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 😉