Thursday, October 31, 2019



Happy Halloween!  

       This month I gave myself a project inspired by the wonderful artist Mindy Lighthipe   It was good drawing practice and fun too.  In my sketchbook, I have drawn a leaf every day from ones I found near Riverside Park, the NYBG, Fort Tryon Park, and Bethel, New York.  I looked for leaves with unusual colors and or shapes and tried to capture what I could.  As the month has gone on, I found my watercolors becoming more muted.  In the first days, I tried for deep rich colors with lots of detail like the callery pear on the top below, but the leaves themselves got softer and more muted in their colors as the days moved along.  I found some with tears, bends, and weird shapes.  I purposely tried not to look for perfect shapes.  I’m including a few just to inspire.  Having a drawing project is a way to motivate yourself to do some drawing, even just for 15 minutes, and to end up with a portfolio that you can look through in the darker days of winter soon to come--we turn back the clocks on Sunday night.  Now I have to think about what I'll do for the 30 days of November.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Linden, will you be my honey?

Linden watercolor
When I was working on my portfolio for my certificate in Botanical Art and Illustration from the NY Botanical Garden this year, I decided I wanted to draw trees from Riverside Park, the park I walk in just about every day.  When I thought about the trees I would choose, I knew I would have to include one watercolor drawing of the linden tree, one of my favorite trees and one I have photographed many times over the years.  I chose to paint the American linden with its larger leaves although the small-leafed linden and the silver linden also grow on Riverside Drive. It took me many tries to compose the drawing so I would be sure to include both sides of the leaves, the bracts in spring and fall, the flowers, and the fruit.  

The Linden, Tilia genus, tree grows in many places in the upper west side of Manhattan.  There is a large linden grove facing the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park and many lindens in Central Park, but the one I drew is part of a large stand of linden trees along Riverside Drive from 79thto 96thstreets that I observe throughout the seasons.  These beautiful trees with their heart-shaped leaves are of special interest during May and June because their flowers emerge and literally drive bees to drink.  Beekeepers love the honey that bees gather from linden flowers.  It is a pale golden color and it has a sweet gentle taste; it is said to contain flavonoids which act as antioxidants and tannins that act as an astringent. Linden flowers have also been used in herbal treatments for colds, fevers, inflammation, high blood pressure, headaches, and even as a sedative.  New research suggests that the flowers may be hepatoprotective, which means they may have the ability to protect damage to the liver.  

The wood from the tree is pale and soft with a fine grain.  It has been used for pencils, matches, piano keys, some furniture and is a popular wood for model making and carving.  It is used for electric guitar and bass bodies and for wood instruments like recorders.  It was even used in ancient times by the Vikings to make their shields.  In Slavic mythology the linden, or lipa in most Slavic languages, is a sacred tree whose wood was even chosen to make panel icons for religious use.  In the pre-Christian Germanic times, people met under the linden trees to celebrate and dance but also to hold meetings “in order to restore justice and peace.”

We don't meet under the tree to restore justice and peace--that's a pretty large order--but just walking under the green canopy of these magnificent trees can help to restore an inner harmony and peace.  I definitely recommend it. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Found on the road and sadly quite dead

Quick sketch Eastern Milk Snake
Found on the road in Smallwood, upstate New York: one sadly quite dead Eastern Milk Snake, or more simply put, Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum. 

I moved the creature to a safe spot not that it needed safety but more out of respect for the gorgeous body the snake possessed.  I took a few iPhone pictures and drew what I saw as you can see.  The Eastern milk snake is common to eastern and central North America and has many common names like adder, chain snake, cow-sucker, thunder-and-lightning snake and that all familiar blatschich schlange.  I get the “schlange” part of it I think.  The snake was about 24” long.  Spread out on the edge of the road, it looked like a necklace or Native American beaded decoration.  It is a sort of beigy tan with a pattern on the top and sides that is a series of black-bordered burnt sienna-colored patches of different sizes and shapes.  I didn’t turn it over but the belly is said to be irregularly checked black and white.  

The eastern milk snake is sometimes bred in captivity for people to own as pets.  According to Wikipedia,, it is generally docile, but it can bite if threatened and if one is bitten, one should see a doctor.  It is not a venomous snake, but it is a carnivore and prefers a diet of mice, voles, chipmunks, other small rodents, and even other snakes.  It kills by constriction not by biting its prey.  It is an accomplished climber and has been known to climb porches and vines to enter homes in search of mice. The eastern milk snake vibrates its tail to rustle leaves and other debris or when it feels threatened.   Again, this may not be the ideal house pet for many people. Although there are those….

But one thing to be said it that it is a beautiful creature and when I happen upon something like this, I feel the need both to photograph it (thank goodness for our phone cameras) and to draw it in my sketch pad.  Doing the above quick drawing of it, I noticed the patterns even more clearly and appreciated the exquisiteness of this denizen of upstate New York.  I left the actual creature on the edge of the road thinking that it might be food for some other hungry creature or beauty for some passerby.  

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Thing of beauty or what ....

Callery Pear cluster watercolor sketch
The Callery Pear, Pyrus calleryana, was “discovered” in China by French missionary Joseph Callery, hence its name.  It was imported from China to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston in 1909 and then again in 1916 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture “to help develop the blight resistance in the common pear (Pyrus communis), which was devastating the pear industry.”   

By the 1950s, people had begun to appreciate its beauty and resilience to disease, so it was widely planted on the east coast and in the southern part of the U.S.  In fact, it is one of the most common street trees in New York City and a welcome sign of spring with its lovely five-petaled white and pinkish flowers blooming in early April.  Soon after, come the glossy green leaves appearing in clusters such as the one I found this morning and quickly sketched for the blog.  The tree produces small fruits that birds and squirrels eat and distribute through their poop.  And in the fall, the leaves turn red, purple, and bronze—quite a lovely sight to see.  

For many of us, the Callery Pear is a thing of beauty and hope.  In fact, the “survivor tree” planted at the National September 11 Memorial site is a Callery Pear that survived the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.  It was the last living thing to be taken from the rubble of 9/11.  It was nearly destroyed, but the New York Department of Parks and Recreation took the charred almost “mortally wounded” tree that many thought was dead and nursed and cared for at a nursery in Van Cortlandt Park until it was ready to be replanted in December 2010 at the site of so much destruction and loss. The tree is in this site as a symbol of hope and resilience.  There is a short documentary about this, “The Tree that Would Not Be Broken”   The tree continues to bloom each year and to be visited by thousands as a symbol of resilience and rebirth. 

But to others the Callery Pear is a “bad tree,” “invasive,” “messy,” “dirty.”  In other words, it is treated like many other immigrants—welcome to solve problems, do the dirty work and take the hits,  but becomes a bit much when it takes up space and stays too long.  But for many others of us, as the “survivor tree” reaches out to the sun and blooms, it has as they say in the film “come home” and we welcome it. 

Monday, April 22, 2019


Crabapple branch and flower closeup watercolor
Today, on Earth Day 2019,  we celebrate our planet and the life of our planet.  Where I live we are celebrating spring too—rebirth, the blossoming of trees, flowers, migrating of birds, insects, and the emergence of animals who hibernate or stay under cover in the cold of winter.  At the same time as we celebrate, we worry about our home planet—about icecaps melting, dangerous storms, animals and insects going extinct because their climate is threatened.  Earth Day reminds us to be active, to have a voice, to do everything we can to keep our planet healthy and alive.  A small part of being active is for us to look around and appreciate what it is that we have.  

The crabapple tree is now in full bloom in many parts of the eastern United States. It deserves our appreciation—the crabapple provides us with sensory delights—beautiful and fragrant blossoms of pink, red, and white, dark green leaves that turn to brilliant reds and purples in autumn along with little somewhat bitter fruits that feed birds and small animals.  Although bitter, the small fruits are full of pectin, so some people do make jellies or thicken their jellies with them.  Crabapples or Malus are in the family Rosaceae, a family that includes roses, pears, peaches, cherries, apricots, and both strawberries and raspberries.  Plants in the Rosaceae family usually have five flowers with five petals and red stamens that produce pollen.  Crabapples are pollinated by insects and especially by bees. In fact, a gardener in an orchard in Oregon says that he plants crabapple trees among the apple trees because the crabapples are irresistible to bees and therefore help to pollinate the other apple trees as well. The hardy crabapple is often used as rootstock for grafting other apple varieties too.  

When I took a class in drawing crabapples (including the one in this blog entry) at the New York Botanical Garden, I discovered that my teacher, Robin Jess, had had crabapple blossoms as her wedding bouquet. That makes romantic sense because crabapples have long been associated with love and marriage. Apples are symbols of fruitfulness and even in some mythology serve as a means to immortality and perhaps the immortality of love.  Supposedly if you throw the crabapple pips into the fire while saying the name of your love and the love is true, the pips explode. Let us appreciate the crabapple as an emblem of our appreciation of our planet and let our commitment explode in our work in keeping it healthy and alive.  

Thursday, January 10, 2019

How plaque is changing history

Ultramarine in watercolor

A history changing piece of news from January 9, 2019 brings me back to my blog after many months.  Here we are in the twenty first century, and we are finding out surprising details about a woman artist who, according to radiocarbon dating, lived and died in a women’s monastery in Germany somewhere between 997 and 1162 CE in the tenth century. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History looking into the health and diets of people in the Middle Ages were closely examining bones of corpses buried in a medieval cemetery in Dalheim, Germany when they discovered something very surprising: a woman with dental plaque that was flecked with hundreds of tiny, bright blue particles barely visible to the naked eye. And here is where twenty-first century technology comes into the story.  

Multiple spectrographic analyses of the dental calculus or plaque of this German nun’s teeth revealed that the blue flecks were in fact ultramarine pigment, a rare and very expensive pigment made from crushed lapis lazuli stones. Lapis lazuli at that time was mined from a single part of Afghanistan and was as expensive as gold. Only the finest artists used it.  It is said that Michelangelo could not afford it, so rare and costly was the mineral. Yet this nameless nun in a women’s monastery was using the ultramarine pigment made from lapis to create art for an illuminated sacred book. I can imagine her sitting on a high stool, vellum page in front of her, and as her mind wandered, raising her brush with its bright blue beauty to her mouth looking at what she was drawing and thinking, maybe even praying. I thought of her as I made my two strokes of  ultramarine. My ultramarine is affordable to almost any artist. I use at the top Daniel Smith's Ultramarine Blue and below Winsor & Newton's French Ultramarine both synthetically produced.  

Unlike Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in which monks die from licking poison in their work as scribes, this unknown nun died of natural causes when she was 45-60 years old.  The researchers believe that "she was herself painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush..."  The senior researcher in the team, Dr. Christina Warriner, said that dental plaque “is really cool, it is the only part of your body that fossilizes while you are still alive…it incorporates all sorts of debris from your life, so bits of food become trapped, it ends up being a bit of a time capsule of your life.” So think about that when you floss each day.  

Magnified view of lapis lazuli particles embedded in medieval dental calculus.
Photo by Monica Tromp.

The teeth of this unknown nun change history in that they make the case that in medieval times women were artists and artists of such great ability that they were using the finest and most costly pigments in their work on illuminations of sacred texts. History tells us that women rarely signed their names to their works as an act of humility, and as a result, women were essentially rendered invisible. The findings in Dalheim may shine a light and make visible at least one of those invisible women. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Another kind of tulip

Drawing of tulip tree flower and leaves
June days in all their glory bring a new pleasure—the tulip tree flower.  The tulip or tulip poplar tree, Linodendron tulipfera, is a giant tree that often grows to more than 100 feet tall.  Although it is called a poplar, it is in fact in the magnolia family.  It is a fast-growing hard wood tree with wood that can be used for furniture, flooring, and even house building and siding.  I was delighted to come across one of these giants in Riverside Park near 79thstreet.  I bent my head back and saw that it was filled with flowers—the flowers range from yellow to light green with orange segments in the middle as you can see in my drawing above.  Flowers first appear when the tree is a pre-teen or young teen of somewhere between ten and fifteen years of age.  It can be hard to see the flowers because they are up quite high, but it is a real treat to come across them.  There is a large stand of close to twenty huge tulip trees in the walkway leading to the LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden-- by the way one of the world’s biggest botanical libraries and worth a visit for its amazing holdings and the tulip trees that line the way to it.  After the trees bloom, many of the flowers drop and can be found on the ground and looked at in more detail.  The tree actually gets its name because of the resemblance between tulip flowers and tulip tree flowers.  The flowers produce about a tablespoon of nectar per flower.  Bees love the nectar and beekeepers love the poplar honey that is produced—strong tasting, healthy, and delicious.  The flowers have also been made into an ointment to treat burns and other skin ailments.  

The bark of the tulip tree at one time was thought to have a medicinal value as well.  The bark was boiled in water and the tea produced was used to treat typhoid and malaria as an alternative to quinine.  The inner bark was used to treat rheumatism and arthritis as was the bark from some of the other trees in the magnolia family.  

As far as we know, the oldest living tulip tree, the Queens Giant, is in Alley Pond Park in Bayside, Queens, New York.  The tree is thought to be between 400 and 450 years old and it is over 134 feet tall with a girth of 18.6 feet.  Even though it is huge, it may not be easy to find and that is purposeful.  Former Parks Commisoner Adrian Benepe said, “There is something to be said leaving it in a bit of obscurity.  It’s part of the reason it has survived this long.  If everyone is attracted to it, it increases the chance of something bad happening to it.” If you happen to come upon it, you will see a sign that says: “It was standing tall when General George Washington passed close by in 1790 on a tour of Long Island, and it was most likely a young tree when the Dutch East India Company sent a group of Walloon families to Manhattan in 1624.”  Perhaps its longevity through the ups and downs, the tragedies and celebrations, the storms and weather changes can give us some hope, optimism, and beauty in these difficult times.