I was commissioned to paint this piece as a wedding anniversary gift for a close friend. The request? To represent the happily married couple's travels around the world in bird form! It's just a shame that 'Birds of South Africa and New Zealand Plus One Robin' was too long a title!
Birds featured, from top-left clockwise: brown-headed parrot, African fish eagle, New Zealand fantail (piwakawaka), tui, New Zealand falcon (karearea), European robin.
As always, I start off with a sketch. My underdrawings are usually done in 2H and HB pencil. You can see the sheer size of this painting from my pencils and erasers on the left. 19"x14"! It's the first time I've ever painted something this big. As is usual when trying new things, there were some teething issues. The paper I normally use (Canson Montval) isn't made at this size, so I had to opt for cheaper Fabriano Studio watercolour paper and I'm not terribly fond of it. But art is always a process of learning and experimentation!
The number one rule when working with watercolour is to work from back to front and light to dark. Start with your lightest background elements first and build up from there. The last thing you want is to end up painting in parts of your background around your finished subject, trying desperately not to disturb your paint! The only exception is when you're working with a flat black background, in which case it's sometimes helpful to paint it in afterwards. In the case of this painting this was a straightforward task. It's just a light grey blue wash, so I did this first and didn't have to touch it for the rest of the painting.
I focused on the two largest birds, the fish eagle and the blue crane, first, blocking in some shading before putting down some flat colours on the other birds. As the largest and most detailed parts of the painting, it took more layers to complete these birds. It's best to get a head start and let these early layers dry properly before adding any detailing! I always start with a flat base colour before adding anything else, which you can see on the branches and smaller birds.
I painted each bird in stages, layering up colours and details, one by one, letting each one dry for a while as I worked on another. When painting with watercolours there's nothing worse than ending up with unintended wet on wet effects by rushing a painting. This muddies your colours and blurs all of your detail. Don't add any more layers until the one underneath is completely dry! This can take twenty minutes or so depending on your climate. You can speed up the process with a hairdryer or heat gun, but I usually just work on another part of the painting or switch to another piece entirely in the meantime.
After this stage, I spent a long time detailing with a fine brush in watercolour and with coloured pencils, then added spot highlights in white ink. Then all I needed to do was seal it with UV blocking varnish and ship it to its new owner to be framed!
Fabriano Studio watercolour pad (19"x14")
Pencils, Faber-Castell 9000 2H, mechanical pencil with 0.5mm HB lead
Windsor and Newton Cotman watercolours
Five Star white Indian ink
Faber-Castell Polychromos coloured pencils