Wednesday, October 19, 2016

How to Tell Apart a Crow From a Raven

My latest: Crow and Raven: A Comparison of Silhouettes
Watercolor on 16 x 12" illustration board. 

I don't know why, but I get a kick out of identifying things in the natural world. Just as some people can rattle off the names of their favorite football players or film actors, I enjoy knowing the names of plant and animal species. If I come across a tree in a park that I don't recognize, I'll make a point of noting its leaves, bark, and so on so I can look it up later.

I think it's because names give me a starting point to learn more, to understand. I liken it to this: Say you're are in a room with a bunch of strangers at a skiing lodge in, oh, say, Norway. As an outsider, these Norwegians might look rather the same: tall, blond, and athletic. They're just an anonymous, lutefisk eating crowd. But once you find out their names, you start paying closer attention to them. You find differences that make each individual unique. You learn that Olaf is the only one in the room with deep brown eyes, or that Ingrid is a strict vegetarian. Once introduced, you begin on a journey to know them; and, if you are fortunate enough, you may even become good friends.

So it is with “Crow” and “Raven”. Or even more particularly, the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and the Common Raven. (Corvus corax). Both hail from the same family and genus (Corvidae, Corvus) and at a glance can appear nearly identical.


Shiny black feathers
Black bill with nostrils partly covered with feathers
Black legs and feet
Dark brown eyes in adults, grayish-blue for juveniles
Omnivorous – will eat just about anything
Both are known mimics and therefore can make similar sounds
Very intelligent, even recorded using tools
Found in open fields, forests, and wherever people are found


American Crows

-- Are somewhat smaller; just a bit larger than a dove
-- Bill is shorter and slimmer
-- Typical call is a sharper and higher: “Caw! Caw!”
-- Spread tail in flight is more fan-shaped**
-- Tends to gather in larger groups than ravens
-- Will mob a hawk or eagle in their territory, cawing and swooping at the intruder
-- A bit more restless when perched, flicking tails more for balance
-- At close range, flapping wings are silent
-- Rarely if ever soar on thermals

Bonus fact: the tongue-in-cheek collective noun to describe a flock of crows is a “murder”.

Common Ravens

-- Can be considerably larger, up to the size of a hawk
-- Bill is longer and thicker
-- Adults have a longer ruff or “hackle” of frontal neck feathers
-- Typical call is softer and deeper: “Gronk” or “Gaw”
-- Spread tail in flight is diagnostically more diamond or wedge shaped**
-- Tends towards smaller groups, frequently found in pairs
-- Will more likely escort a hawk or eagle out of its territory than mob it.
-- Overall more calm, sedate behavior when perched
-- At close range, flapping wings are heard to make a distinct whooshing sound
-- Can be seen soaring on thermals

Bonus fact: the tongue-in-cheek collective noun to describe a flock of ravens is a “conspiracy” or an “unkindness”.

Once you get to know these two species, you'll notice these differences – and more. But be careful! Identifying corvids can become habit forming. Especially when you come to the realization that they contain subspecies, as well. Four for the American crow, and perhaps up to eleven for the Common raven.

If you get tired of figuring THOSE out, well....there's always the study of gulls. ;) ***

*NOTE: These are the differences just between the American Crow and the Common Raven. There are additional but lesser-known corvid species in North America, such as the Fish crow, Northwestern Crow and Chihuahua raven (Corvus ossifragus, Corvus caurinus and Corvus cryptoleucus, respectfully) that have their own minor differences.

**Aside from voice, I've found that tail difference is one of the best diagnostics to tell the two apart. However keep in mind that it can be harder to tell when the birds are swooping in to land or are already perched. Also, there are several non-American species of raven and crow that this does NOT work for, such as the fan-tailed raven Corvus rhipidurus of Africa or the little raven Corvus mellori of Australia, which have fan-shaped tails instead of wedge-shaped ones.

*** In some birding circles, becoming involved with the minutia of gull identification has been said to cause mild bouts of insanity.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Art Scam Alert

Cardsharps by Carravaggio

So this morning I got this message in my inbox:


My name is john Scotfield from SC.  I actually observed my wife has been viewing your website on my laptop and i guess she likes your piece of work, I'm also impressed and amazed to have seen your various works too, : )  You are doing a great job. I would like to receive further information about your piece of work and what inspires you. I am very much interested in the purchase of the piece (in subject field above) to surprise my wife. Kindly confirm the availability for immediate sales.

Thanks and best regards,


The first clue was the grammar and irregular capitalization. "I actually observed my wife has been viewing..."  Huh??  But then again, maybe they were in a hurry or else had trouble typing on their smart phones.  It happens.

The more telling clue was the gushing compliments followed by the promise of "immediate sales".  Hmmm.

So I cut and pasted the first line of Mr. Scotfield's message into Google.  Bingo.  Another art scammer. 

I'm not sure if it's because artists are perceived as more naive than the general population, but we tend to get a lot of emails like this.  It's part and parcel for having one's name out there, I suppose.

I also get emails claiming to be from New York galleries, decorated war veterans, and wealthy widowers who are all admirers of my work.  Yet before I respond to any of them, I always look them up.  Not merely their name or email address (because those change so frequently) but snippets of the actual message.  And then I usually find it plastered all over the internet, alongside stories of artists who lost money, or a painting, or both. 

It goes like this: The scammer says they want a painting, and are willing to send you a check, money order or credit card number.  Then there's suddenly a time constraint and so you are pressured into sending the painting before the payment clears. Or else they offer to arrange for the shipping themselves, then accidentally overpay.  When you send them the difference, they disappear.

Some say that scammers like this will purposefully make obvious mistakes in their messages order to hone in on the most gullible (and therefore most lucrative) marks. But all the same, I'm putting out this post in case there's someone reading this who has yet to encounter such a thing.

We artists want to believe that what we do is worthwhile and of value, and we also have bills to pay. Scammers take full advantage of this.  If you get an email that seems too good to be usually is.

That being said: don't automatically dismiss a badly written message from an unknown address. I've had a couple of these that turned out to be actual clients!

Just be careful, and remember that Google is your friend.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

What I did on Summer (and Fall) Vacation

Somehow, 2016 is flying by even more swiftly than I ever thought possible.

The first half was spent furiously finishing art assignments for my mentorship; and the second has been filled thus far with painting trips, art shows, and workshops.  If you follow my adventures on social media, you probably already know what I've been up to. But here's a recap for those who don't have time to scroll through selfies and exquisitely posed food portraits.


Completed an all-day "painting marathon" with the Plein Air Artists Colorado. Then a couple artist buddies and I went up to Colorado State Forest State Park to paint, hike, and sleep in a backcountry yurt. We encountered a big moose the last day on the trail. Thankfully he ignored us. I drove one last time to Parker, CO to turn in my final assignments and get an overall evaluation. Conclusion? I'm on the right path. Now it's just a matter of putting together a new body of work.


Painted, painted, painted; went on several small hikes, attended the First Friday Art Walk as well as the local Artist Studio Tour; framed six paintings for my next show. Went on a brief but lovely weekend campout with our church family.


Had a group show entitled, “Expressions: A Summer Art Exhibition & Sale” that was a general success. Everyone agreed we had a great opening. We plan to do it again next year. Finished two more paintings. Got the house ready for guests.


My husband's parents visited us for two weeks. We went over Trail Ridge road and stayed in a cabin in Grand Lake, Colorado for several days. Visited the Plein Air Rockies show in Estes Park. Watched a bunch of sun-dazed pastel artists draw on the hot sidewalk in Loveland. Then I drove 500 miles north to the Fall Arts Fest in Jackson, Wyoming for four days, then drove another hour over the pass to participate in the Susan K. Black Foundation workshop in Dubois for another week. 

Now I'm home again and plotting to paint some more.

But first, I might take a good nap....

Laura's Social Media Links


Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Some of My Favorite Art Quotes

Florence Fuller, "Inseparables"

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved collecting things: books, shells, rocks, you name it. Another category I collect is quotes.  Here's a small sampling of some that refer to the making of art:

"The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him." – Caspar David Friedrich

"Practice what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know." -- Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

"A sketch has charm because of its truth – not because it is unfinished." -- Charles Hawthorne

"If people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all."
Michelangelo Buonarroti
"A poem is an invisible painting, a painting is a visible poem." -- Guo Xi

"To say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men, is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good but that most people can't eat it." -- Leo Tolstoy

"The painter who has no doubts will achieve little." -- Leonardo da Vinci

"What is a painting? It's a small piece of nature, filtered through the artist's temperament.  If not, it's just an empty void. " -- Isaac Levitan
"Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working" -- Pablo Picasso

"A painting in a museum hears more ridiculous opinions than anything else in the world."
-- Edmond de Goncourt 

 "I paint flowers so they will not die." -- Frida Kahlo 

"What they call talent is nothing but the capacity for doing continuous work in the right way." -- Winslow Homer 

"An artist cannot talk about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture." -- Jean Cocteau

"I don't see why we ever think of what others think of what we do – no matter who they are. Isn't it enough just to express yourself?" --Georgia O'Keeffe 

"It takes two to paint. One to paint, the other to stand by with an axe to kill him before he spoils it. -- William Merritt Chase 

"I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it." -- Vincent van Gogh

 "One's art goes as far and as deep as one's love goes." -- Andrew Wyeth


What about you?  Do you have any favorite art quotes?  Feel free to share...

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Return of the Grackles...and Poetry

 "The Rooks Have Returned" Alexei Savrasov, 1870.

It's been such an eventful month (I have a newborn niece! Crazy, late spring storms! Lots of paintings got made!) that I forgot to put up this post I made a few weeks ago.  

As some of you are aware, there was a rough period in my 20s when I didn't make much art due to insecurity, both financial and emotional. Yes, I did sketch and illustrate my own journals, but it took several years before I felt brave enough to start sharing my work again.  Interestingly, I wrote a lot during this time, perhaps as an alternate creative outlet.  I worked on a couple unfinished novels, wrote short stories, plays, and penned many, many poems.

To me, words are like paints: when placed together in certain patterns they form fantastic, vivid pictures in my mind. Admittedly not all artists are like this; it's perceived more of a "left-brained" (i.e. verbal) function instead of "right-brained" (visual) one, which is why I suspect so many of us loathe writing about our work. "One's art should just speak for itself!" is a flustered refrain.  And yes, I feel this way about certain kinds of writing; notably overly abstract, hoity-toity artist's statements; but give me a rainy day and a pad of fresh paper and I'll happily scrawl out my daydreams in longhand almost as readily as I would sketch them.

So as an experiment, I thought I'd start to put up a few snatches of verse on the blog, accompanied by drawings, photos, and so on.  Today's poem, written on the back of an envelope, goes as thus:

Grackles in Spring

Inked-up cousin of the soot winged crow,
call as sonorous as a rust-shut gate;
they arrive in April
and wait.
Expectant, gold-fierce eyes,
feathers briefly throwing
flashes of peacock hue;
they walk, beaks held high
as if to say,
We know you did not miss us
nor our parsimonious, pilfering ways.
But we still came
(we always do)
in darkling droves
beside the moon;
and here, in your yard,
your patch of seedy Paradise,
we shall certainly stay
an Eternity.

Laura G. Young
April 6th 2016

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Spring (Painting) Fever

Horsetooth Reservoir
Painting out-of-doors in springtime has many challenges: wild temperature swings, snow, rain, mud and wind.  We've gone from 70F/21C and sunny to below freezing with two feet of snow and back to 70s again in under two weeks! That being said, all the "weather drama" can make for some lovely scenes.  Even if three quarters of my paintings don't turn out presentable, the ones that do turn out make it all worthwhile.

Here are a few more pics from my latest efforts:

On the Cache La Poudre River.  Note how quickly the snow was melting.

Last of the snow in Lory State Park 

 No more snow, but LOTS of mud.  (Lory State Park)

Trying to pose and not have your easel blow away can be difficult!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Treasure in the Bargain Bin

Me and Mawmaw and little brother

When I was a girl, my paternal grandma used to take me along on trips to thrift stores, antique malls or "junk shops" as she called them. As someone who experienced the Great Depression and the rationing of World War II, she was the consummate deal finder. You name it, she'd find it at half the price -- or less.  When we went shopping, it wasn't so much of a retail experience as it was an expedition of Indiana Jonesesque proportions because you never knew what special treasure she'd unearth: containers to keep things in, silver spoons, perfectly serviceable shoes....she especially was fond of porcelain bird figurines and music boxes.  I still have an antique German brass plaque depicting Albrecht Durer's Betende Hände that we found buried in the corner of a dimly-lit shop one summer afternoon; I remember how her eyes sparkled when she held it up to the window.

Years later I sometimes find myself in a similar pattern, more out of nostalgia than necessity, trawling local shops for rare or interesting items (ostensibly for still life paintings). Yet after a couple of decades of collecting I've learned to be more selective and purposeful in what I bring home, so I don't one day end up buried by objects or become a subject for a clean-up reality show.  However I still retain a major weakness: books. 

Between my husband and myself, we have at least 1000 books and countless more lurking in boxes. The paperbacks are shelved two layers deep because we've quite frankly run out of room. Thankfully there are only three used bookstores left in town, and I tend to avoid them like a conscientious dieter avoids certain aisles of the grocery store.  


The other day I somehow found myself scanning the bargain book section of Barnes & Noble.  You know, where you find titles like, Learn Dominoes! sitting next to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens and the latest selection of coloring books for adults.  And lo and behold there was a book that (in my estimation) was an actual bargain.

Be still my beating heart

It was the very big, very heavy, very lavishly illustrated Drawn from Paradise, a gorgeous work about the birds of paradise co-authored by none other than famed BBC documentarian Sir David Attenborough. Usually listed at $45 it was stickered at a mere $12(!)  Suspicious,  I asked the clerk why such a well-written and researched book would be doing next to The Big Book of Sudoku Puzzles, and they just shrugged and said occasionally books were overstocked in warehouses and therefore shipped back as bargain books. 

The book is a stunner.  251 pages plus an index, it covers a wide range of people who were involved with the discovery and recording and ultimate demise of some of the most glorious yet enigmatic birds in the world: the birds of paradise. Nine chapters are divided up by the various birds of paradise families. The tenth covers their mysterious dancing behavior and the eleventh reports on curious hybrid cases. There's also (very useful) an appendix of men and women historically associated with the discovery and artistic representation of these birds.

After flipping through the pages that included vivid paintings by Raymond Ching and W.T. Cooper,  I was hooked; and, after an exceptionally brief inner-struggle, I got out my wallet.  And as I toted the weighty tome back to the car, I couldn't help but feel that somehow my inherited Mawmaw genes were quite pleased with themselves.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Tool Review: Tombow MONO Zero 2.3mm Refillable Eraser

Not so much for mistakes but has many artistic uses

There are more art products coming out these days than you can shake a paintbrush at.  Some are good, but many are gimmicks.  However every now and then something comes along that's really useful.  The MONO Zero eraser pen, in my opinion, is just that.

Made in Japan by the Tombow company, this gadget's appeal isn't for erasing large sections, but for erasing to create super-fine highlight marks that are otherwise difficult to make.  I especially like using it for sections of feathers, whiskers, fur, hair...anything that otherwise required me to laboriously work around to save the white of the paper.  Eye reflections are especially easier now. 

The eraser segment itself is only 2.3 mm across and akin to a white vinyl eraser.  It's very gentle on most papers, as long as you keep an eye on the holding mechanism's metallic nib. When the eraser wears down, you need to click the top end to replenish it or else the bare nib can make a sharp little furrow in your work -- after which you'll pay more attention. Although it looks like the barrel itself is made from metal, that part is actually plastic, which I believe cuts down the cost.  It comes with one eraser segment which can last a VERY long time. I bought refills in case I needed them, but it's been nearly six months of constant use and I'm only now getting down to the end of the first one.

If you work with in graphite with fine detail, I think this is an excellent tool to have.

If you work in ink with blubbery generalization, I think you might be better off with something else.

So far, I've only been able to find these erasers at the Schissler Academy of Fine Arts in downtown Loveland, Colorado.  I'm going to check the Jerry's Artarama shop in Fort Collins and a few other places and report back. * Online they are currently found on Amazon and and cost anywhere from approximately four to ten dollars, depending on shipping and handling.

* Yes, the local Jerry's does indeed carry them but are currently on backorder.  I also have been helpfully informed that you can also get them directly from the company at

Friday, February 26, 2016

Boning Up

 Common grackle skull, side view, drawn 2.5x size.

I've decided that 2016 is going to be The Year Where I Worked to Become a Better Artist. Not to say that I haven't worked hard before, but now I'm going to work smart.  As in, go humbly back to the basics, especially in regards to color, composition, form, and anatomy.

There's so much to absorb. If only I had a time machine! Then I could have all the years I wanted to improve, and explore history to learn even more.  Packing my time-traveler bag with plague-resistant antibiotics and a few cases of deodorant, I could study under a Renaissance master...or attend an academic atelier in 19th century France...or even enroll at the Rhode Island School of Design before a BFA cost $260,000...

But seeing that I don't have a time machine (yet), I've attached myself to painter Jay Moore, instead.

I'm already seven weeks into his six month mentorship course, and am very impressed with what I've learned so far.   Jay's methodology is to teach not so much technique, per se, but principles that often get overlooked when forming a painting -- or an art career.  His motto is: "Go slow to go fast", meaning if you are careful to build up solid foundational skills, the mastery that you seek will quickly fall into place as a result.

Common grackle skull, top and bottom view, drawn 2.5x size.

 It's a TON of work, about 30-40+ hours of assignments a week(!) so I'm holding off most commissions and illustration jobs until July.  That being said, I'll be accepting a few small projects for the second half of the year in addition to working on another book, so please contact me in advance if you have something in mind and I can see what we can put together. 

While drawing and painting like a madwoman, I've been schooling myself even further on birds.  Once again: so much to learn. In addition to reading library books from CSU, there are quite a few really good ornithology talks and lectures to be found on YouTube. However the audio quality of these recorded talks is usually horrible, so I find myself threading them through a free trial of SoundSoap, which I highly recommend if you want an easy-to-use application to clean up bad sound on a podcast or video that you desperately want to watch, but just can't due to the buzzing, humming, or other background hubbub drowning out the info you want to hear.  

So if you use SoundSoap or a similar app, or you simply don't mind sketchy sounding video, you can check out my birding listening list on YouTube:   I'll be adding more videos as I come across them. 

Regarding the grackle skull: I found it in our backyard after all the snow melted.  It was really amazing to draw from life, and I think I have a much better feeling for how that part of a grackle is put together.  As I held it, I was impressed by how delicate and yet strong it was at the same time.  Most grackle skull photos I've come across are missing the lower jaw bones, and nothing beats having the actual object right in front of you so you can explore its features from any angle you want.  I wish the Denver Museum of Natural History* was close by, so I could draw things like this on a more regular basis.  If you know of any good bird collections in Fort Collins that are accessible to the public, please let me know!  Even if it's not as extensive as the one in Denver, it'd be a great help.  Thanks!

*They changed the name to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science fifteen years ago for marketing reasons.  I grew up with it being the Denver Museum of Natural History and am resistant to change.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Kiwis are Amazing. And Weird.

(Okarito Brown Kiwi, Apteryx rowi)
12 x 16 inches, painted to reflect actual size
Oils on board

Kiwis are amazing. And weird. 

Kiwi birds, that is.   If you look up “kiwi” online, you're more likely to get listings for a fruit of the same name, or else New Zealanders themselves.  And while the latter are amazing and weird as well, I'm going to prattle on a bit about the birds

First of all, despite their being birds, they can't fly.   At all.  They wouldn't even be able to glide if you forcibly chucked one from Auckland's Sky Tower.  Their wings are practically non-existent nubs, far less useful than what a penguin has.  (Because hey, at least penguin wings work underwater, right?)  Fascinatingly, these nub wings also sport a wicked-looking but harmless claw at their tip.  Bonus fact: kiwis don't have breastbones or kneecaps.

Kiwis are, in some ways, more critter-like than bird-like.   Some even call them “honorary mammals”.  Their shaggy feathers are furry and brown, and some are stiff and function as whiskers.   They don't nest in trees but dig out burrows in the ground.  Their bones aren't hollow like other birds but filled with heavy marrow.  Female kiwis have two ovaries instead of the usual one that most birds have.  Even their cooler base body temperature (100F/38C) is closer to mammals than their hot-blooded relatives.

Like owls and teenagers, they are creatures of the night and are rarely seen in daytime.  But unlike owls and teens, their eyesight isn't all that great so they make up for this be having superhero levels of hearing and smelling.  In fact, the kiwi's nostrils are located all the way at the utmost tip of their beaks, so they can keep their nose to the ground like a bloodhound while probing around for food. 

Kiwis reportedly mate for life and can live upwards of 60 years.  A female kiwi usually only lays one egg per clutch, probably because it takes up so much space in her body:

 That can't be comfortable. 

While in New Zealand, Chad and I were fortunate enough to see all five unique species of kiwi.  

"There are FIVE?" You ask.  

Yes, five: Apteryx haasti, A. owenii, A. australis, A. mantelli, and A. rowi.  I've only listed the scientific names because the common names can get confusing, as you will see.  Each one is under threat because as I previously mentioned, they cannot fly and stoats, dogs, cats and other kiwi-munching animals introduced by humans have put a severe dent in their population.

The rarest of the rare is Apteryx rowi.  Also known as the Okarito kiwi or Okarito Brown or Rowi kiwi or Rowi or simply, Bob.*   Distinguished by their softer, grayer feathers and occasional patches of white, there currently are just 450 or so left in the world.  Let me say that again: only 450 left in the world.  Most are found in the Ōkarito forest on the mist-laden western coast of South Island. There is a heroic effort to boost their numbers though a conservation effort dubbed, “Operation Nest-Egg” where kiwi chicks are hatched and raised in fenced enclosures – sort of like grassy play-pens – until they're large enough to defend themselves in protected parks or predator-free islands. (Approximately 95% of kiwis don't survive to adulthood).  The day we visited the West Coast Wildlife Centre near Franz Josef Glacier, we were treated to an extraordinary sight: a rowi was hatching!  The egg was pale, large, and labelled in pencil with a catalog number; and we could hear the plaintive, wheedling calls of the chick as it tried to break out of the shell.  A couple hours later it succeeded.  A birth of any creature is a miracle, but there was something special knowing that there was just one more of these odd, rare birds in existence. 

A finicky kiwi chick being fed at Pukaha Mt. Bruce Wildlife Center 

Despite last month's crazy schedule, I managed to finish the painting that appears at the top of this blog post. I'd been working on it on-and-off over the past year; but like a young kiwi chick, it very nearly didn't make it. The original plan was to paint it with a simple background as seen in the finished piece; but then I got maniacally ambitious and began laying in a rain forest with trees and twisting vines and primordial ferns...and the result was a mess. The main problem, as I found out, is that I didn't have any proper reference sketches or photographs to work from, and trying to use simply my imagination to “cook things up” (as wildlife painter Robert Bateman would say) and so the whole thing became a botanical nightmare. So after being saved from the trash and spending a few months in storage I decided to salvage it; carefully cutting the canvas down to size, then mounted it on hardboard with archival gel medium. After the medium had dried for a week, I then proceeded to paint out the distracting background with layers of neutral tones. After THAT had dried for a few more weeks, I decided to have a go at hand-lettering with a brush and – hooray!  The painting was done. 


I'm hoping that, as time goes by, I'll be able to look back on this piece I created in 2015 and say,It's hard to believe, but there was a time when we thought the rowi was nearly extinct – and now look! You can't walk anywhere in New Zealand without tripping over one in the dark.

Seriously they totally blend in.

* (Just joking. It's actually Robert. *grin* I told you the common names were complicated.)