Wonders Underfoot

Artist and professor Dan McGregor has been drawing the flora and fauna of the Frio River Canyon for a few years. Here is his perspective on re-creating creation.

These exotic-sounding names belong to the little bricks of paint that sit to the side of my work desk, little bricks scoured by the repeated strokes of a wet paintbrush (now that I think about it, not that visually dissimilar to the rutted riverbed of the Frio). Alizarin Crimson, Viridian, and French Ultramarine are just a few of the pigments I use to create watercolor illustrations depicting the flora and fauna of the Frio River Canyon. 

I’ve been visually documenting the Canyon’s species for a couple of years now for eventual use in a nature guide. Though the list of subjects I’ve been given isn’t a complete catalogue of the Canyon’s inhabitants, I’m staggered by the sheer numbers, the biodiversity, and the variety of shapes and functions on this limited roster. Moreover, every subject seems to crack the lid on a new wonder. 

Did you know, for example, that the water-skimming whirligig beetle has sets of eyes on both the top and bottom of its head, for simultaneously seeing above and below the water? Or that woodpeckers, unlike other species of birds, have X-shaped toe structures that allow them to cling more effectively to vertical surfaces? Or that the pearl milkweed vine is so named for the perfect little iridescent sphere that sits at the center of its flower, like a jewel in the heart of a star?

All news to me, learned at the drawing table. Wonders underfoot, humble and not trumpeting themselves, oblivious to whether the passing visitor—much less the artist—takes any notice.


In any beginning painting course, one of the cardinal rules you learn is to not use colors straight out of the tube. Always mix a color with something else before applying it to canvas or paper; otherwise, your hues will seem overly garish. For years, I’ve dutifully followed the always-mix-your-paint dictum. 

However, this rule falls apart the minute I try to tackle the polychromatic painted bunting, a bird that has to be seen to be believed. Its plumage simply cannot be captured with anything other than pure cadmium reds and yellows, straight from pans of unmixed color. This sort of thing has happened again and again over the course of the project. My long-practiced conservatism about color usage has had to go out the window in order to capture many of the subjects, and even then I sometimes have to digitally tweak the scanned painting to achieve accurate vibrancy. 

What paints could be sufficient for such wonders? Gerard Manley Hopkins answers better than anyone:

The world is charged with the gradeur of God
… nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

The dearest freshness and grandeur and awe and intricacy and a thousand tiny glittering universes inhabit this canyon—underfoot, underwater, under crag, undiscovered. Every seam in every bluff charged with the grandeur of God. Hopkins concludes:

… the Holy Ghost over the bent
World brood with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Bright wings, indeed—of both the Holy Spirit and the painted bunting. My pigments are insufficient, the wonder too dazzling to capture. Nevertheless, I pick up my brush.

When you are next in the Canyon, you may see more of the first volume of our very own field guide, which features all the trees, shrubs, and vines of the Frio River Canyon.

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