Warblers: those ever elusive, but much beloved sprites of the tree tops; flitting about, dashing out and then back again, catching insects on the fly or just daring you to find them amidst the greenery. Capturing the yellow warbler on paper proved challenging, too. Perhaps it is because these perky little birds rarely sit still, so making them pose on paper seemed unnatural. Or maybe it’s that paint pales in comparison with the stunningly bright yellow of this warbler in sunshine. Nonetheless, #4 in my perching bird series is complete and, after several weeks of painting birds, I’m planning to turn my attention to other subjects for a while. (Click image to view larger.)
Tips and Techniques– Yellow can be a devilish color! It seems so light, yet, like other colors, there is a whole range of values from light to dark. Shadows on yellow are also tricky. They sometimes appear greenish or purple or gray. It’s easy to get murky laying shadows on yellow in watercolor. My advice when painting yellow (think daffodils, or lemons, or warblers), is to start lighter than you think. Leave the white of the paper for the brightest areas. Do a few washes to deepen values as needed. Experiment with different shadow tones on a separate test sheet– again, you may not need to go too dark to achieve variety and form.
Sketchers place a lot of emphasis on being about to work fast to quickly capture what they are seeing. I work with the same time pressures when working outside or when sketching on the go. However, I find the exact opposite is needed when I sit down to do a detailed painting. Then, there is no substitute for taking my time and working slowly and carefully. Here’s the third painting in my perching bird series. It took me several days of drawing in fits and starts to get the bird’s position the way I wanted it, and then I painted it over the course of a week, stopping to breath, observe, think through color choices, and take things one step at a time.
Tips and Techniques– Here are two images of the American robin in progress. You can see the underlying loose wash on the robin that helps make the colors interesting and lively. The initial wash on the gray back and head is a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. Second washes included more of the same mix, as well as washes of ultramarine with alizarin crimson to create purple tones. The breast began with burnt sienna, but later washes included a mix of aureolin yellow and pyrol scarlet, which gave it a warmer orange color. My choice to paint the word Robin in yellow ochre came after taking a hiatus in order to think through possibilities. I made some color swatches of other contenders before settling on ochre, but I think it makes a perfect complement to the eggs and the bird. (Click to view larger; sorry the image quality isn’t better)
After a successful experiment with perching birds on words, I decided to develop a series of paintings pairing birds with their names. These may make good prints or cards, which I will pursue once I’ve done four to six pieces. Here’s the first two.
Tips and Techniques– If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a finished piece of art, spend time upfront on thumbnail sketches and color choices to work out potential issues before you begin. I mocked up different bird poses and lettering styles before starting these and it was well worth it. Though I had already painted a wren piece in my journal, I switched the posture of the bird on the E several times before settling on the down-facing pose. My first mockup of the swallow with capital letters proved that the word itself was too long. Switching to cursive, tightened the space. I also tinkered with the variations on the letter S and where the bird should perch before figuring out a placement that seemed balanced.
Letterforms and birds are subjects that frequently turn up in my journals. At first, I simply matched bold words with their subjects, but more recently, I’ve tried to get birds to perch on letters. It’s not always easy to do. You’ve got to know a bit about the anatomy of bird feet, and find the right placement to support the bird and balance the page. Here’s a fun one that I did today— the lovely winter wren.
Here are a few sketches and paintings that give a sense of my progression with this over the years.
Tips and Techniques– Don’t shy away from learning to draw birds’ feet. You know you’re guilty if you are prone to hide this part of a bird’s anatomy behind leaves and branches. A simple Google search for “bird feet anatomy” will turn up lots of good diagrams and drawings for you to study and practice. If you have an opportunity to look at bird skins or mounted birds at a nature center or museum, take the time to sketch feet. It’s a sure way to improve your bird art.
After all the hustle and bustle and merriment of Christmas comes a bit of quiet– which always feels just right.
Tips and Techniques– Yesterday, I captured some of my final holiday preparations using a challenge I call “Hour by Hour.” The goal is to sketch something every hour of the day, but each sketch should take no more than three to five minutes. The time limit makes it doable, and although some of the sketches seem random in the moment, the end result really conveys a sense of the day. I sketched everything in pen and then added watercolor as time allowed. This is a fun challenge to try while traveling. I also recommend it if you struggle with what to sketch or with finding time to put pen to paper.
How to prepare for a trip to Ireland? Read guidebooks, re-read my family’s history, purchase a bird field guide and a travel adapter, prepare my conference presentation, pull out warmer clothes, and try to learn simple Celtic knots, fonts, and manuscript flourishes to add to my travel journal. That last bit has been the most fun, of course, but you really do need the patience of a monk to achieve the precision that makes Celtic art forms so beautiful. Here’s the beginning; I’ll fill in the white space during my travels. Watch for more in a few weeks.
Tips and Techniques– A book I really like for learning calligraphy is The Art of Calligraphy, a practical guide to the skills and techniques by David Harris. The title doesn’t quite do the book justice. So much more than a practical manual, it also includes great information on the development of Western script and includes beautiful examples from some of the finest historical texts. The script above is adapted from Insular display capitals and illumination in the Book of Kells, which dates to the 9th century (and which I hope to see in Dublin) and the Lindisfarne Gospels, which date to 698 (located in London).
The bird lay dead in my hand, a small and precious jewel given to me by a friend. Fully intact and still dressed in glittering green, it was a rare gift. I’d never held a hummingbird; never studied one so closely. An opportunity like this meant one thing: break out the magnifying glass, ruler, and pencil and get to work.
As an artist, I find observing dead birds enormously helpful when trying to bring them to life on paper. I love the ability to look closely at various features, to study proportions, and to look at feather patterns and feet. A bird in hand lets you see details that a photo and even live birds cannot— like the iridescent feathers on a hummingbird’s throat that appear black unless reflecting light or the length of the primary feathers. As you can see, I didn’t try to enliven my first sketches— these are strictly studies. The birds on the right take flight thanks to the motionless birds on the left (click to view larger).
The Hummingbird Gallery
About Hummingbirds– Hummingbirds are pretty incredible creatures— they can fly forward, backward, and straight up and down, and buzz around at speeds up to 30 mph. Weighing in at just 3-4 grams, they never-the-less manage to fly more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico each year on their annual migrations from the US and Canada to Central America. There are more than 300 species in the world, twelve in the US, and only one, the ruby-throated hummingbird, in the eastern US. Journey North tracks its annual trek (as well as monarch butterflies and other creatures)…check out the journey.