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.

Plein Air at Big Meadows

A plein air sketch from Big Meadows at Shenandoah National Park shown small here because it’s a teaser. You’ll have to come to my show in December to see it well. This is a small piece – mat fits an 11 x 14 frame.

Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park is a big draw for area artists, appearing frequently in local exhibits. I’ve made several paintings there. Last month, I made another trek to see what I could see.


This October day is a spectacular color fest in the meadow. Blue skies with a drift of clouds, brilliant sunlight carves out the undulations in the landscape. Various species of grasses and low-growing plants wearing autumn are swiped across the expanse like a ready-made painting. The challenge is to capture those brilliant yellows and reds in a credible way. They look unnatural.

Parking in the lot at the edge of the meadow, I was able to set up within 50 yards of the car. I made myself comfortable in a director’s chair with side table. A backpack full of art supplies – my medium-sized kit – holds everything I might possibly need.

It’s a bit chilly and my daughter sits wrapped in a blanket reading a book while I quickly do two color sketches of the meadow. (“Are you done yet?”)

I use Schminck masking fluid for the milkweed pods. This is a new item for me and the control freak in me loves the tip of the dispenser. I’ll be posting about my small and medium-sized supply kits soon. (Large is my basement studio.) You can find links to specific art supplies I use on the resource page.

A plein air sketch from Big Meadows at Shenandoah National Park.


Later, one of those sketches was improved in the studio and is headed for a frame (upper right). The other has some good points and may be a reference for a finished piece later, but it is not deemed frame-worthy (shown at left). I like the color and variety of textures, but the values are too similar throughout.  I learned much by the study, so I’ll count it a success anyway.

Shenandoah River Revisited

The waters close to home have had my attention recently. I love the reflections, the movement, the way the trees hug and lean in. I took photos of this one in progress, Have a look at the slide show below to watch it develop.

Shenandoah in Gold-web


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I used a very limited palette for this watercolor. One red, one yellow, one blue and in a very few places some burnt sienna. It ends up being a complicated color scheme, though. The complementary yellow and purple might be the strongest. But there is also a triad of secondary colors (orange, green and purple) pulling the whole thing together. It’s all on a half sheet of Arches 300 lb. hot press watercolor paper. And it’s finished in time to hang in my show next week.

Last fall, I painted North River, upstream. This is from the same location, but looking downstream. That’s the North River directly in front of you. South River is coming in from the right (you can’t really see that in my painting – it’s behind the big yellow tree). What you see in the distance is the confluence of those two rivers as they become the South Fork of the Shenandoah. While the reference photos were taken on a evening in late fall, this painting was heavily influenced by a pre-dawn drive by the same spot when I saw the sun flooding the sky with color and backlight the scene before it had risen high enough to peek over the Blue Ridge. (Those distant mountains are in Shenandoah National Park.) I love what happens when I can take a memory and fuse it with a image.



SVWS Galleries

I’ve rejoined the Shenandoah Valley Watercolor Society. This is such a great group for beginners and professionals alike. I belonged years ago, but having small children in my life made that too difficult! Now, that season has passed and I’m enjoying the group again. One of the perks of being a Signature Member with the group is hanging pieces in its many exhibits around Harrisonburg.

My work is now on display at the Hardesty-Higgins House gift shop in downtown Harrisonburg. For this quarter, I have three pieces hanging there among others by Shenandoah Valley Watercolor Society members. Other galleries at which the SVWS is currently displaying include: Taste of Thai restaurant (I have one piece there), Oasis gallery (I had two pieces for last quarter, but nothing this rotation), and a member show at VMRC (I did not enter this time due to other time commitments). I am slowly getting involved again and hope to take advantage of all of these opportunities soon! I’m definitely enjoying the companionship of painters again.

Early Spring, Shenandoah Valley
Early Spring, Shenandoah Valley

Other news: I recently contracted to share a two-person show next year at the Rockfish Valley Community Center in Nellysford, Virginia. More about that as it gets closer!

Bearfence Mtn. Watercolor Demonstration

Since a trip to California some years ago, I have often thought someone should give Shenandoah National Park the same kind of glorification that Ansel Adams gave Yosemite. Although SNP is every bit as pretty, it lacks the massive scale. When I saw the cliff at Bearfence, I decided it was perfect to aggrandize. From the trail at the base of the cliffs, you get an impressive look at the face of it. I’m guessing it is at least 60 feet high – one website said 100 feet. One problem: there were so many trees at the base of the cliff, I couldn’t get a clear photo. But in a painting, I can simply remove them. Problem solved.

Beginning a new watercolor. Here's the composition sketched out with reference material to the right (color and value studies and a photo I took at the site.)Ready to start! I have a detailed drawing on the paper and a few areas masked with frisket. On the side of the board are a color study, a value study and a black and white photo for details(my own taken on location). I’ve also selected my palette. I like to work with a limited palette of about six or eight colors, but the choices change with each painting. I make as many decisions as possible before the paper gets wet. Then I can concentrate on just painting. Here, all the color being applied early on is transparent. Later, I’ll add details with more opaque earth tones.

Initial color lay for watercolor painting.This is fun! I’m just killing the white everywhere that isn’t a highlight. I carefully chose my palette, but I’m not painting ‘local color’ at this stage so it doesn’t matter which color I use at this point .

Adding darker color and details to the rocks of Bearfence Mountain. Watercolor by Kelli Hertzler.
Carving dimension out of the paper with shadows. I also put some sun and shade on the ridge in the background.

Finished watercolor, Bearfence Mountain, Shenandoah National Park by Kelli Hertzler. All rights reserved. 2014.Moving to the foreground, I’m shaping boulders and giving volume to the dead tree on the ground. Local colors are becoming dominant.

Finished watercolor, Bearfence Mountain, Shenandoah National Park by Kelli Hertzler. All rights reserved. 2014.Protective mask removed from trees. Texture and more shadows added. A hour or two of agonizing to decide if it is finished. Yes! The finished watercolor is 15″ x 21″. Completed in 2014.

I have taken some liberties with the color of the cliff here. My painting makes it look nearly white in the sun – it’s not. But truly, there are an amazing number of colors in the cliffs due to different types of rock. Read how a geologist sees the cliffs on If you now have a yearning to see it for yourself, read about the location and trail at