Birds in Wa­ter­color

Gor­don Han­ley dis­cusses the color and di­ver­sity of birds in wa­ter­colour paint­ing

International Artist - - Contents - Gor­don Han­ley

Igrew up in a place that was typ­i­cal of Aus­tralian coun­try ar­eas of the times—dirt roads cut through patch­works of open fields and dry eu­ca­lypt scrub­land, spo­rad­i­cally dot­ted by weath­er­board and fi­bro houses perched on stumps, no run­ning wa­ter or sew­er­age, out­side toi­let, a veg­gie patch, chooks on acreage and gen­er­ally eco­nom­i­cally de­pressed. Not sur­pris­ingly, as a bud­ding artist I sim­ply drew and painted what was around me, so I be­gan draw­ing and paint­ing birds, wildlife and the land­scape. Our cir­cum­stances meant that art lessons were just not af­ford­able, and art col­leges were an im­pos­si­ble dream, so I ended up be­ing self-taught. Your art will al­ways be shaped by your ex­pe­ri­ences. I got into wildlife art largely be­cause of my own in­ter­ests and back­ground. At univer­sity, I il­lus­trated other peo­ple’s sci­en­tific th­e­ses and pa­pers largely be­cause I had a skill that I dis­cov­ered was rare (and one that I used to add a lit­tle ex­tra to my mea­gre tu­tor’s wage). The de­tail and ac­cu­racy re­quired has re­mained one of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of my art ever since. In a very real sense, I drifted into art down an un­con­ven­tional sci­en­tific path­way. The prob­lem was in the cold world of com­mer­cial re­al­ity, sci­en­tific and botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tions do not gen­er­ally sell well and are, at best, of in­ter­est to a small niche mar­ket. I dis­cov­ered that if el­e­ments of re­al­ism were in­cor­po­rated into the bird stud­ies they be­came more saleable, be­cause peo­ple could bet­ter re­late to them—it brought the birds to life. Wildlife art was from the out­set, and still re­mains, a part of ev­ery ex­hi­bi­tion I have had as a pro­fes­sional artist—although in the past 10 years the wa­ter­colours have given way to draw­ings done in gold and sil­ver on pa­per.

In pass­ing, one of the po­si­tions I held was Artist in Res­i­dence at the Queens­land Mu­seum. It tran­spired one day that a TV crew ar­rived to film me paint­ing a mu­seum skin, which is a pre­served bird, not posed or mounted, start­ing from the blank pa­per and end­ing with a com­pleted pic­ture. They had three hours. I had a dead Stella’s Lory col­lected in 1880, a sheet of wa­ter­colour pa­per and by the time they had the cam­eras and light­ing set up, about two hours left. The ad­di­tion of back­grounds turned the stud­ies into com­plete pic­tures, which en­hanced their ap­peal. It is part of my sci­en­tific mind­set that the back­grounds I paint ac­cu­rately re­flect the habi­tat of the bird. Re­search will re­veal the habi­tat the bird is found in, and usu­ally notes will be made on the tree species as­so­ci­ated with the sub­ject. I then scour col­lec­tions to ac­cess botan­i­cal spec­i­mens (hope­fully liv­ing) of those sup­port­ing species. It lends an au­then­tic­ity and a sense of ve­rac­ity to the art­work. My in­ter­est in wildlife art has taken me around the world, of­ten away from the reg­u­lar tourist routes to some of the most in­ter­est­ing and mag­nif­i­cent places on Earth. South Amer­ica has some spec­tac­u­lar bird species. To do con­vinc­ing wildlife art, you need to be in the sub­ject’s habi­tat—in this case, 40 to 50 me­tres into the canopy of trees in the depths of the of Cen­tral and South Amer­i­can rain­forests. The back­grounds and the trees in many paint­ings were sourced from that trip. Sourc­ing the birds turned out to be a lit­tle more com­pli­cated. The projects I was work­ing on were largely sci­en­tific in em­pha­sis, and re­quired high ac­cu­racy and per­fect ex­am­ples of each species. I had to ac­cess spec­i­mens from mu­se­ums around the world and live birds from aviaries and zoos that kept ge­net­i­cally pure in­di­vid­u­als, where mu­ta­tions had not had time to ac­cu­mu­late. Un­for­tu­nately, most of the South Amer­i­can par­rots in Aus­tralian aviaries suf­fer from this prob­lem, and tou­cans are non-ex­is­tent here. It was a case of pho­tograph­ing “per­fect spec­i­mens” then in­sert­ing them into the cor­rect botan­i­cal set­tings. Although this ar­ti­cle is not re­ally a “how-to” piece, I can out­line my ba­sic ap­proach to paint­ing a wildlife im­age in wa­ter­colour. My ap­proach

is a com­bi­na­tion of tra­di­tion­al­ist and orig­i­nal tech­niques that are fairly idio­syn­cratic, but nev­er­the­less very ef­fec­tive. I do not use gouache (other than the oc­ca­sional “Chi­nese white” for very fine feather de­tail in a few works), nor do I use the abom­inable air­brush so of­ten seen in wildlife art. These orig­i­nals are painted in trans­par­ent wa­ter­colour, which cre­ates its own set of chal­lenges. For a start, wa­ter­colours are es­sen­tially non-cor­rectable, so paint­ing in this medium and style re­quires care­ful plan­ning. As with all my art­work, I visu­al­ize the fin­ished pic­ture be­fore I put the first mark on the pa­per. I usu­ally draw a loose sketch on a sheet of car­tridge pa­per cut to the size of the stretched wa­ter­colour sheet. That way I can move, erase, add to or re-com­pose with­out risk to the wa­ter­colour pa­per. As I have said else­where, com­po­si­tion is the back­bone of all suc­cess­ful art. It doesn’t mat­ter whether your work tends to pho­to­re­al­ism, im­pres­sion­is­tic or dec­o­ra­tor art, com­po­si­tion is the key. Get it right, and you have a very good chance of creat­ing de­sir­able, ap­peal­ing art that works. Get it wrong, and ir­re­spec­tive of the time you put into it, how­ever beau­ti­fully the de­tails are painted, your pic­ture is flawed from the start. In all my art­work, I use strong geo­met­ric pat­terns and other com­po­si­tional de­vices to di­rect the eye of the viewer to where I want it to go. This has been an ap­proach cen­tral to all of my art. Once ev­ery­thing is set, I be­gin the bird paint­ing with a mea­sured sketch, not­ing cor­rect pro­por­tions and the po­si­tion­ing and num­ber of feath­ers. This is easy with a mu­seum spec­i­men be­cause you are work­ing from the real thing and it doesn’t move. You can even fix the light an­gles. A note of cau­tion here: if your goal is to de­pict re­al­ity, you will ob­serve that birds do not have ev­ery feather clearly out­lined. Do not be tempted to paint ev­ery feather in­di­vid­u­ally—it will look very am­a­teur­ish and you will have wasted many hours mak­ing your work look less real. Feath­ers are sub­tle, they blend. There are ex­cep­tions to this; how­ever, the most spec­tac­u­lar be­ing the Caribbean Ama­zons, many of which have feath­ers with coloured or fringed mar­gins— as in the beau­ti­ful St. Lu­cia Ama­zon. Each of the in­di­vid­ual is­lands have their own unique fauna and flora, so it was es­sen­tial to travel there to pho­to­graph this rare Ama­zon along with the St. Vin­cent’s and the even rarer Im­pe­rial Ama­zon from Do­minica, of which only a cou­ple ex­ist in cap­tiv­ity. These days, photography is the more usual source of ma­te­rial, but the qual­ity of your art­work then de­pends on the qual­ity of your photography, which can act as a lim­it­ing fac­tor— as­sum­ing you are not creat­ing im­pres­sion­is­tic or dec­o­ra­tive pieces. Ir­re­spec­tive of your source ma­te­rial, it still re­quires the usual req­ui­site of artis­tic skill in terms of re­al­ism, com­po­si­tion, light, colour har­monies and so on to pro­duce es­sen­tially good pic­tures. Hav­ing com­pleted the sketch, I mask the white or small, light-toned ar­eas then work in the body shad­ing, usu­ally with a mix of burnt um­ber and ul­tra­ma­rine blue. Note that I am draw­ing the birds only, al­low­ing for ar­eas that might be cov­ered by a leaf or a branch for ex­am­ple. At that point I add the main ar­eas of colour. I keep it as bold and as pre­cise as I can. With a wa­ter­colour (and with my met­al­point work), I like to do it once and get it right the first time. Over­work­ing a wa­ter­colour is risky be­cause it can muddy up the colours very quickly.

I then re­move the mask­ing fluid and tone and colour the un­masked pa­per. I end up with are paint­ings that I re­fer to as “life­like stud­ies,” which are es­sen­tially pho­to­re­al­ist birds mi­nus the back­ground set­tings. At this point, I sketch in any fore­ground items, and then mask them up with the out­line only. I then re-mask the study to pro­tect it from washes— again out­line only, then drop in the back­ground, usu­ally wet in wet. I am aware that this is an un­usual ap­proach, but be­ing a self-taught artist I have de­vel­oped tech­niques that work for me. You can see this process at work in the ex­am­ples of Rain­bow Lori­keets, and the Mal­abar Para­keet. The Rain­bow Lori­keet paint­ing was sim­ple and straight-for­ward: po­si­tion the leaves, paint in the branch be­hind them by ex­tend­ing the ex­ist­ing one and mak­ing pro­vi­sion for the fore­ground leaves. The leaf across the tail was also sim­ple be­cause I’m paint­ing dark over light, and green is com­pat­i­ble with, and stronger than the weaker yel­low of the tail. Next, I paint in the cream-coloured eu­ca­lypt flow­ers be­hind the birds and mask them up. This fixes the de­tailed botan­i­cals in place. I ha­bit­u­ally use a hairdryer in wa­ter­colour to ac­cel­er­ate the dry­ing process—re­duc­ing hours to sec­onds. At this point I paint in the blurred flow­ers in the back­ground at top left, giv­ing the im­pres­sion of depth, and drop in the wet–in–wet back­ground, which also blurs. Con­trol­ling the amount of blur in a wa­ter­colour is a dif­fi­cult skill that re­quires a lot of prac­tice. The fi­nal step was to re­move the mask­ing and bal­ance up the colours and tones. In the Mal­abar Para­keet pic­ture, I en­vis­aged a scene with a har­mo­nious colour pal­ette into which the bird could suc­cess­fully blend— as in­deed they do in na­ture. You can see where I placed the leaves in front of the branch and the tail. Draw them in, mask them up and con­tinue adding to the branch ex­tend­ing it out of the pic­ture frame. You only need to mask up ar­eas that are lighter than the ob­ject or area that will be painted be­hind them. What would be a very sim­ple job in an oil paint­ing, be­comes a ma­jor is­sue in a wa­ter­colour which works in neg­a­tive and is es­sen­tially non-cor­rectable. The se­cret is plan­ning and pre­ci­sion. The col­lec­tion of rap­tor paint­ings are in­tended for a high-qual­ity volume on fal­conry that is in the plan­ning stages. The bird paint­ings were drawn life-size and were as ac­cu­rate as could be, checked by world ex­perts who also ad­vised on where to find the best spec­i­mens. Even though fal­conry is an in­te­gral part of life in the Ara­bian Penin­sula, par­tic­u­larly among Arab roy­alty, the best place to ac­quire the birds was in Eng­land. All of the birds were from fal­conry breed­ing and dis­play cen­tres in the UK. If I wish in the fu­ture to add a dra­matic back­ground to these images, it would be done in an iden­ti­cal fashion to the par­rot paint­ings. I had a late start as a full-time pro­fes­sional artist. My art be­gan in sci­en­tific draw­ing, but quickly moved to land­scapes in oils. I more or less fell into wa­ter­colours by ac­ci­dent, and iron­i­cally had my first two solo ex­hi­bi­tions in that medium. Dur­ing this time my sub­ject mat­ter had shifted to nostal­gia and wildlife wa­ter­colours, which formed the ba­sis of a suc­cess­ful art ca­reer that saw many hun­dreds of thou­sands of my art prints in homes across Aus­tralia. Around 2008, I switched to draw­ings in 24ct gold. They struck a chord with the art-buy­ing pub­lic, and they now form the ma­jor­ity of my new art works. They have been the sub­ject of many ar­ti­cles that have led to un­ex­pected in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion. The road may not be easy—mine cer­tainly hasn’t been, but there will also be suc­cesses if you work at it hard enough and you pas­sion­ately be­lieve in what you do. I have been for­tu­nate to have had not one, but two suc­cess­ful art ca­reers at in­ter­na­tional level. Things like this do not hap­pen by chance, they are the re­sults of years of work, ded­i­ca­tion and fo­cus to­ward a goal. To be­come a suc­cess­ful artist at what­ever level, ir­re­spec­tive of sub­ject mat­ter and style, you must al­ways strive for im­prove­ment and that means con­stant prac­tice and ded­i­ca­tion.

Blue and Yel­low Ma­caw

Stella’s Lori­keets

Stella’s Lori­keets

Im­ma­ture Mar­i­tal Ea­gle

Pere­grine x Bar­bary

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