Quantcast

Explore: June 2011


« May 2011 | Main | July 2011 »

10 posts from June 2011

06/30/2011

Nature Art: Contour Drawing

You're traveling this summer and you'd like to keep a record of your trip. Photos will work, but drawings will, too, and they're easy to share by taking a photo of your sketch and uploading it. Drawing lets you interpret on the spot, choose colors, and emphasize detail in ways a camera can't.

And if you can't draw, haven't drawn in ages, are afraid to draw...what then? Try contour drawing. Contour drawing is an easy entry to the world of sketchbooks. A contour drawing captures the essence of an object with all of its texture. You can create a lovely contour drawing within an hour of learning the technique, no matter your age or art-school experience. You only need a pencil and paper. I do a life-size contour drawing for each of the paintings in my 100 Flowers series. I use 24 x 18 inch sheets of newsprint for the drawings, and I transfer the drawing directly to the canvas:

Nature Art 2

Why does this work? It works because contour drawing is done very slowly. In fact, the more slowly you draw, the more accurate your contour drawing will be. The slowness quiets down the chatter of your mind. My students, young and old, often feel a wave of impatience (the left brain) as they begin, thinking, "This is silly," or "Why go so slow...I can draw the shape of a flower," just before they relax into drawing beautifully (as the right brain takes over).

So here's what to do: Grab a pencil and a blank piece of paper. Choose an object to draw--something you like, maybe a teacup, a pair of Felco pruners, or a pineapple. Place the object on a table in front of you. Contour drawing is just following the outer contour of an object with your eye and drawing a corresponding line on paper. Practice once before starting to draw by slowly tracing your index finger along the contours of your object. Take a few deep breaths to quiet the mind.

Continue by slowly moving your eye along the outer edge of the object and slowly drawing a corresponding line on the paper. Look back and forth between the object and the paper to check your lines. Don't lift your pencil, and don't stop to erase. If you make a big mistake, simply take a deep breath, lift your pencil, and place it where it ought to be. Your first drawing should take you about five minutes.

My students begin by drawing their own hands, and the studio falls silent as they work. They take off a shoe next and draw that for 15 minutes. They often lose track of time as they draw and, if things go well, you will feel this way, too.

Finally, know this: Your first drawing is only the first of many, and it will be your weakest, so don't lose hope if it doesn't come out exactly as you had planned.

If you're intrigued by contour drawing, read the essential book on the subject: Betty Edwards' "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain." It is available through Amazon or ask for it at your favorite bookstore. She has a great website, too. If you'd like to hear more about the creativity debate between the left and right sides of the brain, listen to this 2006 segment from Studio 360.

And here's the painting that grew from my contour drawing:

Nature Art 1

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

06/26/2011

Astronomy: Get the Message about Mercury

Mercury by MESSENGER Mercury as seen by MESSENGER. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

The first spacecraft ever to orbit Mercury reached the fleet-footed planet in March of this year. MESSENGER, which stands for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging, is revealing a world not seen before. Among other tasks performed by MESSENGER, it is mapping the planet’s landforms and sampling its magnetic field. One of the interesting discoveries already made is the existence of unusual pits in the bottom of crater floors that may have been created by volatile materials in the planet’s crust.

A spacecraft visiting Mercury was necessary to get a good view of the planet, because Mercury is positioned too close to the sun for the Hubble Space Telescope to ever try to capture an image of it.

You can get a look at Mercury yourself starting now and continuing over the month of July. Mercury is currently in the west-northwest after sunset, shining at magnitude -0.9. Mercury is in the constellation Gemini, below the stars Pollux and Castor, but it will slip upwards until it is in nearly a straight line with the two stars on June 29 and 30.

Over the coming weeks, Mercury will fade as it diminishes from its 85-percent-lit face to only 23-percent-lit on July 31. Mercury won’t stay in Gemini long. It climbs into Cancer by July and enters the Beehive Cluster on the 6th. It swings by Regulus in Leo at the end of July and will then shine at magnitude 0.9, which, although dimmer, is still brighter than Regulus.

While Mercury is visible without any optical aid, using binoculars or a telescope will help you to see the phases that the planet undergoes as it shrinks from a gibbous to a crescent.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

06/17/2011

Astronomy: Focusing on the Sun

6-17-11 Sunspots by Chumack
Two sunspots, looking like a pair of moles, appear on the solar limb. Credit: John Chumack

Summer arrives in the northern hemisphere with the solstice on June 21 at 10:16 a.m. PDT. The sun looks as if it has been slipping farther south on our horizon with each sunset until it reaches the farthest point south that it will go. At this point it appears to "stand still," which is where the word solstice comes from. Very slowly, Earth's northern axis will begin to tilt away from the sun, making it look as if the sun is moving back north on the horizon, until it reaches due west at sunset on the fall equinox.

The sun has been heading toward solar maximum, a period of greater solar activity and sunspots, which should occur within the next couple years. The newest cycle, named Cycle 24, began in 2008. The sun's complete solar cycle from one polarity back to the same polarity lasts 22 years, in which there are two smaller cycles of 11 years each where the sunspots increase to a maximum and then dip back to a minimum.

Cycle 23 and the current solar cycle have been unusual in that sunspots have been weakening so much that predictions show that there may not even be a Cycle 25. Sunspots have been observed and recorded since 1611. While the solar cycle is rather reliable, there has been a previous other instance of a "grand minimum," when solar activity went into an unexplained low. This was called the Maunder Minimum, which lasted from 1645 to 1715. Interestingly, the Maunder Minimum coincided with the Little Ice Age, when glaciers began to advance, many crops failed, and lakes and rivers were frozen over until June and July.

Are we entering another grand minimum? Would this grand minimum result in a cooler climate on Earth? Or would it somehow help to balance the climate change induced by spiking carbon dioxide levels? It is simply too soon to know.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

06/16/2011

It's Just Another Day at Inner City Outings

ICO3

What's the best way to get to your fishing hole? Try whitewater rafting.

Thanks in part to the Sierra Club Water Sentinels program and Zebco that donated six fishing poles and reels, the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program and YMCA's Earth Service Corp brought 14 San Francisco middle school girls late last month to Cache Creek, a raucous tributary that feeds into the Sacramento River. None of these girls had ever gone rafting before, so you could imagine the sensation they felt during the nine-mile adventure.

ICO2

"It is thrilling to take people out to the river for the first time, to see the wonder in their eyes, to watch them go from fear to exuberance and thoughtful appreciation of the river," says trip leader Bill Weinberg, who first rafted in 1979 as part of a Sierra Club Service trip.

The ICO program in total consists of 50 groups, leads 800 outings a year, and touches the lives of 14,000 youth. For many of these kids, rough, urban surroundings are all they know. Many of their peers end up in gangs and struggle in school. During outings, ICO leaders regularly witness kids immediately connect with nature and, as a result, become inspired to get back on the right track.

Inner City Outings

"I treasure knowing that I've been a small part of changing someone's life, re-directing them from gangs and despair to personal growth and empowerment. It's pretty cool that we can do that while experiencing the joy of being a river guide," Bill says.

Continue reading "It's Just Another Day at Inner City Outings" »

06/10/2011

Year in Yosemite: In the Footsteps of Giants


ARC students with Giant Sequoia.

At the top of a trail just up the hill from our house in Yosemite National Park stands the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. With over 500 of the world's largest sequoia trees, it is a must-see for most visitors to the park. But while standing next to a mature sequoia can leave one slack-jawed with wonder, it's their cones that fascinate me. Because the largest living thing on Earth starts its life in the tiniest, simplest way. Its seed is just the size of an oat. Its cone is less than three inches long. Its needs are profound — only the right mixture of sun, soil, and water as well as help from hungry chickarees, boring beetles or fire will allow these massive trees to get a start in life.  

This week the teenagers participating in the Adventure Risk Challenge (ARC) program at Yosemite will move into their home base at my daughter's school. Many of them are only fourteen-years-old. Over the next forty days they will hike, backpack, river raft, rock climb, and more importantly, learn to rely on themselves and each other. Most of them are from families where English is the second language. Many of them attend knowing they are their family's hope for a different kind of life. It is up to these kids to learn the skills that will take them to college and their families from agricultural work in the Central Valley into the mainstream of American life. Their journey reminds me of the sequoias.

Like the sequoia's cones, they are chockfull of the gifts of life — in their case, talent, smarts, kindness, hope and a willingness to work hard. But like the giant trees, they will need just the right mixture of conditions to flourish. By teaching wilderness skills, leadership training and putting the students through a rigorous writing curriculum, ARC, a program sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley and Merced (but funded by private donations), hopes to provide just that. I know it can happen because I've watched many ARC participants grow and mature in this program, going from high school kids showing promise to successful students at top universities.

The last time I did a writing workshop with the ARC students, the topic was service. All through the class I wanted to share my friend Nancy Casolaro’s story. For whatever reason, I refrained. Then last Sunday I spent the day at Nancy's helping to put books into book bags for kids at an inner city school. Three years ago, Nancy and another friend, Sarina Simon, took it upon themselves to adopt an inner-city KIP school (of Waiting for Superman fame). The principal's main request? Help get books to the students, many of whom had never owned even one. Using their own money and Nancy's considerable bargain-hunting skills, Project Bookbag was born. Each year they have given every student in the school a bag containing seven too-good-to-put-down books.

Explore
Project Bookbag day at school.

For Nancy this is personal. The child of first-generation Italian immigrants, her father never finished grammar school; her mother had to drop out of high school (and later earned her GED). There were no books in their home. But they had a neighbor, Doug McGall, who worked in a bookstore. He made it his business to read to Nancy, her brother and her cousins and to give them books.

Doug McGall died when Nancy was in the second grade, but he left money for Nancy, her brother and her cousins to go to college. Nancy's brother grew up to be one of the country’s most famous prosecutors. Nancy has devoted her life to education. They still credit Doug McGall with instilling in them a love of learning. Now Nancy is passing on the gift. (Picture: Doug McGall and Nancy.)

Later this week, I’ll meet the students who will spend their forty days in the wilderness learning to be more than they ever hoped they could be. I hope to share with them the story of Doug McGall. Actions don’t have to be huge to make a difference. Service can pay off decades after the original deed. Like the towering sequoia, great things can happen from even the tiniest seed.

-- Jamie Simons

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Today she and her family have made the move to live for one year in Wawona, where her daughter attends the one-room schoolhouse, Jamie writes, and her husband longs for noise, fast food, people, and the city. (Though he's learning to appreciate mountain life.)

Stay within the (Bike) Lanes

Bike lanes are an important part of any city's smart transportation plan. But it's not always possible to stay within the bike lane. Like, well, when a huge truck is in the way. After getting ticketed for riding outside of a bike lane in New York City, this cyclist took it upon himself to show just how crazy a strict bike lane rule (one that doesn't actually exist in NYC despite the fact that he was ticketed for it) is. Oh yeah, it's really funny too.

Astronomy: A Little Night Music

6-10-11 Milky Way Paranal ESO Y Beletsky
Under the Milky Way, at Cerro Paranal in Chile. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

People seem to have a natural inclination to whisper in the dark. Star parties are generally not raucous affairs. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be. If you host one on your own property and are not at risk of disturbing others, I see nothing wrong with a little night music. There are many, many songs that reference the stars and space and make great additions to an astronomy-lover’s playlist. Maybe some quiet background music can set the scene with songs such as these:

Under the Milky Way by the Church

Space Oddity by David Bowie

Satellite by the Dave Matthews Band

Intergalactic by the Beastie Boys

Bad Moon Rising by CCR

Rocket Man by Elton John

Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden

Airplanes (are shooting stars) by B.o.B.

Satellite Heart by Anya Marina

The Scientists by Tony Memmel

Man on the Moon by R.E.M.

Wheel in the Sky by Journey

Meet Me on the Equinox by Death Cab for Cutie

February Stars by Foo Fighters

Spaceman by The Killers

Shooting the Moon by OK Go

Sun King by The Beatles

Eclipse by Pink Floyd

Drops of Jupiter by Train

And let's not forget my son's favorite band, Muse, with their hits Neutron Star Collision, Starlight, and Supermassive Black Hole. (And quite a few more.)

On June 15 you can lie under the Full Strawberry Moon and enjoy the song Full Moon by The Black Ghosts, or if you prefer the oldies, Fly Me to the Moon by Frank Sinatra.

(Disclaimer: If you host a star party with kids, you may want to check the lyrics of all these songs first! I can't vouch for their cleanliness as I am known to sing the incorrect lyrics much of the time.)

There are so many other songs that could be added to this list. What songs would you put on your own stargazing playlist?

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

06/09/2011

Nature Art: Get the Salt Shaker

Have you tried using salt on your watercolors? It's a great way to add random, natural texture to a painting, which can help make autumn leaves, beach sand, or tree bark look more realistic. Sprinkle salt onto shiny, wet paint and, when it is dry, scrape the salt off. The salt crystals leave behind a mottled pattern. You don't need to use gourmet salt; regular table salt, with its tiny crystals, works very well. In the sample, below, I did try kosher salt and a fancy Hawaiian rock salt that I had here at home, so you could see the marks of different crystal sizes. You can see the salt drying on the colored squares:

Salt1
Last week I suggested you use transparent watercolor, but this week I'm using the opposite kind of paint: opaque and granulating. I listed the paint names, above, on the sample. Since the salt pushes away the wet paint and reveals the white of the paper, you can see the salt effect best when you use it on a mid-range or dark color. So...pure yellow is out. (Use an old credit card to scratch in some texture, instead.)

If you already paint in watercolor, you know that the surface of the paper will also influence the texture of your painting. Hot press paper is the smoothest, cold press has a bit of texture, and rough is full of tiny dips that catch the granulation of the paint. I used cold press paper for this test. Below are the same samples with the salt brushed off:

Salt2
 Salt could create beautiful seafoam or sand too, so give it a try in your summertime paintings.

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

06/03/2011

Astronomy: June Highlights

6-3-11 Lunar Eclipse Ali Taylor
The moon is eclipsed by Earth's shadow. Credit: Ali Taylor

June weather will bring a lot more people outside as the day lengthens and the sun finally sets, ushering in the brightest stars. The first day of summer occurs on June 21 at 1:16 p.m. EDT.

As the sky darkens in June, the first points of light that will appear are the brightest planets and stars and the moon if it is up. This weekend the moon is a lovely crescent in the west after sunset. Sirius will be setting with the sun, but the next brightest point of light is also in the west: Capella. Look northwest soon after sunset to see it sparkling just above the horizon. Rising in the northeast is Vega, one of the anchors of the Summer Triangle. The bright star closest to the zenith is reddish Arcturus.

The first planet noticeable on June evenings is Saturn, still located in the south in the constellation Virgo, close to the star Porrima. The brightest star of Virgo, Spica, is to Saturn’s lower left. Mercury will enter the evening sky in the west halfway through the month. Mercury will cross from the feet of Gemini toward the two stars of Castor and Pollux that mark the twins’ heads. On June 29 the two stars and Mercury will appear to form a straight line.

A total lunar eclipse occurs on June 15 for viewers in the eastern hemisphere. Eastern Africa and the Middle East will get to see the lunar eclipse in its entirety. None of North America will witness this lunar eclipse. Instead they will see the Strawberry Full Moon, completely out of Earth’s shadow, brightening the sky and washing out the Lyrid meteors, which also occur on this date.

More on June's Night Sky.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

 

06/01/2011

Nature Art: Sunsets

It's not easy to paint an ocean sunset. If you paint it as you see it--all the pinks and the golds, the water reflections, maybe that tropical green flash--it often looks lurid. But you can use these colors in another way: you can paint imaginary sunsets. If you use the same sunset shapes each time--the long, thin rectangle for the water, and the half-circle for the sun--you can focus on pure color without worrying about composition. Think of it as painting variations on a sunset theme.

For the sunsets shown here, I used only transparent watercolors, no opaques or granulating colors, because I wanted each color to drift over and change whatever colors lay underneath. I listed the colors I used on the lower left corner of this photo, below:

Sunset1
My first page of sunsets looked stiff. Lots of hard edges, little blending of color between the sun and the sea; I needed to use more water. On the page above, my second page, I have one very stiff sunset (top left) but a little gem on the middle right.

My method became: Paint the ocean rectangle and the sun circle with clear water. Use a damp brush to pick up lots of the color for the water. Paint the water, adding other saturated colors. Finally, paint the sun shape. If you use New Gamboge yellow in the sun, as I did here, the pigment flows outward on wet paper with wonderful force, spreading into the sea and pushing other pigments before it.

I kept painting these little variations, page after page, and I didn't look up until twilight had fallen. In the photo below, you can see that my colors changed as the light dimmed, although I didn't realize it at the time:

Sunset2
To give this a try yourself, all you need is a watercolor paintbrush, a sheet of watercolor paper, and a few tubes of paint. I loved the quickness of this exercise, because you can move right on to the next sunset if the last didn't work out. And who knows--you may paint a little gem.

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.


User comments or postings reflect the opinions of the responsible contributor only, and do not reflect the viewpoint of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of any posting. The Sierra Club accepts no obligation to review every posting, but reserves the right (but not the obligation) to delete postings that may be considered offensive, illegal or inappropriate.

Up to Top


Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2009 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.