From turtle eggs to tangled trees … en plein air

Part of the rich experience of making art is the surprise of discovery. This really only happens when you are present. Like, when you are outside, en plein air, or have the object in your hand, that's when you may notice things that you are otherwise oblivious to.

For example, you may see that there is a difference in how a stem attaches to a tulip as opposed to a zinnia.

I am holding the back of a zinnia to show how the stem attaches to the bloom.
I am holding the back of a zinnia to show how the stem attaches to the bloom.

A tulip. Although you can't see exactly how it connects to the bloom, it's apparent there is not a cone of mini-leaves under the bloom as in the zinnia. In the tulip, it is simply a straw-shape "stuck" like a lollypop onto the bloom. Photo by Jane M. Mason (c)
A tulip. Although you can't see exactly how it connects to the bloom, it's apparent there is not a cone of mini-leaves under the bloom as in the zinnia. In the tulip, it is simply a straw-shape "stuck" like a lollypop onto the bloom. Photo by Jane M. Mason (c)

And, then you begin to think about how each stem attaches to each flower. That equals discovery. Those discoveries are what makes living on this earth so thrilling.

In my previous essay, "Clouds from Both Sides Now," we discussed clouds and how artists depict clouds. Clouds present a kaleidoscope of patterns and shapes to observe.

In this essay, let's take our gaze and move it from the sky, to the ground...to see what literally “grounds” us.

For example, one day I was gardening...

I was ready to plant some mums. I pushed my spade into the ground, took a shovelful of dirt and flipped it to the side. Inside my new hole, there was a little circle of maybe 6 shapes that looked like long, rectangular marshmallows. Marshmallows?!? (Below is not my photo, but it gives you an idea of the shapes I saw in my garden hole.)

Image from Daily Kos​
Image from Daily Kos

In my first thrust into the dirt, I had accidentally sliced into one of the “marshmallows” with my spade...

And the marshmallow started to split open...

...and a face with a glistening eye appeared.

It was a bit scary — but I persisted in observing.

Image from Welcome Wildlife​
Image from Welcome Wildlife​

Then, the egg broke farther along the split line and a dark brown surface started to morph from a shape wrapped around like a log, to a flatter shape.

It opened like an umbrella as it emerged from the egg shell. It took me a second to recognize what was happening: it was a turtle 🐢

This tiny, premature baby turtle wriggled from its shell. I picked it up realizing there was no way it could be put back into its little natural incubator. I covered the hole and the other eggs with the soil I had removed.

I felt both awe and sadness at that moment.

Apparently it typically takes a minimum of hours and sometimes days for a baby turtle to break through its shell. This is a necessary period of time for the turtle shell to reach its full width and to harden in preparation for life in the world. My inopportune crack in the egg shell created an unfortunate outcome for this tiny turtle.

I learned so much in that few minutes.

It was astonishing. I watched the turtle’s shell go from its soft damp rolled shape, to a flatter… well… turtle-shell-shape.

I’d never thought about it before, but of course it makes sense that the shape of the shell of a turtle has to fit within an egg-shell that can be pass through a female turtle.

How ingenious of the Creator to tuck the sharp edge of the turtle shell around the baby turtle’s body until it breaks it open.

Those few minutes left an indelible impression on me. As they may now on you. We don't know which minutes will be the magical, powerful ones. And, we don't know what we've missed by not spending time observing.

Turtles have been a part of art for thousands of years.

An Egyptian turtle form as a cosmetic palette from the 4th millennium BCE. From the collection of the Museé des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, France.
An Egyptian turtle form as a cosmetic palette from the 4th millennium BCE. From the collection of the Museé des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, France.

This charming piece of art, about 6,000 years old, served as a palette for the application of cosmetics.

Turtles were thought to ward off evil spirits and represented a healthy life.

They sometimes were worrisome and had a more sinister implication because there are very few animals that can live in both the water and on the ground. So, turtles carried a complicated significance in spiritual stories.

A more contemporary depiction of a turtle is this scene from the Bahamas.

Turtle Pond, watercolor painting, by WInslow Homer, from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, NY. 1898, 15" x 21.5".
Turtle Pond, watercolor painting, by Winslow Homer, from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, NY. 1898, 15" x 21.5".

This is a watercolor painting featuring a turtle by one of my favorite artists, Winslow Homer.

Although I'm not a fan of catching turtles, it shows Homer's mastery with the water and the reflected surfaces on the waves. It also shows the credible grimace of the muscular lad raising the heavy catch out of the water, while his associate appears relaxed and practiced while waiting for the turtle to be handed over.

My painting of the mama turtle that, I presume, laid the eggs I dug up...

I was quite familiar with the mama turtle who frequented my garden. She was a large box turtle. Maybe 12” long and 6” high to the top of her shell. I saw her a few times in my garden eating tomatoes (!!) and lumbering along between my rows of crops. She had a classic Eastern Box turtle shell.

Here is that mama turtle with a starring role in this painting. The painting also featured a piece of a quilt and peonies, a flower common to the Great Plains. (This painting is available on my website.)

Peony and Box Turtle by Jane M. Mason

Peony and Box Turtle, watercolor painting by Jane M. Mason (c)

Behind the Scene of a Plein Air painting session...

On another occasion, I set out to do some painting outside and reconnect with observing nature.

I had many times visited a certain area in a nearby park. It is one of dozens of park areas in the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County, Illinois, protect more than 70,000 acres in Cook County. Really! The areas feature rugged, unrefined forests with walking and biking paths. In addition there are shelters and all sorts of activities. A remarkable asset in the Chicago area.

Here is a photo of an area that caught my eye. I said to myself: That is awesome!! I have to paint it!

Original scene of fallen trees that I found so intriguing and evocative. Forest Preserves of Cook County. Photo by Jane M. Mason (c)

Original scene of fallen trees that I found so intriguing and evocative. Forest Preserves of Cook County. Photo by Jane M. Mason (c)

Here's my thinking: in the few months since I had seen this area in the fall, many trees had been blown down. The crisscross tangle of the scene attracted my attention. The dark shadows and the curves and angles would not let me take my eyes away from the scene.

I know... it may seem underwhelming to you. But, but's important to me, it’s what the it conjures up in my mind, not the scene itself.

Photo of my set-up to paint. My chair, my block of paper and my bag of paint, brushes, waters, and water to drink.

Photo of my set-up to paint. My chair, my block of paper and my bag of paint, brushes, waters, and water to drink.

This is my set-up for my plein air painting session. You can see the blue camp-chair I situated in the weeds. My bag with my supplies, like water and brushes to paint with, a spray bottle of water, watercolor pencils, cloths, sunglasses, a hat, and a bottle of water. I have my watercolor paper beside the chair.

Here is a link to a blog post on setting up for a plein air session: "Essential Tips for Painting Outside."​

<img src="https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/1358/1837/files/Blog-Turtle-11_600x600.jpg?v=1651436671" alt="Schmincke field kit" />

Here is the Schmincke field kit that I use for painting outside. It has more than enough pans of color — I usually use only 7 or 8 hues of paint. I like that it has plenty of surface area for mixing paint. I mist it with water from a spray bottle. Then, I am ready to go.

Schmincke field kit

Here are the hues I have mixed for: grasses, color of the ground, first layer of the fallen trees, and the value and hue for the sky. I consider this a "watery" mix of paint — more water than pigment. I compare it to weak iced tea in its visual density. This is a frequently used ratio of paint to water for the first layer of paint.

This photo shows the painting in progress. I have started with some watercolor pencils and some light applications of wet washes using the colors in the palette above. The overall painting looks quite blue in this photo because the light reflecting off my paper at this angle made it look bluer than it appeared in "real life."

Then, I got busy and forgot to take any more photos.

So… Ta-da…. here is the finished painting before it was framed and another with the painting framed (available on my website).

Winter TangleWinter Tangle

Why, you may ask, is the edge so crazy uneven?

First of all, if I add an outside border I (almost) always briskly freehand it. That makes it wonky.

In this particular case, I actually thought this would be a throw-away, reference sketch. I thought I might do 5 or 6 sketches at that session.

But I had so much fun and fell in love with this one, and finished it as a painting, The outside edge is part of its humble beginnings.

With my work, you know that if the outside line drawn around the perimeter is freehanded and wild, it's more likely to be an original by me. (So much for all of you who say you "can't even draw a straight line" — I don't even try. I am looking at my SUBJECT and not worrying about the preliminary frame around the image.)

So, where are we after gazing at the ground?

The point is that all this complexity of nature has a beauty and a story waiting to be observed, and, if one is so inclined, to be captured in art.

For a moment of respite, I gently suggest we take time to observe elements of nature. Take a deep breath of normalcy and discovery to recenter yourself.

A selection of my Greeting Cards featuring details from nature

  • ​Butterflies and Zinnias
    A card with a quote about love from Maya Angelou.

  • Spring Up North
    A card with an image of spring breaking through the trees. A single folded card with a message on the front and inside.

  • ​Mother is a Word for Love
    This is a greeting card created from my original watercolor painting featuring a rural scene with a farmhouse and a windy, cloudy sky.

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