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Close up with a Chaffinch

I was working on a YouTube video yesterday when suddenly there was a thud on the French door window next to my desk.

I looked up, and to my dismay and despite the bird cutouts on the window to help prevent this, I realised that a small bird had mistakenly flown into the glass and was lying stunned on the ground.

We picked up the bird and cradled it to keep it warm while it regained consciousness.

After about ten minutes it was able to perch on a finger and start to take interest in its surroundings again.

This was the closest I’ve ever been to a live chaffinch and I couldn’t resist taking a few photos which I will use as reference material for my next chaffinch painting!

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One Swallow doesn’t make a Spring…

But it’s a good start! I thought we spotted one solitary swallow last week, but today there is definitely a newly arrived pair in the barn where they nest every year, above the chickens in their old converted stable. where the farm horses used to live in days gone by.

Imagine how it must feel to those swallows to make that immense journey from North Africa, across the Mediterranean, up through Spain, through the whole of France, to land up here in our barn on the furthest edge of Brittany in the middle of nowhere, and to whizz through the door and say “whew, we made it! – and the barn is still standing!”

Which is more than I can say for many of the barns around here, which are sadly falling apart, neglected more than ever now the Brits are fleeing back across the Channel in the post Brexit rush for safety in the homeland. The average French farmer does not give much thought to the “vieilles pierres” (old stones) that the Brits adore to restore. So rural Brittany crumbles around us, while the village cares more for its football facilities, its village hall and its traffic calming features than for their stony heritage.

However, nature still thrives, and our barn welcomes the swallows back. So today I have painted a quick watercolour of two swallows enjoying the view from the telephone wires outside our house.

This painting is an experiment in working on top of an already completed sky, and I plan to use this technique again when painting birds, as it does give an airy feel to the composition.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial – and for a little more inspiration, here is a little selection of swallow paintings I’ve done over the years. They are all watercolours and the originals have been sold, but prints are available from my shop on this site. Go here to see more of my prints.

Each year the swallows in our barn return to the nest they constructed so carefully many years ago to raise their broods. The nest is built from mud, spit and leaves and twigs, and doubtless lined with scraps of fleece from our sheep and feathers from our chickens which are close by!

They lay eggs not long after arriving back, and soon are busy feeding their babies. In a good year they might raise three broods of chicks, and it is great fun seeing them learn to fly as they wheel around the ‘basse cour’ behind our house.

Painting swallows is a very popular subject, and you can choose to paint them stationary on a telephone wire, or in flight, as you prefer. A composition of several birds wheeling and swooping in the sky is very pleasing, but so is the sight of them perching briefly in family groups on wires to groom and preen themselves in their characteristic way.

You won’t need many colours for your swallow painting, unless you choose to do an abstract painting with imagination running riot. Basicallly a very dark blue or even black is your main colour. I usually use either Paynes Grey or Indigo, with touches of Pthalo Blue or Winsor Blue. For the warm rosy colour under the chin I would use from preference Potter’s Pink, but if you don’t have that colour you can use dilute Indian Red, English Red or mix a touch of Ultramarine with Permanent Rose or Opera Pink to get that pinkish colour.

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Who’s a Cockney Sparrow then?

Sparrows are an underrated bird! Cheeky, brave, vocal and everywhere, they deserve to be painted more often! We must have a hundred visiting our bird table each day and they nest in the holly and the ivy all around our place.

If you want to have a go at painting these cute birds, here’s the video of the tutorial:

I used a very limited palette for this painting, and you will probably have the colours I used – Black or Paynes Grey, Burnt Sienna, Sap Green, Lemon Yellow are all in most paint boxes. However, you may not have two of my favourites – Potters Pink and Quinacridone Gold – click on the links to go to Amazon to purchase.

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Monet Inspired Poppy Field Watercolour with Spatter!

Some days you just don’t know what to paint! Here’s a tip – think of your favourite artist and use one of their paintings as inspiration!

Monet’s poppy fields are a constant source of delight!


The other day I did a couple of practice skies before recording a video on painting skies You can see that video here.

One of them reminded me of this Monet painting, so I decided to use it for the background to a Poppy Painting.

Here is the video which is on YouTube showing the process of copying this painting by Monet, which is an oil, in watercolor.

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The brusho brigade

The line between fine art and craft has long been a fuzzy one which continues to be blurred. The addition of salt and granulating mediums to watercolour paintings has been a borderline tactic which personally I mostly resist, preferring to get my effects through more traditional methods. The same can be said in my view for the use of Brusho, although I haven’t tried it myself. But a technique that I enjoy using is the watercolour pencil, black, powerful and linear, it can lift a painting out of the doldrums.

Here’s a tutorial for a beautiful dragonfly, made dramatic by touches of Staedtler Karat Aquarell black watercolour pencil

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Wet in Wet Advent Candle

This is a quick true wet-in-wet painting of a candle.

What is Wet-in-Wet painting? When I studied anthroposophical (Waldorf) art when I was training to become a Waldorf School (Steiner School) teacher, we spent a lot of time painting wet in wet. It is the first painting method that is taught to children when they begin to learn to paint in a traditional Waldorf School in Germany, where the educational method of Rudolf Steiner originated and is still very influential.

This method of painting involves soaking the whole piece of paper with water first. Then, the painting is done directly on to wet paper using a limited palette of six colours – a cool blue, yellow and red, and a warm blue, yellow and red. There is no touching up with a second layer when the paint is dry, and no rewetting.

I have adapted this method of painting to use it in parts of many of my larger works, and it’s an essential part of many of my bird paintings, especially in the backgrounds.

This little painting is a demonstration of use of wet in wet principles, first on the top part of the candle, with the flame and sky, and then for the leaves in the little garland below the candle.

You might find it useful to incorporate this technique into your own larger paintings.

Materials:

  • I used a piece of 8 x 10 inches rough watercolour paper, 140lb. Any brand would do, and it could be just cold pressed if you don’t have any rough. You might need to experiment until you find the paper you like to use for this technique, as watercolour papers vary in their absorbency.
  • The colours I used were Indigo, Winsor Violet, Ultramarine Blue, Transparent Yellow, Quinacridone Gold, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Olive Green and Sap Green, all by Winsor and Newton. This is the same as the limited palette mentioned above, with the addition of a cool green and a warm green to make the painting easier to do quickly. They aren’t essential though. I also used a little bit of white Winsor and Newton Designer’s Gouache (opaque white watercolour paint).
  • I used a large round synthetic brush size 14 and a smaller one size 8, but the exact sizes aren’t important.
  • I used a long haired brush (a rigger) to flick the white paint.

Method:

  • You can download the sketch for free or else draw your preliminary sketch freehand using a light pencil and only indicating the main outlines.
  • With clean water, wet the top part of the painting around the candle, leaving a large halo around where the flame will be.
  • Roughly introduce the Indigo, Violet and Ultramarine (or your choice of background colours) and allow them to bleed into the water-laden paper. Avoid the candle halo area. Don’t overwork the strokes. Keep one side darker than the other.
  • Paint the candle flame and tease the watery background into the flame area and just let it mingle. Then following the video lift out the excess colour to shape the flame.
  • Wet the candle and then paint with a wash of Alizarin Crimson.
  • Wet the lower part of the painting, and start to indicate the pine needles and the holly leaves. Use a variety of shades of green, always mixed from your limited palette listed above. Add the berries using Cadmium Red or similar.
  • Lift out any excess colour again in the flame area and touch up as necessary.
  • Allow to dry.

Enjoy your painting!

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Painting a Crow

This is a realistic painting of a handsome black Crow.

How do we paint the colour black?

I remember reading somewhere many years ago that there was no such thing as the colour black, just the absence of colour where all light had been absorbed. For that reason, black would “contain” all colours, and modern painters were warned not to use Lamp Black or Ivory Black in their paintings as they were dull and lifeless tube colours. Paynes Grey became more acceptable, as it is a blend of Black and Indigo Blue.

Although this Crow appears to be black, he is better portrayed if other colours are included in his plumage. So, my Crow was painted with four colours, namely Paynes Grey, Indigo Blue, Winsor Violet and Olive Green. By mixing those together you can achieve a richer black than you get if you just use black from a tube.

I painted the bird in many layers, starting by wetting the paper with a thin layer of water and gradually building up wet in wet. Then, after allowing the painting to dry, I worked on more glazes of colour until the desired intensity of blackness was reached.

The painting is finished off by lifting out some light areas in the tail, the beak and the eye.

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Materials

Paper

Most of my work is done on 140lb watercolour paper, of various brands such as Hahnemuhle, Fabriano, Arches, Saunders, Canson, Bockingford… you can see I am international in my paper choices! It will therefore vary in texture and colour slightly, but never in quality as I only use the best. I was lucky enough to inherit recently a large quantity of quality paper from an artist friend who died, and this is one of the things that has focused me into developing my shop.

Paints

As far as paint itself goes, I have a basic Winsor and Newton palette, containing all the standard colours, and for many years I painted with the traditional English limited palette: Ultramarine Blue, Winsor Blue, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Rose, Naples Yellow, Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Yellow, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber and Paynes Grey. With these colours you can mix practically every colour you will ever need, but about 20 years ago I met an Australian artist, Hugh Brading, who introduced me to synthetic transparent colours, which transformed my art. I began using Quinacridone Gold, Aussie Green Gold, Dioxazine Purple, Transparent Yellow … and I am constantly looking out now for new pigments to enhance what I do. But I still rely on the old traditional palette as the backbone of my work.