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Harvest Mouse – Micromys minutus

With the crops ripening around us the classic image of a harvest mouse balancing on an ear of wheat comes to mind.  At between 4 and 6g they have no difficulty sitting on the flimsiest of plants, but spotting them is a different matter altogether; they are very elusive and measuring just 5-7cm they are very tiny too!  We’ve seen them in a captive situation but never in the wild.  The photos for my harvest mice projects have been provided by David Newby and Roger Wasley, two very talented photographers whose work can be found on Flickr, hats off to them, as harvest mice move very quickly!!

Characterised by their russet brown fur, a little snub nose and a fur-less prehensile tail, which measures almost as long as their body, they are definitely cute!  Their tail acts as a 5th limb, very handy as they move through the vegetation looking for seeds, berries and insects.  In the wild in England, they can be found southwards from central Yorkshire.  There are understood to be isolated pockets of them in Scotland and Wales but these are thought to have occurred as a result of captive populations escaping or being released.

On average a harvest mouse will live for approximately 18 months.  They tend to breed between late May and October, although in mild winters they may carry on for longer.  On average they will have 2 – 3 litters a year.  They build a ball shaped nest, made from tightly woven grasses, usually sited above 30cm in dense vegetation.  The female will generally have around 6 young and whilst blind and hairless at birth, they grow incredibly quickly and by the 11th day they can be ready for exploring the big wide world – or at least the area around their nest!  After about 16 days the mother will leave her young to fend for themselves, but, a bit like wrens, they continue to return to the nest.  A new nest is created for the next litter as the old nest can become quite worn out with all the toing and froing!

Harvest mice certainly live life on the edge, they have many predators – foxes, cats, stoats, weasels, owls, hawks and other large birds.  The number of species eyeing them up as a light snack means that they are always on the alert.  They have an acute sense of hearing and will either freeze where they are or drop to the ground whenever they hear something approaching nearby.  Their small body size and the need to keep warm mean they have a high metabolic rate and they are therefore always on the go.

Sadly changes to our rural landscape have probably resulted in declines in our harvest mouse populations, however, the mouse is now known to live in a much wider habitat and is not just exclusively found within cereal crops.  They remain a species for which there are conservation plans in place, hopefully in the future their place within our countryside will be more secure and stable.  

If like me you are taken up with these cute little characters, I have many tutorials featuring them!  So why not have a go at painting one, or maybe two…..three…four!  I have a couple of PDFs featuring harvest mouse, a full length real time video on Patreon and Vimeo and a DVD featuring the cheeky chappy above.  Or if you don’t want to paint your own, why not check out my online store, as I have a few of my harvest mouse paintings for sale!!
Until the next time, keep those brushes wet and have a great weekend. Paul

Pied Flycatcher Painting – Part 2

So, to carry on from where we left off last week.  We are at the point where I had my reference material decided upon and I was just about to put brush or was that pencil to paper?!  Indeed, pencil was actually the first place that I started.  Bear in mind that this painting was completed several years ago, this was in the days when I was printing my images in draft format, covering the back of the paper in graphite, and then tracing the image by drawing around the main outlines with enough pressure to transfer the graphite to my watercolour paper.  I’ve since discovered actual graphite paper and what a day that was!

For anyone who regularly follows my work you will know that I work my way around a painting.  I almost always start with the eye and I like to finish off sections before moving on to other areas.  You can see in the image below, that I have applied a pink toned background wash and have used this to build the black detail on top.  The pink gives a warm feeling to the feathers, it takes away the starkness of a flat black and I would have mixed a similar colour in with the black paint to warm it too.  My paintings are built with a layering technique, the feather details are created in 3-4 layers of fine lines, working over and over the same areas to give the depth of colour and detail needed.  As we are effectively working with coloured water, applying the same colour layer upon layer will gradually deepen and intensify the colour until you get the result you want.

With any bird painting it is important to take note of the different type of feathers – for instance those on the head are very different to those on the wings and tail.  Whilst the colours may be the same, the brush strokes needed to make the feathers look real are often very different.  The line lengths and directions can vary considerably and it is really important to note this before getting carried away thinking that it is simply a case of filling in an area with one colour in one direction!  I very often make a few reference marks within an area, indicating and reminding myself of the sorts of lines I need to be using and the direction they are running in.  This can save a lot of time and frustration later!

I was lucky with my photo and had both birds in the photo together and in the position that I wanted them.  Putting two images together and getting the birds in a natural looking pose would be a lot more difficult and I am glad that I didn’t have to do that!  Like many birds, the male and female are significantly different in their colouration.  The male obviously giving rise to the ‘pied’ part of their name and the female a different colour altogether!  Both have large eyes in comparison to their bodies and in bird books they are often loosely associated with robins – a bird which also has quite large eyes compared to its size.  The formation of their feathers was the same for both these birds, this is not always the case.  I was able to use similar brush strokes on the female building the colours from a brown spectrum instead. 

If you read my last blog you will know that a natural setting was needed for this painting, so rather than having the birds on a box we wanted them on the side of a tree – supposedly going into a natural hole in the bark instead…..artistic licence and all that!  I wanted to paint a detailed background so felt that I needed an image to work from and felt this section of a nearby tree would work.

Take a look at the two photos and see if you can work out which section of the bark and ivy I used!  Having already painted both birds I had to carefully cut in around them with my washes and detail work.  I decided to approach this in sections, applying the background wash, a rough suggestion of bark and then building layer on layer and colour on colour to finally finish with a good representation of the photo.  Finished off by my well known white highlights.  I suspect back then these were in watered down white acrylic.  As you know, I now use an opaque watercolour white instead.

There you have it, a very brief overview of how I created this painting all the way through from start to finish.  Whilst I absolutely love painting from my own reference photos I rarely get the opportunity these days to devote the time to capturing those all important ‘just right’ photos.  I am fortunate to have some very good photographers who put in those hours and are happy for me to use their photos in my work.  I could not do what I do without them, so a very BIG Thank You to each and every one of them.  I really do appreciate your generosity and kindness.  

I hope you enjoyed that little insight into the whole process.
Until the next time……keep them brushes wet!  Paul

Pied Flycatcher Painting – Part 1

Back in 2013 we were very fortunate to be helping a licensed bird ringer monitor and maintain his bird boxes in a wood near Exmoor.  He was particularly hoping to encourage Pied Flycatchers to his boxes, aware that their numbers were in serious decline and hoping to boost the population as much as he was able.  At the same time he was helping with the data collection on these stunning little migratory birds.  6 years later and his efforts have been rewarded with the take up of his boxes growing year on year and numbers of Pied Flycatchers in this particular area seemingly on the increase once more.  So taken up with the birds he commissioned me to paint them but there was one proviso…..I had to take my own photo, and the birds needed to be nesting in one of his boxes!

Fortunately the nest of a Pied Flycatcher is very different to that of the normal inhabitants of woodland bird boxes (Blue Tit, Great Tit & Nuthatch), so we knew exactly which boxes they had taken up residence in and then it was just a matter of time whilst we waited for the eggs to be laid and the chicks hatched.

The eggs are really lovely, a single colour pale blue.  They take approximately 12-13 days to hatch and then the parents get really busy and we knew it would be the best time to try and get a photo of them, on or near the box.  Filming day came around and armed with my camera and tripod I set up the gear close to the box and then retreated quite some distance away with a remote switch that operated my camera.  The birds were not bothered at all, and were readily flying to and from the nest with all manner of insects and tasty treats! 

I took over 200 photos.  In some the light was too dark, in others the light was too bright, I had images of birds coming out of the box, going into the box and hanging on to the box!  But, ideally we wanted both birds in the photo and so after a lot of deliberation we eventually narrowed it down to a few possibles and then decided on the following image as the one I would use for the painting.

Herein lay the next problem as no one particularly wanted the birds painted on a bird box!  So we looked around for a few trees that may make a nice background and decided on this bit of gnarled bark and ivy.  That is the good thing about a painting, you can add in and leave out elements as you want and there is a sort of natural hole within the bark of this tree which looked like it would be more than ideal for our purpose.

Having decided upon the photo reference material for this project, I was ready to begin.  Check out my blog next week to see how I tackled this project and see the painting come to life.
Until then, keep your brushes wet.  Paul

Wrens

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.

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.

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!

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.

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 🙂

A Caracal in watercolour

Whilst preparing some Facebook posts I came across some work in progress (WIP) shots of the caracal kitten painting that I completed several years ago. Since working on this painting I have really refined how I achieve realistic hair and fine detail on animals. Some of my techniques and materials have changed, but looking at these old photos they still give a good overview on how to tackle a project like this.
Initially I start from a really good reference photo, this one was taken by our friend Emma Rose Buck and my grateful thanks to her for allowing me to work from it. 
The first stage is to get the image transferred to my watercolour paper, I use Bockingford and for the kitten I would have used the old fashioned method of covering the back of my printed image with pencil and tracing over the top. I’ve now discovered graphite paper which really speeds up this process!

For anyone who follows my work you will know that I love working on animal eyes, a cat’s in particular are full of depth and interest so once I had applied a loose background wash the eyes were the next stage to this painting. It is important to retain the vibrancy of colour within the eye, but at the same time there needs to be highlights and hints of glassiness to make them look real.

As long as I am happy with the eyes I will move on to applying some foundation washes to the rest of the cat. These give a basis to work off for the fur and can be varied and darkened with additional layers to really develop the form and shape. In the photo below you can see that I have added some white highlights. Unlike many watercolourists I tend not to reserve the white of the paper, preferring to add the highlights as my last layer with white paint. These days I almost always use SAA opaque white watercolour, but in the days of painting the caracal I would have probably been using white acrylic or even gouache. They all work, the watercolour white is more difficult to get right, so you may want to use one of the other options, but it is all a matter of personal preference.

I tend to work in sections on any painting, usually starting with the head and moving across and down my subject. It ensures you are not always fighting drying times and allows you to really concentrate on an area and fine tune it. However, it is really important to keep stepping back and viewing your work as a whole project – making sure that all the different sections work together and are in proportion and the right colour. In the photo below, I am gradually building the layers of detail on the head, working from light to dark and finishing off with the white. Again it is personal preference how many layers you add, there are no hard and fast rules.

Below you can see the next stage of the painting where I have added the white to the forehead area – it really does start to bring it to life. Should the white seem too intense try watering it down a little more so it dries duller or alternatively in one pass of your brush, introduce a weak wash of colour over the top to tint it.

The second ear is worked in exactly the same way and blended in to match the areas that have already been completed. When working on a reasonable size project like this, where the colour is quite uniform over large areas, always make sure that you mix up enough paint. Nothing worse than running out and having to try and remember what you did to create a particular tone!

Applying layer upon layer of fur can be a very time consuming process, often with the under layer I will use a home made replicator brush. This is similar to, but not as uniform as, a rake brush. It allows me to paint several small lines at once and cover a large area much more quickly. However, the result can look too even, as if it has been combed, so it is a technique that I only use on layers that are underneath and forming the depth rather than the visible detail.

When you are near to completing a painting it is often a good idea to take a complete break away from your work. Take yourself off for a cuppa and come back with fresh eyes, you are likely to spot areas that you need to work on or adjust. This could well be sections that you were previously unable to see whilst you were so involved in the painting process.
Hope you enjoyed this overview of my caracal painting, until the next time – keep those brushes wet! Paul 😉