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. 

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.

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Plein Air Learning

Plein air painting at Chimney Rock nearing completion.

I love both painting and being outside, so painting en plein air should be right up my alley, right? It’s actually a bit of a stretch. I tend to do an enormous amount of planning before beginning a watercolor. The spontaneity of plein air with oil paint is a refreshing change of pace.

Another liberating factor to this adventure is that I’ve decided results don’t matter. (Much like nature journaling: the process is more important than the final result.) My goal is to become reacquainted with oil painting and if a few successful paintings happen by accident, that’s okay, too. (I ended up being pretty happy with most!)

Today, I found myself with unscheduled hours to myself after dropping my daughter off in a beautiful mountainous area near the Virginia/West Virginia border. I had many astounding mountain views to choose from on the drive back, but this one won out due to the subject matter, a great parking spot and a safe location to put up my easel off of the road. Chimney Rock is a striking geological formation and was well lit in the autumn sun. (A man that stopped by to chat informed me that it is the most photographed location in Rockingham County.)

The two photos above show the beginning of the painting session and the end (about two hours later). Shifting values and shadows are part of the plein air challenge. I included just a portion of the VFW building to the right because it helps to show scale and locals know the VFW is there! It seemed a lie to leave it out, although I did omit several structures.

Chimney Rock
Oil, 11 x 14

My plein air education so far has included workshops with Stephen Dougherty at Rockfish Gap Community Center and Kevin Adams at Shenandoah National Park. Here are a few other attempts:

Big Meadows_1

Big thanks to my mom! She loaned to me the red easel that appears in all of these photos. She also gave me cartons of canvases, countless tubes of paint, brushes and mediums. And encouragement. Thanks, Mom!

October at Big Meadows II by Kelli Hertzler. All rights reserved. 11" x 14" oil. Available.
October at Big Meadows II
11″ x 14″ oil.

Pond Journal: Frogs and More

Our pond has quickly become my “happy place.” I steal away several times a day, when possible, to see what is happening above and beneath the surface of the water. It’s rare that I don’t observe something new or changing. My daughter claims the pond is my favorite child. Maybe just some days…

The lay of the land. And water.

This spring, I decided to start a journal dedicated to observations at this one spot in the world that facinates me so. I choose a large journal (8.5″ x 11″) that was a gift from a friend. I would not hike or travel with something so big and it sat empty for more than a year until I found this perfect use for it. I have a case of pencils and pens with it (a freebie from the Shenandoah Natural Journaling Club’s Christmas supply swap) and keep those handy for quick trips out to the pondside table. I can carry art supplies in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Bliss.

My wonderful husband spent a day and a half digging our pond. It’s 10 by 15 feet and averages 2 feet deep. And the pond wasn’t his idea. This is what love looks like!

My husband and I started digging the pond Memorial Day weekend 2016. (He did 90% of the digging. Love you, Tim!) The night he finished, it rained buckets. Next morning, a frog was in the puddle at the bottom of the pond. Who told the frog? We soon had several frogs move in, then frog eggs and very shortly after, tiny tadpoles. Spring 2018, we had  enormous tadpoles (I counted 47 all visible at one time. Biblical plague coming soon?). Each tadpole is about four inches long. I learned that some species can remain tadpoles for two years. (My best guess is that these are Green Frogs.) In the last few weeks, they have been putting on legs and climbing out of the water. What a miracle to watch!

I was curious about those leaf packages floating the pond and investigated! This deserves a post by itself. Fascinating stuff!
Pickerel Rush, damselfly and multiple dragonflies, and of course the tadpoles.
The developing tadpoles are getting a lot of my attention. But this iris in the bog could not be ignored!
A very wordy post describing an encounter with a Twelve-spotted Skimmer female. And frogs.
A grown-up frog (this one migrated, not a tadpole of ours.). Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure now that it is a green frog and not a pickerel, so the eraser must get to work. And our white lily is starting the show with a bang – three blooms at once.

Scientists Can Draw, Too!

I’ve had a several wonderful opportunities to teach this winter. This post focuses on the one furthest from home.

In February, Virginia Working Landscapes at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal invited me to teach a Nature Journaling workshop for their volunteer Citizen Scientists. What a fantastic group of people! I thoroughly enjoyed the evening sharing journaling tips and techniques with people who already had a vast body of nature knowledge. Several people who said they could not draw made wonderful observational sketches – surprising themselves! One of the great things about studying nature is that we focus on observing and the drawing takes care of itself.

Kelli Hertzler teaching Nature Journaling.
Teaching Nature Journaling to Virginia Working Landscape’s volunteer Citizen Scientists at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Photo credit: Charlotte Lorick of Virginia Working Landscapes.

Nature study has always been part of my love of art. “Nature Journaling” is a term I first heard when homeschooling my children and it immediately resonated with me as a wonderful, immersive whole-brain learning activity. My Fine Art degree is coupled with a minor in Biology, so I feel that I am making a complete circle by teaching citizen scientists to sketch their observations.

This Smithsonian facility keeps a low profile. Its work focuses on research of endangered and threatened species around the globe. There are a number of exotic species on site, but the public is only allowed on the campus one weekend per year, in October, and none of the animals are on display. I took my children last fall and was amazed at the work that goes on there and also that we were talking with the actual researchers about the work they do. I whole-heartedly recommend this field trip for both adults and children. Best trivia learned for the day: animals in captivity have different colors of glitter added to their food so when the feces is analyzed, scientists can identify the individual  from whom it originated.

Watercolor is Like a Cat

With enough training, most art media will fall into line, obey and express the will of the artist much like you can expect a well-trained dog to respond to you in obedient, predictable ways. Watercolor is, well, not like that. And that is its attraction.

The watercolor artist soon learns that he or she must build a relationship with the water. The water has its own behaviors that in time we can generally but not precisely predict. Yet we can learn its tendencies and quirks. We can coax, stroke and guide while allowing the water the freedom to flow.

Disapproving cat.
Cat disapproves of my developing watercolor.

Cat “owners” may recognize this kind of relationship. We respect and appreciate the qualities of our feline friends. Each cat has a mind of its own, a unique personality and absolutely no instinct to obey a superior or assimilate into a pack. Those who love cats value their independence and the gift of affection freely given in the form of a headbutt to the ankle, loud purr or spontaneous lap sit. We do not like, but sort of understand, the cat’s need to push things off shelves at 3 am. We adore the opportunity to stroke the soft fur, waggle the red laser dot and lure the kitty into playtime. It’s an interaction that may include impossibly large pupils, spectacular jumps, lightning fast paw grabs and spring-loaded pounces. Or, honestly, a bored cat that won’t even LOOK at the feather wiggling on a string. You just don’t know until you try. But those failed attempts at connecting make the successes so much sweeter.

So let’s take those lessons taught by our cats and apply them watercolor painting.

Each combination of paint, paper and water will create something unique. The more the artist understands the properties of the materials chosen, the more he will be able to guide the finished result, but it is unwise and undesirable to be in control of everything. Think cat on a leash. No one wants to see that.

Allow water to do its thing. Sometimes it will create a happy accident that you never would have planned. Follow its lead, be inspired and make the most of it. Sometimes, you will have a disaster you will not know how to remedy. Don’t get too invested. Remind yourself that your watercolor painting is just a piece of paper with some marks on it. Learn what you can from the experience and move on. Kinda like parallel scratches on the back of your hand.

Enjoy the act of painting. It is just plain fun to charge wet paper with a pigment-laden brush and watch the magic happen. Let your brush jump, dart and pounce, or smooth in a graded wash. Give yourself permission to purr a little.

Do not push the hairs of your brush in the wrong direction.

Watercolor is a medium that you will not master. No one calls themselves a Watercolor Master – that is a label applied by others and I suspect the artist called such will be laughing on the inside as much as a cat companion chuckles at the idea of owning a cat. It just doesn’t work that way. I’ve read about many aged watercolorists who say the enduring attraction of watercolor is that the learning never stops. Dogs have masters; cats have staff. Embrace your role.

Cat “helps” me with my drawing.

Now smooth your hair into place and keep painting. Right after you lift the cat off the piece of paper you need to use. (How do they know?)

Do you have a cat for a studio companion? Leave a comment about what you have learned about painting (or general life lessons) from your feline.

Behind the Scenes: Pre-show Studio

I’m one of those artists with a big stack of unframed pieces. With less than three weeks until I hang the show, my studio has become a frame shop.

My studio overrun by framing supplies.

This show will feature nearly 30 watercolors and drawings. About half of those have never been hung before and are in need of a custom mat, backing, glass, frame and hanging hardware. I’ve done all the math (measuring each piece, calculating the mat borders and the needed frame size). Now, I am cutting mats and backing boards while waiting for the frame order to arrive. Glass is ready to be picked up at a local store.

Kitty in supervising mode.

Next week is assembly week. The focus will be on keeping everything extraordinary clean so as to have no fingerprints or cat hair under the glass. Quite a chore when you consider my studio mate (shown at right).

The Artists’ Reception is Saturday, August 12 from 3:30 – 5:00 at the Rockfish Valley Community Center, 190 Rockfish School Lane, Afton, VA. The exhibit hall is the old gymnasium and it’s HUGE. I’ll have one wall. Amy Shawley will be on the opposite wall. She’s a fantastic, energetic artist from the Piedmont who is known for her acrylic bird paintings. The show is up for the month of August -we hang the pieces on the 4th – but I don’t yet know the official dates of opening and closing.

There’s a Facebook event post for this reception. You can click Going or Interested to get reminders.