River Wanderings

A few floats on the river inspired a pair of paintings. These are small watercolors that capture the peaceful feeling of being on the water in the heat of summer.

July on South Fork, Shenandoah River, watercolor by Kelli Hertzler
July on South Fork, Shenandoah River
14″ x 16″ framed watercolor.

July on South Fork, Shenandoah River was awarded a prize in the Shenandoah Valley Watercolor Society 36th Annual Members’ Show at VMRC’s Park Gables Gallery. The show will be up through November 4, 2022 . The judge, Susan Rosen, had this to say about the piece: “Really good design leads the viewer way down this creek and then back around again to see the rocky detail in the foreground. Good use of the medium and value contrast. I can feel what it would be like to wade in this cold creek!” Her comment is so appropriate because when I took the reference photos for this painting, I was standing in the water enjoying its coolness on a hot day. Then I just sat right down in the flowing water.

My husband likes to fish the river so I got some nice photos of him to work from. This is a beautiful spot on the river (actually the same area as the painting above) – the kind of place I could revisit over and over again and find a new painting each time. The river drops a bit but the fall line is at an angle to the route of the river so it make several interesting spill areas and lots of little islands. Water level fluctuations dramatically change the scenery. This is a Promising Location because fish often feed at the bottom of a rapid.

Promising Location, watercolor by Kelli Hertzler
Promising Location
12″ x 20″ framed watercolor.

Field Journaling: A New Class

Click for larger view.

This month, I’m offering a new class: Field Journaling. While nature journals often reflect the inclinations of the journalist in response to the natural world (by incorporating poems, quotes, art, etc.), Field Journals narrow the focus to more of the qualitative and quantitative observations in an orderly way that invites additional inquiry. By noting patterns and connections, journalists can explore, ask great questions and devise ways to answer those questions. Whether you are a science major, citizen scientist, serious birder or curious person, Field Journaling is a time-honored way to hone your observation skills and record your personal discoveries.

In this class, we will jump right into the fun of exploration and notation. For inspiration, we will also look at some notable Field Journals that have been left by past biologists, archeologists and explorers in a variety of fields, as well as the methods they employed.

If you are interested in taking the class, here is the information for the first time it is being offered:

Click for larger view.

Field Journaling Workshop
Instructor, Kelli Hertzler
Wednesday March 30, 1:00 – 3:00 pm
Frances Plecker Education Center & EJC Arboretum in Harrisonburg, VA

Register here.

Please direct any questions about registration to the Arboretum. I am happy to answer questions about the content of the class.

Starting a Nature Journal

–OR– What to do with these kids while they are not in school?

All over the country, kids will be at home in the coming weeks. No new Christmas presents to keep them busy. Too cold for swimming. Sporting events have been canceled. What to do when they have had enough screeNJ_mother_sonn time? Start a new hobby/activity that will engage their minds, help them connect with nature and nature’s Creator, uses supplies you already have on hand and – timely bonus – does not need to involve gathering in large groups. One more great thing: parents and caregivers can do this with children and receive the same benefits.

Nature Journaling


Nature journaling is a simple, open-ended activity. We deliberately take time to notice the details and rhythms that happen around us every day in the physical world. Then we write, diagram, quantify or sketch what we notice. The goal is not to make a pretty picture (although sometimes that happens!); the goal is to learn what we don’t know. There are no set objectives. Each learner’s path is determined by the leading of their own curiosity. It is very much a choose-your-own-adventure. You might also include quotes or verses, rubbings or taping in actual objects like leaves.

By putting on paper what we observe, we can begin to understand the limit of our knowledge. For example: trying to draw a leaf but realizing you don’t know the pattern of the veins for this particular leaf. So you look again at the primary source and fill in the gaps of your knowledge.

Quick How-to

Nature journaling is best done outside, immersed in nature. Even from a porch or stoop. But it can also be done from a window seat. Or after a short walk outside while gathering items to study at the kitchen table.

nj_myhandsMaterials needed are minimal. A pencil and a notebook or loose paper are all that is necessary. If desired, you can add pens, colored pencils or a portable watercolor kit. Just make it all fit into a portable bag or container so you can tote it all to where ever your feet lead you.

Sharing your journaling

Journaling together or showing one another what you have done is a great way to connect with your family and encourage each other. Comments that you make to children (and adults) can change how they view their journaling. Do say:

  • That is a great observation!
  • I  never noticed ______ before. Your drawing/writing explains that well.
  • Tell me more about this.
  • What do you learn about _______ while journaling?
  • What questions do have about ______ now?
  • That reminds me of…
  • I like that you added a blue background because…
  • The measurements help me understand the scale.

sketchbook turtle

It isn’t wrong to tell someone their page is pretty, but that comment should be combined with more constructive statements from the “do say” list. Focusing on the finished product with a judgement of how good it is (or is not) takes the emphasis off of the process, and the process is really the important part of this activity. Also, remember that drawing and writing are skills that improve over time. Declaring that someone is a “good” artist or writer makes it seems that we belong in one category: good or bad. That’s just false. Our skill levels vary but we can all improve with practice. And nature journaling will give you that practice.

Learning more about Nature Journaling

I have several posts about nature journaling on this blog.  There are two helpful resources below. But don’t spend all day reading! The only wrong way to do nature journaling is to not start. Please come back and share your experiences in the comments or on my Facebook page.

This is very much a “get out there and do it” post. I would love to do a follow-up post with more information for those who are struggling with how to get started. What questions do you have?

Drawing Skills by Nature Journaling

KHertzler_NJ013Each autumn at the large homeschool co-operative where my children attended, I request to teach the Advanced Drawing class for fifth grade. Students at this age are ready for the challenge of accurately drawing what they see. Parents might be disappointed with the lack of refrigerator-worthy pieces as the focus is on skill work that will remain long after the class ends. I’ve tinkered a bit with the curriculum over the last ten or twelve years, always including elements of natural study. This year, I went full-scale Nature Journaling. And the results were fantastic!

KHertzler_NJ011I purchased an inexpensive journal for each of my eleven students. It has 8.5″ x 5.5″ pages of toothy drawing paper with a heavy craft paper cover. The students glued paper rulers to the edges of inside covers and personalized the outside with stamps or drawings. (A photo at the bottom of this post shows the inside cover with paper ruler.)

The class jumped into making intentional observations of the natural world and a record of those observations. Pretty pictures were not the goal. Each study needed to include a drawing based on what could be seen, some description with words, a number or measurement and basic metadata (i.e., date and also weather if we were outside). Most weeks, I would introduce a new item to observe, a new medium and/or a new art technique. We explored graded pencils, pen, watercolor pencils, and charcoal. We learned about proportions, overlapping, shading techniques and texture. But we focused on getting to know the plant or animal in front of us.


It is important to note that I never provide photos. These kids are working with three-dimensional objects. Their brains have to do the hard work of translating that into a drawing on a two-dimensional plane while taking in the smells, changing highlights, shadows and colors, prickly or smooth textures, insects or spiders crawling on their samples and bits falling off onto their work surface. It’s very tactile and the students quickly become immersed in their work.

The usual “I can’t draw” comments were not spoken. Each class typically has a few art-reluctant kids who need to be convinced that drawing is a communication skill that everyone can learn – like writing or math. But we avoided that obstacle altogether this time. We were too busy exploring, investigating, discovering. And as a byproduct, making some very fine drawings.


Now Showing: More Colors of the Blue Ridge

The Wilson Downtown Gallery in Harrisonburg, Virginia is currently hosting an exhibit of my paintings. This gallery participates in First Fridays and will have an Artist’s Reception on March 6 from 5 – 8 pm.  The show will stay up until the end of March. Located within Harrisonburg Homes just south of the square, the gallery (and realtors who make it possible) welcome viewers during regular business hours as well. See the website or Facebook event for more information on the location.

Title image for 2020 Exhibit by Kelli Hertzler. All rights reserved.
This montage was created by splicing four paintings together. I’ve been painting the same view of Shenandoah National Park as seen from my home in many seasons, weather and lighting situations.

Two new additions to the Colors of the Blue Ridge series are on the walls there, along with fourteen other pieces celebrating the natural landscape in the Shenandoah region.  (I’ve been working on this series for over a year now. Catch up with my previous posts: Colors of the Blue Ridge and Many Moods of the Mountains.) I will have notecards available featuring many of these scenes at the reception, as well as fine art prints of select paintings.

First Light on New Snow, 18
First Light on New Snow
18″ x 12″ framed watercolor.
Available. All rights reserved, Kelli Hertzler.

Last Light. 18" x 12" framed watercolor. Available. All rights reserved, Kelli Hertzler.
Last Light
18″ x 12″ framed watercolor.
Available. All rights reserved, Kelli Hertzler.

One more first for this show: I included three plein aire oil painting studies.  These were painted in 2018 and 2019. Because oil paintings need to cure for 6-12 months before being varnished, this is the first time I have displayed them.

At the February reception, I was thrilled to talk with friends, family and lots of local art lovers. I’d love to see you there on March 6!

What’s Newt?

I’m working on an exciting new project! A friend has asked me to illustrate a book she has written. I don’t want to give too much away before it is published, but I will say that I need to learn to render Eastern Newts well. This little critter is a favorite of mine. It has been spotted frequently on our family vacations because in our homeschooling years, “vacation rental” was synonymous with “Virginia state park cabin” and those were tucked into protected forests.

The Eastern Newt is called a Red Eft while in its terrestrial stage, shown here. The brilliant color warns predators of toxins in the skin. Photo by Kelli Hertzler.

Salamander Safari

I contacted James Madison University biology professor William Flint, who researches salamanders, to ask if there were any opportunities coming up for the author and me to learn more. He invited us to tag along on a nighttime field trip with students to an area in the George Washington National Forest that has multiple ponds. He assured me newts would be there and maybe some other things, too. There was plenty to see! The salamanders had begun their migration into the ponds. The amphibian/reptile species list for the night included Spotted Salamander, Redbacked Salamander, Cricket Frog, Snapping Turtle and more newts than you could shake a stick at.  Between ponds, I got to ask the experts questions about newts. I hope to go back later this year to look for larvae.

Adding to the adventure, my friend and I managed to get lost in the national forest trying to find the rendezvous point. We were blessed by a young man who went out of his way late at night to help us find the ponds after we asked him for directions. And I left my backpack (with car key inside) at the last pond, requiring another trek into the forest to find it. (Sorry, Billy! You were a good guide to take us back there!) It was past midnight by the time we made it back to our Burg. By then, we were both really hungry so we came back to my house and devoured pork and apples that had been slow cooking in a Crock Pot all day.

Learning about the Eastern Newt

These little guys have such a wide geographical range and are so adaptable to environmental pressures, it is difficult to describe their life cycle. Accounts I read based on small populations contradict each other to the point that I have needed to reread to verify the authors are observing the same species. The basic life plan is egg> aquatic larva> terrestrial eft> aquatic adult. But they pick and choose their way through that flow chart like a choose-your-own-adventure. Skipping stages, bouncing back and forth between eft and adult, keeping their gills from the larval stage while reproducing as adults. Rebels who thumbed their little noses at the neat diagrams in the salamander science book.

Quick nature journal sketches by flashlight. Color added later.

If I have whet your appetite to learn more about this tiny wonder, do a search for the scientific name:  Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens.  This is the subspecies that is found in my neck of the woods. It’s also call the Red Spotted Newt and the Red Eft, which refers specifically to the terrestrial stage.

It’s all fascinating stuff for the citizen scientist in me. But the artist side of me loves that they have striking colors and patterns, tiny little limbs that don’t seem like they should work and eyes that appear almost expressive. They are ADORABLE little critters in every stage of development and a joy to draw.

While the book really doesn’t require in-depth scientific information, I am enjoying a thorough study. I think the illustrations will benefit in unexpected ways if I have a good understanding of the newt’s life cycle, development and habitat.
These study pages were done from photo references; some of which are my own photos.

My work area. Where watercolor and microscopes go together like peas and carrots. The quart container, filled at one of the ponds we visited, contains moss, dead leaves and a whole world of tiny things waiting to be discovered.

Some of the discoveries the scope brings to light. I don’t even know what most of this is! (That’s the best part.) I call the process Micro-Nature Journaling. 

Back to Nature Journaling

Adding details onto today's journal page.
Adding details onto today’s journal page.

Autumn is such a great time to nature journal! Everything is changing, color is exploding and the long winter is looming just ahead. What a great time to soak in the last warm rays of the season by taking a walk with a few art supplies!

KHertzler_fallcolor2019Today, I was able to do that at a trail I haunt frequently because it is so close to home. The clouds broke while I was driving there and the weather could not have been more perfect. The drive in was golden from all the hickory trees growing in the forest near the entrance. Once a the parking area, though, I saw only brown. At first. Then, like when your eyes adjust to the dark, my eyes adjusted to the colors all around me. Sure, there were some hickories, but also yellow poplars, red oaks, maples that could show red, yellow or green – even all three colors on a single leaf. There was plenty of green around, too. Pines up high and a variety of grasses, vines, ferns and shrubs down low.

KHertzler_lakeanna2019Last weekend, I had a wonderful and rare opportunity to go camping with several women from my church. We took kayaks and lots of amazing food. The last morning we were there, it rained continually. We sat under the canopy with a hot breakfast and great conversation. I didn’t find much time for journaling, but I did manage this page. I really like including a small landscape on my journal pages to put my observations in the correct habitat and location. The birds were seen while kayaking and I didn’t take my journal on the water, so I had to draw the birds from memory.

I will be teaching a Nature Journaling class coming up next week (November 6, 2019) at the JMU arboretum. Come join the fun!

Colors of the Blue Ridge

Swan family
12″ x 18″ framed watercolor.

Tonight, I’ll be showing my Colors of the Blue Ridge series for the first time (along with several other pieces) at a gorgeous location, Joshua Wilton House in Harrisonburg.  My very first art sale happened there more than twenty years ago while showing with a group. What an encouragement that sale was!

This time I show at JWH, I’ll have several dining rooms in which to display my art. Local photographer Erin Harrigan will have the front two rooms of the house. To prepare for the reception, I’ve made giclee prints and notecards to offer in addition to original pieces.

For the past six months, I’ve been working in a series exploring the view I have to the South from my home. More than twenty years of observing these mountains of the Shenandoah National Park and every day brings new sights. Two of my pieces from this series are below.

If you are local to Harrisonburg, you can see these and others at the Joshua Wilton House for the months of July, August and September 2019. I’ll be at a Meet the Artist event this Friday, July 5 from 4-5 pm. Light refreshments are provided and wine is available for $5 per glass. Stop in to say hello before you head into Harrisonburg for First Friday!

Scattered Showers
Scattered Showers
12″ x 18″ framed watercolor.

Thunderhead Over SNP
12″ x 18″ framed watercolor.


Many Moods of the Mountains

It still takes my breath away. For more than twenty years, I have had the pleasure of living in view of the Shenandoah National Park. The peaks and ridges dominate my view to the southeast.

Collection of mountain studies by artist Kelli Hertzler. All rights reserved.
Collection of mountain studies.

The Blue Ridge is the name of this chain mountains that stretch northeast to southwest through the length of Virginia. Granted, blue is the color it appears most often. But I have seen those mountains be every color of the rainbow and then some. Verdant green on rare summer days when the humidity drops. Chartreuse creeping up from the foothills in the spring. Subtle red, blazing orange and even golden in the setting sun of autumn. Shades of magenta when the summer sunrise sideswipes it from the east. Violet as the morning sun comes up from behind in the colder months.  Brown and grey in the doldrums of winter, or suddenly snow-covered in dazzling white with every tree defined in wet black.  And blue. Deep cobalt in the heat of summer when the air is thick – deepest in the hollows. Dark, brooding blue as the heavy thunderclouds dump untold tons of rain onto her slopes. Thin periwinkle blue fading more with each distant ridge into the sky on a cold, overcast day.  Royal blue, watery blue, steel blue.

Golden Glow, watercolor by Kelli Hertzler. All rights reserved. #colorsoftheblueridge
Evening sun hitting the blue ridge in the peak of autumn colors gives off a golden glow.

The light can flatten or sculpt the hills. Back-lighting in the early morning or scant light on a overcast day creates the illusion that the hills are cut out of paper or air-brushed onto a wall. But their volume is revealed in strong evening sunlight. Shadows offer contrast in value and color. Orange on the light side, purple on the dark. Or green on the light side, blue on the dark.

Photo of cumulonimbus above the park.

Weather patterns add another dimension. Small, puffy clouds can leave a mottled shadow pattern on the undulating surface.  We might have clear skies above our valley, but on the other side of the park a storm rages with thunderheads dwarfing the tallest peaks. Fog can blanket the base or clouds might obscure the peaks. Sometimes a low blanket of clouds rolls over the whole range, creeping over the ridges and sinking into the lowest parts.

Photo of misty clouds obscuring the park.

It goes on and on like this. My twenty years of observation are a drop in the bucket to the millennia that God has been creating new works of art here on a constant basis. The ever changing kaleidoscope defies any one description. Thus, a series of paintings to explore the many moods of the mountains.

When the Morning Falls, watercolor by Kelli Hertzler. All rights reserved. #colorsoftheblueridge
In winter, the sun comes up behind the mountains. Spectacular sunrises happen frequently.


The view I have is directly into Big Run Portal and just to the south, Madison Run.  Rocky Mount, Rocky Mountain, Rocky Top, Brown Mountain, Austin Mountain, Furnace Mountain and Treyfoot Mountain are a few that can be seen frequently in this series. I’ve hiked in these areas, but it is still hard to identify the peaks without a topo map. And some days I am sure a new hill has sprouted up that I’ve never noticed before.

Follow me on Facebook to keep up with the latest #colorsoftheblueridge.

Wooded Walks: A New Exhibit

Tonight is First Fridays AND the Christmas Parade in Downtown Harrisonburg. A multitude of businesses along the parade route will offer toasty-warm interiors brimming with local art, snacks and probably people you know. If you join the festivities (I hope you do!), please stop into Hess Financial at 380 East Market Street for an Artists Reception from 5-8 pm where I will be with ten pieces of my own art. It is a couple blocks off of the parade route and there is free parking behind the building.

All pieces on display relate to the outdoors. Seven are watercolor and 3 are colored pencil drawings on toned paper.


The exhibit will stay through the end of the January 2019. After the opening night, you can stop into Hess Financial during business hours to view the show. There is a Facebook event page for the opening.

***I also have three pieces in Rocktown Gallery at Hardesty Higgins House with other members of the Shenandoah Valley Watercolor Society. That one is right on the parade route!