul things. We tend to think of nature as something that needs taming, otherwise it will take over and devour us.

But today in our shrinking world, it’s more important for us to understand and get along with the flora and fauna around us, for we’re all in this together – we need each other, whether we like it or not. If they die, we die, it’s as simple as that.

The mission of this blog is to explore how artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers and designers explore nature in their work. And I don’t mean simply how artists depict the beauty of nature, but how they plumb the depths and seek out its essence.

To draw something is to understand it better. Same with writing. I hope by highlighting artists with interesting and unique perspectives on nature, I can bring readers closer to the world around them, and inspire more artists to do the same. The world is an untended garden, but we must tend it carefully lest we kill it in the process.

Cartooning under the sea with Jim Toomey

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

This recent talk by cartoonist Jim Toomey, creator of Sherman’s Lagoon, is a great example of an artist who not only draws inspiration from the ocean but also uses his art to educate and raise awareness about earth’s largest ecosystem.

As he says, there are things in the ocean that are more strange and bizarre than anything an artist could dream up, and humans are destroying it little by little. You can see more of Jim’s work at his website.

And with this post, I bring my summer ocean theme to an end. I’ve had fun this summer writing about how the ocean has inspired authors, artists and filmmakers all over the world. You can be sure I will return to the sea from time to time, as I’ve only scratched the surface of this vast and deep source of inspiration. Thanks for sharing the voyage with me!

Turner and the art of the seascape

Thursday, August 19th, 2010
The Slave Ship - J.M.W. Turner

The Slave Ship - J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was one of the greatest English painters of land and sea, and far ahead of his time. Many of his works are so wrought with raw color and emotion as to be nearly abstract.

The ocean has always been a subject for artists, though I sometimes wonder how far we have come since the 19th Century. Are any painters still exploring nature with the kind of vision that Turner had? I don’t mean just showing the beauty of nature, but really trying to get to the heart of it, to discover new ways of seeing it.

Many seascapes today are happy depictions of sun-soaked waves and smiling dolphins, which is all well and good, but only shows one side of the teeming, turbulent, mysterious ocean. Turner seemed to be searching for something deeper, trying to discover something that no one had ever seen before. One hundred and fifty years later, his paintings are still remarkable.

Fishermen At Sea - J.M.W. Turner

The Shipwreck - J.M.W. Turner

The Shipwreck - J.M.W. Turner

Stormy Sea With Blazing Wreck - J.M.W. Turner

Shipwreck of the Minotaur - J.M.W. Turner

Waves Breaking Against The Wind - J.M.W. Turner

Waves Breaking Against The Wind - J.M.W. Turner

Sunrise With Sea Monsters - J.M.W. Turner

Sunrise With Sea Monsters - J.M.W. Turner

The Secret of Kells, the beauty of nature

Friday, April 9th, 2010

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There are many reasons to love the new animated film The Secret of Kells, and not least is the way it portrays nature. More than just a picturesque backdrop, nature plays an integral part in the story, and is practically a character in itself, personified by the forest sprite Aisling. She is a vibrant presence in the film, both childish and wise, who protects the forest and yet is vulnerable to the dark forces that lurk there. She teaches Brendan, the cloistered hero of the film, about the beauty of her forest as well as the dangers.

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The visual portrayals of the trees and plants are spectacular, and the stylized lines and animation make you feel the growing, thriving life that dwells within. In one scene, Brendan scales an impossibly tall and twisted growth of trees to find the small berries that grow at the top, and the symbolism of life and rebirth is subtle but powerful. The film is filled with such small moments, that add up to a collective tapestry of the natural world as a vital force all around us. The book that Brendan helps to create not only contains images inspired by the forest, but the inks are made from ingredients found there. Nature inspires art, in more ways than one.

Below are some more images from this magical film. If you want to read more about The Secret of Kells, I wrote about it over at the Creative Juices blog. Better yet, go see it!

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