Skip to content

A(p)rian applied arts

April 22, 2019

Learning to observe more effectively.



In early April, Spouse saw a story on the NYT website about crowd-sourcing the identification of forest animals in Dutchess & Putnam counties, New York. He quickly got hooked on participating; I began soon after.

It’s fun, also addictive — I’m always hoping to see an unusual animal!

Out of the 30 possibilities (+ 1 category “nothing here”), I’ve seen various birds [including ruffed grouse, and turkeys, but mostly songbirds], black bears, a bobcat, chipmunks, a coyote, lots of deer, dogs, red foxes, gray foxes, herps [a snake, and maybe a frog], insects & invertebrates, mice, opossums, raccoons, gray & red squirrels, a woodchuck.   17 categories of critters.

Spouse has seen all of those, plus bats, and a family of black bears!


Critters I haven’t yet seen: bat; beaver; cat (domestic); cow; fisher; human being; mink; muskrat; river otter; flying squirrel; striped skunk; weasel.

(Who knew New York’s “striped skunk” looks nothing like Midwestern skunks?)


I have to pace myself, allowing days of rest in between sessions, but I’ve done stints on 8 days this month, for a total of 898 classifications.

As of early 22 April, the project was 7% complete.




The same website, Zooniverse, administers all sorts of crowd-sourced projects. I receive emails about which need more help, which got me started on Plant Letters.

The herbarium at the University of Coimbra in Portugal has a repository of letters to botanists that need transcribing. Letters written in Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and English.

I bungled the one letter in Spanish I tried transcribing — I found the date, 1877, irresistible, but the handwriting was almost impossible for me to decipher.

I’ve had better luck in letters and postcards written in English. A botanist in Surrey, England, writing in 1902, 1905, 1909, about various plant specimens he was studying.


I’ve completed 4 items. (Lots of typing keeps my numbers low.)

The project is 33% complete.




Applying my observations, creatively.



I surprised myself by how enjoyable participating in Fiberuary on Instagram was, so when I saw mentions of a “100 day project”, to begin 2 April, I impulsively decided to try it.

Unlike many of the people doing the project on IG, my version is not a well-defined topic [“100 days of human faces”].

I want a process for sketching things, in as few strokes as possible. But I also want to explore mixing colors, and how I feel about those colors.


As a kid, painting in oils was occasionally enjoyable, but more usually boring, and frustrating. I didn’t much care about the subject matter; I just wanted to explore juxtaposing and mixing pleasing color combinations.

I didn’t know, then, that I had emotion–color synesthesia.

I did know that I didn’t want to learn how to either draw, or paint, most subjects everyone else valued. But what was left?

A few years later, but still a kid, when I sketched with pencil, I portrayed only the item in front of me (usually a flower, or a tree). That is, no surrounding environment — no neighbors, no shadows, no perspective. Just the one thing.

Now I wonder … were my drawings disconnected from context because I was disconnected from context?


Even when I returned to painting (acrylics), in 2010, I was inspired by the colors themselves more than anything. Often mixing colors evoked moods and memories, which were incorporated into my paintings, but something(s) was missing.

It took years to realize that maybe I wanted to explore representational art.

Obstacles, however, included carpal tunnel, general muscle weakness, poor fine motor control, and being 30+ years out-of-practice with drawing. What method could possibly be available to me?


Sketching with watercolor.

Can I paint what I see, directly, without penciling anything in first? Yes. {Baby tapir figurine; Slyvori (snake plant); smiling pig figurine.}

Can I represent a mood, with a colorway? Yes.

Do I have a visual vocabulary of marks? Surprisingly, yes.

Can I freehand paint something I photographed, so it’s recognizable? Yes. {skunk cabbage}

If I do pencil something in, can I draw it well enough that it’s recognizable? Can I mix the colors correctly? Yes, and yes.


Spouse has taken up watercolors just now as well. As usual, our approaches are quite distinct.

He bought tubes of paint, and several brushes of various sizes, water brushes, a palette, a carrying case.

I’ve been exploring handmade watercolors, in pans and half-pans (and bottlecaps, and dots; also pebbles and paintstones), that I’ve found via Instagram. I’ve been using a 20 year old brush I’ve had for craft projects. I’m willing to try a variety of papers in odd weights, because I already own them.

Basically, I’m improvising with what’s at hand. Whatever’s easy.


Because I have to do a thing every single day — consistency to that extent is definitely not my strong suit — I’m letting myself find something that excites me to tackle, every day. What if I painted an item on my desk? Something I can see from my desk? Let’s try this new color that just arrived! Color mixing! What if I use the back end of the brush to swirl the paint in tendrils? What if I paint with this twig?


My emotions are infusing everything. And there’s a lot of ~amelia~. Much more than I would have expected, considering that (1) I’m not happy all the time; and (2) the colorways are definitely not the ones I think of when I think of ~amelia~. And yet, I feel ~amelia~, both when creating the paintings, and then when looking at them later.

Being surrounded by paintings infused with ~amelia~ is helping me feel happier/satisfied more consistently.


I’m looking at my surroundings differently: how could I paint this? Do I have the right colors? What might I need to add to my palette? Where’s the light coming from? What colors would I use for shadows? Which neighbors belong in my rendering? Can I add tree-friends from somewhere else? (Or would that work better as some type of collage?) My atlas! Maybe this is what was missing!!

Also, self-portraits.

I recently snagged a book of Georgia O’Keeffe’s watercolors from her early years in Texas, and they include her own self-portraits (some of which Spouse and I had seen at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico in 2016, and were much taken by).

What if I sketched the plants and critters from trips in our future?

As far back as my 2013 trip to New Mexico, I was wishing I could record the colors I saw, the plants, the light. Photographs were not nearly personal enough, although I couldn’t articulate that at the time.

(For that matter, the light in Aotearoa, in 2005. I have a poem about it, but a painting, in watercolor, presents possibilities I very much want to explore now…)


Whom can watercolor help me become?

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: