Paintbrush to paper

Hoary Redpoll

I have many different projects on the go. They form a combination of writing and illustration, a lot of computer work and a bit of creative hands-on. The great thing about this is that there’s always something different to turn to if you get bored of one project or need to take a break. The downside to this is it’s easy for something, which perhaps doesn’t have an imminent deadline, to be put on the backburner for a while. Such was the case with the paintings I’m supposed to be doing. In fact, it had been so long since I’d done any painting, that when I picked up my paintbrush I discovered I’d forgotten how to paint. As far as artistic pursuits go, painting has never been my strongest medium. I feel much more comfortable with pencil or ink, working in monochromatic palettes, than I do in colour. However, with a bit of practice I can produce some passable results. With little practice, however, it easily slips from me.

So I decided I need something to warm myself up, to get me back into the routine. I wanted something that was a familiar subject, unlike the birds I’d been commissioned to paint. The obvious choice, of course, was one of the hoards of redpolls I’d been watching the last few days. I selected the photo above as the one I would primarily work off of.

Hoary Redpoll - sketch

The first step to any painting is to sketch out your basic forms. This is the part of the whole procedure that I feel most comfortable with, unsurprisingly. If only I could just stop there. Because I had no plans for this to be a fantastic finished work, I simply wanted something that I could practice my painting techniques on, I didn’t spent a lot of time on the sketch. If proportions were a little off, that was okay, that wasn’t the goal anyway. I would ordinarily spend more time on the sketch, getting the proportions and composition right, but this one I threw down in about five minutes. Then it’s over to the drafting table, and the paints.

Hoary Redpoll - step 1

The first thing I do with every piece I draw or paint is the beak and the face. I find it very difficult to move on to the rest of the work without first completing at least the beak and the eyes. It grounds me, gives me some confidence, and adds a spark of life to the work from the outset. Everything else looks better if the face is in.

Doing the work in stages is a necessity, primarily because I need to pause regularly, at least every half an hour if not more regularly, to stoke the fire. It’s an upside to central heating that I never really appreciated before. It makes it more difficult to get into a good groove when one is working, but it does provide me with a reminder to take photos of each stage.

Hoary Redpoll - step 2

I fill in the rest of the face and add the red cap. Ordinarily I might not jump into the bright colours so quickly, at least not when I was working in acrylics. The advantage to gouache is that while it has the opacity of acrylic when thick, it acts like a watercolour when thinned out, and also shares watercolour’s characteristic of being able to revive it with a bit of water. So before, with acrylic, I would have done all like colours together because once your paint on your palette is dry, that’s it, you have to mix it again if you want to use it again. But with gouache, you can do the work in sections, not paying attention to like colours, because if something dries on your palette you can just add a few drops of water and away you go.

Stoke the fire, take a photo, rinse, repeat.

Hoary Redpoll - step 3

Next I spend some time working on the wing. I find it tricky to convey all the different feathers that make up a wing and still make them look three-dimensional. Putting in the shadows, the highlights, the gaps where they belong, making sure the colours all match. For the amount of area to cover, the wing takes proportionally the most time to complete. Finally I decide I’m happy with it, or if not happy, then sufficiently satisfied to be able to move on to the next part. This tends to become my philosophy when painting. I hate fussing over a piece of art, going back and fiddling with bits over and over. Unless there’s some major flaw in it, I’m more likely to just call it done when I reach the end, and not worry about minor imperfections.

Stoke the fire, take a photo, rinse, repeat.

Hoary Redpoll - step 4

In goes the tail feathers and the shadows and streaks on the rump and flanks. This goes fairly quickly because none of them are very detailed, and they’re all within roughly the same colour range. I’ve also gone back and softened up the scapulars and brightened the highlights on the flight feathers, deciding they were still just a tad too brown.

Stoke the fire, take a photo, rinse, repeat.

Hoary Redpoll - step 5

If that last step went quickly, however, this one takes no time flat. I wet down some grey and paint in the shadows along the bird’s belly and breast. Adding a bit more black or white to create depth to the shades, thinning the paint out to nearly water to get the lightest tones. For a step that takes so little time, it has a huge impact, rounding the bird out and making it look three-dimensional. I’ve over-accentuated the bird’s cleavage because it’s going to get painted over in the next step.

Stoke the fire, take a photo, rinse, repeat.

Hoary Redpoll - step 6

The biggest visual impact, of course, is in adding the rosy wash to the breast. It brightens the whole painting up, suddenly making it lively and colourful from the drab grey-brown tones it was before. I darken up the rosy shadows with more pink and thin out the paler parts with a light wash of white. I add hints of feather fringes using a thin white, as well. I soften the brush strokes along the flanks and cheeks with clear water. I forgot to pause once completing the breast, and carry on to paint in the feet before remembering to stop.

Stoke the fire, take a photo, make some dinner, tuck away till tomorrow.

Hoary Redpoll - step 7

The next day I return to finish off the painting, or at least the branch the bird is on. I hate branches. Despise them. I can’t make them look convincing in any medium. It’s unfortunate that so many birds choose to perch on them. Of course, I feel no more pleasure toward painting debris on the ground, or rock surfaces, or tree trunks, or blades of grass. Cattails I’m okay with, if everything could perch on a cattail that’d be handy. Or fencing wire. But a painting’s not complete without some substrate for the bird to perch on, so I forge ahead with the branch. I end up not finishing the little twiglets. They’re for another day, when I’m feeling more ambitious. In my rush to be done with the branches, I forget to go back and paint in the bird’s toenails. Oops. They’ll get done when I return to finish the twiglets, I suppose.

Hoary Redpoll - detail

I’m feeling better about the painting process now, my fingers are warmed up and my brain is starting to get back into painting mode. On to the “real” stuff.

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8 responses to “Paintbrush to paper

  1. Fantastic! OK, so you can take great pictures, write AND draw/paint….you are not making it easy for the rest of us ;-)

  2. What a truly inspirational post. I was trying to write (a poem) about the redpoll yesterday, as a result of seeing my first ones in South Wales, UK, a couple of weeks ago during the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds day at our National Botanic Garden. I found it very hard to get a handle on my intended project, and shelved it to the backburner for later. Your art commentary has inspired me to do a ‘Take 2′ – thinking in small manageable steps this time. It may be that I need to put more distance between my sighting and my (creative as opposed to factual) writing; but on the other hand, it may be best to run with the immediacy. Thank you for fueling my thoughts.

  3. He Seabrooke- I haven’t done any drawing or painting in about a year because I haven’t gotten back into “the painting mode” as you described. There is definitely some fear to getting back into it. I just need to do it! Your post has inspired me, we’ll see what happens.

    Tom

  4. Beautiful! I love the photo but the painting is even better.

  5. Thank you for the lesson on the benefits of using gouache as a medium for wildlife illustration. I learned a lot!

  6. Hello Seabrooke! We’ve just discovered your blog and are so inspired. The redpolls have been flocking to our own feeders here in Wisconsin, and we always admire their lovely colors. To have the skills to paint one must really get you in touch with the details of how they look. It must be a great way to really get to know your birds. We’re looking forward to exploring your site more!

  7. Wow..beautiful work here :)

  8. Thank you, everyone, for the lovely comments!

    Phantommidge – should I scale it back a bit? :)

    Caroline – Hope you had some success with the poem!

    Tom – Good luck! And with a newborn, you’ll need it in finding some quiet time to work!

    Kenton and Rebecca – Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the blog so much. Alas, I’ve never been much of a field sketcher. I don’t find much satisfaction in drawing just to draw, I like to draw with the purpose of having a goal in a finished piece, something to sit back and admire at the end of the day. My skills would be considerably better if I was a sketcher, though – check out Drawing the Motmot for some excellent work of a real field sketcher.

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