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Pastel Painting: Tree martins at Barrington Tops

A flutter of tree martins landing on ashes left in an abandoned campsite, was the inspiration for this painting. (I wrote a blog post about this strange behavioural characteristic of tree martins, that you can find here).

We spent three nights at the Junction Pools camp-ground in Barrington Tops National Park during a week away in November 2015. (You can find my gallery of photos from this trip, here.)

The road in to the camp-ground was simply awful, taking an hour to travel 11 kms in our 4WD truck, but the setting was stunning, perched on the edge of the Barrington River. The sunny days and crystal clear mountain air were ideal for photography, and I came home with a rich source of images suitable for painting.

The colony of tree martins nesting up near the carpark/picnic area were a particular delight, and I took hundreds of photos of them landing, swooping, entering their nest hollows, and even bathing in the Barrington River.

Of all my photos the one on the left was a clear winner when it came to selecting an image for painting. I loved the rhythm of motion of the birds, all of them in different poses, with the snow grass echoing the pattern behind them.

I cropped the photo to create the image shown on the right, but there were still a couple of problems with it. The bird in the centre that was about to land had another one on the ground behind its tail that was hard to see, and would be confusing in the painting. I needed to eliminate it and replace it with another one a bit further to the left. And I wanted to add another bird on the ground in the centre right, to balance the picture and stop it from swooping out to the left.

The photo on the left shows the nuisance bird that was partially tucked in behind the other one's tail, that I wanted to eliminate. I cut it out in Photoshop, as shown on the right, and substituted it with the appropriate piece of background from another photo.

The photo on the left shows the end result.

I still needed to find additional birds to add in to the scene on the ground, to provide balance. Fortunately, since I had taken hundreds of photos, I had birds in suitable positions and was able to make the necessary adjustments to end up with the final reference image, below.

I felt that the viewer's eyes would move around the scene towards the birds in the centre, as shown by the blue arrows.

The bird on the top right was really a bit too close to the edge of the picture - I would need to move it in a bit in the painting.

So now I just needed to draw up a grid over the scene, as shown on the left, and I was ready to start the painting.

I selected a pale green coloured textured pastel paper on which to work the painting and marked off grid line positions around the edges to correspond with the grid I had drawn over the reference photo. (I often do this these days rather than drawing the whole grid on the paper.)

The photo on the right shows my first rough sketch of the birds.

I began putting shadow colour in the grass behind the birds, darker in front where I would need greater contrast between light and shade.

Next I added more colour to the grasses, working over some of the background colour with olive greens and soft oranges.

At this point I smudged areas of the background, pulling on the layers of paint with splayed out fingers. I often work in this way, blurring the pastel colour in a more or less random and haphazard way to create a variety of edges and textures, and to work the paint into the paper in places. It is very easy to overdo this step though, and to end up with a totally blurred background, which I find to be very tedious!

I added a bit of texture in warm orangey colours, to the foreground grasses, before beginning to mark in the darkest and lightest parts of the bird shapes.

I have also begun adding black colouring (indigo, actually) for the shadow areas in the ashes.

In the photo below I have added a little more detail to the birds and more texture to the grassy areas. I always work on the background and subject at the same time.

Many wildlife artists seem to be able to completely finish the background before beginning on the subject, or vice versa. I can't do that. I work the two up together, allowing them to influence each other to form a unified whole.

So now it is a process of adding detail to the birds, and endlessly adjusting the grasses to try to create the attractive swirling effect, typical of snow grass.

I worked on each bird in turn, building up the layers of paint as I add in detail.

And here is the finished painting. It becomes impossible in the final stages of my paintings for me to describe what I am doing between photos as I work all over the painting finessing, and trying to balance the different elements. I might be adding just a stroke or two of colour each day!

As soon as Laura saw this painting she promptly claimed it, so it will never be exhibited, or offered for sale.

It just goes to show what can be done when you start off with a decent photo, with subjects showing interesting movement!

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