The watercolors and pen and ink drawings I produce to illustrate my published books and other written work are of a more specifically natural-history mode and mood. In most cases they include specific plants or other details and ambient settings that relate directly to the turtles’ habitats and thereby their ecology.
As I look over the art work I have done for my five books, one of my most personally satisfying realizations is that with but three or four pieces out of the entire collection, all watercolors and drawings represent something I have seen myself over the course of my swampwalking. Some I observed many times over, others only once in over five decades. Occasionally I make very rough field sketches.
When I am in the swamps or along streams and rivers my focus is on my searching for turtles and observing and analyzing, their surroundings. I take photos now and then, and more frequently write background descriptions and details in my swamp notebooks, which I later use in my art and writing, ninety per cent or more of which is done during the time of the turtles’ hibernating – my “indoor season”. The weather conditions and at times biting-insect status of the habitats I wander are rarely conducive to prolonged drawing sessions; and my focus is certainly more on the natural landscape through I am ever-so-slowly moving, in seeing and documenting what I come upon. And I am always keenly bent on finding turtles.
My art, which I do at my indoor drawing and writing tables, comes from sketchbooks in which I have drawn from natural specimens, from turtles I bring home for a day, plants I collect, a red-winged blackbird unfortunately killed when it flew into a window, and so on; plus photos and the occasional field sketches, and my memory and imagination.
A number of spotted turtles in the same place at the same time is more likely to be seen during their spring migrations from overwintering niches and in their breeding pools (often these are vernal pools) than in autumn. But as the red maples in swamps begin to turn to their brilliant autumn colors and fall into streams and wetlands through which these turtles make migrations back to where they will spend the winter they may encounter one another again, as they often hibernate communally. There may even be some autumn courtship and mating. On occasion I have seen them together even in October.
I have found that in the more northern parts of their range female spotted turtles often begin their nest searches in the late afternoon into evening, eventually deciding on a site in which to dig their nest chambers and deposit their eggs during the night. The final phases of filling-in and covering their nests, typically with artful weavings of grass and leaves and such to serve as camouflage, may take until after sunrise and sometimes as late as nine or ten in the morning. I write about this elaborate annual process in THE YEAR OF THE TURTLE and in the final chapter, “Ariadne Nesting”, of SELF-PORTRAIT WITH TURTLES.
This watercolor depicts one of my favorite – and frequent – turtle sightings: juvenile painted turtles, light enough that two may bask on the same lily pad, taking the full summer sun, surrounded by white water lilies. They commonly turn the bottoms of their feet to the sun, a habit which could perhaps be taken for a form of sun worship but is an aspect of an important physiological process, likely all the more necessary for growing turtles.
This painting, done in pencil and watercolor, is taken from a page in my Swamp Sketchbook. I did many pencil and a number of watercolor studies from life in this sketchbook, most of them done between 1987 and 1990 as I worked on YEAR OF THE TURTLE. These pages feature studies ranging from drawings of feet or turtle shell details to fully represented animals, which served as reference for illustrations produced for my published work. This full-color rendition, for example, served as a model for my painting of the young painted turtle sunning himself on a lily pad.
Another of the original watercolors that I painted for my first book, THE YEAR OF THE TURTLE. Of all of the observations of turtles that I have had since that literally life-changing moment, my finding of the first turtle when I was eight years old (a spotted turtle; I write about that pivotal experience in “TURTLE” and in my SELF-PORTRAIT WITH TURTLES), some of the most compelling, and certainly most fortunate, have been seeing the first hatchling emerge from his nest.. This can occur from mid August through early October, depending on the species and the nature of the season over the long incubation period (roughly 70 – 120 days). In the case of hatchling painted turtles, nest emergence most often does not occur until the following spring. In my talks on turtle ecology, when I show a slide of a hatchling wood turtle just stepping from the exit hole of his nest, one foot reaching forward, I quote favorite Chinese proverb: “A great journey begins with a single step”. This journey could be but for a few feet and a matter of minutes, with the tiny (little over an inch shell-length) turtle being taken by a predator, or could continue for well over half a century – up to 110 years in the case of a female spotted turtle.
Watercolor for YEAR OF THE TURTLE. In high summer, during July and August, when the seasonal wetlands of the spotted turtles are too shallow, or devoid of standing water, and the turtles are hidden away, I spend most of my time in wood turtle habitats. Although they are predominantly terrestrial during this phase of their annual activity cycles, they do return to streams and rivers from time to time. They have a tendency to sequester themselves in sunken branch tangles, almost always well-camouflaged. Walking along brooks and streams, or wading low-water rivers, I look for them in such aquatic niches.
I did this almost trompe l’oeill watercolor for TROUT REFLECTIONS. After completing “…TURTLE” I was strongly inclined to set aside my proposal for a book featuring the native brook trout and go on to the book that eventually became SWAMPWALKER’S JOURNAL. My good friend Paul Bofinger, and avid fisherman much-beloved of the native trout, kept telling me, “You’ve got to do the trout book!” His support was unflagging as I took that project on. He brought me a beautifully marked native brook trout in a cooled, aerated aquarium so that I could have a live model to work from (quite a different matter from bringing home a turtle for a session of drawing and watercolor). And he loaned me one of his classic tied-fly wallets to serve as a model for this painting.
This painting for YEAR OF THE TURTLE is based on numerous close-at-hand observations of the extremely active and rather elaborate courtship chase of the spotted turtle. The males relentlessly pursue the females, sometimes two or more males after a single female, following every twist and turn of her flight, even up into shrubs emerging from their pools. I describe this pursuit and ceremonial flight in “…TURTLE”.
At times in my turtle art I turn from the naturalistic to the more stylized, or imagined. These works often show my affinity with Oriental painting, especially Japanese screen paintings, which have influenced many facets of my work over the years. This pencil-and-watercolor piece is done on a paper that I have stamped with gold block print ink, using rectangles I have cut from a medium used in stamp art to produce a ground, or something of an imprimatura.
This watercolor is derived from a pen and ink drawing I did for TROUT REFLECTIONS. Here I have introduced via watercolor the jewel-like markings of the native brook trout, all the more vibrant, resplendent even, on the males in their breeding coloration in late October and November.
From the Woman’s Space Series