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Pastel Painting: The young whipbird

When I started this painting I wanted to do something messy - really messy.

I don't know why, but I had this young whipbird in mind from the beginning. I always work from photos and I had two to choose from, both of the same bird beside the boardwalk, on the second day of our recent stay at Lamington National Park. The bird was foraging beside a pair of logrunners that I was also trying to take photos of.

Really I liked the first photo better because the bird was in a more unusual pose (for a painting), and you could see more of its face but I chose the second one because I wasn't sure if I could pull off a painting of the first that would be acceptable to other people. I thought I was too inexperienced.

Looking at the two photos again now, I think that I chose correctly because there are those interesting areas (the ferns and fungi) below the front of the bird that I was able to make use of in the painting.

So I cropped the photo to take the bird out of the centre and to make an interesting arrangement, and drew up a grid over the top of it, in Photoshop. On a laptop, the grid could be turned off when I just wanted to see the photo and on again when I needed it to check proportions.

Since the main subject areas (the bird and the greenery) were cool in colour I wanted to use a warm coloured background paper, and since much of the background was dark, I decided to use a dark brown paper 50 x 70 cm in size. I wanted to make the painting quite large because the details in the face of the bird were small.

I then joined together two pieces of greaseproof paper lengthwise, with sticky tape, and drew up a grid with lines spaced four inches apart. I made a small hole in the paper at each point on the grid where the lines intersected and mounted the greaseproof paper over the top of my painting background paper on my easel, using two bulldog clips.

By pushing a pale soft pastel colour through the holes in the grid I was able to make dots on the background paper at the grid intersection points, to guide my painting. I could lift the greaseproof paper up, out of the way, when I was working on the painting and hold it up with masking tape

attached to the easel, then let it fall back down again to compare the painting with the grid on the computer, if I thought my proportions were going a bit haywire in the later stages. I can re-use the same greaseproof paper grid for other paintings on this sized paper - no need to make a new one.

I work quite intuitively in pastel painting. In fact working in pastels has freed me from some of the old shibboleths that I used to follow, such as "don't use too many colours" and "divide your picture into thirds".

I use whatever colour I feel is appropriate, and don't worry about whether I am using phthalo blue or indigo - a big change from oils. I think this may be more feasible in pastels without compromising unity to the same extent because of the unifying nature of the coloured background paper.

The main thing that I kept in mind when working was to exaggerate the colours, so my reds are redder and my blues are brighter etc, to make a lively and exciting picture. Also, I wanted to be able to represent the complex background using quick pastel marks, rather than having to draw in each stick and leaf in detail - a very laborious process.

The pastels that I used were mostly from my Sennelier 120 Half Pastel Paris set, which I love for their vivid colours which were useful for the foreground, and from my selection of Schmincke warm and cool greys, which were very useful for the background colours. In the photo of my pastel setup, the pastels that are propped up are the ones that I used.

I felt I was justified in not making the bird stand out too much as the subject of the painting because whipbirds are cryptic and like to remain hidden in dense understorey.

Is the painting successful? Or is it just too messy and lacking in unity? I will leave you to be the judge.

It was fun to paint it, though!

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