Using watercolour to paint detail

The traditional way of using watercolour is to apply it wet in wet in a very loose style, the wet paper allows the colours to merge, blend and sometimes, if your paper is really wet, even flow around the surface.  Artists will sometimes flick paint onto their paper and let the colours move and drip across the surface to give the impression of movement or life to a subject, sometimes increasing the tilt on the paper to get an even more dramatic run.  Alternatively they may use the wet in wet technique to create skies, suggestions of landscapes, animals and people.  This impressionistic approach produces some wonderful paintings which capture a moment in time in a beautifully soft and often very vibrant way.

My style is anything but traditional!  I do use the wet in wet techniques to create backgrounds, suggestions of landscapes and the foundation layers of my paintings but once these are in place I prefer to work with a tiny brush, often on a dry or slightly damp surface and with complete control on where I am placing the paint.  In fact my style is more akin to the way a botanical artist would approach their work – with absolute attention to detail and a desire to replicate the subject in a way that is as realistic and true to that subject as possible.  But achieving this, with what is in effect coloured water, requires a great deal of patience and a different approach to using the medium.

First of all, preserving the white of the paper for all the really light areas of fur within a rabbit, or the tiny light feathers in a bird would be almost impossible, it would certainly take a very long time!  I do use masking fluid, but tend to reserve it for masking out my main subject so I can apply the mottled / muted backgrounds around them.  I may also use masking fluid to preserve a small area of white in a largely colourful subject and I have also been known to use it to create a suggestion of layers and depth within say a teasel head, nest, moss, grass or sand.  On the whole, I actually add my white highlights last, over the top of the colours.  Initially I would use a mixed media technique and had either a tube of white gouache or one of white acrylic as part of my kit.  I simply used a fine brush and added the white as and where I needed it.  However, I now favour using a watercolour white – it has to be an opaque version and used in the right way, you can achieve exactly the same as you can with gouache or acrylic.

I also favour using very tiny brushes.  My main ‘go to’ brush for fine detail is a Winsor and Newton, Cotman Series 111 size 00.  This is a good quality, synthetic brush made from a mixture of fibres.  The thicker fibres give the brush strength whereas the thinner fibres enable it to carry colour and water well.  When working with my finer brushes, generally the surface needs to be really dry or at the very most slightly damp.  This enables me to have much more control of the paint and water and allows very precise lines and detail to be created.  Working with a slightly damp surface creates a more blended look to the marks and that can work for creating depth, dimension and realism.

I am a firm believer in ‘doing what is right for you’.  Personally I like my paintings to be as realistic as possible.  Whilst I am in awe of hyperrealism this is not a style for me to personally try and achieve.  I prefer my paintings to look like paintings – maybe a bit real at first glance, but certainly a painting when you get up close.  How about you, what sort of painting style do you prefer and why?
Until the next time, don’t forget to keep them brushes wet!

Stretching Watercolour Paper

Stre e e e e e e e e e e e etch

There are so many ways I’ve seen people stretch paper, from simply wetting the back of a sheet and gum taping it down to a board, soaking the paper in the tub for a few minutes and attaching it to a specially made stretcher board, or again gum taping it down to a board then stapling around the edges so it dries drum tight. I have tried all of these methods not always successfully!
One thing to remember is that if your paper is 140lb weight sized or less and you intend on using a lot of wet in wet techniques, it will need stretching to help prevent warping issues.

Gum tape
Unfortunately this is something which I have never had much success with!  You are supposed to wet the tape by dipping pre-cut lengths into a bowl of water then laying at least an inch over the edge of the already soaked watercolour paper.  I have found however that the tape can start to lift when dry.  Should you be using an old board for stretching paper you can add heavy duty staples to go around the edge of the wet paper to ensure it dries nice and flat.
This method does work well but you are then left with the need to remove all the staples after you have completed your painting, so quite time consuming…….plus I don’t like damaging my boards with staples!

Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Wetting the back of watercolour paper
This is a quick method to stretch paper and it does work ….. well sort of.  Use a wet sponge to go over the back of a sheet of paper a few times, don’t rub the water in or you risk damaging the paper.  Once soaked you then move the wet sheet to a dry board, placing it wet side down. Attach your masking tape to the dry side and this will hold the paper down flat whilst it dries.
This does work but you may need a bit of trial and error to have success every time!
That said, lightly wetting the back of a painting that has warped (cockled) and sticking it to a board as detailed above, can be a good way of flattening out a bendy painting. 
I would personally try this out on an old painting or test sheet first just to make sure I am confident with the method before I ruin things!

Stretcher boards
Shop bought stretcher boards work well but you do have to work with pre-made sizes. I have made my own using three thin sheets of plywood with one sheet smaller than the other two.  Glue all three together with the smaller one in the middle, allowing an even gap for the sandwich.
Seal the wood with a couple of coats of exterior varnish and all is ready for wetting the paper in the bath tub for a few minutes!
This is ideal for those different paper sizes you want.  I find it particularly useful for A3 and A2 size paintings.

Prepare a solid surface to work on covered in an old cloth.  Lay the wet watercolour paper onto the surface and place the stretcher board centrally on the paper.  Lift one edge of the board upwards and gently ease the paper into the gap between the boards, I found an old paintbrush helped with this.  With the paper partially in the gap hold it in place with some climbing rope or plastic tubing cut to size.  Repeat the process but keep an eye out for any air bubbles and use a wet sponge to gently ease these out before finishing with the fourth side.

Pre-stretched block pads
For speed and complete ease of use my preferred choice for the majority of my paintings is to use a block pad of watercolour paper.  This is literally all ready to go!  The paper is pre-stretched and is glued around all four edges with just a small gap at the top of the sheet.  You will get very minimal cockling with this type of paper and when your painting is finished simply slide a palette knife or guitar pick into the gap and around the pad to remove the sheet of paper.  Definitely my preferred choice for a non hassle way of painting without the need to mess about stretching paper!
Hope this helps a little,
PS “Keep them brushes wet!”

Harvest Mouse – Micromys minutus

With the crops ripening around us the classic image of a harvest mouse balancing on an ear of wheat comes to mind.  At between 4 and 6g they have no difficulty sitting on the flimsiest of plants, but spotting them is a different matter altogether; they are very elusive and measuring just 5-7cm they are very tiny too!  We’ve seen them in a captive situation but never in the wild.  The photos for my harvest mice projects have been provided by David Newby and Roger Wasley, two very talented photographers whose work can be found on Flickr, hats off to them, as harvest mice move very quickly!!

Characterised by their russet brown fur, a little snub nose and a fur-less prehensile tail, which measures almost as long as their body, they are definitely cute!  Their tail acts as a 5th limb, very handy as they move through the vegetation looking for seeds, berries and insects.  In the wild in England, they can be found southwards from central Yorkshire.  There are understood to be isolated pockets of them in Scotland and Wales but these are thought to have occurred as a result of captive populations escaping or being released.

On average a harvest mouse will live for approximately 18 months.  They tend to breed between late May and October, although in mild winters they may carry on for longer.  On average they will have 2 – 3 litters a year.  They build a ball shaped nest, made from tightly woven grasses, usually sited above 30cm in dense vegetation.  The female will generally have around 6 young and whilst blind and hairless at birth, they grow incredibly quickly and by the 11th day they can be ready for exploring the big wide world – or at least the area around their nest!  After about 16 days the mother will leave her young to fend for themselves, but, a bit like wrens, they continue to return to the nest.  A new nest is created for the next litter as the old nest can become quite worn out with all the toing and froing!

Harvest mice certainly live life on the edge, they have many predators – foxes, cats, stoats, weasels, owls, hawks and other large birds.  The number of species eyeing them up as a light snack means that they are always on the alert.  They have an acute sense of hearing and will either freeze where they are or drop to the ground whenever they hear something approaching nearby.  Their small body size and the need to keep warm mean they have a high metabolic rate and they are therefore always on the go.

Sadly changes to our rural landscape have probably resulted in declines in our harvest mouse populations, however, the mouse is now known to live in a much wider habitat and is not just exclusively found within cereal crops.  They remain a species for which there are conservation plans in place, hopefully in the future their place within our countryside will be more secure and stable.  

If like me you are taken up with these cute little characters, I have many tutorials featuring them!  So why not have a go at painting one, or maybe two…..three…four!  I have a couple of PDFs featuring harvest mouse, a full length real time video on Patreon and Vimeo and a DVD featuring the cheeky chappy above.  Or if you don’t want to paint your own, why not check out my online store, as I have a few of my harvest mouse paintings for sale!!
Until the next time, keep those brushes wet and have a great weekend. Paul

Pied Flycatcher Painting – Part 2

So, to carry on from where we left off last week.  We are at the point where I had my reference material decided upon and I was just about to put brush or was that pencil to paper?!  Indeed, pencil was actually the first place that I started.  Bear in mind that this painting was completed several years ago, this was in the days when I was printing my images in draft format, covering the back of the paper in graphite, and then tracing the image by drawing around the main outlines with enough pressure to transfer the graphite to my watercolour paper.  I’ve since discovered actual graphite paper and what a day that was!

For anyone who regularly follows my work you will know that I work my way around a painting.  I almost always start with the eye and I like to finish off sections before moving on to other areas.  You can see in the image below, that I have applied a pink toned background wash and have used this to build the black detail on top.  The pink gives a warm feeling to the feathers, it takes away the starkness of a flat black and I would have mixed a similar colour in with the black paint to warm it too.  My paintings are built with a layering technique, the feather details are created in 3-4 layers of fine lines, working over and over the same areas to give the depth of colour and detail needed.  As we are effectively working with coloured water, applying the same colour layer upon layer will gradually deepen and intensify the colour until you get the result you want.

With any bird painting it is important to take note of the different type of feathers – for instance those on the head are very different to those on the wings and tail.  Whilst the colours may be the same, the brush strokes needed to make the feathers look real are often very different.  The line lengths and directions can vary considerably and it is really important to note this before getting carried away thinking that it is simply a case of filling in an area with one colour in one direction!  I very often make a few reference marks within an area, indicating and reminding myself of the sorts of lines I need to be using and the direction they are running in.  This can save a lot of time and frustration later!

I was lucky with my photo and had both birds in the photo together and in the position that I wanted them.  Putting two images together and getting the birds in a natural looking pose would be a lot more difficult and I am glad that I didn’t have to do that!  Like many birds, the male and female are significantly different in their colouration.  The male obviously giving rise to the ‘pied’ part of their name and the female a different colour altogether!  Both have large eyes in comparison to their bodies and in bird books they are often loosely associated with robins – a bird which also has quite large eyes compared to its size.  The formation of their feathers was the same for both these birds, this is not always the case.  I was able to use similar brush strokes on the female building the colours from a brown spectrum instead. 

If you read my last blog you will know that a natural setting was needed for this painting, so rather than having the birds on a box we wanted them on the side of a tree – supposedly going into a natural hole in the bark instead…..artistic licence and all that!  I wanted to paint a detailed background so felt that I needed an image to work from and felt this section of a nearby tree would work.

Take a look at the two photos and see if you can work out which section of the bark and ivy I used!  Having already painted both birds I had to carefully cut in around them with my washes and detail work.  I decided to approach this in sections, applying the background wash, a rough suggestion of bark and then building layer on layer and colour on colour to finally finish with a good representation of the photo.  Finished off by my well known white highlights.  I suspect back then these were in watered down white acrylic.  As you know, I now use an opaque watercolour white instead.

There you have it, a very brief overview of how I created this painting all the way through from start to finish.  Whilst I absolutely love painting from my own reference photos I rarely get the opportunity these days to devote the time to capturing those all important ‘just right’ photos.  I am fortunate to have some very good photographers who put in those hours and are happy for me to use their photos in my work.  I could not do what I do without them, so a very BIG Thank You to each and every one of them.  I really do appreciate your generosity and kindness.  

I hope you enjoyed that little insight into the whole process.
Until the next time……keep them brushes wet!  Paul

Pied Flycatcher Painting – Part 1

Back in 2013 we were very fortunate to be helping a licensed bird ringer monitor and maintain his bird boxes in a wood near Exmoor.  He was particularly hoping to encourage Pied Flycatchers to his boxes, aware that their numbers were in serious decline and hoping to boost the population as much as he was able.  At the same time he was helping with the data collection on these stunning little migratory birds.  6 years later and his efforts have been rewarded with the take up of his boxes growing year on year and numbers of Pied Flycatchers in this particular area seemingly on the increase once more.  So taken up with the birds he commissioned me to paint them but there was one proviso…..I had to take my own photo, and the birds needed to be nesting in one of his boxes!

Fortunately the nest of a Pied Flycatcher is very different to that of the normal inhabitants of woodland bird boxes (Blue Tit, Great Tit & Nuthatch), so we knew exactly which boxes they had taken up residence in and then it was just a matter of time whilst we waited for the eggs to be laid and the chicks hatched.

The eggs are really lovely, a single colour pale blue.  They take approximately 12-13 days to hatch and then the parents get really busy and we knew it would be the best time to try and get a photo of them, on or near the box.  Filming day came around and armed with my camera and tripod I set up the gear close to the box and then retreated quite some distance away with a remote switch that operated my camera.  The birds were not bothered at all, and were readily flying to and from the nest with all manner of insects and tasty treats! 

I took over 200 photos.  In some the light was too dark, in others the light was too bright, I had images of birds coming out of the box, going into the box and hanging on to the box!  But, ideally we wanted both birds in the photo and so after a lot of deliberation we eventually narrowed it down to a few possibles and then decided on the following image as the one I would use for the painting.

Herein lay the next problem as no one particularly wanted the birds painted on a bird box!  So we looked around for a few trees that may make a nice background and decided on this bit of gnarled bark and ivy.  That is the good thing about a painting, you can add in and leave out elements as you want and there is a sort of natural hole within the bark of this tree which looked like it would be more than ideal for our purpose.

Having decided upon the photo reference material for this project, I was ready to begin.  Check out my blog next week to see how I tackled this project and see the painting come to life.
Until then, keep your brushes wet.  Paul