Sonoran Desert Museum: Plein Air Sketching

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M. Milstead Photo: M. Quinn

Here we are in the raptor display at The Desert Museum. They put on an “air show” twice a day. While I sketch, Mikaela and Gay take pictures. Combining sketches with photos helps out with studio work.

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Photo: M.Quinn

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Photo: M. Quinn

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Photo: M. Quinn


Sketching with a pen is challenging. Think of it as means to capturing pure gesture. I work blind, looking mostly at the subject, so I don’t waste time moving my head up and down or erasing.

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Photo: G. Scheibl


Photo: G. Scheibl

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Photo: G. Scheibl

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Photo: G. Scheibl

This Red Tail Hawk spends  a lot of time perched on a saguaro. Plein air sketching is direct-from-the-source visual research. Often, it is from-the-source gathering of information where the most sustainable and natural ideas emerge, and not the other way around.  If you ever experience “painter’s block” just go out and sketch something, it doesn’t matter what it is, really.


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Photo: M. Quinn

Sketching from life enables you to observe most intently, getting to know your subject in ways a quick pic. won’t. Later, as you develop an art work of the subject, you will have more sensory material to work with because you sketched it directly, spending minutes instead of seconds observing. Take the time to sketch from life…it is never wasted.



We have so much fun with this 11 month old mountain lion (Mikaels is a “cat whisperer”), I forget to sketch…next time! An intimidating beast to say the least…

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Photo: M. Quinn

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After mountain lions come mountain goats (big-horned sheep)…or is it the other way around? Anyway, these guys don’t move much. Their blocky forms make good models.


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Meanwhile, Gay is painting, and making friends, as usual.

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I end up in the Hummingbird Aviary. They are whizzing around like little bullets. They are very territorial and tend to land in the same spots. Animals often repeat thier movements and placements so, if you don’t get them the frst time, you’ll have many more chances; patience.

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I began sketching the rosewood bush waiting for a hummer to perch. Over the next hour many come and go so this is like a time-lapse sketch. The rosewood and berry cluster are more developed because I work on them while waiting for the birds.  Now, if I ever want to place a bird, or a rosewood bush, in a painting, I have something to choose from.


Sketching is a state mind.

P.S. Don’t forget to check out this fantastic exhibit in the Ironwood Gallery, just next to the Hummingbirds. It is the perfect example of the benefits and necessities of sketching for the sake of naturalism in both two and three dimensional media.

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2 thoughts on “Sonoran Desert Museum: Plein Air Sketching

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