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Pastel painting: Silvereyes in wild tobacco

This picture is maybe not one that I would normally have chosen as the subject for a painting, but Laura was visiting for one of our occasional “painting weekends”, and I had to choose a subject quickly from amongst my Koreelah NP photos. (Laura thinks I am very slow to decide what to paint.)

If you look closely at the original photo, you might be able to see the two little silvereyes in the centre, perfectly posed, looking very cute! But therein lies the problem.

To my mind, wildlife artists in general fall into a few different categories.

There are people who focus on “big game”. In this category are many fine artists painting “big cats” and elephants, and other African fauna, with occasional sorties into “big” American wildlife such as bears, and big cats again, and hawks. These people want to paint things that are magnificent, probably partly because there is a market for them. (Although a few of them do live in Africa – or have moved there for the sake of their art.)

A side track from this category are those who paint ducks and fish, for people who kill them. Why do hunters like to have representations of their prey animals on their walls?

Then there are those who paint “cutey-pie” pictures – commonly of little birds or mammals with a background of flowers and leaves. I can think of one or two artists who specialize in these sorts of subjects and seem to be able to make a living from them.

Well, I don’t want to paint cutey-pie pictures. The challenge of stepping outside my comfort zone here was one of the reasons that I did in the end choose this photo.

So I cropped the photo to include part of the rosette of big wild tobacco leaves, just below them. I didn’t want to include too much of the leaves on the right as that would leave me with large objects in the painting that might pose a difficulty (by being hard spaces to fill, or by being overly dominant and distracting).

I like to have dynamic lines in my paintings, which usually means that they are at an angle, ie. not horizontal or vertical. With this way of cropping this picture the diagonal lines were working in my favour.

I felt that there were three centres of interest – the birds themselves, which were to be the main focal point, the rosette structure below them, and the minor distraction of the dead flower structure in the top right.

In moving around the painting, initially most of the lines lead inwards to the centre of the rosette, and then the eye should travel up the dominant line of the stalk to focus on the birds themselves.

The big problem with this way of cropping the photo, was the perfectly formed side-view of the bird that was almost dead centre. I needed to stop it from becoming too dominant, so that the centre of interest remained in between the two birds, and away from the centre of the painting.

So, as usual, I drew up a grid over the photo, and drew a similar grid on two pieces of greaseproof paper (sticky-taped together) to match the size of the pastel paper. The painting itself measures 520 x 420 mm (19 x 15 inches) and is on a Mi-Teintes textured paper in a pastel green colour. It was a piece that I had left over from a painting that Laura had done – she “borrowed” a section!

I guess that I am often motivated to choose a paper colour that is close to the dominant colour in the background. I don’t want to have too much work to do filling in background spaces! And there is a very gentle light in the photo, which was taken on an overcast day, so I won’t be needing brilliant extremes of colour.

So I began with lightly sketching in some of the main shapes, and adding in blocks of colour.

Laura was here, at the time, for a joint painting session during the early stages of this painting and she took these initial photos. Unfortunately, when she left, the records of my painting progress suffered a bit of a hiatus, so there is something of a gap between the third picture here, and the next one, below, for which I apologise!

But I am going to try to make up for it by showing a couple of close-ups of parts of the painting, so you can glean some idea of what I did.

As you can see I have started in with the second layer of pastels colour in many of the subject areas, lightly defining the shape of the birds, particularly in the regions of their eyes and beaks.

The little bird on top was looking very dozey, but the one below was ready to move, and my photos show that a second later it was gone. So I don't want to apply too much heavy colour to that lower bird.

I have also begun to form the shapes of the berries and leaves, with light and dark greens, and a bit of opposite colour in the shadows.

I have built up the colour in the rosette at the bottom where the leaves meet the stalk. I want this to be a secondary area of interest, but not to take over and distract too much attention away from the birds.

In the next stage, I softened the shadows on the upper bird, and merged the colours of the lower bird a bit more into the big leaf behind it, added colour to the background and smudged it a bit, to produce the finished painting, below.

Now that it is finished and ready for framing, I quite like it.

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