Birds in Watercolor
Gordon Hanley discusses the color and diversity of birds in watercolour painting
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
Immature Marital Eagle
Peregrine x Barbary