How to paint a Robin

RobinPhotoWeb

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.

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!

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.

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!

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.  

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.

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!

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

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!
Paul