Saturday, December 29, 2012

Warming Up

colored pencil
 I enjoy riding my bike to the Wellesley College Greenhouses on weekend mornings. The doors open at 8:00 A.M. every day of the year (almost). And today, a wintery gla gla day: cold and gray with rain and snow in the forecast, was perfect for indulging in the delightful and varied green leaves and colorful flowers.

The ride takes about ten minutes and got me cold enough to first indulge in a coffee and 30 minutes of doodling in my sketchbook. Then I suit up again and wheel over to the campus and the greenhouses. I greet David, the caretaker and we talk about the weather and some plants he has given me in the past that need to be pruned. He coaches me through the process and soon I disentangle myself from human company and search for other forms of life to get to know.

I wander past banana trees and the Swiss Cheese plant and the Tea bushes to a room of fragrant orchids. Two species with sprays of brown and cream flowers are blooming. I choose a non-blooming Cytrapodium and warm up by drawing its stems and leaves (above, left).

I think that maybe it's time to head home but wander a bit further to a room filled with papyrus and rice and many aquatic plants. There are several pools and a small fountain. The air is moist and the sound of the trickling water is lovely. The pools are home to large and small goldfish. One pool has hundreds of small dark minnows. They float and dart about in a multi-level weaving of fish. I draw the school of fish and the varied layers of activity. It is very relaxing and is time well-spent. For those people who love to gaze at fish, this is the best and least pretentious place to get lost in imagining life as a fish.

With a wave I wish David a Happy New Year and cycle back home. Happy New Year to you too!

colored pencil

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Coffee Break

Waban Arches, Charles River, Wellesley, MA
conté pencil
Instead of making coffee for my late-sleeping wife, I was out the gray morning light in the woods along the river making this drawing of the Waban Arches where Waban, or Fuller Brook enters the Charles River in Wellesley. It was cold and a bit damp out there on the river bank. But it was quiet too. A Saturday morning, just a few invisible geese whooping it up in the shallows somewhere between where I stood and the bridge.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

No End in SIght

A view upriver, South Natick
charcoal pencil
Dec. 12, 2012
Life goes on eh? We make lists and grids and spreadsheets. We invent wheels and weaving looms and computers. We build a rich record of memories and facts and attach them to numerical representations of the rotating Earth. The seasons flow past, each unique yet somehow all blurring together too.

There is no such thing as the End of the World. There is no Doomsday. There will be no Apocalypse. These are representations of our minds which cavort and graze in a pasture bound by our requirements for Finitude. Time does not really exist. And so, all we must do is be gentle and care for one another as if there was no Tomorrow.
Bonne journée!

Saturday, December 8, 2012


A red squirrel perched on a branch of a pine tree
A tree frog perched on a Camphor tree

The river and reflections on a quiet, foggy morning
Aren't we all just perching somewhere? Biding our time? Taking a breather? Licking our wounds? Taking 5? Evaluating our options? Cooling our heels? Taking notes? Recalibrating? Taking stock of the situation? Re-charging our batteries? Unilaterally calling a truce and saying for a moment: "here body! Here soul! Come here and rest --for just a moment.
Collect your wits, Find your center. Take a breath …until you are called to dive back into the business at hand.

I hope you find some time to perch and reflect in this busy season of expectation.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Pomegranate

Dwarf Pomegranate
charcoal, colored pencil
It is snowing here. After making a few errands this morning, I went to the greenhouses and was stopped by the Dwarf Pomegranate plant in the first house I entered. The Dwarf Pomegranate plant is not much to look at: stiff, spindly twigs and narrow bundled leaves sticking out at right angles to the gray bark. It's only 2-3 feet tall and wan looking in a slightly feral way. The plant is small. However, the fruit is not. There was one magnificent pomegranate weighing down one side of the bush. It was a deep crimson color and looked hard and almost ripe. There it is, a very daring thing waiting to be picked.

The Greek goddess Persephone, her lips stained crimson from just eating six pomegranate seeds, was condemned to wed Hades and spend six months in the Underworld at her husband's side. Her mother, grief-stricken Demeter, goddess of the Harvest, then and forever wanders the sere winter world pining for the Spring day when she will be reunited with her daughter. This is a tragic myth that explains the seasons but I like to think that the lovely pomegranate (lovely to gaze upon and to taste) offers a small taste of Heaven at any time of year.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dam Blog!

I draw the South Natick dam several times a week in all weather. So maybe I should rename this blog the Dam (or damn!) Blog. But today, I will not draw the dam. It's just too cold now. Winter circles near and its cold breath is on my neck today. The house is cold and it will be hard to concentrate on work on children's books that I must get done today. Anyway, here are a few recent drawings of the dam. The water has receded in the wake of the hurricane. No animals to be seen. I look through past drawings and I see geese and ducks; where are they now? They warm my spirits! On second thought, maybe I'll duck on over to the dam later this morning when I have a break.

I hope you are warm. Bonne journée dear people!

colored pencil

charcoal pencil
A view from June 2012
colored pencil

Friday, November 16, 2012

Cattleya Orchid

A deep magenta Cattleya in the greenhouse this morning

well now!
I was in the Wellesley College greenhouses this morning. This magenta Cattleya orchid in full bloom stopped me in my tracks and took me back in time to Claremont and the years after. In this period of time, I kept some orchids going in my apartment. Improbably, they thrived in a cool west window. For months the plants would look dormant and then a bud would venture out and the fireworks would begin. There may have been snow dancing outside that window but inside I traveled in a perfumed orchid-spaceship. Where did it take me? Further on, further on.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Nub Of It

In my hand, I'm holding a colored pencil. You can see that the tip is worn down flat to the wooden sheath that surrounds it. I drew a picture and used up all the lead. I didn't have a penknife with me to sharpen it again.
It took one pencil tip to make the drawing below. It's a drawing of the dam and the bridge beyond it. I like the way the edge of the dam makes a clear horizontal break in the image. Ducks really did swim across the pool as I have drawn it. As the pencil gave out, I had to scrub hard to finish the water swirls in the foreground.

I'm not certain what the current income tax requirements are for calculating a deduction for donating art to charities. In the past, they've only allowed artists to deduct the cost of their materials. So in this case I've used one sheet of paper and about 3/8" of an inferior brand of colored pencil. I'm not complaining really but it ignores the intellectual poetry behind the entire effort.

There's something weirdly satisfying about using up art materials. I have to say (perhaps implying that it's not always true) that it is more satisfying than acquiring art supplies. My studio is full of materials and if all it takes is 3/8" of a pencil to make a drawing, I'd better get to work because I have a lot of pencils and paper floating around! And then there's the paint, magic markers, chalk, glue, crayons and the endless potential of the digital tools. It's daunting if you let it get to you. Better not then.

two lovely pairs of mallards

In this high contrast photo you can see the white incised lines of the wooden part of the pencil point

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

Big Weather

In advance of the visit of Hurricane Sandy, the local wildfowl have come back to the dam. Since late summer, the ducks, geese and even the heron have been unpredictable neighbors. I hadn't realized how attached I had become to the ducks. I made many drawings from June to August in ink, pencil, charcoal and watercolor washes of the duck families that flourished from hatching to fledging. In August and September they moved on to other shores. I had to console myself with smaller birds and the prospect of only drawing the landscape.

I stopped in at the dam yesterday. I wondered if the animals might be about and maybe offer some clue to me that they too were on top of the weather forecast. I'll never know, but I do know that there was a small group of geese at the dam. I haven't seen this number since early summer. You can see my charcoal drawing below of the geese endlessly preening. They were joined by a pair of busy mallards.

Today, Monday, the winds are getting much stronger and mist and rain are coming down …sideways. But it wasn't too bad so I headed back down to the dam again to get an update on the coming spectacle. Big wind-driven cat's paw ripples raked the river's surface and foam was blowing up over the top of the dam. A romantic couple stood by the railing huddled and smiling. The woman was in a yellow slicker while her friend was without and looked quite romantically windblown and ruddy. The wind would take them both or not at all.

My attention was also fixed by three mallard couples (below) resplendent in new plumage feeding and fidgeting below the dam. Once again, I haven't seen congregations of mallards here since the young fledged back in August. I'd like to think that these pairs were part of summer's class.

A technical note: drawing in these conditions (wind and mist) is exciting because it alters how the charcoal goes down on the paper. Where there are drops of water on the paper, the dry media soaks up the water and makes a dark spot. So it's all scratchy. I like the effect.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I wish…

colored pencil
I wish I could draw all the reflections and ripples going on in the moving water's surface this morning. Breezes came up and made a corrugated mirror. Where the river slid over the dam, the water's skin stretched like taffy. It was a mirror made of taffy that reflected the morning sky, the colorful trees and aloof cirro-cumulus clouds making up their minds way up above the river. It all was simply …lovely.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Old Same Place

An old millstone in the park

The Fish Ladder at the dam

Leaves floating and fallen

The water's surface

The pool above the dam and reflections

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Life is a tangled affair!
Here are a few recent sketches of tangles or from tangles of vegetation.

Chances are, I think, if you find someone else in a tangle with you, you will have much to discuss and may find a deep connection with them. I would send notes abroad with the sparrows who call the tangle home. The notes might say "I'm not lost, I'm just spending time in this thicket. You're welcome to join me!"

The first thing I spotted was the bird nest in the honeysuckle bush below the tree trunks.

A woodland path near my house

In a tangle…

a misanthropic Wood Duck seen this morning at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary

Thursday, October 4, 2012


Canada Goose
charcoal, ink, ink wash
Sept. 27, 2012
The dam is mostly deserted these days. An animal appears and makes a home for a few days and then they leave. I rejoiced when I saw this lone goose because I wasn't mentally ready to resume drawing the just the landscape around the dam. I wanted animals.

There are busy flocks of sparrows and some activity in the trees on the island but I wanted the happy ducks and the skulking heron. I wanted a landscape with animal energy and animal presence.
Perhaps it's time to look hard at my misanthropy (a mild case I assure you) and settle into the fact that winter is on its way and my subjects will change in response to the wild calling --or un-calling!

Bonne journée, I'm off to New York city for the day. I guess that's appropriate!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Vanity & Breakfast

Great Blue Heron preening its feathers
ink, charcoal

Great Blue Heron preening its feathers
ink, ink wash, charcoal

Great Blue Heron looking at a fish
ink, charcoal
Some days, there are no animals at the dam when I visit. The next day, same time there are animals. Today, I saw a Great Blue Heron. There were no mallards or really, any other wildlife at all. The heron saw me and started to move to the opposite side of the island and out of view. But it had a few feathers out of place that needed to be rearranged or a flea to be evicted so it stopped, mid-stream, and dealt with this personal matter. And I was able to draw the gesture --like Degas almost --at some damsel's toilette!

The heron disappeared from view for a while then reappeared as it hunted along the opposite shore. I even saw it catch a fish. But then it did an uncharacteristic thing: with the fish in its beak, the heron jumped up to the top of the stone wall and let the fish fall to the ground. It then made several attempts to sort out the geometry of the fish and its beak and sinuous neck so it could swallow the darn thing! It makes me think of those days when the cream has gone sour, the toaster doesn't work and you've accidentally poured orange juice on your cereal.

It all worked out, and the heron disappeared into a swampy spot where I couldn't observe it any more. It was just a little show.

Bonne journée!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I was so busy

At the dam this morning: I was so busy noticing the Little Green Heron far below me that I failed to see the Great Blue Heron close by. The Little Green Heron is rarely seen here and is very shy. I saw it a few days ago so I hope it will stay a while. Maybe I'll be able to draw its portrait.

The heron was right there in the heavy flow of new rain from the other night's showers. I saw the heron catch a scaly breakfast before he decided the dam wasn't private enough. I spent the rest of the hour drawing the ripening Black Walnuts overhead and the Autumn light filling up this room, this space between the dam and the bridge. It's very lovely. I hope you get out today and experience the real world too.

using an ink wash: a geometric simplification of the dam
directly overhead: black walnut fruits

Monday, September 17, 2012

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The activity behind this blog is my time spent with things that I want to get to know better. It's an odd compulsion: I want to take them in. I want to eat them. I want to make them part of me. Taking a photograph won't do it. I need some proof of my engagement with that thing or that place. A drawing or painting of some sort is the only thing that will do.

These drawings were done during a recent visit to the Museum of FIne Arts in Boston. I'm returning their briefly this morning to rendezvous with a friend and visit an exhibit about Japanese Tea in the Asian section of the museum. She's a bit of an expert! There are some absolutely wonderfully beautiful things there.

This large statue is not in the Japanese tea exhibit but it is magnificent and you can't miss it if you pass anywhere near it. The curators have placed in front of a tall divided window. In the mid afternoon, the sun illuminates the grape leaves seen in silhouette as they climb in lines behind the hulking benediction of the "Seated Bodhisattva".

A very small jar in the form of a grebe (a type of waterfowl). The jar would contain tea. Probably just enough for two cups. I really don't know. Perhaps I will find out more today. Here's another view of this marvelous object:
Finally, there's one tea bowl made and decorated by the great Kenzan Ogata. To find out more about Kenzan, I suggest you read Bernard Leach's "A Potter's Book"
Bonne journée!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Rainy Day

sketchbook doodle
It's raining in Boston today. I understand that these are the tattered remains of Hurricane Isaac which battered New Orleans a week ago. There are periods of warm, humid stickiness and then blinding drenching downpours.  This morning after getting my kids off to high school, reading the newspaper and washing the dishes, I walked down to the river during a lull in the rain.

A cormorant (a rare visitor at the dam) perched on a log on top of the dam. A single mallard scuttled back and forth along the edge dabbling for breakfast. A social flock of mallards could be seen downriver just past the island. They were just doing normal duck things: eating, dabbling, bathing and bickering.

However, as soon as I pulled out my charcoal pencil, the heavens opened up and soon rivulets were running down my pages. I was drawing in the rain. Have you ever done that? It's kind of fun and it forces a certain economy of means and method. I was completely soaked. When I got home, I took a hair dryer to the poor little sketch book. Here are my few drawings, still a little damp.

sketchbook spread: The Pleasant Street bridge

sketchbook spread: duck silhouettes

Rain is pouring down and my charcoal pencil breaks so I pulled out a litho crayon. The top duck here is charcoal and litho crayon

I like this one.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Water Over the Dam

South Natick dam
© Rob Dunlavey 2012
I think it's been a one of the drier summers but when I look back through my drawings from previous seasons, I see plenty of views of the bare stones and gravel in the river below the dam.  At this time of year, the low water allows ducks free access to all that flowing water affords: mobility and lots of forage to sample in the swirling currents. They busily dabble in all places and attitudes. I've seen them wantonly follow their beaks as they inch down the dam's face surveying the passing water. At a certain point, gravity gets their attention and they scuttle upward or are forced to abort and fly away.

They are always earnest and good natured about these small predicaments. If only me and my kind could show such equanimity in the face of such inevitable slights! It's funny, ducks get aggressive and nip at each other's tails and napes but they quickly settle their feathers and get on with the business at hand. The emotional lives of animals seems so much less-stressful than humans. But this is a wistful digression!

Mallards at the algae salad bar
charcoal, ink
© Rob Dunlavey 2012

Rocks below the dam
charcoal, ink wash
© Rob Dunlavey 2012

charcoal, ink, ink wash
© Rob Dunlavey 2012

This sandpiper has set up housekeeping at the dam in the last few weeks. It is fun to watch. He bobs and dips his tail and is in near-constant motion prospecting for little bugs to dine on. Don't you love his bright eye?
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