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Pastel Painting: Blue wren on a twig

Sometimes things come together perfectly, the bird lands in the right spot with a good active pose so that you can see its face, the background and lighting are great, and you know that you have a photo that you just have to turn into a painting.

This was one of those photos. It needed cropping but everything else about it worked.

The subject is a male Superb fairy-wren and the photo was taken while we were camping at Cox's Creek in Coolah Tops National Park in central NSW in February of 2016. You will find more of the photos from Cox's Creek in my gallery, here.

I cut away the out-of-focus tree trunk in the background and made a vertical composition with the bird in the top left-hand corner.

Quite often in wildlife art, the subject attracts attention because of its colour and so it was with this composition. No one was going to miss the wren in this picture! But there were still a couple of problems.

I didn't much like the symmetry of the leaves and twigs in the lower part of the picture, and the leaves on the foreground twig that the bird is standing on are both more or less symmetrical, and almost dead centre. I wanted to try and change these in my painting and give the composition a more interesting "S" shape.

I drew up a grid over the cropped photo and selected a sheet of pale green textured pastel paper to work on.

Because there was so much background to fill here, I began working on that with broad strokes of pale olive green, and went over that colour with warm pale yellow which I smudged a bit with my fingertips.

I want to keep the picture in a relatively high key, using pale colours throughout, except in the bird, so the contrast is low. I haven't done a painting in this way before.

We have to try new things!

I sketched on the bird and some of the twigs and added more texture into the background.

In the next photo I have added detail to the bird and sketched in more of the leaves and twigs.

Here is a close-up shot of the detail in the bird.

A little more detail in the twigs and leaves, and here is the finished painting.

I know that the painting process must look very quick and easy to people who follow these photo sequences without actually painting much themselves, but in fact it is quite slow. Every stroke in the latter part of the painting involves a number of decisions - where will it go, what direction should it follow, how long/short/wide/narrow should it be, what colour should I use, what shade of that colour should I use and should the colour be applied heavily or lightly?

And all the time you are constantly afraid that this stroke will ruin the painting and you will have to scrub it off and redo several other strokes to compensate for it.

I usually stop working on a painting when I find that the strokes that I am adding are not actually improving it, and I am scrubbing off more than I am adding on!


This painting is currently being shown at the Logan Art Gallery in Brisbane as part of the QWASI exhibition. Laura and I spent a day at the gallery doing painting demonstrations, and as we were leaving a woman approached us to tell me that she loved my "blue wren painting".

It clearly won someone's heart!

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