Here in California, the fifth graders learn about U.S. States. And back in December, our household was steeped in all things Massachusetts (my son’s state of choice). Each kid in his grade chose a state, and presented a full oral report, plus written and illustrated work about their state. The Massachusetts triptych was also presented to the family on Christmas night, and still sits in my living room. I’m sure all 60 kids were fatigued of their state project work by the end of it, but we needed an auction project.
Auction projects are my wheel house. At our school, each classroom cooperatively creates a unified piece of art to auction off at our spring fundraiser. I genuinely love to help orchestrate these art pieces. I’ve helped: kindergarteners construct fabric collages; first graders publish their favorite sing-a-long songs; second graders vote on favorite animals and color their facets; third graders cut and fold paper houses that clustered into a chandelier; and painted leaves with cursive adjectives; string art state, and anchor.
And this year, for fifth grade, I asked them to draw their state birds. I was inspired by a piece of art by Chris Waind, and I cannot resist an ampersand.
I collected all the student’s birds (drawn on the same paper stock with colored pencil), and I arranged them on a watercolored ampersand. A friend and classmate bought the piece, so we can still visit it!
So, I have state birds on my mind…
And I was smitten with the state bird of Alabama, the Yellow Hammer or Northern Flicker. None of the fifth graders had chosen Alabama. (Sorry, Alabama!) However, the anniversary of my grandfather’s death (who lived in Alabama for several years) was approaching, so I thought I’d draw the Yellow Hammer in tribute. It wears polka dots and a bib—irresistible.
So many things came together on this page: the text box for common & Latin names, the color palette across the top, the little shape of Alabama, and the journalling—exactly nothing specific about Alabama, per se, but all the thoughts and memories and delights that occurred to me as I made my way through this process. Plus, my backyard camellia is in bloom, so I had a real-life floral model. And as I drew, and painted, and wrote, it occurred to me that this would be a fun project. I love to draw birds and flowers. I love to draw maps. I like to write my own personal associations. And I want to improve all these skills. So thanks to California fifth grade curriculum, a project is born.
It is sheer coincidence that I started with Alabama, and when I realized I could simply carry along alphabetically, I happily did!
I made a seasonal error on the Alaska page since the flowers don’t bloom until mid-summer, and by then, the ptarmigan would likely be sporting full, deep brown camouflage. But I am okay with this mistake! I would never have even known about the camouflage had I not embarked on a bit of research.
When I started Arizona, the doubt crept in. I’ve never been to half the US states, and only driven through Arizona—who am I to write anything about it!? But, the Seguaro cactus bloom challenged and enchanted me. I truly wanted to attempt it. White flowers are tricky with watercolors, and demand either masking or fierce control. (I have neither). But shadowing helps, and I made rough attempts at it.
Arkansas, another state that I’ve only seen from the highway, is one of five states to claim the Mockingbird. Am I going to tire of drawing mockingbirds? Especially since the male and female look similar? I like this first attempt even though I cheated. I used ink for the white feathers, and a big bold brush marker to darken the space between the white ink.
Now that I’m underway, here’s a sense of my process:
1) research the state bird and flower, including Latin names (which always interest me), noting any interesting facts. I also jot down any associations that I have with the bird, flower, or state.
2) find photographs of the birds and flowers. I like at least five or six photos, especially of the bird in a variety of portraiture. And anything that details the plumage. I always work from photos, and am thankful for all the nature photographers who post their work on the internet.
3) sketch out the bird/floral arrangement. Hand-draw the text box, and state abbreviation.
4) I usually outline with ink the bird and flower before I paint them. I have been alternating between a light grey pen and a black pen. I haven’t settled into a rhythm for this part yet.
5) find a map of the state, and free-hand draw it on the facing page. No scale or anything, just paying attention to the general shape, and placing a star at the approximate capital. (Alaska was WILDLY difficult to draw!!) Then I use a pattern marking tool that was my grandmother’s to ink in journalling lines. It’s faint, and fast.
6) watercolor! I play with palette on scrap watercolor paper, and once I settle on a color, I dive in. I try to work from lightest to dark, but the bird feathers do not make this easy. Lately, it’s been very dry, which makes watercolor painting a step more challenging—it dries within a minute or two!
What’s next? The California Quail and Poppy are in pencil form, and being that this is my home state, I want to get it right. I started a Pinterest board for collecting. And I need to make another sketchbook to continue this project along since I’ll run out of pages before Delaware! My intention is to post the photos here after every four or five states. (The A’s are all done!) I hope you’ll follow along.