Taking my own photos

I’ve always really wanted to take my own photographs of wildlife to use for reference photos for my paintings. Unfortunately I’m rather constrained by time and, as I would have limited opportunities to use it, I cannot presently justify the cost of a good camera with a decent zoom lens! I need extra hours in the day then I could choose to be a photographer and a painter. 😉 Occasionally however, I do get the time and this is what I do and how I built up to this way of taking photos…..

Whilst there are of course some fantastic photographers who allow me to use their amazing photographs for my paintings, being able to take your own photo and create a painting from it is just a really nice thing to do.
So for a sum of £250 (a few years ago) I decided to buy myself a bridge camera. I went for a Fuji FinePix HS20 EXR with a cracking little zoom. OK, on an overcast and dull day it simply won’t compare to a professional camera, but it does take some cracking close ups and I just choose a nice day for taking my wildlife photos! 📸

So what else do I need to be able to do this? A tripod and a portable bird hide! Well a tripod wasn’t a problem and not too expensive but the bird hide! Well, let’s just say a purpose made popup bird hide was sooo expensive, so what else can I use? Well……..here goes…..

Now we have the ideal kit and I have my first bird hide set up in the garden! I know you are thinking ‘that’s a clothes drying rack and an old bedspread!’ Well, yes it is, but beggars can’t be choosers! I simply set up the clothes rack in the garden, opened it up, draped the old cover over the top and cut a few camera holes into it. I even had cushions 🤣 I sat behind with my camera and tripod and got some really nice photos of our garden birds!

The Mark II featured seating, more head room, some waterproof trousers, some pegs and even a bit of ‘carpet’!!

But then came the Mark III. Made with a garden cane framework and a bespoke cover made by Jo on the sewing machine, it featured various window slots, which were covered, when not in use, with net curtaining!! The whole thing was easier to set up, taller and very nice to sit inside, I even made a little table for my cup of coffee and biscuit!

Now the final bird hide is actually bought, are you ready for this, are you sure………..it’s a portaloo tent! Yes, it really is! This is tall and ideal to fit a chair and tripod inside and it’s even in a camouflage material! Unlike purpose made bird hides, this retails at a lot less and folds up into a small, lightweight bag.

You had better not be giggling to yourself, but remember it works and it goes to show you don’t need much to be able to take some nice photos of your garden birds. Just using you mobile phone through a tent hole (moving your hand very slowly) will get some nice photos too.

So if you take photos of birds or wildlife, do you have a homemade hide you can tuck yourself inside?

Until my next blog, bye for now,
Paul 🤓

Tubes v Pans?

As many of you will know I use mostly half pan blocks of paint. These are almost always Winsor & Newton and both student and professional quality. The latter have particularly good pigmentation, light fastness, transparency and colour! As the old saying goes, “you get what you pay for” – and in this case it is true.

Watercolour pan paints are made up from concentrated pigment and do last quite some time. Bearing in mind that I paint virtually every day, some of my pans are still the same blocks of paint from over a year ago! They become like old friends, you become really familiar with how the pigment works and its hard to tear yourself away from that familiar place and go with a different colour altogether!

What I particularly like about half pans is that you can really control your small washes of colour. You are able to fine tune the mix; each takes up very little room in your palette, so there is always space to try again with more or less water or a different combination of colours. Limiting the amount of paint in your mix will also ensure that when you come to painting you are not going to overload your brush with a well half full of colour.
Half pans are great for my detailed art, I have complete control of the colour and the loading of my brush before I even head to the paper!

Alongside my pan paints I also have plenty of tube paints, these are from a wider range of manufacturers; Winsor & Newton, SAA, Sennelier  and Daler Rowney.
You do have to be careful with tube paints when you first open them, they can sometimes have a mind of their own! The tubes are obviously full and opening a new one can result in a long fountain of colour! Once you have used your tube a couple of times there should no longer be a fountain but you may still get that slow run of paint coming out of the top. Lightly squeezing the sides of the tube will sometimes encourage the paint to sink back inside where it belongs. 🤓

Tube paints are certainly ideal for large areas where you need to be able to work quickly and have a good amount of paint mixed ready to go – a background or a large area of fur. For my backgrounds I tend to use no more than four colours, sometime three for a mottled background. I find using lots of colours can start to look a little muddy – but try yourself and see how you get on. Be careful though, using tubes can also be a way to easily waste a lot of paint. Try not to overdo your mixes and end up with way too much paint in your wells.

You will find that some manufacturers will give their popular colours their own name. Watch out for names like Intense Blue and Phthalo Blue, you may think you are buying two different shades of blue but they are actually the same colour! Like me, you will find your favourites and even if you can’t remember their name you will know how they work on your paper and how they mix with your other colours. But, it is really important to try out new colours and new brands – you never know when you will come across one that becomes your ‘new favourite’! 🤓

Do remember that all watercolour paints can be re-wet once the palette has dried up, even a few months later! Just add a drop of water and carry on using your paint; so if you have over squeezed a tube, don’t worry you can save it for another day!
It is worth noting here, that when your paints have tried in your palette it is a really good time to look at them and see the different tones that can be created with the one colour. The pooled area at the bottom of the well, shows the depth of colour you would be able to achieve with lots and lots of layers, where as the thinner layer of paint at the top replicates less layers on your paper. (This doesn’t work so well in plastic palettes and your palette also needs to be white! 😉)

Do you have half pans or tubes, or do you have both and if so what make do you prefer to use?

Until next time, keep those brushes wet (especially if you have dried up paint to use 😉.

Paul 🤓

Marsh Tit and Willow Tit

Back in 2013 I wrote my first ever PDF tutorial, little did I know then what it would all lead to and how many more I would write and publish! The tutorial was for this Marsh Tit painting, it was written at a time when I incorporated some white acrylic into my paintings in order to create the white highlights I needed. I tended to use it like watercolour paint, thinning it down and varying the thickness depending on the effect I wanted to achieve. I no longer use white acrylic or gouache in my paintings, preferring to stick with just watercolours. The PDF could indeed be used with just opaque watercolour white instead, and this would work equally as well if the consistency is controlled and used to your advantage.

With great trepidation I submitted the article to Leisure Painter magazine, and was absolutely thrilled when they published it in their magazine. All my life I had wanted to become a ‘published’ artist and be recognised for my work. This felt like a really big step in the right direction and I set about writing a further tutorial……

At the time of writing the PDF, I was taking a lot of my own reference photos. Jo and I were visiting bird hides and I had taken to baiting a suitable spot with food and then waiting for whatever came in. As you can see, the photo I took had the marsh tit with a seed in its beak, which I substituted for a tasty caterpillar in the painting. artistic licence!

In the process of taking my own reference photos I inadvertently captured a photo of a ringed Goldfinch. With a few more hours spent in the garden, I eventually had enough photos for us to work out the entire number on the ring. The bird had been ringed in Devon and we were put in contact with the ringer who we have remained friends with ever since and this is where we get on to the bit about Willow Tits which I know you have been waiting for! 😉

Yesterday we joined our friend to help with a National Willow Tit survey. The species is sadly the second fastest declining species in the UK after Turtle Doves. Visually they look almost exactly the same as a Marsh Tit – but their call is significantly different and the surveying was based on controlled playback of their various sounds in a designated area or tetrad as it is known. We had a full day of surveying, and now know the sounds a Willow Tit may make rather well!! We have at least one more day of surveying to undertake in a few weeks time, this will ensure we hopefully haven’t missed anything.

Yesterday we observed 3 birds that could have been our target species, but given the habitat it was felt they were probably Marsh Tit. Unfortunately with no call made, we cannot be certain. However, Willow Tit favour damp young woodland and we were surveying in pretty mature woodlands. These may well have held populations in the past, but they are unlikely to still be present and that is what the experts believe the problem is. Surveys like this help to provide vital data and statistics which can then impact on environmental projects and habitat management plans in the future. With a bit of help, hopefully this little bird can be brought back from the brink in this country.

Woodland Nest Boxes

As a bit of background, Jo and I are registered nest recorders with the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology), for two years now we have monitored nests in and around the village where we live. With kind permission of the land owner we have been able to site 50 boxes in a local woodland. These have attracted Blue Tit, Great Tit, Marsh Tit and Nuthatch. Throughout the breeding season we monitor the contents of the boxes and collate the information – whether a nest has been built, how many eggs are laid, by which species and how many young successfully fledge. The data we collect is used on a national level to analyse trends in breeding performance, which in turn help the BTO to identify species that may be declining or indeed doing well. www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/nrs.

This year we have decided to add a few extra boxes towards the top end of the woods. These were mostly sparrow terrace boxes which we had previously sited at a nearby farm and had limited success with. Whilst we’ve monitored sparrow terraces elsewhere, the ones at the farm just got dusty and cobwebby – nothing was interested in them! Too many much more enticing natural holes for the birds to nest in. Indeed the terraces we have monitored we are pretty certain were only ever used by one pair, they used different sections throughout the season, depending on whether broods failed or fledged. So I cut down these old boxes and made the 3 section terraces into 3 detached properties! With the breeding season fast approaching and a beautiful sunny day forecast we decided to get them up on the trees ready for the coming year. As it turns out, very appropriate timing as it is National Nest Box week here in the UK. https://www.bto.org/about-birds/nnbw

The woods are quiet, and our boxes discreetly sited away from paths so we have not placed them too high on trees; we are not aware of any disturbance to the birds and the slightly lower height makes it much easier for us to check what is happening in them. They are a miscellaneous selection, made to a fairly basic pattern, but adapted and altered slightly depending on the wood I have available and what I am working with! As we need to check the contents, we have hinged the roof section with a piece of rubber cut from a wellie boot!

In addition to the regular boxes we also have 3 boxes which we hope may attract Treecreeper. This species is definitely in the woods as we have heard their calls, but they are notoriously difficult to encourage into a box. Various studies have been conducted with people trialling different designs, but success has been patchy and a little inconclusive. We have 2 designs which we are trying, a wedge shaped box which has an open back (my own design!) and an oblong shaped box. Both have their entrance hole on the side near the trunk. Treecreepers only climb upwards, so need to be able to climb up and into the box whilst scurrying up the trunk. I will let you know how we get on and whether we get anything in these boxes at all!

Finally we sited a couple of bat boxes. Bats are a species that we know very little about, but we have found them roosting in our bird boxes so they are around in the woods. We were kindly given two different bat boxes, so have popped them into the woods in the hope that they may also be used. It will be difficult to tell as the boxes don’t open and the entrance holes are very small, may need to use my little endoscope attached to my phone if we want to see if they are being successfully used.

I hope you have also managed to get out and enjoy the spring sunshine, in between a painting or two! Spring is definitely well under way with lots of bird song and drifts of beautiful snowdrops. Should you have read this far, do leave a comment and let me know whether you have any bird boxes, whether they have been successful and which species you have managed to give a home to.
Until the next time – Paul 🤓

I can’t draw! Does this mean I can’t paint?

Do you trace or not?

So, do you trace or not – that is the question; and it has has to be one of the most frequently asked questions. So, can we trace an image or do we have to draw it out freehand? Here are a few of my thoughts.

One thing I do feel is important is to practice your drawing skills, this is a good way to hone your eye and to see the details, shapes, angles and size relations within a picture you are creating. The more you practice the more you will improve. As with painting it takes time to ‘get your eye in’, but focusing on just the outline and any significant lines is a good way to really ‘look’ at an object, or in our case an animal, bird, our favourite pet or a tiny insect!

When you look back at art history there have been a range of methods used to get a composition onto paper. Some are still popular today, I can remember being taught to use the grid system to upscale an image and this is still a skill I teach. Other methods have included dividers to get the measurements correct and camera obscuras. In more modern times we can use light boxes and projectors, the latter favoured by artists who are working on extremely large projects.

It is important to remember that freehand drawing is actually another skill altogether. Some artists simply draw and this is all they do. People who really enjoy the painting process may not be confident in drawing or even want to draw out an outline for a painting freehand. Indeed, many professional artists, simply do not have the time to freehand draw! For nearly all of my paintings I will use tracedown/ graphite backed paper to get the outline onto my watercolour paper. It is extremely quick, is always accurate and my subject is in proportion with eyes, ears and nose all in the right places! I can then get straight to the painting process!

So is tracing cheating? I personally don’t think so, I see it as a way of getting to the painting process much quicker and making the best use of my time. I see graphite paper as another tool; one that can be used to give everyone the confidence to have a go at painting whether they can draw or not. Everyone can start with an accurate outline drawing and to be honest this is probably one of the most critical stages when painting realistically. There are many people who want to learn to paint, they don’t want to learn to draw! They want to learn how to hold a brush, mix and apply paint, work with colours, washes and detail. Tracing an outline also removes the need to erase drawing errors, watercolour paper can be easily damaged and those errors will show as soon as you start to add washes – no one wants that. In my opinion tools are there to be used and graphite paper is simply a really good tool. 😉

At the end of the day, the decision is up to you; we all have control of our own painting journey and we do what feels right and works for us. Why not have a go at both, draw your image freehand and also trace it, paint one or both of your outline drawings and see which method you found the most enjoyable and rewarding?
Now you know my thoughts, what are your feelings about this subject – post a comment below, I would love to know.
Keep those brushes wet,
Paul 😃

P.S. If you’ve only just found me and have stumbled upon this page, both these robins are available as PDF downloads here on my website and the one above is available as a FREE real time video tutorial over on my Patreon channel. Have fun. 😉

Snow and Kingfishers

We’ve had a week focused on the weather; North Devon is not really set up for dealing with snow and things do tend to grind to a halt! My work fortunately enables me to stay at home, I can enjoy how beautiful everything looks and ensure our little feathered friends are well fed and watered. I’ve only ever painted one snowy picture – a little kingfisher.

I’ve successfully painted live on both Facebook and YouTube this week. Coincidentally working on a kingfisher but in a less wintery scene! ❄️ There is still some fine tuning to do, but so far things are looking good and I am hopeful that I will be able to continue to stream live on a regular basis. I just need to put my brush down for a few hours and learn about the software I am using and do some research on other options available for live streaming, who knows where all this could lead…

I do like to plan all my paintings before I start. This is even more important if you are working on a new subject or with a different palette of colours. Saving all your cut off pieces of watercolour paper will enable you to test your colours on the exact paper you plan to paint on and will hopefully avoid problems later on. This is also a good time to test whether your paints stain the paper (depending on the effect you are after) and will ensure that any lifting off you do is with non-staining colours.

Should you have watched any of my videos or indeed my live feeds this week you will know that I prefer to work in the traditional way from light to dark. The key to using watercolours to paint realistically is to build the shape and form of the bird or animal using progressively darker and more detailed layers. That said, any of you who know me, will realise that my last layer is almost always white – not at all traditional. 🤣 However, I find that the use of watercolour white or white gouache is what brings things to life – I’ll do a blog on that another time. Though with our world turned white, maybe I should have written about that this week!!

The key really is to plan first, allow plenty of time and of course take your time. Never feel rushed and don’t feel you have to complete a painting in one sitting, it’s done when it’s done!

I do hope your week has gone well so far, so until next time….. keep those brushes wet and I will chat to you in my next blog post!
Paul 😃

Going Live!

For anyone who knows me or who has followed my page for some time, you will be aware that living in rural North Devon we have struggled for many years with a very slow broadband speed. We often struggle to play videos with lots of buffering and sometimes things stopping altogether. A couple of years ago I tried to do Facebook live – but our upload speed was so poor that the quality was just rubbish. 😞 People got fed up with watching and I got fed up with giving the wrong impression about the quality of my work!
Since it’s launch in July 2017 I’ve had to plan well in advance to get my Patreon Channel videos online as each section generally took me a good 3-5 hours to upload! So a month’s worth of content was tying my computer up for the best part of 24 hours….frustrating to say the least! But, enter the Huawei B593u wifi router our new best friend!

The Huawei works off the mobile phone network and we now work off this router instead of our phone line. You can see we don’t get a brilliant signal – just one or two bars. Despite this, the other evening I started a whole month’s worth of Patreon videos uploading and the whole process was complete within the hour. 😁 If only we had known about this a couple of years ago!!
So, I thought I would see if I could go live online again –

and……yes I could! I was so pleased to be able to go successfully live. There was no buffering, the image uploaded beautifully and viewers were able to see the detailed brush work involved in painting a section of the kingfisher’s head. The version here on my blog is from YouTube it was downloaded from Facebook and uploaded to YouTube in a matter of minutes…..yes I’m still getting used to the speed and still haven’t stopped doing speed tests or talking about it! It is just such a new experience to be able to do all these things without worrying about our internet dropping out completely! So what is next……

Well, I definitely would like to do more live sessions, on Facebook, possibly YouTube (once I’ve researched how you do it) and most certainly on Patreon – the latter will be exclusive live sessions for my Patrons…..so watch this space and look out for me popping up live on your social media feeds a bit more frequently from now on. 😃
Feel free to leave me a comment below, maybe you have an idea for a live painting/tutorial you would like to see or maybe you just want to say “Hi”.
Until next time, thanks for following my blog and don’t forget…keep those brushes wet. 😉

My budget brush holder!

The traditional method of storing your brushes, especially whilst painting, is to pop them upside down with the bristles up in a holder. You even find water pots with holes already made to stand your brushes in. The problem I find with this is that the water left in your brush soaks down through the metal ferrule and into the wooden handle, causing that easily recognised horrible brush handle paint splinter!

Do you have the same problem with the paint on your brush handles splitting and peeling away? In the past I’ve resorted to wrapping sellotape around the handle, but it is never the same as the feel of smooth undamaged paint between your fingers. ☹️ So I got to thinking….. 🤔
Now I love to make things which solve a problem or that simply do what I want them to do. When I’m not painting or out bird watching I’m often to be found in the garage amongst my woodworking tools, hammering and creating on a slightly bigger and in a more rustic style to my fine detailed paintings!
Firstly I got my ideas for the design down on paper.

As you can see from my photos this is a budget idea so all you need is a cheap broom handle, a block of wood and a foam tube from a paint roller. You can also use the grey foam pipe insulation, this is a little tougher to push your brushes into but does still work.

I would suggest that if the piece of wood you use for the base is lightweight, that you may need to put something heavy over the top of it to prevent it moving when you push your brushes back into the foam, or alternatively blu-tac it to your desk to stop it moving. My base was a piece of old oak so nice and heavy and really stable.

Should you fancy having a go at making my ‘Budget Brush Holder’ hopefully the photos here are enough for you to give it a go.

Please leave a comment and let me know how you get on. Or perhaps you have another method of preserving the life of your brushes – I would love to know what it is. 😉

Until next time, bye for now,
Paul. 🎨🖌

A very busy week!

Having never written a blog before, I am still finding my feet with the sorts of things to write about on here 😉  Do let me know if there is anything you would like me to chat about – I’m happy to learn!

This week saw us finally emptying the 50 bird boxes we have in a local wood, it has been a job we’ve been trying to get to for weeks months!  The boxes really need emptying before the end of January as birds start prospecting for accommodation early in the year.  The most interesting box was one that we knew a bumble bee had been in, we got to the box and couldn’t open it!!  The nest had completely filled the box and was welded to everything.  It was no longer being used so we could fortunately remove it.  Click here for some more information on bumble bee nests.

My main painting project this week has been filming the next Patreon video tutorial. People have been asking for painted backgrounds and I also wanted to do something really cute that would hopefully capture people’s interest….. All will be ‘properly’ revealed later this month. 😉

Over the past few weeks my partner Jo has been working hard on redesigning  my downloadable PDF’s.   The content is still exactly the same, so I’ll still remind you to get a cup of coffee or take a break, they just look a bit more snazzy and they all have the same format.  Hopefully you will like the new design and find it easy to follow and work with. 

For those new to following me, my PDFs are available through my site but they are also available as part of the $5 and above monthly subscription on Patreon and for the current monthly PDF there is an accompanying real time video available to the $10 and above level, with access to all the video back catalogue!  All in $ I’m afraid as it is an American site, but it does all the conversion stuff for you.  😀 

My most popular post on my Facebook page this week was Toffee, an Alpaca which I had the pleasure of painting as a surprise commission.  This was a large piece, roughly A3 in size, so took some doing with my little 00 brush!  The photo doesn’t really do it justice, it was one of those need to see to appreciate pieces.  I really like working on larger projects and it is good when someone asks for this size as it forces me to put aside the time to do it!

To finish today’s blog and in case you missed it over on Facebook:

What do race horses eat?
Fast Food. 😁😁

On that note about food – we are hoping to get a bit of time for a nice walk and a lovely meal at a local The Old Farmhouse Kitchen this weekend, you should see the cakes there!! 🍨🍰🥧

So until next time, keep those brushes wet,


PS – Don’t forget to leave me a comment so I know you’ve been here. 😉

Welcome to my Blog

Paul Hopkinson, AKA The Devon Artist.  I specialise in fine, detailed watercolour usually of wildlife.  I teach my style online so others can learn my techniques too.
Welcome to my blog! Paul Hopkinson, The Devon Artist

Well it’s been a very busy Christmas and one where painting has sadly had to take a back seat. I’m sure you all know what it’s like to do all the visiting, chatting, eating and occasionally drinking.
I hope you had a lovely time and received some amazing gifts, preferably art related……oh just getting those new brushes wet for the first time!
I did get a cracking new microphone to be able to record some of our videos, ‘Watercolour Wednesday’ and ‘Monday Tips and Tricks’ should now sound a bit better! 🙂
I’ve also done a lot of research on social media, having discovered that my Facebook posts are not consistently showing on timelines even if you’ve ‘liked’ my page, I figured I’d put some content on my website for you to follow instead. 😉
Now the festive season is just about over, from next Monday it’s back to the table and start my next Patreon watercolour video!
Now if you start to follow my blog you may even get to see a sneak peek at the latest tutorial, so watch this very space!
So I’ll sign off now and get back to you soon, let’s make 2019 a creative one!
Paul 🙂


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