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

Wrens

Watercolour painting of a wren by Paul Hopkinson

The Eurasian Wren – Troglodytes troglodytes – it’s scientific name bearing reference to its tendency to disappear into crevices and cavities in search of food or a suitable roosting spot.  The Wren is a firm favourite with everyone.  Indeed I’ve lost count of how many I have painted over the years!  The Wren is not our smallest bird in the UK, that award goes to the Goldcrest and Firecrest, but it is sill a relatively small bird compared to everything else.  Measuring just 9 or 10cm and weighing between 7 and 12g what it lacks in size and weight it makes up for in personality and numbers.  There are estimated to be over 8.5 million breeding pairs here in the UK and I bet, even if you don’t realise it, you will have heard them sing at some point.  For such a tiny bird they have an incredibly loud voice.

Watercolour painting of a singing wren

Wrens are resident in our country all year round so you never really know when you may see one hopping about in the garden or whilst out on a walk.  Whilst a small brown bird, they actually have beautiful markings on their plumage.  Their body is quite dumpy, with both short wings and a short tail.  The latter is often held in a cocked position – one of the wren’s most familiar poses.  They eat insects and spiders and have a narrow, relatively long beak which is ideal for getting into all those nooks and crannies where a tasty meal may be hiding.

Watercolour wren displayed in a white frame

Wrens can be found in a wide variety of habitats, they are found in low numbers on really high ground, tending to favour woodlands, gardens, farms, moorland and heathland.  Their small body size and limited fat reserves mean they are particularly susceptible to very cold weather, so when the weather turns cold they turn to one another for warmth and will huddle together to roost and see out the worst of the weather.  The record seems to be 61 birds counted in one box in Norfolk in 1969.  Just imagine that!  Come the spring and the warmer weather the males are much less tolerant of one another and will strongly defend their territories.  They set about building a selection of unlined nests with which they court the female.  When the female finds a home that meets her expectations she lines it with soft feathers and lays usually between 5 and 6 small white, finely speckled eggs.  Each is just 17mm in length.  The male in the meantime maybe courting additional females!

Wren's nest
Not a great example but gives an idea of a wren's nest

Nests vary in location and in the material they are made from.  The nest in the photo is tucked behind an ivy branch and is constructed of bracken, we’ve seen them made with moss and straw and tucked in a variety of little places.  Jo’s Mum even had a nest in her tumble drier outlet pipe…..!  The young hatch at around 16 days and remain in the nest for 2 – 2.5 weeks.  After this time they may return to the nest to roost or may use one of the male’s spare nests instead.  They are mainly cared for by the female although occasionally a male may help with the rearing of the brood.

Watercolour painting of a family of wrens

The female can be as vocal as the male at times, warning off anything that comes near her nest or young.  Many a time we have been walking along our local lanes and we hear the tut-tutting of a wren and then the tiny little high pitched noise of fledglings in amongst the hedgerow.  They move about like little mice and can be difficult to catch sight of.  You very often hear them before you see them.  There are apparently 88 species of wren.  I’ve painted 3 of them!  I guess I need to get a wriggle on if I am to paint the other 85!

I hope you have enjoyed this blog as much as I have enjoyed writing about one of my favourite little birds.  I’ve saved the best to last in the hope that you have read this far.  About a week ago we caught movement in one of the cameras in our bird boxes.  We looked up and this is what we saw……

We were totally thrilled with this and it definitely won over the TV for viewing that night.  Anyway, must get on, I have 85 other species of wren to get painted……
Until the next time.
Keep them brushes wet.  Paul 🙂

Nest recording for the BTO

You may already be aware of the volunteer work that Jo and myself undertake for the BTO Nest Record Scheme. Jo is a registered nest recorder and each year we try to find and monitor nests within our local area. With some super weather over Easter coupled with some time off, we spent a lot of time slowly walking around the local lanes and woods! Things seem to have got off to an early start this year and over half of our woodland bird boxes now have nests. Most are blue tit, though there are some great tit, one marsh tit and a couple of nuthatch that we are aware of.

The process of finding and monitoring the nests requires a lot of patience; whilst those in boxes are obviously easy to find, others require a keen eye and more often than not a bit of luck! We use binoculars, small mirrors and an endoscope (which plugs into my phone) as the main ‘tools of our trade’ and follow a strict code of conduct to ensure the welfare of the birds. The blackbird eggs in the first photo were simply spotted while looking into the crevice in a tree trunk. The blue tit eggs below – by lifting the lid of the box – and hadn’t she been busy with 12 so far! Blue Tit generally average between 5 and 16 eggs so this is a good clutch size and on our next visit we may even find more!

Each bird is different, the nest, eggs, clutch size, habitat etc. vary. The adults will brood for different lengths of time and spend variable amounts of time raising their chicks. The nest of a blue tit very often starts off as a few strands of moss. Within a week this can have become a complete nest, sometimes it takes much longer. When the nest is found with lining, usually feathers, we know that it is pretty much finished and eggs will soon be laid. However, blue tits will often cover their eggs before leaving the nest, so a gently investigation underneath the feathers is needed in order for our nest record to be as accurate as possible.

Investigation of nests is very variable, the photo below shows a Long Tailed Tit nest in a gorse bush. The nest is made from moss, hair, cobwebs and lichen and whilst elastic in nature, to allow for the growing family inside, is very delicate with just a small entrance hole. For nests like these we use a small endoscope which plugs into my phone to give us an indication of what is inside and our record reflects that there could be more chicks / eggs than we can see.

Robin nests are notoriously difficult to find, they are clever little birds and if they think they are being watched they will deliberately go in the opposite direction! They will sneak their beautifully made nests into the tiniest of spots and sometimes it is the smallest of clues that suggests that a second look in an area may be productive.

This nest was tucked well back in the stump of a fallen tree. We had spotted a pair of robins looking a little ‘shifty’ and a search of likely hiding places in the area revealed a nest that was being constructed. On a subsequent visit we were pleased to see that eggs were being laid. Blackbirds on the other hand build much larger nests, they are sometimes easier to spot, although this pair had gone beyond nest building and laying and had chicks well on the way to fledging before we found their nest!!

We never really know what we are going to find, sometimes we will be successful other times less so. Whatever the outcome we find our experiences nest recording thoroughly enjoyable and we feel that in a small way we are helping towards the bigger picture the BTO are building on the breeding success of our British birds.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about our work as volunteer nest recorders, I would love to read any comments that you may have and look forward to checking in with you all again next time.
Paul

A Jenny Wren Painting

Once again we’ve started our volunteer nest recording work for the BTO this year and one bird we notice while we are out looking for and monitoring nests, is the wren. The male can often be spotted singing from a vantage point to try and encourage a female. For such a tiny bird they have a very loud voice and can be heard from some distance. The male busies himself building several nests within his territory – these are neat globe shaped nests with a little entrance hole and made from moss, leaves and grasses. Though on a local farm we found them made from straw, so I guess they just use what is to hand! The female will inspect the male’s handiwork and chooses a nest that she feels meets her exacting standards! She will then line this with feathers in which to lay her eggs. We’ve yet to find a lined nest this year so this blog will have to be about painting a wren instead, hopefully we can report on an actual wren nest later in the year. 😉 So instead I am aiming to give you an insight into the process I take to produce a realistic representation of this super little bird.

The first stage is to draw the image on to watercolour paper – I use Bockingford – it suits my style and technique well.

I almost always start on the eye or eyes of a subject, I love to see them looking back at me as I progress through the piece and they are usually the make or break area. Should they not look right the painting can sometimes end up in the bin and I start again. At least at this stage I’ve not invested too much time!

For a bird the next area I would usually work on would be the beak. Along with the eyes the beak is the other obvious stand out feature on the face and as such it is really important that it looks right to give the bird a realistic feel.

Having painted in the two main features I will start to work my way systematically down the body of the bird. Initially I will put in some under tones using some base washes of colour. These need to be allowed to dry between layers so a quick blast with a hair dryer can speed things up. They are applied with a constant reference to the photo, even at this first level it is important to start to build up the darker and lighter areas.

I may sometimes apply more than one base wash to achieve a deeper colour, for the wren I left it at one and started to work on the first layer of detail using a tiny 00 brush and minimal paint.

There is nothing to stop you leaving it at one layer of detail, however I prefer to build the layers, working in progressively darker tones until I feel I have achieved the realistic feel that I am after. The photo below shows the results of adding a second layer to the face.

To this I added a further third layer of detail – it is subtle, but you can see the darker tones which are defining the shapes and depth within the feathers and facial features.

Having achieved the look I am after on the head I work on the same principal with the body and tail feathers, starting with a base wash and then adding finer details over the top in gradually darkening shades.

Whilst the legs and branch are different colours, my method is still exactly the same, starting off with a foundation wash and then building the depth and detail over the top. My final stage is usually to add the watercolour white highlights. I use an opaque SAA white paint, mixed to varying degrees of thickness and then applied sparingly at first and building very gradually. It is all too easy to get carried away and cover all the previous detail you’ve spent hours working on.

I hope that has given you a bit of an insight into how I build my work. For more details you can check out my PDF tutorials or should you wish to actually watch me paint, do take a look at my video tutorials on YouTube or my full projects available to subscribers on Patreon, or downloadable from Vimeo. All the links are here on my website.
Until next time – keep those brushes wet and wish us luck finding an active wren nest! Paul 😉