“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”
— Annie Dillard
From nearly the moment I started sketching six years ago, I’ve believed in the importance of sketching on-location.
I think it has something to do with the story of the moment — that as long as it doesn’t start raining or I don’t have a train to catch, by finishing the sketch in the scene where I began it, I’m seeing that moment through to completion and honoring its story.
But every now and then, there are moments when something unexpected happens, often very quickly, and I’m lucky enough to get a photo of the fleeting magic with my camera — never mind my sketchbook. There are sketches whose story I live not in the moment, but afterwards in the retelling, reliving the magic as I sketch at my desk from a photo.
On Norway’s Lofoten Islands, where I spent the spring this time last year, the Northern Lights were such a moment. Over the ten weeks I stayed on Lofoten, I was gratefully able to glimpse the aurora’s green glow nearly an equal number of times, every instance managing to capture a few shaky photos of the luminescent sky.
These photos would have been sufficient documentation for me of the natural wonder, but every time I shared them online last year, the same comments would appear from friends:
Will there be a sketch of the Northern Lights?
It didn’t take long to realize that if I wanted to still be able to call myself a sketch artist by the time I left Lofoten, I would have to attempt at least one sketch of the auroras, even if it was from a photo I’d taken.
* * *
As I prepared to sketch the Northern Lights last year, I began to think about the other times when something had happened too quickly for me to sketch in the moment and I had to recreate a sketch later on.
I didn’t count the times I’d started drawing a scene on-location and finished painting it from a photo. I wanted fast. I wanted fleeting. I wanted that feeling of being left in wonder. And the first moment to come to mind that fit these criteria happened on a trip to the Guajira Peninsula in northeast Colombia, in 2014.
It was a journey of journeys, one that began in the city of Santa Marta, from which a series of buses and shared taxis and pick-up trucks carried me into the arid desert of La Guajira. And once I reached the dusty village of Cabo de la Vela, I kept going, piling into a 4×4 with a group of fellow travelers and pressing even farther into the desert, to the northernmost point of South America.
And once we got there, we were told the journey still didn’t have to end — that we could board a faded wooden boat and journey across a seven-mile-long bay called the Bahía Honda — and so we did. And it was then, as the boat skipped across the bay’s uneven surface, that a band of the brightest fluorescent pink appeared on the horizon — the shade of pink that can only be properly described by invoking the creature who lent the shade its name: flamingo pink.
I will never forget the moment the flock of flamingos took flight, and how fast I reached for my camera. In a story I later wrote about my time in La Guajira for National Geographic, I described it like this:
“To witness such a vibrant burst of color against the natural desert palette was nothing short of astonishing.”
* * *
As I prepared to sketch the Northern Lights from a photo, the flamingos of La Guajira were the first moment of fleeting magic that came to mind, but I continued thinking of examples. Slowly, more such moments emerged — and here’s the weird thing:
They are all of birds.
There is the pair of toucans I saw on that same trip to Colombia, who appeared at breakfast one morning on our trek to La Ciudad Perdida. There is the bald eagle I glimpsed on Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle, who spread his wings the very instant I held up my camera. And there was a moment that came back to me so suddenly as I got to work on sketching the auroras, that I threw down my paintbrush, opened an earlier draft of this post, and simply typed: THE OWL.
The owl being a Great Horned Owl, whom I once briefly locked eyes with in the woods on Salt Spring Island in Canada. I was on a walk; he was sitting on a branch; and when I caught sight of him out of the corner of my eye, I turned and met his gaze straight on for a full second before he, too, took flight and sailed away.
* * *
I hadn’t brought my camera with me that day I saw the owl, so I didn’t even have a photo of my own to draw from — but still I knew I wanted to include a sketch of him in a blog post I wrote soon after, in which I described my encounter in the woods as such:
“Glimpsing the owl was nothing short of astonishing.”
‘Nothing short of astonishing’ — it’s the very same phrase I used when describing the flamingos. As a writer, I’m not too proud of this repetition, but at the same time, these encounters truly were all nothing short of astonishing — ‘astonish’ meaning to surprise or impress someone greatly, from the Latin roots ex and tonare, which mean “out” and “to thunder.”
Which brings us to the Northern Lights.
The photo I ultimately decided to work from for my sketch was one I took while staying in an artists’ house in Svolvær, the largest town on the Lofoten Islands. It was a Tuesday night, almost midnight. I was sitting at my desk, preparing to bring the day to an end, when I heard a sudden rush of footsteps down the stairs.
At midnight on the quiet islands of Lofoten, this can only mean one thing.
Before Thomas could even knock on my door — Thomas being a French university student and the only other person staying in the house at the time — I leapt up from my desk, reached for my camera, and slipped my coat and boots on as though the fire alarm had just sounded. I flung my door open right as Thomas flew past and asked, “Are they here??”
“Yes!” he exclaimed, “and they’re huge this time.”
One of the things I love most about the Northern Lights is that in each new location you visit, you learn where to look for them in the sky. I’ve learned there’s a bit of magnetism at work behind their path, and that the lights seem to follow similar trajectories each time they appear.
In Svolvær, right off the back porch of the artists’ house was a wooden viewing platform, built into a formation of boulders. Thomas and I ran up the stairs to the platform, and then kept going, climbing right to the top of the boulders, keeping our gaze set fixed before us, to where the lights were out in full force in their usual position above the western horizon. There were at least three strands of light at first, like glowing green threads, being woven through a loom of darkness.
We were so focused on this particular display of the auroras that we failed to see a second arc of light appear from the northeast.
It was Thomas who finally noticed them, directing me to look to our right. The edges of this new stream of light seemed to have more definition than usual, and looked almost like a funnel — narrow at the bottom end, and then slowly widening as it reached higher into the sky. But the strangest and most astonishing thing of all was that the narrow end of the funnel originated behind the roofline of a neighboring house, directly above the house’s chimney.
“Is that seriously happening right now?” I asked Thomas, grateful to have a witness to corroborate the scene.
I couldn’t get my camera set up fast enough. With fingers shaking partly from the cold and partly from exhilaration, I set my shutter speed to twenty seconds and turned the focus ring to infinity, my fingers now crossed that such a surprising scene would turn out the same in a photo.
Gratefully, it did.
* * *
Which brings us back to the birds, and what exactly they have to do with the Northern Lights.
I pondered this question often while on Lofoten last year. I would spend my ritual evening walk along the coast deconstructing those moments with the birds — with the flamingos in La Guajira, the eagle on Vashon, and the beautiful Great Horned Owl on Salt Spring — asking myself what it was about each moment that had left me in such a state of astonishment.
The first thing I thought of was color. Especially with the flamingos, it was the startling flash of color so very different from the landscape in which they appeared. But it was also the sudden movement, and the impermanence — the fact that what you had glimpsed just a moment before is now no longer there, and all you are left with is the imprint of their appearance on your mind.
Finally, you are even left with a tiny sense of disbelief — did I truly did just see that? Did a flock of flamingos just take flight in the desert? Did a plume of the auroras just appear as though it were phosphorescent smoke from a neighbor’s chimney?
And so yes, I ultimately decided on a walk one night, the birds have everything to do with the Northern Lights. And it was only by thinking about the birds that I could finally pin down what it is I love about the lights so much — that in their color, movement, and the sense of astonishment they leave you with, the lights are as animate and awe-inspiring as any creature in the universe.
The lights are alive — and every time we see them spread their luminous wings across our sky, they remind us that so, my friends, are we.
* * *