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Pastel painting: Mannikin in a fan palm

The Townsville Common was scorchingly hot and cracklingly dry when we visited it during our recent trip. Much of the reserve had been burnt, all the watercourses were dry and birdlife was scarce, except for a few species of finch, such as the chestnut-breasted mannikins, one of which is featured in this painting.

I don't really know what it was that made me want to paint a picture based on this photo. I just instantly did, as soon as I opened it up in Photoshop. After all the bird is a tiny speck in the centre of the photo - and I am a wildlife artist, right?

Maybe it was the burst of colour from the top of the fan palm, or the dynamism of the dramatic lines of the ends of the leaves, or the way the little bird was perfectly framed in one of the gaps?

I would have liked to have painted the whole picture on a very large sheet of paper but then the bird, placed as it is in the very centre, could not have been the subject. So I cropped it in a way that, I felt, best preserved the dramatic lines and angles of the dried out palm leaves, but made the bird big enough so that it could be seen in the painting.

After all, I am a wildlife artist and the bird had to be the subject of the painting!

With this way of cropping the photo, I thought the bright yellow and green colour of the base of the palm leaf would instantly draw attention, and then the lines of the ends of the leaves would lead the viewers eye around the painting, with the little bird (red here) dominating the whole, as a disruptive element.

I liked the way the lines of the leaves worked, looking like the fingers of a giant magician's hand directing the view around the picture, being deflected off the bottom and towards the bird.

The trick, of course would be making the bird noticeable. Neither Joe nor Laura thought it could be done.

So I drew up a grid over the photo, as usual, with a finer grid drawn over the square that encompassed the bird, and used another grid the size of my sheet of paper, to transfer the image.

I used my biggest paper size (Mi Teintes 650 x 550mm) to make the bird as big as possible, and chose a pale warm grey colour, to minimize the work on the background.

After making marks on the paper, at the corners of the squares on the large grid I started blocking in some of the colours, to add texture to the background. (I didn't bother with marking out the bird's little grid.)

At this stage I had to be careful not to obscure my grid corner dots, because I would need them when I was sketching in the shapes of the leaves, which is what I started on next.

I worked around this painting in quadrants, filling out some of the details to more clearly define the shape of the palm leaves, beginning with the top right.

Below I have added solid pale green and orange colour to the sunburst and have used greyish green in small multi-directional strokes to add texture to the background.

Then I starting building up the colour in the region of the sunburst, using bright orange to illuminate some of the leaves that were backlit.

At right, I have begun working on the area in the vicinity of the bird, adding a warm creamy colour to the highlit parts of the leaves.

In the image below the bird stands out clearly because I have marked out its highlights in a cool white colour. I wouldn't be able to rely on this sort of artifice in the finished painting - the bird would need, to a certain extent at least, to reflect the colours of its surroundings.

In the next image I have drawn out more of the highlights with a cool yellow-white, and have added bluish colours to areas shaded by the fan palm's trunk.

By now, as the painting is entering the finishing stages, I will be working all over it, adding colour where I think it is needed.

At right, you will notice that I have added more darkish green-grey to the background behind the bird to help it to stand out more. I have also added highlights to the bird's perch, with the same end in mind.

In this image I have emphasized the brightness of the "sunburst" with cool white pastel, which I have continued on some of the leaflets in the direction of the bird, and also to a couple of the highlit leaf parts below the bird. I wanted to strengthen the "scooping up" effect

of the "magician's hand" by making the leaflets there more continuous, and with stronger highlights.

Which brings me to the final image below. I have added in more colour to the little chestnut-breasted mannikin, and more lemon-yellow colour to the sunburst. I also added stronger cool-white highlights to the main "deflecting" green leaflet near the bottom of the picture.

This was quite outside the realm of any painting that I have tried before. It was a complicated picture, but I think it has resulted in a quite interesting painting.

As to the dispute over whether the bird stands out enough, I am quite happy with it, and Laura seems to be too, but Joe is unconvinced. He thinks that I should make the bird a different colour so that it is more prominent!

Perhaps this doesn't really qualify as a wildlife painting.

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