Two Birds in Watercolour

13/02/2021

A while back, I posted a step-by-step pen and ink drawing of a Northern Mockingbird. The post may be viewed here. Occasionally, I paint birds in watercolour, as well. I’ve done a few recently and I thought I’d show you a bit of my process.

Several years ago, I was teaching an en plein air watercolour class on the Toronto waterfront. It was during the month of June and the trees were alive with busy local nesting birds. At one point, I reached for my binoculars to check out the source of some particularly harsh squalling. It was a fledgling, a young bird that had only very recently left the nest. It was one of the ugliest creatures I’d ever seen and I didn’t know what species it was until a parent dropped by with a beakfull of nourishment for the hungry youngster. I won’t reveal the species right away. Let’s talk about my process.

I worked from my own photo back in the studio. I print both a colour and a black and white version. The black and white version helps me see and understand the values. I grid the colour version and then draw a rectangle of the exact same proportion on my paper. I used a small block of Arches, Hot Press, 140lb., watercolour paper. Using the grid, I draw the bird with a very light touch of a soft 2B pencil. The pencil lines are quite faint and hard to see but easy to clean up with an eraser. For the sake of this post, I strengthened the drawing so that it would be clearer.

Step One of Fledgling

So far, the first step is identical to what I did with my pen and ink drawing of the Northern Mockingbird. This is a watercolour, however. Step Two means it’s time to paint. I mix Burnt Sienna with Cobalt Blue in order to create a cool/neutral grey. In Step Two I painted a narrow range of values to show the darker areas of the bird and also to suggest texture.

Step Two of Fledgling

Local colour is introduced with Step Three. Our fledging is a fairly colourful creature. I ‘glaze’ thin washes of colour where needed.

Step Three of Fledgling

Step Four is really a series of steps as I continue to develop colour and value. I step back a lot and take short breaks. The stepbacks and breaks are just as important as touching the brush to the paper. Eventually, the painting is finished.

Step Four of Fledgling

By the way, I don’t use opaque white paint. I reserve the white of the paper. It’s challenging, especially when there are white areas on the bird. Can you guess the species? It’s a young Red-winged Blackbird.

I’ll show you one more bird painting while I have your attention. It’s another common urban bird and this time I’ll just show two steps. Here is the ‘monochromatic’ stage of this study of a House Sparrow. Again, I’ve used a few values at this point.

Study of House Sparrow

The House Sparrow is not a colourful bird, at all. I stuck with the combination of Burnt Sienna and Cobalt Blue for the entire painting. Also, I gradually darken these paintings as the ‘light to dark’ process is very forgiving. These paintings are quite small, only 4 by 5 inches or so. The image on your screen is probably larger than the actual watercolour study. I hope you find this approach useful for working from your own photographs. It’s just one way to do it as, of course, there are likely as many ways to paint birds as there are artists. If you’d like to view more of my bird studies, click here.

Northern Mockingbird – Pen and Ink

26/01/2021

My hobby is birding. I’m quite passionate about it, as I am about art, and occasionally these two loves of my life converge. I don’t draw or paint birds very often although I tell myself that I should. I’ve taught a few workshops on the subject and have enjoyed the enthusiasm and talent that the students have shown.

I have a birding blog that may be seen here. If you’d like, have a look at the Drawings and Paintings page. Recently, I was updating the page and something moved me to draw a new bird. A Northern Mockingbird I photographed last week had been on my mind and I decided to give it a go. Then, realizing that I hadn’t posted on this blog in eons, I thought I’d scan the main steps and tell you a bit about my process.

The Drawing Board

I’ll start with the tools of the trade and my initial process. I work from my own photographs, which can be limiting because my camera skills are pedestrian. Still, once in a while I luck out and I had a nice image of the Northern Mockingbird (NOMO from here on). I duplicate the photo on my computer and convert the duplicate to black and white so I can better see the values. I grid the photo for accuracy. In this case, I wanted the drawing to be about 3/4 the size of the photo so I created a smaller rectangle of the exact same proportions and then gridded it. I work with a soft 2B pencil for all of the preliminary drawing. The softer the pencil, and lighter the touch, the easier it is to clean up the drawing later on with a kneaded eraser.

Evaluating the photograph at the outset is very important. Is anything unclear or confusing? In this case, I edited out several branches. Another concern was the bird’s tail. NOMOs have very long tails and the tilt of the body foreshortens the tail as it’s pointing slightly towards the viewer. I liked the pose, despite the potentially misleading tail position, and went ahead with it.

Step One

Next, I begin work with the pen and ink. I work with a traditional dipping pen. The Speedball nib is inserted into a holder. My ink of choice, since my teen years, is Speedball Super Black India Ink. I won’t bore you with every detail but I’m careful with how I dip and handle the pen to the point of ritual. Something works. I haven’t had a tragic blob in a long, long time. Note the ‘test’ sheet under the pen and pencil, though. It’s an indispensable tool. Note, also, the crumpled, ink-stained paper towel on the left. I’m obsessive about keeping my nib clean.

Tools of the Trade

I’m versed in many basic pen techniques and have taught them for decades. On my own, I have a few favourites and cross-hatching has always been foremost. My second step with the drawing is to explore the forms and, critically, to identify areas of the paper that will remain white. Stroke direction is fairly intuitive although I generally try to describe the underlying planes. The whole drawing is addressed once with these directional strokes (hatching). The cross-hatching comes next.

Step Two

Step Three is an effort to develop the relationships between the values. For the most part, the different areas are cross-hatched once only so the newer strokes overlap the original strokes just once. Yes, I’m patient. This step starts to show the different values in the plumage of the NOMO. This species displays a lovely, subtle range of greys and blacks with a brown eye. In a monochromatic drawing, these elements can only be suggested.

Step Three

In Step Four, I do a lot of work on the darks and blacks. While remaining as true as possible to plumage details, my goal is to give the drawing the strength and vitality of this beautiful, living creature. I don’t rush Step Four and take lots of breaks.

Step Four

Eventually, after long looks from several feet away, I call it a finished drawing. The unresolved look of the upper branch, still at Step Two, is deliberate. The drawing is approximately 7 x 8″. It’s on Strathmore Bristol paper, vellum surface.

LOCKDOWN DRAWINGS

24/08/2020

I’ve been doing a lot of pen and ink drawing during the pandemic. I use a traditional dipping pen with Speedball nibs, Speedball Super Black India Ink and, for some of the drawings, acrylic ink. Cross-hatching is the technique I employ. Cross-hatching with a pen has been one of my favourite creative activities since childhood. It relaxes me and allows me to gradually develop a range of values.

Lockdown Drawings reference photo

The starting point for these drawings is a rather ordinary photo I took of a back alley in Hamilton, Ontario. The cast/core shadow pattern had attracted me. I refined an overall shape from the pattern in the photo.

Lockdown Drawing #1

Each drawing is a variation of the shape and stays within it’s confines except for the occasional wandering line; a fairly obvious analogy of my behaviour during the lockdown.

Lockdown Drawing #2

My goal was to explore the infinite variety of options within a limited shape. Tonal gradations and the internal geometry of the shape are key concerns. The subtle gold lines in #2 are drawn with FW Artists Ink Gold, an acrylic ink.

Lockdown Drawing #3

Lockdown Drawing #4

Gold ink is used again in #3 and #4. These reproductions do not show the reflective quality of the gold ink. The originals definitely profit from the ‘gilt’ shine.

These are small drawings, approx. 8×8″. To date, there are sixteen drawings in the series.

Winter Wednesday Watercolour Class at DVSA – Week Four!

15/03/2020

Last Wednesday, I was back at Dundas Valley School of Art. It was the final evening class in a short series of four. My demonstrations on the first three nights had focused on various fundamentals of process and technique. What to do for the final evening?

I decided to paint a small work (7 x 6″) from start to finish. I followed a forgiving light to dark and big to small process. I worked quickly and discussed my thoughts and decisions as I painted. I completed it in about 32 minutes thanks to a handy hair dryer. I rarely do a whole painting as a demonstration but, once in a while, I think the students can benefit from seeing all of the steps.

Something clicked. This group has been a pleasure to work with and their progress over four short evenings has been remarkable. Click on the critique image to view a larger version.

That’s it until spring term. The schedule is up in the air right now due to the coronavirus. Most of us will be spending much more time at home for the next while. If so, paint a lot and stay well!

Wednesday Evening Critique

Winter Watercolour Classes at Arts on Adrian – Week Three!

11/03/2020

Cabinet of curios? Treasure Chest? Ye Olde Antique Shoppe? Whatever you want to call it, this still-life offered a variety of opportunities for the watercolour students.

The Sustained Saturday group was first up. I discussed the subtle colours of the still-life; earthy browns and varied greys. Brasses and coppers. I restricted myself to primary colours (yellow, red and blue) and used the three of them to mix all other hues. Why did I do that? Try it sometime. You’ll learn a lot about colour and your palette if you limit yourself to the primaries. Also, your colours will tend to harmonize more successfully when you employ less of them.

As usual, I urged the students to zoom in on an area of interest. I never suggest that they paint the entire still-life. As they work on their thumbnail compositional studies, I walk around the studio and offer my thoughts. The group enjoyed the still-life and their pleasure is evident in the day’s work.

Sustained Saturday Critique

My demonstration for the Tuesday class focused on the same ideas. I showed them the demo sheet from Saturday, as well.

The Tuesday afternoon group also responded enthusiastically to the subject matter. I’m amazed at what they can achieve in three short hours.

Tuesday Afternoon Critique

Currently, I’m planning spring classes and they’ll be posted on this blog in a few days. I’ll send out my usual email notification, too. Of course, the coronavirus may ultimately affect the spring schedule and I’ll address that when I promote the classes. In the meantime, wash your hands and stay well!

Winter Wednesday Watercolour at DVSA – Week Three!

06/03/2020

Thanks for all of your comments about the value of critiques last week! I think that most of us consider the critique to be an indispensable element of an art class.

I chose these colourful gift bags for our still-life at Dundas Valley School of Art on Wednesday evening. First of all, the colours are cheerful. Secondly, the broad, flat planes allowed me to deal with applying even, ungraded washes for my demonstration. I painted the overall shape of this green bag first and strove to keep the wash consistent and without streaks or blossoms.

Following that, I continued to develop the bag, guided by a light to dark and big to small process. I used soft-edge techniques to show value transitions on the ribbon.

It was only our third class (one more to go) and I’m pleased with the progress already. There’s a lot to deal with in the world of observational painting; drawing, composing, grasping light and shadow, brush-handling and more!

Wednesday Critique

Winter Wednesday Watercolour at DVSA – Week Two!

27/02/2020

Last night, I was at Dundas Valley School of Art for the second evening of a four-week watercolour class based on the still-life. As I mentioned last week, the students are a balanced mix of ‘regulars’ and new. By ‘regulars’, I mean students who have done at least two prior still-life courses with me, more than that in some cases. Although this class is not intended for novices, most of the new students have no prior experience with observational work but have taken other watercolour classes at some time.

How does an instructor handle a group of students with various levels of skill and experience? First of all, in the world of non-credit adult education, this is the norm. I’ve been teaching adults for thirty-two years and this has always been the case wherever I’ve taught. So, back to the question.

Last week, I didn’t know the new students at all. My demonstration dealt with the fundamental issue of observational work. Find the light! Also, I briefly touched on soft-edge techniques. We got started and, as I walked around the studio, observing and offering feedback, I quickly grasped the skill levels of the new students.

The thing about traditional, observational work is that watercolour technique is only a partner to the basics of drawing and understanding light and shadow. It’s very challenging to new students especially if they don’t have much of a background in drawing. As I walked around, I felt that all of the new students were able to draw the subject competently. The general grasp of light and shadow was less accomplished but that’s often the case with much more experienced students. This is why I chose the topic for the first demonstration last week.

I started the second class with a demonstration for the whole group. You can see it on the left side of the sheet. A bit of everything was discussed; light and shadow, the value and colour relationships between the various objects and soft-edge technique. Then, I asked the ‘regulars’ to get to work and I kept the new students with me for a few more minutes. The right side of the sheet illustrates my talk about creating soft edges, a core watercolour technique. After this supplementary lesson, the new students got to work.

Back to the question again. This is one way that I deal with a group of students with various levels of skill and experience. I do other things, as well. I suggested that the new students consider a sheet of studies of individual objects rather than tackling a full composition, for example. Also, I constantly stress process over product. To the new student, their first four evenings of still-life painting are merely an introduction to the process. It’s a learning experience. The regulars continue to develop their observational and watercolour skills as well as their grasp of colour and composition, also a learning experience.

I’ve enjoyed the first two evenings. Everyone has worked hard. Our attendance was diminished a bit by a winter storm but we still had a lot to look at for our critique at the end of the class. The critique, by the way, is a critical part of the learning experience but not the only opportunity to learn. The engaged students will learn a lot from each other as they walk around during breaks and look at the other paintings in progress as well as during the critique. I offer constructive critiques and I emphasize that the critique is not a competition but an opportunity to learn from the feedback given to every participant.

I’ve written a lengthy post now and only scratched the surface about adult studio-based art classes. Before we look at the paintings from last night, I have a question for you. How much do you value critiques in the art classes you’ve taken? Please, comment.

Wednesday Critique

 

Winter Wednesday Watercolour Class at DVSA!

22/02/2020

I was back at Dundas Valley School of Art on Wednesday for the first evening class of a series of four. The group was a very balanced mix of ‘regular’ students and new (to me) ones. All have some experience in the watercolour medium but not all had done a lot of, or any, prior observational still-life painting. Everyone was keen, however, and I’m looking forward to the next three classes.

Finding and preserving the key light may be the most critical element of observational and representational work. It’s always challenging in a studio lit with numerous fluorescent tubes. I always place a lamp with a strong bulb over the still-life and that’s the light source we try to heed. The fluorescent lights confuse the issue but, alas, we need them to see what we’re doing. At the start of the class, and once in a while throughout, I’ll turn off the overhead tubes for a few minutes. This helps everyone see the important light much better and always enhances the still-life.

My demonstration focused on finding the light and also on creating interest in the shadowy areas of the objects. I like to emphasize the positive but the right side of the sheet shows a few examples of ‘how not to draw’. I’d already presented my more positive drawing approach briefly in the mortar and pestle study on the left.

There are a lot of objects in my still-lifes but I never recommend that the students paint them all. I suggest that they choose an area of the collection and do a thumbnail compositional study before enlarging it on their watercolour sheet. With several students new to this experience, I also suggested that they forget about composing and painting a group of objects but create a sheet of individual studies. Some chose this route and I think that the focus on practice over product will make the class a more successful learning experience for them.

I enjoyed the evening and the enthusiasm of the group. Stay tuned for their efforts over the next three Wednesday evenings. As one of my DVSA colleagues says, “practice makes progress”!

Wednesday Critique

 

Winter Watercolour Classes at Arts on Adrian – Week Two!

12/02/2020

I was back at Arts on Adrian in Toronto this week for Sustained Saturday and Tuesday afternoon classes. The organic objects in the still-life are things that I have rarely or never used. Ya Li pears are the pale yellow fruits. The green vegetables are chayotes, a type of squash from Central America. I liked setting them off with the carved wooden objects and thought that the still-life had a bit of a Mexican mural look.

The ornate carving posed the greatest challenge so I addressed it with my demonstration. Do you ever try to read my notes in the top right corner of the demo sheets? This sheet shows four bullet points:
• simplification
• editing
• creative licence
• reverse values

We almost always discuss simplification and editing. Creative licence is closely related. What can we do to make the painting work best? Reversing the value is an idea that I employed with some of the decorative carving. I didn’t write down ‘negative painting’ but I used that, as well.

I reversed the values in the upper part of the vase on the left. That way, I didn’t have to painstakingly paint around all of the light ‘lines’. In the barrel in the middle, I used a negative approach and painted around the lighter areas. I know, I know! Masking fluid is available at art stores. Well, it’s not something I use and I don’t promote it in my classes. We try to solve the problems with the basic tools; brushes, paint. Add a lot of analysis and thought to that short list.

The still-life offered many opportunities. I suggested that the students zoom in and find a composition. Also, as interesting as the wooden objects were, I felt they should be used to bring out the light on the pears and squashes as much as possible.

Our usual Saturday crowd was somewhat diminished in number but we had a very pleasant day. One of our regulars, Karen, had to leave early but I photographed her lovely painting before she packed up.

Watercolour by Karen W

As for the rest on Saturday, here are the results. Click on a critique image to view a larger version.

Sustained Saturday Critique

I started the Tuesday class with a look at the Saturday demonstration. We discussed it in general and then I offered a closer study of the areas show here.

Watercolour demonstration by Barry Coombs

The Tuesday students responded to the still-life with enthusiasm and did very well. Not everyone was able to finish but I was quite pleased with their work.

Tuesday Afternoon Critique

Interpret Your Photos in Watercolour at DVSA – Weeks Three and Four!

30/01/2020

WEEK THREE

Wednesday Critique-Week Three

These are the small watercolours that the students completed during the third evening of our four-week course at Dundas Valley School of Art. Also, you can see their four-value studies. I allowed them a lot of painting time but still introduced a few new ideas.

One of those ideas was the notan. Notan is a Japanese word and it means ‘light dark harmony’. A notan is usually a two-value study of the essence of the subject. White and black. I found some excellent information about notans at two websites: drawpaintacademy.com/notan/ and virtualartacademy.com/notan/

Here is a photo I took in Vermont and a notan I made from it. I used pencil and a black marker. You can see a basic grid and you’ll note quite a few little adjustments to the composition.

In addition to that, I talked about other approaches to four-value studies. We’d done ours in watercolour and used ‘sepia’ washes. They can also be done with pencil or markers or just about any medium that works for you.

I did one from a photo that one of my Toronto students had brought in for the one-day workshop last winter (are you reading this, Emilia?). In this case, I used grey and black markers and here are the steps I took:

Courtesy of Emilia

 

  

As you can see, I made some very strong decisions about this composition. I’ve edited a lot and re-arranged the lamppost to better effect, I think. Remember that I’m interpreting the photo and not simply copying it!

We had another discussion about colour mixing, as well as a few tips for painting foliage. The students completed the work shown above and we looked ahead to week four.

WEEK FOUR
We kicked off the evening with a look at the photos the students proposed to interpret for their final project. Several of the group had done homework and I commend their enthusiasm! This work included notans and even some small colour studies.

My goal for the final class was to give them as much painting time as possible. Still, I had two things I wanted to present. First of all, I took a few minutes and showed the gang a book by eminent Australian watercolourist, Robert Wade. His book is entitled Painting More Than The Eye Can See. It’s full of excellent ideas about watercolour process and creative license. You can see how well-worn my copy is.

As the students worked, I provided them with some information regarding copyright, moral rights, the ethics of painting from photos and other related issues.

We covered a great deal of material in four evenings. One student said that her only complaint was that the course was too short. I think she may be right. The next time I propose the course, I’ll probably ask for six or eight weeks.

It was a very nice group and I’ll conclude with a look at the work they did during our final evening. Not everyone finished as we only had a few hours but they all followed a thoughtful process that, with practice, will really bring their photo reference to life!

Click on any critique image to view a larger version.

Wednesday Critique-
Week Four