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

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 😉

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. 😉
Paul