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I created the following studies on location during an art research trip to the Sea of Cortez, specifically at and around the mouth of Estero El Soldado, a tidal mangrove estuary near San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico.   Sue Westin and I were invited in march of 2011, along with a score of other artist and sponsors, to artistically document this  estuary and its surrounding area.   Author/wildlife art expert David J. Wagner L.L.C.  organized the trip to create the exhibition THE SEA OF CORTEZ, which successfully debuted at the Sonora-Arizona Desert Museum in march of 2013.

Seas of Cortez compositeSea of Cortez Field Studies        mixed media 28 x 40″          (composite of 17 studies)

I removed these original studies from my field journals and sketchbooks and arranged them under one frame.   Over half of the drawings are from a March 2011 Sonora trip.    The other studies are from an October follow-up trip with  Debbie and Nick Wilson which allowed me to see the birds in a different seasonal plumage.

For more information about and availability of this composite or other images in this post call me at 802 867-5565 

Field sketches like these, based on actual sightings, provide not only shape, posture, patterns and color references back in my studio but also serve as visual links to  put me back in touch with some of the more subtle aspects of the encounter such as the brine scented wind, how the warm colored sand reflected onto the bellies of the birds, even the sounds of the surf and the smell of the beach.  I consider memories like these critical to my creative process of transforming an actual encounter with nature into a visual aesthetic on canvas.   Note: – JP-  stands for – “Journal Page”

JCP sketching Elegant Terns- SW photo_Web

Sketching Elegant Terns in my field journal – Photo by Sue Westin

10-27-11 Elegant Terns 96

Terns into the wind                 5.5 x 8.5″                    ink JP              (see photo above)

Yellow-crowned Night Heron_Long-billed Curlew96

Pencil & Gouache            9 x 12″

Long-billed Curlew with crab96

Long-billed Curlew with crab                5.5 x 8.5″                  pencil JP

Elegant Terns resting96

Elegant Terns Resting                5.5 x 8.5″                  pencil  JP

Elegant & Royal Tern96

Elegant & Royal Terns – courtship rituals                9 x 12″                gouache on paper

Sketching spoonbills w- text 96

Roseate Spoonbill feeding96

Roseate Spoonbill feeding              5.5 x 8.5″             pencil JP

Yellow-footed Gull & P. Falcon

Yellow-footed Gull & Peregrine Falcon        9 x 12 ”                  gouache on board

10-28-11 E. Terns taking flight 96

Terns Tacking Flight         8.5 x 5.5″              pencil JP

10-26-11 Ruddy & Ring-necked Duck 96

Ruddy & Ring-necked Ducks         9 x 12″                acrylic on paper

Side-blotched Lizard mating96

Side-blotched Lizard mating              5.5 x 8.5″                pencil JP

Winter Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern 9 x 12″ acrylic

JCP field sketching terns - SW photoDSC_0106_2

Studying the tern at the mouth of the estuary

Journal pg. Peregrine sunset  10-25-11

Peregrine at Sunset                 5.5 x 8.5″                Journal Page(JP)

Journal pg. blue-legged crab  102511

Blue Crab Fishing               5.5 x 8.5″                   gouache & ink JP

102411 Royal, Elegant Terns 96

Tern Studies                         5.5″ x 8.5″                 gouache & ink JP

Royal Tern resting96

Royal Tern               5.5 x 8.5               gouache JP

Royal Terns bathing96

Bathing Terns                           5.5 x 8.5                    pencil JP

10-25-11 Royal Terns in flight 96

Royal Tern Flight                 5.5 x 8.5″              ink JP 

Oriole Studies com. 96

Hooded and Streak-backed Orioles studies

102611 B. PelicanSnowy Egret 96

Brown Pelican & Snowy Egret                  8.5 x 5.5″              smudged ink

10-27-11 Tern head shapes 96

Tern Head Studies Comparisons             5.5 x 8.5″                      ink

Journal pg. Blue-footed Booby diving 102511

Blue-footed Booby Diving              8.5 x 5.5″                 ink & gouache

Journal pg. Imm. Blue-footed Booby 10-25-11-96

Blue-footed Booby Study in Flight                  5.5 x 8.5″                             smudged ink

Caspian Tern-flight96

Caspian Tern Flight                        5.5 x 8.5 ”                  pencil & gouache

All Images and material in this blog Copyrighted by John C. Pitcher 2014 – 2015


Click on any image to enlarge

I think one of the reasons many artists don’t do a lot of location sketching is because they aren’t prepared to.  That is to say they don’t have pen and paper with them so when a sketching opportunity arises they can take advantage of it.

Waxwing sketching 7x5 96

 My vest or shirt pocket almost always carries  a small black Moleskine and a couple of pens in it.    If my shirt or coat doesn’t have the right size pockets to accommodate a small sketchbook I don’t wear them!   I don’t feel the need to draw everything I see but I know that if I have paper and pen I’m far more likely to practice!  I no longer worry if I can draw something or not, I just do it and if it doesn’t turn out – so what?  It’s all about practice and keeping your hand moving.  Regardless whether you’re a portrait artist, an architectural artist or landscape painter don’t restrict yourself to just drawing within your specialty.   I’m a professional wildlife artist, which means I draw and paint pictures of nature, but, I don’t feel I have to see a bird or find a flower before I can sketch!  That wasn’t always the case.  I use to put only nature stuff in my field journals and sketchbooks.   Now I draw or write what ever inspires me, and as a result,  I actually sketch more and draw better.  Here are some different ways that keep me sketching even when I’m not working in the field.

I see two basic ways to keep in practice.

1. Private Sketching

Private sketching is drawing at a place where you don’t have to worry about strangers watching you as you draw.  You can practice with less stress which means you can concentrate and do a better job of interpreting your subject.

TV, Friends & Family Sketches 96

Sketching  people around you, such as a spouse, room-mate or your kids is always good practice.  Don’t overlook the TV as a source for study.  The two characters on the left are from a local weather channel.  It is a challenge to sketch from TV,  as the camera jumps from person to person and sometimes you end up with a composite image.  That’s OK because your goal is to practice, not create a likeness.  The little French girl in my sketch is not French at all, she is my daughter Liz.  I actually drew this image from a photo, but included it as a reminder that kids are great subjects.  When sketching family I usually do simple contour drawings like the one of my son Chris with his first beard!

Pets & Things 96

If you don’t have kids, then sketch a spouse or a room-mate.   You don’t get off the hook that easy!  There are always pets, yours or your neighbors, or just look for things around the house that can keep your pen to the paper.

Phone Doodles comp.96


Now let’s assume you don’t live with some kind of family, there are no pets,  no TV and nothing lying around the house.  Well then just Doodle for practice.  I sometimes like to “phone doodle”.  I made these doodles years ago during long, long distance calls to my future wife (each sketch was one call).  I know,  judging from the detailed nature of the works one might wonder just how much I was paying attention to what she was saying.  I guess you’ll  never know,  I just liked hearing her voice!

2. Public Sketching

Now public sketching is where it gets a little tricky.  If you’re anything like me (and you should hope not) you will need a way to soften the public humiliation that comes with sketching or painting in public.   I will talk more about this in later posts but for now I have a couple of tips.  Start by drawing with other artists or in front of people who are “safe”.  Who is safe?   How about your Great-grandmother that sleeps all day and walks the halls all night – I think she is safe.   A safe person is anybody who will not criticize your efforts or make tongue-in-cheek remarks about keeping your day job!   You are looking for someone like my Mother, may she rest in peace, no matter how bad I drew she was always amazed at my unharnessed potential for greatness –  what a Mom!   I think one of the safest audiences found are kids.

Elizabeth Ridout & JC P

Like my niece, Elizabeth.  I used to drawn simple bird sketches for her and then give her the pen and let her draw one for me.  We both loved it and we grew in confidence as we encouraged each other with exclaims of wonder.  Try sketching at your kid’s preschool class or contact a local school and tell the art teacher (if there is one) that you would like to share some drawing skills with the students.  This may seem stressful at first but you will be working in a supportive environment.   Most art teachers I know welcome guest artists and always find ways to fit demonstrations into their curriculum .  I always ask if the school has a budget that supports guest instructors – they usually find a way to pay me a few bucks!

My next advise is to go to church!  Church is always a safe place, no one dares to say anything while your sketching.  If you stay for “coffee hour” people may ask you about it, and if you wish to share the sketch they are always polite with their comments…after all they’re in church!

JCP church drawing 96

Church and social functions are good places to practice sketching

I don’t go out looking for public places to draw, but there are certain places I like to sketch at and church is one of them.  Sometimes I take a 9 x 12 sketchbook to church but mostly I just draw in a small Moleskine book.   If I forget my sketchbook I draw on the back of a bulletin (I never draw in the hymnals).  I’ll sit in the pew and sketch during the sermon – don’t worry, the minister will just think you’re taking notes on his wonderful sermon.  BLOG WARNING: If you are sitting with your spouse, or significant other, you must not let them think your art is more important than being with them.  I suggest only one small sketch per sermon. Hold their hand gently, smile at them frequently, wink appropriately and you’ll be fine!

Church Sketches 96My sketches will range from simple line drawings to more shaded renderings.  I treat church drawings as simply exercises in seeing shapes, negative spaces and as practice in creating controlled compositions out of chaos.  It is not how good they are that matters, it’s that I’m exercising my creative muscle that counts!

Napkin sketches 96

If you don’t have paper use a napkin!

Another fun place to practice your eye-hand coordination is at a cafe or restaurant.  If you forget your sketchbook you can always make the ever popular “napkin drawing”.  In a cafe setting I do more or less blind contour drawings (drawing without looking much at your paper).  they’re simple, quick and you can do it without the people knowing you are sketching them.  Here again, likeness is not the goal.  You may not realize all the interesting faces around you until you start making contours of them.  Have fun!

All material in this blog is strictly copyrighted by John C. Pitcher 2020

WHITE OUT – Page Fright!

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What better way to start a blog on field sketching and painting than by talking about a nearly universal fear called ” page fright ” or what I call



I'm OK ! -cropped 96

I’m not afraid!

 When I stare at a blank white drawing pad or journal page it reminds me of the Midwest “white out” snow storms of my youth, and having lived in Alaska for twelve years I can remember snow conditions being so blinding that you almost come to a halt …you know you must proceed forward but it feels so scary!   If you’re a seasoned artist you have probably found ways to deal with this but if your just starting to draw nature from life, keep sketchbooks or start a nature journal, it might comfort you to know that any fear of a blank page you may have you do not face alone.  Artists and writers alike deal with this in some form or another.

JCP painting Avocets465

Facing that blank sheet – how do I start?

It’s different from “writer’s block”… when you just can’t think of what to write or paint.  Some artists say it’s the feeling of not wanting to ruin a good clean page in a sketchbook, an expensive sheet of watercolor paper or a page in a fancy empty book that causes such a stressful beginning.   When I first started sketching outdoors a combination of things caused “White Out”:  little experience in drawing moving objects, not being very familiar with my subjects (birds), and an unhealthy fear of failure as an artist.  My fears were fed by that little voice inside of me, whispering, ” you can’t draw very good and to try will only prove it!”  I also questioned if my subject was important enough to justify marking up a clean sheet of paper… “Little Voice” might say, “maybe you should draw on scrap paper; therefore, if it doesn’t turn out you’re not wasting another page with a silly little sketch”.  That approach may seem to make sense at first but it implies that I’m not good enough to use a “real” sheet of paper!  I needed to learn how to control such negative thoughts, not feed them.  Alternatively, start by using an inexpensive spiral bound sketchbook to just practice drawing in.  Think of this sketchbook as personal, you don’t have to show it to anyone.  A musician often practices just warm-up scales in addition to his repertoire of songs – but he never performs a “Warm-up Scale” Concert.  Do practice sketching different things, not just what you like best, all in the frame of mind that they are just “scales”, not to be judged too harshly.  I doubt I will ever rid myself completely of “White Out fears” but I have learned ways to control them … and I know practice is one of the best ways!

Chilkat eagles in flight72

Freedom at last – I don’t have to erase! (but I still want to)

With me, page fright is mostly psychological, rooted in my perceived skill and confidence levels.   How I view myself and what I think others may expect of me plays an even bigger role in trying to deal with this fear.  Over the course of my adult life, not so much my youth, I have been dealing with an inferiority complex about calling myself an artist.  That said, my main weakness is a lack of confidence in my drawing ability.  Having never gone to art school (or counseling) I had to find my own way to deal with this complex.  About thirty years ago I reasoned that if everyone else seems to think I’m an artist, than OK, I give up – I’m an artist!  Continuing that line of thought I reasoned that if I’m an artist than “wrong lines” were not mistakes after all, just “artistic expressions”!   Back then I mostly used a pencil for drawing, which allowed me to erase and erase and erase…often ending in a smudgy mess.  But with new insight, thinking every line I drew was artistic I no longer needed to erase. Right?  After all, why would I want to erase an artistic line?  From that time on I started drawing with an ink pen so as to take erasing out of the equation.  Sure it was scary, but by drawing lightly at first, when searching for a shape, then applying bolder lines to define the subject I surprised myself.  This technique was much like my pencil work, but now, without the added stress of erasing, it started to build my confidence in drawing.  Notice in the above Bald Eagle sketches how all the “mistakes” simply add gesture and movement to the work.  Also notice the more times I drew it the better it got!

S. Journals 96

Find the pen that works for you.

A ball point pen works well for this, but make sure it is “light-fast”.  A Bic Ballpoint Pen is not stable and fades with sunlight exposure.  I could not find a light-fast ball point pen so I now use various gel-ink pens – I will talk more about that in later posts.  The pen trick has helped build my confidence as an artist to the point where I now draw fearlessly with a pen or a pencil and erase only to benefit the sketch and not out of fear that someone might think I can’t draw.

 If the ever-expanding universe is God’s creative energy at work, as I believe it is, then we are part of that energy…free to let it guide our creative desires onto the canvas.   Take a creative act of faith and make those first marks!

All material in this blog is strictly copyrighted by John C. Pitcher 2020