(Excerpt from artist journal March 1, 2005)
It’s not really clear to me what brings the turtles up from under the mud of the river bottom for the first time. Is it temperature? Is it time? Is it light? Although it’s too early in the season to expect to see a basking turtle, the temptation of the bright sun takes me to the river…perhaps the turtles have similar temptations. The recent ice storm has changed the river bank dramatically by dropping enormous limbs across the path and into the water. The temperature, at near 40 degrees, seems comfortable enough after the last month of sub 20 degree weather. I sit on the stump of a tipped over tree and watch the brilliant reflections of clouds move across the water. Slowly, from the middle of a cloud a dome shaped mud clod emerges and begins to pull itself up on a log. The mud, of course, is caked on the shell of a turtle, possibly out of the mud for the first bask of the season. The sepia colored mud begins to lighten almost immediately in the hot sun and stiff breeze, turning the creature into a milk chocolate imitation of himself. A smaller version finds his way out of the water and begins his metabolic warm up on the log a few inches behind. The chocolate turtles sprawl, legs dangling in the sun.
The path to my usual turtle viewing spot by the river changes as the season advances. Later in the summer the honeysuckle begins to tangle up with the raspberry brambles and the gaps begin to disappear. Today I am looking for an alternative route. I make my way toward a concrete retaining wall at the water’s edge. I intend to follow the wall as far as possible then somehow drop down to the bank level, maybe a five foot drop, and continue along the bank. However, when the wall ends, I find there is no good way down, and no bank to land on if I just jumped. Peering over the wall, looking for alternatives to going all the way back, I find none, but I do catch a little movement in the water below. In the calm water between two very old, mostly submerged stumps a Map Turtle swims deliberately. It stops periodically to poke its head out of the water looking back in the direction from which it came. Swimming toward the first turtle is a smaller map turtle, this one has a thinner more colorful neck and head, and a smaller, flatter shell with very pronounced knobs and serrations. The smaller turtle, perhaps a juvenile of the species, or a young male swims to the larger one, perhaps a mature female, just touching its shell. The larger turtle swims on to the next stump where it pauses again seemingly waiting for the smaller one. This graceful bit of choreography continues for a few more pauses and touches until the two map turtles swim on down the bank.
This painting of the encounter described above, was a particular challenge to a watercolor painter. The difference between what is seen above water and what is seen below the surface is very subtle, particularly in a scene with low reflectivity. The water, murky and translucent has the effect of dulling detail and reducing contrast on the submerged parts of turtles and stumps. But, the difference in values between the perceived water surface and the water's depths is slight. I had to make good use of the points of intersection - where the turtles and stumps broke through the water surface - to make a convincing transition.
This watercolor is one of my favorites for a number of reasons. It is not the most colorfully dramatic painting - very somber, very grey. It is also not the most brilliantly reflective, ideally shaped specimen of this particular species. It is, though, a poignant look at an old turtle hanging on and holding out for the last bits of basking sun for the season, before the months under the river bottom mud.
Here is my journal entry for this day......
Mid November is probably too late for turtle observation, but I have gotten used to spending this part of the morning watching turtles… and I have a feeling about today. As usual, I thrash my way toward my observation spot as carefully and quietly as I can. The brush has become dry and shriveled and most of the under story leaves have dropped. The wild raspberries, however, seem even more menacing now as they bare their nasty fangs and claw at my face and arms. For the first time in months on this path, I can actually see where I’m going. A cold north wind brings the maple leaves circling down from the canopy. It seems as if the whole world is in motion. As I reach the first clear view of the river I see that the recent rains have washed most of the deadfall down the river. All but one partially submerged, fallen tree has moved on. Near the end of the tree, facing into this cold wind sits a very large, very old Northern Map Turtle.
Her shell is heavily pitted and worn to the point where the usually prominent keel has been rounded off. The only distinguishable “map turtle” identifiers left are the serrated back edge of her shell and the rose colored upper mandible. The murky river water has a menacing chop to it that causes the fallen tree to bob in a methodical pulsing rhythm. The old turtle faces into the wind with her snout held high as if examining a far off scent. She seems content enough soaking up the spotty sunlight while riding the dancing log, impartial to the inevitable advance of winter.
So, yes, there is the story here I think I'm witnessing... that always helps a painting resonate. But as for the painting itself, the visual tension created by the action of the water, the placement of the log in the composition and the defiant posture of the battered old turtle is what puts this one in my "favorites" stack.
Something I discovered fairly quickly is that turtles are not snobs. They hang frequently and quite symbiotically with other turtle species. Today's sighting, though, surprised me. The surprise came when the final piece of the composition crawled up on the log in front of the Red-eared Slider, and the Painted Turtle...well what do you know... It's a Stinkpot!
The Stinkpot, more officially sternotherus odoratus, and more accurately, Common Musk Turtle, is not generally a river turtle. They prefer ponds, mucky wetlands, and small, slow moving creeks. But, here he was today, on my river. The nickname "stinkpot" comes from the foul smell secreted from glands on the back of its shell, presumably in the face of a threat - raccoon, coyote, dog, human, etc. While it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between aquatic species of turtles in this region - similar size, subtle differences in shell and flesh markings, similar general shapes - there is no doubt we are looking at a unique character in the Stinkpot.
In this painting, the glassy, waxy, platter-like character of the Red-eared Slider(in the middle), shows the subtle sub-surface color and the segmented structure of its shell, while the Stinkpot's helmet shaped shell presents very differently - domed, monochromatic - with inconspicuous segmentation. Even the feet of a Stinkpot are shaped differently - built more for gripping and scooping I suppose than fast water antics. In fact, the Stinkpot is known to be a skilled climber, often seen basking on branches well above water level.
Watercolor Notes: My favorite part of this painting is the whole painting... in other words, the composition. The criss-crossing direction of the turtles' heads go a long way in providing both movement and balance. The most influential element, the shell of the middle turtle, creates a dominant diagonal line while hauling in the viewers attention with color and pattern. This shape, positioned a little more heavily to the right, creates tension that is then mitigated by the stretch of its own neck, and the two parallel turtles facing the opposite direction... the bulk of their forms heavy to the left . The neck and head of the Painted Turtle in the back create an anchor in the composition through the use of contrast, and its position relative to the heavy dark area created by the head of the Red-eared Slider and the shadow below.
Walking down a rocky creek bed surrounded by dense woods on a hot October day, I came upon this Eastern Box Turtle cooling himself in the creek. He was unconcerned that I was inspecting him, so I picked him up for a closer look - brilliant markings on the shell, bright golden yellow flesh with a few random black splotches.
Knowing that this species can live in excess of 125 years, I guessed from the size of his shell, the deep fold of his skin and sagging eyes, he was approaching the century mark himself - a very humbling realization. And, considering the fact that this large tract of land had been left untouched, then protected and secured for many more years than that, it seemed likely I was the first human this old guy had ever laid eyes on. He was terribly unimpressed, and completely indifferent, if I read box turtle body language correctly. I placed my new model in a number of settings within a few feet of where I found him, trying to find backgrounds that allowed me to feature his markings and unique form. After capturing a few composition with my camera, I carefully placed him back in the exact spot he was upon discovery. I sat down on a damp boulder and watched him for a long, long time. He never moved from the spot. After some time I stood up, nodded a little bow and walked on down the creek bed.
I had placed this turtle on a moss covered area of the creek-bed to allow the orange yellow and red ornaments on the shell to gain emphasis. As usual, my first concern was to hold the crisply defined shapes- turtle, nut shell, leaves- intact, while I worked in the background. After carefully drawing the composition, I blocked out those shapes using liquid masking fluid (my particular favorite is Pebeo brand drawing gum). Once the masking fluid dried, I was free to "scumble" in combination washes using Hookers Green, Burnt Sienna, Violet and Cobalt Blue to create the fuzzy, edgeless look of moss.
Once I was satisfied with that element, and certain it was dry, I removed the masking material, which left all of those preserved shapes white.
Next, I painted each of the individual shapes, leaving the turtle for last. The leaves and nut shell were done with soft washes extended subtly with water, or laid into water that I brushed into the shape. It was important here to keep them very transparent and light in value to let them lift off the dark background. I used varying mixtures of the same pigments combined for the moss covered rock on these objects, which kept them in color harmony with the background.
I had painstakingly drawn out the design on the turtle's shell, Next, I masked out the part of the design that was not black (or very dark). Once the mask was complete and dry, I washed Ivory Black into the darker areas of the shell, pulling the wash out into the areas that carried some reflection- creating the orb form. When I removed the masking again, it showed the design in white. I used more intense relatives of the colors already used to punch up the design- Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Yellow, with a little Cadmium Red- again, making sure to keep transparency intact so the design glowed off the black of the shell.
Final touches included washing in the yellow-orange flesh and enhancing darks everywhere to further bring out the luminosity of this Old Man Of the Woods.
Turtle species are built for specific habitats. Painted Turtles, Snapping Turtles and Red-eared Sliders prefer ponds, lakes and slow moving deeper water. Softshells and Map Turtles like faster water. Musk, Mud and Spotted Turtles are usually found in wetlands and muddy, backwater pools. I have been lucky enough to discover a spot that has proven to be a "Mother Lode" for observing the different species of native turtles. This river bend has fast water and sand bars to the inside of the bend and a lazy, deep water current to the outside, it also has swampy little seasonal mud pools. The banks in this area are undercut from erosion and laced together with swirling sycamore roots. These roots, along with numerous fallen trees laying their entire lengths out into the water, combine to create a most important feature... turtle bleachers! A ridge runs alongside the river, well above the water's surface, that allows me to spot basking groups or individuals from a fair distance, and out of the "Wary Zone". From this ridge, I plan the approach that might bring me the best opportunity for a composition with enough detail that warrants a painting. From this spot alone I have identified 9 species of turtles: Northern Map Turtles, False Map Turtles, Painted Turtles, Red-eared Sliders, Eastern Snapping Turtles, Spiny and Smooth Softshells and Musk Turtles (Stinkpots).
Today's subject, a Spiny Softshell was basking just beneath an undercut bank... I got lucky this time. The Softshell species, the athletes of the turtle family, are very fast, very jumpy and usually very large. They tend, more than other species to pull out right on the bank and snooze in the sun. Many times, while inching my way through the brambles and tangled saplings toward a promising basking group, I would happen upon a Softshell hidden by the bank. The commotion caused by the surprised turtle scrambling hysterically into the water would warn all other turtles for 1000 yards that something was amiss... in they would go...all of them... taking my turtle day with them. I happened to discover this one early enough.
The Softshell Turtle is an interesting character, unique from the rest of the native turtles of this area. Its shell, devoid of the obvious presence of scutes - the geometric sections that constitute the shell of all other turtles of the area - has the look of a pre 1930's football helmet... more of a "head pad" than an actual helmet. Its snout, pointed and elongated, defies the "cute" stereotype that childrens' books and animation have exploited through the ages...perhaps making this turtle seem a bit too reptilian or dinosaur-like to be appreciated. The pliability of shell, coupled with an odd luminosity, and exotic proportions make the form of a Softshell Turtle a very interesting study for a watercolor painter. It is, in fact, one of my favorites.
This being a great example of a Spiny, rather than Smooth Softshell, it seemed important to make the reason for the distinction obvious, which really isn't that obvious at first glance. So, the drawing, defining the spines around the perimeter of the shell, was of utmost importance. From there it was a matter of first preserving the shape of the turtle, while washing in the tones of the water. In this instance, the water has a coppery hue caused by the vegetation and bottom-mud tinted water overlaid with the blue reflection of the sky. I began with an overall wash of Burnt Sienna, lightened with water in areas that would need to show more blue influence. While that warm wash was still moist, I flooded in a wash of Cobalt Blue (with a touch of Dioxazine Purple), being cognizant of areas that needed to remain warm, neutral, or cool. The turtle form and the elements of land - logs, branches, rocks - the still remain white.
While the water is just barely damp, I brush in a few accents of Burnt Sienna to emphasize reflections.
The turtle shell, deeply colored and opalescent in normal light, is highly reflective in this instance. It's important to paint what is seen rather than what is known. So, here, a very light Yellow Ochre undertone, with an overlaid wash of Terre Verte creates the overall color. A little dose of water into that wash helps to convey the effect of glare upon a smooth surface. A Violet adjustment(Dioxazine Purple) to that soft green wash gives the shell its dimension.
Lacking reflectance, the flesh of this turtle shows the wonderfully mottled design that helps it remain inconspicuous in the wild. The first wash, a mixture of Yellow Ochre and Cadmium Orange, is followed by some tinting with Burnt Sienna and Cerulean Blue. When still damp, I lay in a wash consisting of Sap Green, Burnt Sienna and Cobalt Blue. It's here that I indicate the mottling by denser amounts of color dabbed into moist paint to create soft edged dots and patches.
As with most turtles, the camouflage inherent in their near-perfect design is subverted only by the brilliant coloration that occurs on the underside of the animal. In this case, the rim of the plastron (bottom part of the shell), and the underside of the flesh - a mixture of Cadmium Orange and Cadmium Red - are integral to the composition, providing just enough complimentary color to bring the gray greens of the turtle's flesh to life.
As usual, finishing touches are adding darks to enhance luminosity. Mixes of sepia with cobalt for shadows and reflections on the water, violet with sap green and burnt sienna for the underside of the turtle.
A trick I learned from Winslow Homer is next, and the final, final touch. Around the face, I hop up key shadows with a dab of dry brush Cerulean Blue. I do the same on key highlights with Cadmium Red.
I spent years watching turtles plop into the river as I approached in a canoe. More accurately, it was mostly hearing them drop as they spotted me way before I knew they were there. I became more determined to spot them first. I made it a point to cast my eyes much further ahead, and started to concentrate on becoming a more skilled canoeist... or, at least, quieter. Upon finally becoming quiet enough, alert enough and strategic enough, I was treated to a most fascinating and beautiful exhibition of compositions, poses, textures, shapes, colors and highlights. I noticed that the individuals basking in a group didn't necessarily look like the same species as one next to it. I noticed there were some very large turtles, which I imagined would have lived through some very challenging pollution years in this river. I decided I wanted to look further into this turtle thing- find out more about them- do a few watercolor studies - see what comes of it. Sixty-some watercolors later I'm still "looking into this turtle thing". Who knows... something may come of it after all.
Basking is the first painting of the turtle series. I learned very early that in order to gain a vantage point that was going to give me a good opportunity for a watercolor it would have to be done with photography. I learned this by coming upon turtle after turtle that sensed my presence and slid off its log before I could get anywhere near enough for any detail. Whether sensitivity to motion, eyesight or hearing was their gift, I could never be sure, but they are truly gifted in the art of wariness. I spotted this Map Turtle from land, looking out toward open water. You can tell from its head position that it knows I'm there, and is about to bounce. It bounced... but not until I found a nice shot of what looks like a smile of appreciation for the warm sun on his shell.
It was important to capture the stark glare of the light bouncing off the left portion of the shell and the snout. That was achieved by laying in a two layer wash- first yellow ochre, then cobalt blue with a touch of purple- to suggest the color of the water but to be dark enough set the highlights up to be painted later.
The flesh of a map turtle seems murky green at first glance, but when viewed at close range, shows the topo map-like lines that brought this turtle its name. I washed the flesh with a cadmium orange, then when dry defined those lines by washing in a mixture of Sap Green and Burnt Seinna.
The shell, kept white until now, was washed with the same green mixture, minus the orange undertone. On the highlight half, a diluted mixture of that wash was laid into a pre-wetted paper to indicate the suggestion of glare.
A gestural indication of the shadows formed by the sun bouncing off bark using the green mixture tempered with sepia created the basking log and helped to develop a little depth.