Creating Sketches: “How do you do that?”

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It’s a pretty simple process really.

STEP 1: I start with an object (either from life or from one of my photos) and draw a rough sketch in light pencil.
STEP 2: Outline in pen. I keep the lines I like, change the ones I don’t. And add a little more detail. The most fulfilling part of this process is erasing those pencil-sketch lines. The drawing really pops then!
I use Micron pens (waterproof – that’s important!).
STEP3: Add a light wash of watercolor.
Note: one aspect of my process is very unusual. For these little sketches, I use a 5×7″ sketchpad – not watercolor paper (crazy!). The water soaks in fast so I work pretty quickly.
STEP4: Add background.
By the way, I only use 12 colors: the reds (alizarin crimson & windsor red), yellows (new gamboge & aureolin), blues (antwerp & ultramarine), and six colors I just really like (yellow ochre, burnt sienna, cobalt turquoise, sap green, payne’s grey and perylene violet)
STEP5: Layer in another round of color. Intensify some areas, add color details to others, emphasize shadows.
STEP6: Sign, scan, crop, and upload.

Each piece takes 1-4 hours to create, the majority of that is spent on STEP2 (inking).

One very important (and unseen) part of the process is practice. I’ve been learning, trying (messing up), and experimenting for almost 30 years now. While most people think learning how to use watercolors is the key, it’s not. Learning how to draw is the most valuable tool. Once you have that firm foundation, the rest is icing. Enjoy!

Student Illustrations on Scientific American blog!

Cicada_EOverbaugh
Cicada by E. Overbaugh

As a college professor, like all teachers, I relish my students’ successes. Today, I’m a whole jar-full of relish. My students’ work is posted all over a Scientific American blog, Symbiartic. Yay!

Please visit Symbiartic to see lots more student illustrations – and don’t forget to share with all your friends!

FrogFlukeOctopus_TBrownJLangJPark

Wildflower Stories: Milkweed, Monarchs and Monsanto

ATwildflowers_milkweedlMonarch butterfly populations have declined an estimated 90% over the past 20 years. [1] What’s going on?! The answer involves genetic engineering, protozoans and herbicide.

Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a member of the Dogbane family of plants, is closely associated with Monarch butterflies. Monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed and assimilate the plant’s chemical defenses, providing the Monarchs protection over the rest of their lives.

Milkweed grows in disturbed soils, like those used in agriculture. The plant is often found between rows of corn or soybeans. However, genetic modification of corn and soybean allows herbicides (such as Monsanto’s RoundUp) to be more efficient at killing other plants, like milkweed. Fewer milkweeds, fewer Monarchs.

milkweed_flowers
So good-hearted people came to the rescue, planting Milkweed in their yards in an effort to help the butterflies. Unfortunately, many people planted the wrong species of Milkweed. Here in the U.S., native Milkweed dies back each year. This dieback limits the population of a Monarch parasite called OE (Ophryocystis electroscirrha). [2] However, the species of Milkweed people planted is evergreen, so the parasites keep proliferating and Monarchs get so sick they don’t survive their migration to Mexico and back.

If you’d like to find the right Milkweed for your neck of the woods, here’s a handy tool from Xerces.

  1. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141010-monarch-butterfly-migration-threatened-plan/
  2. http://monarchparasites.uga.edu/whatisOE/

Wildflower Stories: Part 1

ATwildflowers_agrimonyThe wildflowers along the Appalachian Trail impressed the heck out of me during a recent hike. My inner biologist began counting the number of plant families represented. The artist inside distracted my count with constant “ooo, pretty!” comments. This drawing highlights just a few of the flowers from the trip – and launches the first of a host of posts.

 AGRIMONY (Agrimonia sp.)

Once upon a time, Agrimony was a go-to herb for the local physician. It was reported* to cure or alleviate eye and liver problems, intestinal troubles, back pain, gunshot wounds, snakebites, sore feet, pimples and coughs. The most horrifying treatment combined Agrimony with “a mixture of pounded frogs and human blood, as a remedy for all internal haemorrhages.”1

We’ve come a long way (thank you, Scientific Method). While Agrimony may contain compounds beneficial to our health, rigorous controlled studies are lacking or do not show the benefits claimed above. Still, Agrimony is sold today as an herbal remedy.agrimony_flower_close

A lack of data doesn’t mean Agrimony won’t help ailments – it doesn’t mean it will either. As a member of the Rose family (the flowers’ many stamens clued me into its familial origins), Agrimony shares traits with apples, lemons, nectarines, almonds, and of course roses. So it’s in good company with a lot of wonderful foods that offer beneficial properties and nutrients.

*This blog does not endorse the use of Agrimony to treat any of these ailments.

1. A Modern Herbal by M. Grieve. 1971. Dover Publications, New York.

Newts of Fire and Ice

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Newts 101:

Red-Spotted Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) are the coolest animals on the planet. I should know – I worked with over 10,000 of them for two years.

Newts have four different life stages – egg, larva, eft, adult. The eft stage is most unusual since it’s completely terrestrial (for up to 7+ years!) AND incredibly poisonous (you have to eat it though). People used to think that efts were born from fire. The red color may have contributed to this folktale, but it may also be their emergence from logs thrown on the fire. Newt skin secretions can protect them from flame for a short time. It’s the reason many firefighter companies have a newt in their logo. Asbestos was once called “salamander wool”.

Frozen Newt-sicle

I researched the Red-Spotted Newt for my Master’s Degree (and fell in love with them – hence, the name of this blog). Every week, I trapped newts and recorded their spot patterns to identify each one individually. Since Red-Spotted Newts are fairly common, I trapped, identified, and released over 10,000. The scientific relevance of this work turned out to be … well… lame. Reports indicated that this population was very unusual. Turns out (sigh) it wasn’t. But I did learn a couple random things that no one else has reported.

  1. Newts can freeze solid and survive. I know because I left one out too long while I was checking traps and it was a little newt-popsicle when I returned. I took it back to the lab to use as a dissection specimen, but thankfully she’d recovered.
  2. While most experts call Red-Spotted Newts aquatic as adults, I think my study population was terrestrial with a brief aquatic period for reproduction. Even in permanent pools of water, newts leave in the fall. Only a few females overwinter in the ponds.

Summertime Blues

dragonfly_bluDragonflies hover, swoop and twirl but never walk. They use their legs to trap their insect prey in a tiny six-barred prison before devouring them head-first. When guarding its territory along the water’s edge, this Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) grasps a reed or blade of grass and waves his blue abdomen as a warning for other males. Females, in general, aren’t blue at all; they’re black with yellow lines running down their bodies While the name “dragonfly” may be confusing, other names – “snake doctor” or “devil’s darning needle”, for instance – are equally perplexing. No, dragonflies do not treat ailing snakes (or bring them back to life) and the insects don’t sew up any parts of you (although my Grandmother convinced me not to lie with the threat that dragonflies would sew my lips shut if I did). And in case you were wondering about that species name, it means “long wings”… not what you were thinking.