Turtle Study Sketches

by David M. Carroll

< Wildlife Studies

Study of a Blandingʼs Turtle

Study of a Blandingʼs TurtleThis pencil and watercolor image comes from my Swamp Sketchbook, which I began working in during the spring of 1988, as I was writing my first book, THE YEAR OF THE TURTLE. For the first two years I was entirely engaged in continuing my rounds of the seasons of the turtles and the notebooks I kept in the field, and developing the text during the cold months, while the turtles were in hibernation.

When it came time to begin to produce art work I turned to this sketchbook. I rarely do any drawing in the field, only occasional very quick sketches, rough maps of habitat configurations; and many identification details – spot patterns of spotted turtles, distinctive plastron markings of wood turtles, any marking that would help me recognize these and Blandingʼs turtles as I kept records of them over the years. I did not initiate notching schemes until 1993 (will address this elsewhere).

But during the active season I did do a great deal of drawing from life in my Swamp Sketchbook, primarily pencil studies, some complete drawings, and some with watercolor, as reference material I could work with as I produced the art work for the book, the great majority of which was also done during the winter.

I would bring turtles home for a session in my study, then return them to their habitats. I also collected plant specimens, as the plants associated with each turtle speciesʻ habitats are a critical factor in my observations and important aspects of my writing. I also worked up compositions for eventual finish art, with the sketchbook and the many photos I took, and my memory and imagination, as references.

Many sketchbook pages have details such as turtlesʼ head, feet, carapace and plastron structure and patterns, and the like. (V. spotted turtle portrait below.) These studies, even the most fragmentary, are among my favorite works that I have produced over the years in my oeuvre as artist – I count them among my best. And they are done in the medium, or technique, that is perhaps the one I most like to work with: pencil and watercolor, with the pencil playing a role equal to that of the watercolor. [ Leonardo Da Vinci said something to the effect that a pencil is the best pair of eyes.]

Portrait of a Spotted Turtle

Portrait of a Spotted TurtleAn important part of my doing studies from life was to have detailed drawings and watercolors of the heads of the turtles I would be featuring in my text, their structures and markings, to use as references during my winter work on YEAR OF THE TURTLE. It was a pleasure in itself for me work on them in my Swamp Sketchbook, something I had long wanted to do more of – the inspiration and motivation of attending to it as an aspect of my first book to be published served me well. I had for many years done watercolors of spotted turtles, occasionally from a living turtle, but mostly from memory and imagination.

The watercolor study shown here was done from a male spotted turtle I found season after season in my early years in the Digs. He was unusual, rare I would say, in having bright yellow markings along the sides of his head. These blazings, located in back of the eyes, are virtually always brilliant orange, in males and females.

This turtle was also distinctive in having had his right front foot amputated in his earlier years – I first found him as an adult. It is essentially impossible to age a turtle after twenty years or so; he was at least that age and quite possibly considerably older. He was one of great familiarity, in that I would find him on several occasions in successive years in his various rounds of the wetlands in the Digs over the course of his active season.

I have in the past on very rare occasions attributed names to such immediately recognizable individuals ( such as Ariadne, mentioned in YEAR OF THE TURTLE and the subject of the final chapter in my SELF-PORTRAIT WITH TURTLES); and due to the yellow markings on his head I entered him in my notebooks as “Amarillo” (Spanish for yellow) rather than as spotted turtle number such and such.

The last time I saw him was at emergence from hibernation, as I made my annual search at first thaw in one of the overwintering niches I had discovered for spotted turtles in the Digs.

Conditions at this time are severe for turtles, as I describe in chapter one of YEAR OF THE TURTLE: “Emergence”; “Opening”, in SWAMPWALKERʼS JOURNAL,(p.137,ff.); and again in the first chapter of FOLLOWING THE WATER. I saw a turtle high on a mound of tussock sedge. It is rarely that spotted turtles come up to bask in such an open position at this vulnerable time, when they are still torpid from the long months of hibernation.

As I approached he made no effort to escape, which is also a sign of torpor. I had misgivings about his state, but left him to some hours in the sun, hoping it, as is usually the case, they would restore him to full activity. Even less time than an hour can do this.

But as I never saw him again I concluded, after some seasons passed, that he had not been able to survive the winter stress of that year. Other factors (age?) may have contributed to his death. Recorded in my notebooks are the first time I found him (and of course where, with habitat and seasonal parameters); then every subsequent finding over a number of years, and the date of that last time I saw him, and the ambient conditions.

“Itʼs in my notes”, as I write to colleagues, and over and again say to myself. There are so many notations in my 29 yearsʼ worth of Digs notebooks, histories of my encounters with spotted, Blandingʼs, and wood turtles. Some are one-time events; I still find other individuals who back to the earliest years of notebook-keeping, and were adults when I first saw them.

A great goal of my swampwalker life, quite possibly unachievable, is to take the (enormous) time that would be required to go through all my notebooks, delineate histories of at least a considerable number of individual turtles I have been so fortunate to have a history with – my natural history. I have recently looked into the possibility of obtaining a grant that would allow at least a measure of this, but there are virtually no agencies that give grants to individuals.

Watercolor Study of a Musk Turtle

Watercolor Study of a Musk Turtle

Fully developed watercolors of the entire turtle are rare in my Swamp Sketchbook, as I was primarily looking to record details that I could work from as I was producing the art work for my my books. I often wanted to go on and do complete studies, but needed to limit myself to certain specifics (scales and patterns, carapace sections, heads, feet, etc.) that would serve as reference points; and as the drawings and watercolors in the sketchbook were done during the active season, most of my time was spent out in turtle habitats… I couldnʼt take the time that is required to do such fully rendered paintings.

I have done virtually none of this kind of art work since roughly midway through my book era, in the early 1990ʼs. I think of returning to such studies from life, but have gradually moved on to other aspects of my art work: magic square paintings (inspired by one of my all-time favorite artists, Paul Klee); pieces of Cubist and Surrealist natures, and works from the female figure.

Examples of these will appear in future pages of this web site, with limited edition giclée prints and some originals offered for sale. I continue from time to time to do watercolors of turtles (nearly exclusively the spotted turtle) from memory and imagination, such as the spotted turtles with red-maple leaves and the spotted turtles and wild plum, which along with book images, we sell as our standard reproductions via our carrollstudiogallery.com online store and occasional shows, other outlets.

Musk turtles (Sternotherus odoratus) are not found in the Digs. The habitats there are not suited for this species of relatively shallow rocky, even boulder-studded riverine backwaters, sandy and soft-bottomed ponds; rather than the vernal pools, deeply muck- bottomed fens, marshes, and shrub swamps inhabited by the spotted and Blandingʼs turtles I focus on. I have found occasional overlaps of this species and wood turtles in riverine habitats in which I have conducted turtle studies. Musk turtles are considered “locally abundant”, in that they may have dense populations in a restricted aquatic habitat that is widely separated from other colonies of numerous individuals.

This is a small and secretive turtle, active for the main part at dawn and dusk, even at night. It is extremely aquatic, and although it will climb high into deadfall trees to bask, it more commonly basks just at or beneath the surface of the water, in dense vegetation, sometimes with just the crest of the carapace above water; as shown on page 223 of SWAMPWALKERʼS JOURNAL. That detailed pen and ink drawing was based on the watercolor shown here.The watercolor was used as an illustration in SELF-PORTRAIT WITH TURTLES (page 101).

There are two ponds only a couple of miles from where I live that harbor dense populations of musk turtles, but they are surrounded – as is so often the case – by camps, cottages, even large houses, all with docks, etc. I am not one for suburban turtle work, or in sites of such high visibility. But in past years I made a couple of wading searches off a camp a friend was renting while she worked on her masters thesis, a study of a watershed.

We had permission to wade by the dock of a neighboring camp, and in three late evenings, extending to after dark with flashlights, we found eleven musk turtles. I kept one for a day in order to do my watercolor. When we were about to release the turtle, we showed it to her neighbors. They had lived there year-round for thirteen years and never seen a musk turtle.

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