A Realistic owl in watercolour – learn how to paint one!

Learn to paint a realistic owl in watercolour in easy to follow stages.  This blog is a bit different to the norm, something I thought I would try out.  In other words I’m winging it!!  When you have taken a look do leave me a comment below.  I will be interested to see what you think and consequently I may put up more posts like this.

Tawny Owl painted realistically in watercolour by Paul Hopkinson

Tawny Owls are essentially a brown bird but in this painting you will be working with red, blue, yellow and green!  (Anyone would think we were painting a parrot!) The video is filmed in real time and I show you every stage of the painting.  I guide you step by step as I paint the project myself.  Painting a wildlife subject so that it looks realistic is about building layers, depth and shape.  It is also about mixing and working with the right colours. So you will learn how to do this and much more besides!
Take a look at the video it will give you an idea of how the painting builds up and starts to come to life.  In addition it will give you a flavour of my teaching style, at least I hope it does!  Do remember that the full video is nearly 4 hours long so has much more detail and guidance.

Should you have enjoyed watching this video, do leave me a comment as I would really like to know what you think.  If you want to see more videos – check out this page!

The full Tawny Owl tutorial is on my Patreon channel and I look forward to perhaps working with you there.  It would be great to see you create your own realistic owl in watercolour!

As always, remember to keep them brushes wet!

Dormouse Survey

Hazel dormouse photograph
Image by saguari from Pixabay

Yesterday we were really lucky to be invited along to watch a group of trained and licensed volunteers undertaking a Hazel Dormouse survey in some woodland on Exmoor. This all came about because I fancy painting a Dormouse and for a while now we have been on the look out for a good photo!  Anyway, I didn’t get a photo good enough to paint from, but we did have a really interesting time.  Dormouse have beautiful golden coloured fur, very large eyes and long furry tails.  Unfortunately with the loss of ancient woodlands their numbers are thought to have declined by a third since 2000.  Once their habitat is destroyed they do not disperse to new areas across open land, so their populations simply die out or lose their genetic diversity.  The south of England tends to be one of the areas where they can still be found, with small populations scattered elsewhere in the UK.  Careful management of habitats including the planting and coppicing of hazel alongside the provision of nesting boxes is helping, but there is still a long way to go.  The work of volunteers to monitor and hopefully increase populations is vital if this delightful little animal is to remain in the UK.

A Dormouse box has many similarities to the wooden bird boxes that we monitor and indeed they are sometimes used by birds.  However, unlike bird boxes which have an entrance on the front or side, the Dormouse box has it’s entrance tucked away around the back.  The extra wooden batons attached to the back keep the box away from the tree allowing mice to enter easily.  Monitoring these boxes is also different as the aim is to weigh, sex and age as many mice as possible.  This can only be done if they can be caught!  They are very sensitive to sound and may make a hasty exit so a quiet approach is needed.  The entrance hole is quickly blocked and the detachable lid is carefully lifted to show whether a nest has been created inside.  Should there be a nest inside the whole box is taken off the tree.

The box is placed gently into a large plastic bag and the contents very carefully examined to discover if mice are present.  At this point they have quite often run out into the bag, but there is still a chance of further mice being inside the box.  From their entrance hole, the mice will have formed a nest chamber in the centre of the material, gently feeling into this chamber will reveal whether there are any further mice inside.  In the above photo this is illustrated outside the bag, but in reality this searching takes place within the safety of the plastic bag in case of any escapees.  Once the number of mice has been established and they are all accounted for in the bag the box is carefully removed.

Dormouse survey in a wood on Exmoor

Their comparatively large eyes and golden fur are clearly shown above and what incredibly long whiskers too!  On average they are 10 – 17cm long but very rarely seen as they can spend up to 7 months of the year asleep.  They tend to sleep during the day and are active at night.
The next tricky job is to catch the extremely quick and agile mammals.  As we observed, this isn’t always easy!  

Dormouse survey in a wood on Exmoor

Once in the hand, they are sexed and then transferred to a smaller bag to be weighed.   They weigh no more than 30/35g, this little one was under 20g – so at this time of year probably a juvenile.  Dormice will usually have 4 to 5 young, born in the summer inside a nest made from strips of bark and grass and usually constructed amongst branches or in a hedgerow.  The mother tends to her young for up to 8 weeks, at about 3 weeks old they leave the nest to forage with her – distinguishable by their greyer fur.  They keep this colouration for a year until they become sexually mature themselves when it changes to the golden colour associated with Hazel Dormice.
The information on the mouse’s age, weight and sex is carefully recorded and the data submitted to the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme.
The whole process is now reversed, a few leaves are collected from nearby trees, the mouse is carefully ‘posted’ back into the box hole and when the surveyor is sure that their furry tail is well out of the way the hole is plugged with the leaves.  The mouse is perfectly capable of chewing through these to get out again but they ensure that the box can be re-fastened to the tree with the mouse safely tucked up inside. 

Dormouse found during a survey on Exmoor

Dormice diets vary depending on food availability throughout the year.  Flowers, insects, caterpillars, nuts, seeds and berries all form part of the food they eat.  One of the best indicators of their presence in a woodland are indeed neatly nibbled hazel nut shells.

Hazel nuts eaten by dormice
©People's Trust for Endangered Species Guidelines - Click for more information.
How to identify hazel nuts eaten by dormice
©People's Trust for Endangered Species Guidelines - Click for more information.

Not all Dormouse boxes will have animals inside, many will be completely empty and some will contain bird nests or old disused mouse nests.  Of the 15 boxes we observed yesterday, there were only 4 with animals inside – 2 were dormice, but we also had a Pygmy Shrew and a Wood Mouse.  Very interestingly the Dormice will not over-winter in their boxes, they make a nest on the ground in amongst some dense cover instead.  One of the winter jobs for the volunteers, the same as with bird nest recorders, will be to empty all the boxes ready for the new season next year.  
This was a brief but fascinating insight into a different type of survey and data collection and we extend our very grateful thanks to all those involved in this yesterday.  And whilst I didn’t get any photos, Jo at least brought home a handy reminder of just how sharp rodent teeth are!!  😂

Dormouse bite

The following links may be useful for more information on Dormice.
The Woodland Trust
National Dormouse Monitoring Programme
People’s Trust for Endangered Species Nut Hunt

Thank you for following my blog, and until the next time, keep enjoying the wildlife near you. Paul

How to paint a Robin

Robin photo for a PDF tutorial

A little start to finish on how I painted this robin.  To begin with I needed a photo to work from, and this was a few years back when I had time to sit with my camera in bird hides and take some of my own reference photos!  We were at one of the Devon Wildlife Trust’s Nature Reserves at Halsdon, near Dolton in North Devon.  There is a super bird hide there, nestled beside the River Torridge.  We were hoping to spot kingfisher and otter when this little robin happened to land right in front of us on the branch of an over hanging horse chestnut tree.  A few snap-shots later and I had a photo that I was pleased enough with to use for a painting.

How to paint a robin in watercolour, step by step

The first stage of any painting is to get the reference photo down on the paper surface as an outline drawing.  I picked out the main sections of the picture – for instance, the wing edge, the line above the eye a few individual feathers etc.  You may notice I made a few changes to the twig the bird was standing on as I decided to add a bit of interest with a little twine of ivy wrapped around it.  There are many different ways of transferring your drawing to the watercolour paper, I’ve covered this in other blog posts so I won’t go into them here.  Choose a method which works for you and away you go!

How to paint a robin in watercolour, step by step

You know me well enough by now and will not be surprised that I started with the robin’s eye.  I carefully painted around the highlight, but if you prefer you could apply a little touch of masking fluid to preserve the white of the paper.  With any bird or animal subject it is really important to get the shine in the eye right – it gives the subject that much needed life and is the essence of creating a realistic piece.  Again, go with what works for you and if a little dab of white acrylic or gouache is your preferred way of doing this that is fine.  Having completed the eye I move on to the foundation washes for the bird itself.  I start with the lightest colour that I can see within the feathers and apply this as a wet in wet wash, ensuring to vary the depth of colour by applying more paint to areas that need to look darker in the finished piece.  These under layers are essential if you wish to create a bird painting that looks right and has depth rather than appearing as a cartoon like flat image.

How to paint a robin in watercolour, step by step

The bright orange chest feathers are the really characteristic part of any robin.  The shade of orange will vary depending on the light that your photo was taken in, I always have little bits of scrap watercolour paper near by and I frequently test my mixes to ensure that they are a good match to the photo I am working from.  If you would like a bit more information on this, I have just put up a video on my YouTube channel that you might find useful and interesting.  One of the advantages of working with ever darkening layers is that there is room for tweaking and alterations as you go along.  So if you find your robin is sporting a very vivid, almost florescent chest and you are working on a good quality paper, you should be able to lift off some paint to tone the layer down and ensure that your subsequent layers are toned back and a more appropriate colour before you apply them!

How to paint a robin in watercolour, step by step

You will see now I work around the bird in a systematic and methodical way.  This is certainly not the only way of painting, but it works for me and it ensures that sections are fully dry and do not bleed into one another.  This would be fine if I was working on a loose, suggestive style of painting, but for a detailed, realistic piece of art it just wouldn’t work.  Having completed the back and chest, the next logical place to go is the tummy.  I’m left handed, so this way of working down and across the picture ensures I’m not constantly resting my hand on areas I’ve already worked on, and also means I can look at what I’ve already done without fear of dropping paint onto it as I move to the next section. 
Incidentally, a good way of protecting your finished sections is to have a piece of clean scrap paper underneath your painting hand.  This will ensure you don’t transfer any natural oils from your hand onto the paper, this can act as a resist to any paint you subsequently apply to the surface. 
Now, back to the painting…..the tummy area has a dark under colour, this is laid down first.  As this is one of my older pieces I applied the white using acrylic, now days I would use opaque watercolour white just to keep the piece more consistent.  Acrylic is an easier white medium to work with so a great way for beginners or those less confident with watercolour white to access paintings like this and build on their skill levels.  

How to paint a robin in watercolour, step by step

The little legs and feet were created in a similar way, with very carefully placed background washes applied with a small brush to ensure the fine lines and features are retained.  The shape and form of the legs and feet are then created with darker tones lightly blended to give a rounded, realistic feel.  Finally I turn my attention to the twig, applying some appropriate base tones but not being quite so tight and specific as with the bird.  Twigs, branches and trees all vary, they are all different, so anything goes and you can relax a little and not obsess over detail quite so much in this section.  Likewise for the ivy leaves which I added in, I looked at a few photos of ivy leaves and just went with the flow, adding veins in them here and there and some variation in colour to suggest the light hitting the tree from a certain direction casting shadow on one side.

How to paint a robin in watercolour, step by step

There you go, a little insight into this painting which hopefully you have enjoyed.  I couldn’t finish these ramblings without adding that back in 2013 I was absolutely thrilled when the full tutorial on how to paint this robin appeared in Leisure Painter magazine, and not only that, but the finished painting was on the front cover!

Robin PDF featured in Leisure Painter magazine

This blog is obviously just a quick overview of the whole process should you be interested in having a go at this project I have it available on my website as a PDF downloadable lesson.   And, as a thank you for reading all the way through to the end of the blog here’s a coupon code for you to get 50% off the price too.  Just type in RobinBlog at the checkout. 

Until the next time, keep them brushes wet.  Paul

Using watercolour to paint detail

Step by step tutorial on painting a peacock in watercolour

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.

Painting a hare's eye in watercolour

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.

Step by step stages to painting a rabbit in watercolour

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.

Meerkat in watercolour by Paul Hopkinson, a great example of opaque white in use.

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.

How to paint a parrot in watercolour, the button links to the video tutorials

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

Harvest Mouse in detailed watercolour by The Devon Artist
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

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!

Photo of natural sponges used to wet watercolour paper
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!

Making a watercolour stretcher board

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.

Types of watercolour paper, Bockinford Block, St Cuthberts Mill, my favourite paper!

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!”