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Pastel Painting: A tawny frogmouth

Mostly we photograph tawny frogmouths during the day, perched on a dead branch with their eyes closed, pretending to be a stick.

We found this one when we were spotlighting at Basket Swamp, near Tenterfield in NSW in January 2016. (More of my Basket Swamp photos can be seen here.) It was stunning seeing the bird like this with its eyes wide open and I wanted to make this the major feature in my painting.

The bird was quite small in the original photo and the lower half of its body was obscured by the thick branch it was sitting on.

I cropped it so that the bird filled up most of the image, making the eyes as large as possible. I really wanted the eyes to dominate the painting. There is very little colour variation in the rest of the photo. It is almost a monotone.

I had never tried to do a painting like this before.

I drew up a grid over the photo, selected a dark coloured pastel paper, and began work.

I sketched in the main features, the eyes, the beak and the feet to try and keep to the correct proportions.

I didn't want anything to detract from the brilliant colour in the eyes and I underpainted them with bright red and yellow pastel colour.

In the next step I began to build up the structure of the body of the bird, and added in some of the darkest darks in the bird's plumage.

When I began this painting Joe was somewhat doubtful that it would "work" because he thought "there was nothing in it really". He was wrong! Tawnies have gloriously complex plumage patterns with lovely, artistic long shaggy bits that are a delight to paint.

Here (right), I have worked on the detail of the eyes and beak and put in some of the mid-tones in the head area.

I have also added an initial layer of texture to the background. In the photo the background is plain black with a slight suggestion of ghostly branches. In the painting I wanted the bird to loom out of the darkness, not be separated from it, so I need to merge the feathers into the darkness around the edge of the bird's shape.

The photo was taken by the light of torch, but I wanted the painting to look as though the image was taken by moonlight - although moonlight would have dulled the colour of the eyes, that I wanted to preserve.

At this point I stopped working on this painting to begin another one. On the right hand side of the photo on the left, I have left on the white margin of the pastel paper, so you can see how I "saved" the colours I was using so I would know what pastels to use when I came back to it.

I have added an initial layer of texture to the body of the bird and begun to draw in the shape of the branch that it was sitting on (left).

I did like the texture I had put in the branch, but unfortunately I felt that the subject of the picture had become too rectangular and blocky and boring. The image was too flat - too much like a photo, in fact. Also the limb distracted attention from the bird's eyes.

I wanted to introduce more of an "S" shape to the bird's body to make the composition more interesting and give it greater depth and a sense of mystery. I removed that interesting bend in the branch on the bottom left and brought the darkness closer in to the bird's foot.

And here is the painting framed (below). (There are a few reflections on the glass.)

It missed the current QWASI exhibition in the Logan Art Gallery in Brisbane, and has been claimed by my daughter-in-law, Helda.

Thanks, Helda, for liking my painting!

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