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Updated: 2017-12-10T22:12:09.801-05:00


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.



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!





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!

Various book arts projects:












A venture into book arts


For the past several years I have been exploring the intersection of my nature art and the book form, as a way of containing and collecting in some small object some of my images and musings about nature and conservation. Two months ago I was invited by Morton Arboretum to teach some simple movable book forms that have the ability to expand an artist's repertoire of materials, methods and creative expression. This book, which was an hommage to John James Audubon, and was part of a Chicago Hand Bookbinders' exhibit at Northwestern University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Library a few years ago, was my first venture into this form!

Kew Gardens


The 'Losing Paradise' finished its five-month run at Kew Gardens, London, as part of a larger exhibit titled 'Plants in Peril'. My son Ian and I were appreciative of the opportunity to see LP at its previous venue at the Smithsonian natural history museum in Washington. Kudos to Carol Woodin of the American Society of Botanical Artists for coordinating this groundbreaking collaboration between scientists and artists, in the service of conservation of endangered species! Their next major conservation-oriented exhibit will be featured by the historic home and gardens of 18th century Philadelphia botanist John Bartram, who helped ignite the love of botany worldwide.




Milkweed and monarchs


This is an illustration I did for a friend who is a natural areas steward here in the Chicago region. It's Asclepias exaltata, or woodland milkweed. The graceful, pendant flowers and finely-textured leaves are so different from the other members of the family, but when you look at the pods and flower interior, it's clear it is a milkweed. This species is fairly rare in our region; it's closely monitored by Plants of Concern, a regional rare plant monitoring program of the Chicago Botanic Garden. I have observed small populations (one or two plants) rebound after clearing of buckthorn and other non-native invasive species of brush. I believe it's primarily an edge or even a savannah plant.

The milkweed family is host to the beautiful, orange and black monarch butterfly, which means that's all the monarch eats - no milkweed, no monarchs! Monarchs migrate from Michoacan, Mexico, up to Canada every year, but their numbers are in decline because milkweed is considered a noxious weed by farmers and ranchers. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could allow a wild corner to help our pollinators? We need fruits and vegetables too, not just corn and beans! : )




Book is finished!


My trilliums book, a collaboration with Susan L. Post of the Illinois Natural History Survey, is now off the presses! A limited edition of 12, with three artist's proofs, half will go to Susan and the other half to people who have helped inspire my love of nature.




Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World


The second stop of the international tour is the Chicago Botanic Garden's Joutras Gallery. The forty-four botanical illustrations were curated by jurors from the Smithsonian and the Center for Plant Conservation. The exhibit is sponsored by the American Society of Botanical Artists and will travel next to the New York Botanic Garden, then the Smithsonian's American Museum of Natural History, then an international venue still being confirmed.

My son Ian drove us down to the grand opening last October at the Missouri Botanic Garden. I hadn't been there since before he was born and I remember it feeling much larger than the 70-something acres it comprises. The Japanese Garden, with its Godzilla-sized koi, is much the same, even lovelier. And stunning Dale Chihuly glassworks were everywhere!

I'm still pinching myself that I was accepted into this amazing exhibit. There is even a full-color catalogue of the work available through the ASBA! I was back at the CBG last weekend just drinking in the talent and dedication and visionary appeal of the exhibit's fine artworks in all media.

Draw Orchids - wikiHow


Draw Orchids - wikiHow




Orchids in danger again...


Saturday our veteran team of rare plant monitors went out to hunt the dangerous purple-fringed orchid (dangerous because I've broken several bones, on two occasions, on the search!). We located two new plants at one site, two others we had located previous years, and were feeling quite pleased with ourselves and optimistic about our next foray. After a wonderful lunch of Thai food in a cute restaurant not too far away, we ventured over to our second location. Again, two plants re-located, and two new babies : ). But the bad - I mean REALLY bad - news is that they were all awash in a sea of reed canary grass. And if we can't get rid of all the RCG there, the orchids in that area are doomed. : (

This is so characteristic of the efforts to save our precious endangered species - letting the invasives get even a tiny toehold in our natural areas can spell doom for the plants and animals we love and want to preserve!




Orchids and vanilla grass!


This weekend we finished up our Cypripedium candidum monitoring. It's amazing how well they do with a prescribed burn! There were many in this tiny railroad prairie, full of conservative species such as yellow star grass, hoary puccoon, vanilla grass  and blue-eyed grass. The spring weather was also more temperate and rainy, so perhaps that has some effect on the orchids. But the burn set back the brush, restored nutrients to the soil, and reduced the number of weed seeds. Next year, who knows?

Speaking of weed seeds, we saw a flock of goldfinches yesterday at Volo Bog, eating the seedheads of the abundant dandelions! I wish I had a flock of goldfinches in my yard, manicuring away at my dandelions! : ) We also saw way, way too much reed canary grass there in the bog. There are at least a dozen endangered and threatened species in a very small area, all vulnerable to takeover by this invasive alien plant! I alerted the state ecologist; hopefully that will help matters?




Showy orchis and ladyslippers!


This past weekend was a two-fer: Saturday we monitored Cypripedium candidum in a high-quality prairie in western Chicagoland, and on Sunday I drove about 150 miles (getting lost twice, unusual for me!) well into farm country to climb a wooded hillside to see Galearis spectabilis on the edge of the slope, in afternoon sun and glorious bloom! This was the first time I had ever seen this particular beauty. 

In many states it is declining quickly, and now I can see why: this particular hillside is rapidly being overtaken by garlic mustard, whose antifungal properties spell doom for the ground-dwelling fungus that nourishes our native orchids. We spoke with the landowner about the joys of orchid conservation and the need for keeping garlic mustard and other invasive species at bay, and will hope they will do the management essential for the orchid's survival. 

The gentleman said there used to be a large colony on his property years ago, but it had disappeared. This is the first one he has seen in many years, probably due to the abundant rains this spring? The floral associates were Virginia creeper, bedstraw, poison ivy (always!), black and white snakeroots, carrion vine, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild grape, clearweed, sweet cicely, and balsam ragwort. It seemed very happy nestled in its bed of white pine needles. The tree diversity was very high there; the woods seemed not to have been logged, in recent memory, anyway. There were white pine, shagbark hickory, American elm, hackberry and black cherry nearby.