Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Geese and Goslings

Canada Geese color pencils by Meera Rao

A pair of geese have been a presence in our neighborhood over the past few years. They arrive early spring and I am assuming it’s the same pair! They dine all around our and our  neighbor’s yards and leave droppings everywhere :) This year though one day in May, they came as a family with tiny four fur balls of goslings in their midst.  I still don’t know where their nest is.  They always have the goslings in the middle with at least one parent on very high alert!  The goslings are growing up fast and now are rounder and taller even though still have downy feather. They seem to be eating machines. I have watched them for a few weeks now and sadly there are only three goslings - never have found out what happened to the fourth one :( It is a lot of fun to watch them all eat, move and lounge around as a family. We usually postpone yard and garden work when they are out and about as they get very territorial - Besides, we don’t want to be chased by a goose ;) 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Don't Lift That Pencil!

Self Portrait single line graphite by Meera Rao 

This self portrait is my entry to our local art group @ctvisualarts's art challenge prompt for continuous line drawing.  This drawing with 6B pencil was probably my 10th attempt! I took a selfie, moved it to Procreate app and did line drawings on it a few times trying to figure out the movement of the line to draw the face.  Next I tried drawing on paper with a micron pen, then about three times with a brush pen before trying with the pencil and drawing very very slowly!!!I liked that with the 6B pencil I could go back over lines lightly or dark without lifting the pencil :) I backtracked several times. As I became comfortable with the shapes, I started taking liberties and simplifying the lines. There is something to be said to drawing the same thing several times to get it right. Sometimes though I wonder will that compromise spontaneity and freshness? In the end I am pretty satisfied with the results of my umpteenth try :)    

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Swallowtail Tales

Black Swallowtail Butterfly colorpencil By Meera Rao

In mid April, one day for garnishing my pasta I brought in a bunch of parsley from the garden. Being a Vegan, I always check to make sure nothing is crawling around among the leaves. This time I found a bunch of tiny black dots and couple of  little larger ovals with a white band in the middle! Looking at them using a magnifying glass confirmed right away my suspicions. Those were the Black Swallowtail caterpillars :) I had to rescue them. So the bunch of parsley went into a vase and I now had new pets to watch over! A new page idea for my 'covid diary' obviously.

It was amazing to watch the tiny little caterpillars with voracious appetite methodically chomping away the parsley leaves! I had not seen any butterflies in the yard yet so I researched and found out that the eggs may have been hibernating during the winter waiting for the right signal from mother nature. We had to constantly restock the parsley leaves to keep up with the chompers and clean all the droppings that seemed to rain down constantly! It took about ten days for the caterpillar to be full grown. 

Then one started getting restless and racing up and down the stems. My husband guessed it was looking for a sturdier twig and brought a couple from the garden. And he was right! Next, one of the caterpillars did a 'purge' and then settled on a twig.  First its hind end was attached to the twig and then it spun one single thread and attached itself like a telephone linesman! (or a coconut tree climber) We kept checking on it for many hours. While we were away for about an hour to go pick up the groceries we had ordered, the caterpillar discarded its outer skin to reveal the chrysalis shell. In the lower left box of the photo montage above, is the discarded skin(top left corner ) and 'the purge'

Unfortunately, one of the caterpillars fell victim to a spider - I guess we were not vigilant enough :(  It happened soon after the caterpillar became immobile after attaching itself to the stick.  The spider must have come in with the twigs and leaves ! I guess the natural cycle has many aspects.

Chrysalis about ten minutes before the butterfly emerged (hindsight!) 

Last night the chrysalis started turning dark in color.  It had been about twelve days and my research informed me that in the morning as the sunlight and warmth come about the butterfly may emerge. We both checked the chrysalis around six in the morning and again around 6:20 when I noticed beautiful dots and design. I took a photo and assumed it was not time yet thinking it had to turn darker. I went to make myself a cup of coffee. Next thing I knew, the butterfly was already out of the chrysalis and hanging next to a leaf. We took it outside and waited.  It took its own time warming up and stretching its wings. About three hours later it hopped to a flower close by and in no time at all flew off!  And I found out more blue in the wings makes it a female butterfly :) 

We have one more chrysalis indoors.  Hoping we will be able to see the butterfly emerge from this cocoon from the start !  Meanwhile we have to make sure there is plenty of parsley and dill growing in the garden. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Some See A Weed, Some See A Wish !

Dandilion graphite and color pencil sketches by Meera Rao 

What a wonderfully complex world is in there on our lawn! We have always let the yard stay 'green', not really bothered by the 'weeds' and have admired the tiny colorful flowers that show up voluntarily. They bring with them many birds, butterflies and bees. The lawn does get mowed but we avoid weed killers or insecticides. When our daughter was a little girl, she would ask her Dad not to mow down the pink clover flowers and he always obliged by mowing around them! Blowing the fluffy seed heads of the dandelion was always a favorite pastime for her too ! 

I look up the names of the different plants every so often and admire the flowers but had never really checked each flower and plant carefully until now.  I take my time with these nature journal pages now for what I have dubbed as 'covid diary' .  Each page covers days and months and I sketch and add pieces as time goes on.  It has been about 8 weeks now and I have had about that many pages going in various stages at the same time :) The page above has been assigned #4.  

Dandelion journal page by Meera Rao 

I learnt some interesting things about dandelions in my research:  "Dandelions tend to flower most abundantly in spring, but can re-flower in the fall, too. Flowers open in the morning and tend to close up at night. After a couple of days in flower they close and the seeds develop inside the closed head. The seeds, technically a fruit called a "cypselae" are produced on the flower stalk with each seed representing one of the florets in the flower head. Each has a pappus, a set of feathery bristles that act as a sail or parachute ensuring distribution of the seed by the wind. (What kid doesn't know that?) As the seeds mature the flower stalk elongates greatly, raising the fluffy seed head up into the breeze."

Ken Willis, head of horticulture at the U of Alberta Botanic Garden says "Dandelions were brought to North America from Europe and Asia as a vegetable, so they have many culinary uses. They are high in vitamins and the leaves are good in salads, the taproot can be ground into a coffee substitute and the flowers make wine. Grow it like lettuce and harvest it before the flowers bloom,"  

I am yet to try it in my coffee, wine or salad though!!!

Monday, May 4, 2020

Natural Instincts

Mallard journal page graphite and color pencil by Meera Rao 

Last month at one point there were three duck nests with eggs in our yard - one by the back door tucked under a boxwood, one at the end of driveway hidden by the iris plants and the third one under an azalea bush near the front entrance to the house. Before nesting the Mallard pairs walked around the yard scouting for an ideal spot.  They even tested out deck corners and planters. 

We routinely got spooked by the female duck who flew off from her hidden nest every time we stepped out the door.  We went out of the way to not walk by the driveway, walkway, anywhere near the nests. I did take a quick photo of the eggs once when the duck flew off the nest. We would check routinely to make sure the eggs were ok and the birds came back to incubate.  The females often left the nests - I am guessing to feed.  

Then one day I saw an egg rolled on to the driveway and there were no eggs nor duck anywhere near the nest by the irises. The nest under the azalea was empty couple of days later. I saw bits of egg shells and no sign of the female.  I was hoping the last one would make it but unfortunately a day later, we spied a healthy black rat snake slithering away from the nest up a tree close by :(  I also know that there are other egg devouring critters in the neighborhood as well !  

So instead of a duck and its brood, after all those weeks of waiting and watching, the final sketch on the journal page ended up that of a black snake!  I guess we have to respect nature and natural food cycles.  

Couple of days ago there was another pair looking for a nesting spot.  I don't know if they were successful. I am praying and hoping I will  see a brood in a few weeks like we have seen in the years past.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Osprey watching

Nature Journal page on Osprey graphite and color pencils by Meera Rao 

I think he will be to Rome
as is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
by sovereignty of nature 

~Shakespear  Act 4 scene 7 Coriolanus~

I love watching the ospreys that frequent our backyard.   They were already back from their winter migration by the time we returned on March 1 from our trip to India and London.

Their nest (called aeries) on a platform in the river with a 'no wake' sign looks like haphazardly arranged sticks. It has to be well constructed though as it has withstood many hurricanes and storms!  They have been coming back to the same spot for many years now. I do not know if these are the same birds. I read that they mate for life and their lifespan is anywhere from 7-20 years.  Only recently I read about how to tell apart a male and female but in practice though, I can't! Two days ago I saw one chick - I had been hearing the persistent  cries for food for a few days now. I wonder how many will hatch.  One of the parents always eats the fish (she/he catches by diving into the river- a wondrous feat to watch.) on the same branch of a pine tree in the yard. I see the fish fluttering for a few minutes under the sharp hooked talons as the bird tears into the head! A pair of fish crows always appear as soon the osprey catches the fish.  They follow the raptor to a nearby branch cawing and being a nuisance. The fish crows watch carefully for any scraps that fall to the ground and swoop down to dine. There is usually no trace of any leftovers anywhere near the tree :)  

sketches of osprey from my sketch book 

I watched and sketched the ospreys over the past two months before I committed to devote a page in my journal. I added a sketch as my idea for the page evolved. Meanwhile, I learned that it is the second most widely distributed raptor species after Peregrine falcon. All ospreys around the world are part of single species except Eastern Osprey which is native to Australia. These migratory birds are found everywhere except in Antarctica. The Genus name Pandion derives from mythical Greek King of Athens, Grandfather of Theseus, Pandion 11. The species name comes from ancient Greek haliaietos:  hali -sea aetos - eagle. 

I read that the sexes appear fairly similar, but the adult male can be distinguished from the female by its slimmer body and narrower wings. The breast band of the male is also weaker than that of the female, or is non-existent, and the underwing coverts of the male are more uniformly pale. The explanation said it is straightforward to determine the sex in a breeding pair, but harder with individual birds. I will have to watch them even more closely paying special attention to the markings to make some progress on id-ing them! I am looking forward to find out how many chicks hatch and seeing the family flying around in about a month or so :)

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Draw, Sketch, Or Illustrate!

Cat graphite by Meera Rao 

I signed myself up for an online Natural History Illustration course in early March when it became evident that we are all going to be sheltering in place and social distancing.  We had just returned from our trip to India and London. I was not motivated to finish my paintings, the travel sketches, scan or organize them. So this seemed like a good idea to push myself to do any art! I found doing detailed studies was really like meditation and has helped me cope with the new normal! 

The Cat in graphite was the final piece and I had to upload it by deadline to complete the course before I was fully done with it :) I have always been conflicted about details- I know that I like and also don't like details- a love/hate relationship. I start out tentatively feeling overwhelmed, then get fully immersed enjoying the process, being meticulous, before loosing steam half way through! So, I am glad I am almost finished with this cat. I will get back to it when I regain my patience so I won't ruin the drawing! I had planned a dark background but had to abandon it - broken electric eraser :(  I had stalked and photographed this neighborhood explorer a couple of years ago and I used those photos as a reference.

Finches, Carolina wrens and Osprey sketches by Meera Rao 

The field sketch homework assignments for the class made me keep my binoculars handy, watch the birds in my backyard and sketch them in action. Fortunately, the birds were not on quarantine and continued to visit our yard :) I see these birds everyday, but sketching for class made me really look and try to capture the features down correctly as it was a natural history illustration class where we had to get the shapes and attributes right :) 

The Osprey always eats the fish on the same pine tree branch. There are always couple of crows that usually bother the bird, eat the scraps that fall to the ground and linger around the till the Osprey has finished the meal. A fun drama to watch! The finches and the wrens never stay still - after watching them and studying them I resorted to taking a few still photos to check the accuracy of my sketches.  

Blue Bird sketches by  Meera Rao

The Blue Birds busily hop around the branches playing hide and seek. They don't let you come close. So for my sketches, I decided to watch videos of the birds at a feeder on continuous loop at the @wildbirdsunlimited twitter feed.  It was easier to pause the video every now and then to check the accuracy of my sketches. I do feel a lot more confident in sketching them now :) 

Horses sketchbook studies by  Meera Rao

Horses were a challenge for quick sketch studies. One of the strategies I honed doing all these drawings of moving creatures is to work on multiple sketches at the same time adding bits to each as I caught the animal/bird back in that pose. Some poses were never completed, some I struggled with proportions. But in the end, the sense of accomplishment was satisfying!   

Buttercup study  in sketchbook by Meera Rao

Dandelion study by Meera Rao 

Christmas cactus botanical study By Meera Rao

For botanical studies, I had plenty of buttercups, and Dandelions in the yard ! I pulled out whole plants and loved studying them up-close. I am in awe of their beauty and complexity. Sketching the Christmas cactus was an exciting challenge and I learned the subtleties of botanical 'illustration' vs sketching.

Landscape study By Meera Rao 

Nature journaling part of the course also included drawing landscapes and nature finds - in general paying a lot of attention to light, shadow, and details and specifics.  It is important to notice the surroundings and see big picture while observing the little details. 

Nature finds study sketches by Meera Rao 

I studied Botany and Zoology for my undergraduate degree many years ago and I enjoyed immersing myself once again in scientific recording of plants and animals for the past six weeks. Completing the Virginia Master Naturalist course last year has me noticing nature more intensely.  Now, I need to concentrate on making pleasing compositions as I fill my journals and sketchbooks. 

Monday, April 6, 2020


Trapped mixed media on wood panel 6"x6" By Meera Rao

A big thank you to Clint Mansell of Principle Gallery for selecting my painting Trapped to be included in the Capitol Hill Art League Open call show "Perspectives".  I am pleased to be one of 25 artists whose work was chosen. The show now of course will be on line :)  Capitol Hill Art League Perspectives Online show   has a video of the Juror's statement and digital copies of the all the selected works.  Seeing them like that gives a different perspective to the show! 

It has been a interesting few weeks when social distancing, sheltering in place and lockdown have become the new normal. The silver lining has been reading stories to my grandchildren couple of hours a day. These daily meetings are wonderful and remind me constantly that we have the heavy responsibility to make things right for them.

We have also moved our shopping online. I enrolled in an Natural History Illustration course -online of course! The backyard is a sanctuary as always and the flowers, buds and 'weeds' have been great specimens for my homework for the course! In-between I have been slowly sewing a few masks and making time to connect with friends and family all the while hoping and praying all this corona virus pandemic ends well and soon.

I guess it is a wake up call for all of us to look deeply inwards as well as outwards - globally, make some important changes for the better for all life on this fragile earth.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Sketching People

Muscians pencil by Meera Rao

I was not going to participate in the #OneWeek100People challenge this year.  But as the social media started filling up with artists sharing their sketches, I decided I will sketch as many as possible and now I have 46 sketches that I would not otherwise have  in my sketchbook :) 

I sketched these musicians watching/listening to an online concert from the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art.  I now know after sketching all these people that I need to work on drawing hands :)   

Sketches 27-29 By Meera Rao

Sketches 38-44 By Meera Rao

These sketches were mostly from the news on TV and newspaper.  They are all from different places and times and I enjoyed putting them together like this. The guy with the umbrella and the girl leaning is from my phone camera roll. 

Sketches 35-37  By Meera Rao

These are from my phone from when I was at a doctor's office a few months ago. I Had originally sketched them on my iphone but because of #shelteringinplace and #socialdistancing decided to sketch them again in my sketchbook :)

drummers #30-34  By Meera Rao 

These drummers were sketched from a video I took in November  during NYC Marathon. We were cheering my daughter as well as all the runners and these drummers were too!  

Sketches #21-26 By Meera Rao

These sketches were from the Newspaper and TV :) 

Sketches #11-15 by Meera Rao

Sketches #16-20 By Meera Rao 

These are from watching Basketball games before there were all cancelled! I had to refer to still photos to get them right. It became clear early on I need to study and practice hands :) 

Sketches 1-10 By Meera Rao 

I really had hopes of being able to do the 100 in 10 days at this rate when I did 10 sketches one the first day! But then life got in the way as I had suspected it would confirming my initial decision not to participate in the challenge! But I am really glad I did as many as I could. I am getting faster in getting the shapes down.  Next challenge is to get comfortable sketching hands and also capturing values.  

Monday, February 3, 2020

Winter Gift

Sugar Snap Pea Flower  Pen and color pencil by Meera Rao

Flowers like winter camellias that stay blooming through December and January, Johnny jump-ups, pansies,  and a few confused stray azaleas (global climate warming?) brought color to our yard this winter.  In the vegetable patch,  this was one of the first times my husband tried growing winter sugar snap peas and a few flowers bloomed on the plant ! The sight of  blue tinged delicate flowers and the curly tendrils meant pulling out my sketch book :) 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Sticker Folks

Sticker Folks. Stickers and ink by Meera Rao 

Those PLU stickers on our apples, bananas and avocados I recently learned are not environmentally friendly and gum up the works in composting and recycling facilities.  They are made of plastic or are vinyl coated, do not break down easily and are expensive to sort and remove.  So I started peeling them off produce in my kitchen,  stuffed them in an envelope and put it aside in my sketchbook and mulled over what I could do with them. This is my first round of experiments - turning them into some ‘Sticker Folks’.  Still thinking about my next group of stickers ......

Monday, January 13, 2020

Ancient Connections

Pelicans ink 5x8” by Meera Rao 

These birds fly, swoop, plunge dive, and skim the waters in groups, hunting for fish in the river.  They are never close enough or still enough for me to see all their beautiful details. Even their silhouettes have been a challenge to capture. I focused my binoculars and watched them for hours as I to tried to sketch their shapes. I finally had to shoot videos on my phone as they continued their activities. I resorted to  freeze frames as my reference to finally draw their outlines and silhouettes - that’s how I saw them anyway as dark shapes against the blue winter sky and water. 

The Brown Pelicans  (Pelicanus occidentalis Linnaeus) are considered the smallest of the 8 living species and have a wingspan of 6-7’. Pelicans are ancient birds with fossils going back to 30 million years! No wonder they have a long history and are hence steeped in mythology. 

Patient Pelican watercolor 6x7” by Meera Rao 

Patient Pelican is a painting from few years ago when I was able to see one up-close at the Virginia Living Museum.  Checking back on that blog post refreshed my memory of my experiments  painting grays. 

Then, I went surfing the web for this funny limerick on Pelican that I remembered from my school days ;) 

A wonderful bird is the pelican, 
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week 
But I’m damned if I see how the helican! 

~ Dixon Lanier Merritt~ 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Nature of Mind

Nature of Mind  mixed media on wood 15x11" by Meera Rao

nature of mind

swirling dancing racing thoughts
standing still lingering 
doubts playing hide and seek
 sometimes blue darkest black 
sunshine yellow with crimson temptations
colliding gliding
 thousand fleeting feelings 
holding tight letting go
white bright sparks 
that elusive clarity

~Meera Rao~

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