Monday, March 5, 2018

"Fickle February" Sketch + Step-by-Step Swirly Vine Border

Last month it seemed like the weather just couldn't make up its mind. We experienced snow, rain, ice, fog, sleet, high winds, and warm sunshine here in western Pennsylvania. After the weeks of extended cold in January, I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw crocus leaves pushing their way up through the melting slush in early February. It seemed too early; surely there would be a blizzard the next week!

Two-page spread in a 5 1/2" x 8 1/2" hardcover Stillman and Birn Beta series sketchbook. Ink and watercolor.

I was so excited about those first green leaves on the crocus that I decided to start a page in my nature journal about the February weather variations. I had already laid out a border on this page about a year ago, but then never got around to putting anything else on the page. It was just waiting for me to fill it with sketches! (Scroll down for instructions on how to draw and paint this swirly vine border.)

But, in all my excitement, I mistakenly picked up a pen that had water-soluble ink in it instead of permanent, so when I started to paint this first sketch of the crocus popping up through the snow, the ink ran. It looks okay, but it was tricky to paint the leaves without the color getting muddy. I made sure to use my Platinum Carbon Desk Fountain Pen with Platinum Carbon waterproof ink for the rest of the page.

The day after the first crocus sighting, we had 2" of snow! For my sketch that day, I painted a wash of cobalt blue, let it dry, then drew snowflake designs on top of it with a white Signo Uniball gel pen.

A few days later, I hosted a Summerhill Sketching workshop here at my house. It was such a beautiful warm day that I opened the windows to let some of the fresh spring air in during our sharing time. It felt so good!

The next day we had a ton of rain that resulted in a lot of flooding in our area. I was out and about that day, so I treated myself to lunch at a cute little restaurant that sits above Dunkard Creek. The creek was out of its banks and flowing around the trees, which usually stand high up on the river bank above the water. I sketched the scene from a nice dry spot inside the restaurant.

I decided at that point that I'd better fit in a title before the page was filled with sketches. I used a pointed calligraphy nib loaded with watercolor to do the lettering.

On February 20th, the crocus buds finally burst into bloom! I took my sketchbook outside and sat in the sun to draw them - my first plein air session of 2018!

I was waiting for another change in the weather to fill the final space on my page, but it stayed warm that whole last week of the month, so instead of doing another spring-like sketch, I decided to paint the big beautiful full moon for my last sketch of the month.

I've never tried painting a night scene before, so I did a little practice sketch on a piece of scrap paper to figure out how to handle the subject matter. I ended up using Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, and Payne's Gray for the cloudy sky and moonlit landscape. I love how it turned out - I think I'll have to try this again sometime on a larger scale.

I wanted the sketches to be viewed chronologically on the page, so I used red arrows to make the images flow from one to the next.

Click to enlarge for a more detailed view

Now here's the promised tutorial on how to draw and paint this swirly blue vine border....

I started out sketching the the main sections, lines, and shapes on the border in pencil first, then I inked everything. Here's how to do it all, step-by-step:

1. Start by figuring out how many spaces you want to use on each side of your page. Use an even number of spaces, so that the design will flow symmetrically around the corners. (Mine has six divisions on the short side that's shown in the photo.) Place a dot at each division point. The dots should be centered vertically in the space. Draw a wavy line as shown below. The line goes slightly above and below the initial dots and curves around the corners.

2. Draw a small circle above or below each dot, as shown.

3. Add a leaf shape to the left of each circle.

4. Add rounded leaf shapes to fill in the remaining space, as shown below.

5. Add curlicue lines in the rounded leaf shapes.

6. Partially fill in the circles, leaving a white center.
Outline the vine pattern with more concentric lines until the entire border space is filled.

The design is now ready to paint.

(Please excuse the poor quality of these next photos. I didn't take the time to scan the steps as I painted the border but just snapped pictures with my phone.)

Tape off the outside edge of the border with 1/4" blue painter's tape. (Always be sure to press the tape against your clothes first to reduce the stickiness before applying it to your paper.) Paint a base wash of light blue over the entire border.

After the first wash is dry, paint a new layer of darker blue on everything except the leaves and circles. Let it dry.

Paint a third layer of medium-dark blue one step away from the leaves, as shown below.

Finally, paint a very dark blue-black color on the sections that are one further step away. After the last layer is dry, carefully peel away the painter's tape. (Always pull the tape off at a shallow angle rather than back on itself. It's much less likely to tear your paper that way.)

Even though this border design is somewhat complex, it works well on this very busy sketchbook page, because I've limited the colors to a range of blues. The blues in the border echo the colors in the sketches and help to unify this spread made up of six separate sketches.

After the entire page was finished, I added one more tiny sketch...

The return of the bluebirds are one of my favorite signs of spring - I'm glad I thought to include one on my Fickle February sketch.

I enjoyed having a continuing project throughout the month of February. Looking for signs of spring helps us northeasterners to get through the last of winter. It's gotten colder again since March began and there's snow expected this weekend, but I've started another project that will help me to make it through to April. I'm working on a daily calendar, filling in one little box each day with things that are happening in my life. I'll be sure to share it with you when it's finished.

Happy spring - keep on sketching!

If you'd like to learn how to keep a sketchbook journal,
join me March 9-11, 2018, 
at Summerhill Studio, in western PA,
for a three-day workshop entitled 
"Sketch Your Life! An Introduction to Sketchbook Journaling".
Read all about it on the US Workshops page here


  1. My mouth is hanging open!! Yet another magnificent page, Leslie! I love the idea of letting it evolve over a time period ..yet it looks so well pulled together, like it was planned all it once. I really appreciate your detailed description of process and thoughts about how you made decisions along the way. This page alone could be a week long class - there is so much to learn from you ;-))) Thanks for the inspiration you share so generously.

  2. Thanks for the directions of your border. It’s beautiful as is your page. Love the yellow crocuses against all the blue!

  3. Hope Springs....eternal! Lovely, just lovely.

  4. Hope springs...eternal! Lovely, just lovely.

  5. I love the border demo- it actually seems 'do-able' you've explained it so very well!! Super lovely work!!

    1. Good! I hope you’ll be able to follow it and use it on a sketchbook page, Roxanne. It’s so pretty! It would be fun to see it colored differently, too.

  6. I love it, and you're so right about the weather this time of year. You never know what you're going to get from day to day.

  7. That is stunning! I am retiring in June and will take one of your courses. Yay!

    1. I hope to see you at a workshop later in 2018. How about coming to Italy with me in September? Sounds like a great way to celebrate your retirement! :)

  8. Thank you so much Leslie for the border instructions. I love your journaling and blog. The night sky colors are just beautiful!

    1. I hope you’ll give them a try, Sharon. It looks really complicated, but it’s easy if you just take it step by step.

  9. Thank you for those very clear instructions and I love the idea of your page journal for the month. I look forward to seeing what you do for March.

    1. I'm doing a daily calendar for March instead of nature journaling, but there are a lot of mini nature sketches included on the calendar page.

  10. What an amazing composition, Leslie! Your gorgeous border makes the sketches pop right off the page. I love the story they tell. Don't you just love the first day in the new year when you can open the windows? I look forward to that moment every winter--and usually push it even when it's still a bit chilly out, just to get some fresh air in the house.

    1. Yes! It feels so good to have fresh air in the house. Right now it's snowing, so it might be awhile before I enjoy the warm spring air again. :(


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