Monday, December 27, 2010

The Swan

This forest is down at the end of my street. After digging out after the blizzard this morning, I walked down to see the river.
I crossed over the brook and on to the main road and ended up at the park where the river goes over a small dam. I've sketched it many times in the summer and I've wanted to sketch it in winter too; just to keep the relationship alive.
Here's the Charles River in South Natick. It's flowing over the dam. The heavy snow has turned into a layer of icy slush. The blue circle is…
…a solitary swan that appears to be mired in the slush.
I drew the swan and the river. It took about 25 minutes. It moved around a little and would make a few honking sounds.

I did this drawing too. I finished it in the coffee house across the road where I warmed up. When it was time to go, the swan was still in the river looking stuck as ever. I called the Animal Control office and had to leave a message. I returned to the scene before dusk expecting the worst.
But there was no sign of the swan. It must have gotten out on its own. Maybe it just waited for the slush to get a little more solid so it could walk on it and fly away. I can imagine all kinds of scenarios; can't you?!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Winter Sketching

China marker and litho crayons seem to work well for sketching when it's cold and even if there is snow accumulating on my paper. The cold focuses an artist.

Just below the dam before the river flows under the bridge

Looking downstream from Elm Bank

Lake Waban, Wellesley College

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My appointed rounds

South Natick Dam: ice, drizzle 12 Dec. 2010
colored pencil
I drew this quickly one morning last week in a few hours of warmer weather. It's a familiar view (link opens to a gallery of similar drawings). There were patches of fixed ice along the fringes and shards floating with the current downriver. A light drizzle was falling and it added a nice pricking to the still puddles of water on top of the ice above the lip of the dam.
This rain was not conducive to drawing al fresco so, after getting the basics down and reaching my limits of comfort, I retreated to the coffee shop and completed the sketch. I hope you like it.
I think it would be nice to meet artist friends down here, sketch for a bit and just hang out with our coffees.
For as long as we wanted…

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Winter Drawing

The South Natick Dam | 7 Dec. 2010 | colored pencil
There's just a bit of ice on the fringes of the river above the dam. Icicles have formed where water leaks from the surface down through the arches of the bridge. I've seen an occasional goose or two swimming in lazy circles above the dam. No herons to speak of and just an occasional group of ducks heading somewhere else high overhead.
I promise though that I will make some snowbound sketches as soon as we get an accumulation.
There were a few flurries last night and it was cold enough that I saw the evidence this morning as I walked Ellen to her bus stop.
Life moves too fast wouldn't you say?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Water over the dam

The South Natick Dam

My other blogging platform has been going through some growing pains this week (it will be downsized over the course of the coming year) and it's been interesting (sobering and occasionally amusing) to observe the reactions of my fellow blogging illustrators and the public who wander in from time to time. Things are settling down for the meantime and posting will continue with an added dash of irony or urgency perhaps. If you to visit you'll catch a glimpse of how some visual communicators think or act. You can draw your own conclusions though. These are the people who boil those thousands of words down to the proverbial "one picture".

Friday, October 8, 2010

In Wildness…

The Italianate Garden at Elm Bank
Thoreau's statement "In wildness is the preservation of the world" is frequently mis-appropriated as a call for preservation of pristine areas of forest and mountainous Nature. Thoreau, in some ways I believe, had little interest in preserving Nature for Nature's sake. What he was passionately interested in was preserving that part of humanity that wants to jump fences, tangled hair flowing with dirt under its fingernails. His call for "wildness" is a plea for the original, the uncouth, the very essence of what it means to be a human and to be a living human at that.

And so with this homely preamble I present you with a sketch of a formal garden in the rain. The people who tend it are just hanging on and it's liable to disappear or go feral in the next business cycle as funding dries up. You never know. Then maybe the fountain will fill with frogs and the hedges will grow out and owls may roost in them.

That is how this artist's life shall be: an unartful dialogue between domesticity and unpredictable behavior. In between all my posts here about ducks and dams and the sublime beauty of Nature have been ridiculous doodles of alligators, foxes, men in pointed hats and imaginary landscapes. One feeds the other. And so it goes: winter is approaching and things will take a turn to the imaginary in Sketchbookland (although I was thinking of getting some fingerless gloves to prolong my outdoors sketching a bit longer).


birds and flying bicycles

Monday, October 4, 2010

Gathering Nuts

"Red Squirrel, Lake Waban" colored pencil

Red Squirrel, le lac Waban" crayon de couleur

Fall is definitely here. And we are harvesting different things:

Some sort of flying circus

Une sorte de Flying Circus

Fearless Fox

Le renard intrépide

Birds in flying machines

Les oiseaux dans des machines volantes
We're having a good time over here. I hope you are too.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Relaxed Ducks

These mellow September days! A shower here and there. Leaves falling and suddenly the park is bursting with activity. All the ducks are grown and feeding and preening and very busy. It must be caused by the diminishing length of the days. But the light of September and October is so precious and crystalline (when it's not obscured by torrents of rain or fog).
I drew this view of the bridge yesterday morning. I like trying to suggest the different states of the water: flowing and still, home to ducks and geese and tiny fish.

The ducks were quite busy feeding and paddling up the current. Then they would drift down sideways and across the current and start over again. They all look so relaxed! Natick: home to relaxed ducks! You heard it here first!

Bonne journée!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The End

Endings are just beginnings right?
Goodbye to Summer.

South Natick Dam: one more mallard

(colored pencil, 23 sept. 2010)

Hello to Autumn

Lake Waban: a solitary swan

(colored pencil, 24 sept. 2010)

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Bridge 2

"The Pleasant Street Bridge" July 1, 2010 colored pencil and ink spot
The picturesque Pleasant Street Bridge in South Natick was built in 1857. It replaced an earlier structure built by Rev. John Eliot and the local aboriginal inhabitants. Before that, there were Indian fishing camps on this location.

Throughout the beginning of the new millennium as American banks were destroying the world's economy, the bridge was falling into disrepair. Finally, the state of Massachusetts ordered that it be repaired. This quaint looking structure is a vital thoroughfare in this area's morning commute. There are more than a few rich bankers who probably use it every day.

A new deck was created and all the masonry was cleaned and re-pointed. They even fixed the worst, most crumbling sections of the retaining wall. The well-used park is still a bit shaggy but volunteers keep it looking tended and loved if not improved. Maybe that's the best we can hope for in a down economy: Sounds like good advice for people too: keep them tended and loved and don't worry too much about improvement.

[all drawings done in colored pencil in my sketchbook in July-September 2010]

I love the light that comes through the arch: complicated shadows and reflections all contained within a bold geometric container.

A pair of mallards, a heron and the late-summer weedy lawn.

A heron plying his trade in the shadows

two cars rushing by above the low water

I like this view looking across the river as it flows under the bridge.

I need to look for some new subjects though to keep things interesting. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The ups and downs of late Summer

the lily pool and fountain, Elm Bank

© Rob Dunlavey

About a week ago, on a very hot and still morning, I headed out a bit later than usual in the morning and made this sketch at the decrepit Cheney-Baltzell mansion at Elm Bank. My soft green pencil dented the soft paper of my sketchbook as I drew. The humidity made the paper even softer. Eventually, the darn scene got drawn. Why? Why??

I guess I get some weird pleasure in representing things, more or less, as they are before my gaze. It's also a way of possessing something that I see often but yet when I see it each time, it's like it's new and never before seen. Drawing helps the neurons line up a little more amourously when I see that familiar thing again. I think the test if this is true is when I turn my attention to the faces of the people I love. And when is that likely to happen?

Here are a few more monochromatic renderings of things seen around my neighborhood. It has been a fabulous pleasure returning to the river and all these familiar haunts over the summer. I've gotten acquainted with the animals, the water's flow and the light. If you like to draw, I can't recommend it enough.

looking downstream near the bridge, heron and mallards
(© Rob Dunlavey)

reflections at the top of the dam
(© Rob Dunlavey)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Fish Ladder

a view of the dam with the fish ladder
I go away for a few days, and it rains like crazy. The river gets filled up and is its merry gushing self again. No ducks dabbling at the top of the dam now; the current is too strong. There are a few upriver where it's a bit safer. Only the sturdy geese seem to be able to relax at the top of the cascade.

This is a view above the dam drawn in the late afternoon. A Little Green Heron is perched on the wall looking for frogs to eat. It's a weird little bird. Comical: his crest folds up and down depending on I-don't-know-what!
The top drawing shows a fish ladder. It's a stair-step affair that allows fish that are so inclined to swim up the river to reach their favorite spawning places. I've never seen a fish leap up there like they do by the dozen in National Geographic.

I met one old-timer a few weeks ago who said that dare-devils would swim inside the rooster tail rapids and sit and enjoy being surrounded by the rushing water. He also informed me that there apparently used to be a bathing beach with lifeguards at this park… back when there were taverns in South Natick. Now we all drink nice wine on our decks and gossip about the neighbors with subdued voices. I'll take it!

To summer then! Salut! School begins later this week :-(

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Colored Pencils

I'm having fun drawing with colored pencils this summer. They're portable and I carry a pocket knife to sharpen them. I have an old plastic tray filled to the top with these pencils; I'll never run out.

I've inherited many different colored pencil sets over the years. Some are quite nice and of high quality. Many are run of the mill cast-offs from my kids. There was a while where for every birthday party we had (the ones where the parents of the birthday guests think of and buy the presents) my daughters received comprehensive "art kits". These sets included magic markers, crayons or pastels, some lackluster watercolor cakes and a rainbow assortment of colored pencils. So, yes it's true, I can count Toys R Us and the local CVS pharmacy among the more respectable art material suppliers (Dick Blick, Pearl Paint and even Sennelier).

Here's a smattering of what my febrile brain came up with in the land of colored pencils last week while I was on a short visit in New York's Adirondack Park:

Stream, Kane Mountain, New York (colored pencil)

Stream, Kane Mountain, New York (colored pencil)

I've found colored pencils to be perfect for these nature studies I've been focusing on this summer. The soft creamy texture seems to be pretty forgiving; I never carry an eraser.

shy alligator (inspired by Alain Lachartre "Les crocos")

Lighter than air machine

I'm liking this diagrammatic style. Perceptive readers will detect DNA from Richard McGuire and Blexbolex. Just giving credit where credit is due.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Low Flow

The flow in the river is very low now and only portions of the dam's face are covered with flowing water. This allows the hungry ducks to scramble up and down the exposed cement and glean the tasty green weeds and slime that grow there.
The low water also seems to attract children. While I drew this picture a bunch of them scrambled over an expanse of exposed rocks and gravel to the island (not included in this drawing) and explored. They startled a Little Green Heron and brought back memories of something wild …and maybe some poison ivy too :-(

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Bridge 1

The water is very low now. Yesterday morning I found a spot just under one of the arches of the Pleasant Street bridge and sketched the view downriver. The sun was bright and there were shadows and reflections on the cool water underneath. Two mallards could be seen through the arch. From this spot, the Charles River winds about 30 miles I guess to Boston Harbor. Over the years we've found our favorite stretches.
colored pencil

All the ducklings have grown up (as far as I can tell) and are gradually becoming part of the larger flock that calls this spot home. I miss them. On this day the air was cool but the sunlight was bright and hot. I did find frogs sunning themselves above the dam. I wonder what on earth they are thinking as they pose, unblinking, like statues for long intervals of time. There was also a turtle bumbling about in the increasingly shallow and muddy water. All I saw was a green, duckweed-festooned dome paddling this way and that as it looked for breakfast. I wonder if this is the same turtle I saw earlier in the summer.

colored pencil

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Walk Around the Lake at Sunset

I took at walk around a lake before dusk the other evening. Before setting out, I frittered away my time (at the computer no doubt) so that when I left the house, even though it was very light outside, I knew that I'd be returning in the dark --probably. I'm an optimist and it gets me into trouble. Of course, there was no trouble; there was just a lack of light and a nagging feeling that someone would worry a little about me.

I bumped into an old acquaintance along the way and we chatted halfway around the lake and through the college campus. By the time I got back to the shoreline it was apparent that I'd be walking back in the dark. My feet on the path would be my eyes. The sky was clear and I could see Venus glittering to the west in a sky in deepening shades of a Maxfield Parrish blue.

Then I saw where all the ducks and geese were hanging out. It was nearly 9:00 p.m. The sun was down and the stars were starting to twinkle. There was still a lot of light in the sky but any shadows were just a suggestion rather than cast by any distinct light source. Everything was reflected or hinted at.

But the birds were busy as ever: scouting this way and that, tipping up and dabbling at something below or bossing each other around. As I write this, two days later, it's 06h45 and I know they are all up and at it: feeding, squawking and reacting to the life of a duck or a goose in the waning days of summer 2010. It's seamless really, a bird's life. Sleep but an interlude between the waking, wandering and wondering until the big bell clangs and it's time to go.

I felt my way home and avoided looking into the sky or even over to the lake because my light-deprived eyes were so attuned to to varying degrees of gray and black. A looming dark shape could be a mass of bushes in the distance or a tree trunk about the collide with my forehead. My depth perception was not dependable so I used the sounds of my footsteps to tell me whether I was on the trail. The lights were on at the college and they reflected off the lake's surface. A pair of black silhouetted mallards whooshed overhead to join their friends in the cove.

I made it home fine. The lights were on. I had to squint in order to see.

colored pencil, ink

Thursday, August 5, 2010


It's hot humid and overcast and the ducks continue to dabble in the dwindling river. I saw the family of nine this morning. The ducklings followed their inquisitive little beaks through the growing shallows below the dam while the mother kept a watchful eye on me. I was sketching this gentleman skimming at the top of the dam and missed a chance to try to draw the frantic antics of the kids. Eventually the young ducks passed by me and into the pool below the island. Soon they joined the ranks of silhouetted mallards feeding beyond the bridge where the river flattens out even more. Are they now fully attuned to the bigger currents? Will I see them again?
They have grown to resemble the other broods and may be indistinguishable.
And when will the river fill up again?
Hurricane season is approaching…

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


It's August and new shallows and riffles have opened up downstream from the island. It seems like perfect habitat for the dabbling mallards. Here is what mallards do: preen, fight, dabble, sleep, work on their tans, and dabble some more. Some are very leisurely at their dabbling. Others are quite vigorous; it's like they're digging pernicious weeds out of hard ground.

Here's an old drawing showing geese on top of the dam.
It's a short drop.
Because the water level has been steadily dropping, riffles and chutes are opening up all over the place. The ducks and young ducklings line themselves up, several abreast, bills into the current. They then move like farmers' combines across the breadth of the small currents and dabble furiously at any bit of passing tasty things.
In this sketch I tried to capture the agitation of the water's surface and the position of the ducks.

One of the more interesting dabbling spots is up on the top of the dam. I wish I had a sketch for you; maybe I'll do one tomorrow. What's funny about it is that with the lazy flow of water, the ducks get quite bold (or careless) in their walking down the concrete face of the dam. All the while their bills are sifting the flowing water for something of nutritional value. Once in a while, they go too far and fall down. Sometimes they scramble (flapping as gracefully as they can) back to the top but other times they just wind up getting boiled in the white water at the foot of the dam. Then they waddle out of the spin cycle and start to preen again.

I think it's funny. We've always wondered what happens because geese and ducks are up there all the time.
The birds could probably care less!
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