Posted in Bird Art, Caran d'Ache Supracolor, Nova Scotia bird art, Watercolour pencil

Fast and loose…

My pictures take a long time to paint, generally. Mostly because I have a very precise style, with lots of detail. I’ve long thought I should try being a little looser. Puffins seemed like a good subject to try out a faster painting, as the big colourful bill tends to take the eye away from the feather detail. Get the bill and head right and the rest sort of follows. I suppose. In truth, the pencils are not the best medium for a very ‘loose’ picture, they are more suited to detail, which is why I love them so.

I have it in my head to do one of my ‘portmanteau’ paintings, three Puffins in various poses taken from different photos of Mark’s, so this picture also served as a preliminary go, getting the colours right for the bigger picture. I have also drawn this particular bird before, using this reference photo of Mark’s.

swimming puffin 1 watermark

Last summer, before I’d even purchased my first set of watercolour pencils, I had a go at this using a cheap set of coloured pencils, picked up at Deserres in Halifax, I was reasonably pleased with the result, although it was only a single layer of pencil, not the multiple layers and burnishing that a finished picture would need. I’ve never got back to the coloured pencils, even though I now own a couple of ‘artist’ grade sets. I really will have to have another try, trouble is I’m just enjoying the watercolours too much!

atlantic puffin watermark rsStill, not too bad for a very quick picture, probably a couple of hours total.  At least you can see what it is! 7 x 5 inch, coloured pencil on cartridge paper.

The watercolour version ended up taking all of yesterday afternoon (3-4 hours) and an hour or so this morning to finish, including the preliminary graphite pencil sketch. This is fast for me! I’m pleased with the head and bill, ok with the plumage and think that the sea could use a little work!

puffin rs watermark 2

‘Atlantic Puffin’ 5 x 7 inch, watercolour pencil (mainly Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

Posted in Bird Art, Caran d'Ache Supracolor, Derwent Watercolour, Nova Scotia bird art, Watercolour pencil


The Prothonotary Warbler is a small song-bird that breeds in the Eastern US and winters in Central America and northern South America. It is pretty rare here in Nova Scotia, although one is probably seen annually, and we can wait a long time between sightings. Isn’t it therefore ironic that, this April, three turned up at once?

The first was on a kelp bed at Sandy Cove, just outside Halifax. We were due to head up for an appointment, the day after it was found, so we decided to ‘twitch’ the bird and stay over. It was a nice sighting, but a little distant across a small stream. The bird was unbothered by its new-found fame and remained on its kelp, with the healthy population of flies, for several weeks. It was odd to see this bird out in the open in this way; the first one Mark and I had seen was buried deep in woods around a small pond at the Boy Scout Woods reserve in Texas, and indeed, their preferred habitat is hardwood bog.

Hot on its heels, another bird was found at Taylor Head Provincial Park near Sheet Harbour, again on the beach wrack. We did not go for this one, as it was even further away than Sandy Cove, but it was interesting to note. Finally, a third bird, a very handsome, probably male, bird was located at Pubnico Point. This one was just down the road from us and therefore merited a visit. It was again in the kelp beds near the trail and occasionally flitted up to a bare-branched bush right on the edge of the trail. Here it was unfazed by birders, photographers and occasional lady joggers with iPhones blaring rock music (she was very apologetic!). Even I was able to get some reasonable shots using my 35x optical zoom bridge camera, and one, shown below, was the inspiration for this painting.

prothonotary 3 rs watermarkFor what is ostensibly a yellow and grey bird, there are a lot of colours in that plumage! It also gave me the chance to use some yellows, surprisingly neglected in my pencil sets, considering how many yellow bird there are, out there. I will have to work on more North American warblers. I liked the juxtaposition of the colourful little bird with the browns and greys of the background and branches, and hoped I could make a reasonable picture of it.

Again I was drawn to a mixture of the Derwent watercolours and Caran d’Ache Supracolors. The Derwents had perfect yellows for the head and breast feathers, and a blue-grey pencil that I have found invaluable on several pictures, and proved to be just the thing for the predominant colour for the back and tail feathers. The Supracolors have a great selection of greys, grey-browns and browns that provided the perfect look for the wings. I am particularly fond of a wonderful set of olive green tints in the Supracolors, namely olive yellow, khaki green, light olive, olive grey, olive, olive brown and olive black. You would not think that you could get seven different hues from olive, but they are all different and have been excellent for lichens, mosses and other greenery, as well as the back plumage of this bird.

prothonotary rs watermarked

‘Prothonotary Warbler’, 8 x 10 inch watercolour pencil (Derwent Watercolour, Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

In case you were wondering about the derivation of the name ‘prothonotary’, the birds are supposedly named after a rank of senior clergy in the Roman Catholic church, although why so is a bit of a mystery. It certainly isn’t because the plumage resembles the robes they wear, since the clergymen wear purple! I’m also sure that protonotaries apostolistic (note the different spelling too!) don’t hang about in hardwood bogs, either. The word is also used for a principal clerk in a court, dating from the time of the Byzantine Empire. It is still used in some parts of the world, notably in Nova Scotia, PEI and, previously, Quebec; the Federal Court of Canada (where they are judicial officers, not clerks); Pennsylvania in the US; and New South Wales and Victoria in Australia. Not sure if any of these officials have yellow and grey robes! Thanks to Wikipedia for the info on this.



Posted in Caran d'Ache Supracolor, Derwent Watercolour, Landscapes, Landscapes of Nova Scotia, Watercolour pencil

Low Tide Too

Another image of the flats between The Hawk and Cape Island, this time in a slightly different direction. I took this picture late last spring and always liked the desolate feel of the flats at low tide, along with the single little boat left stranded on the sands. There was a profusion of rocks and some old, mouldy, wooden posts; all things I rather like trying to paint, and that lend themselves to my structured approach. Maybe the pencils are not the best medium for landscapes, except (perhaps) these very detailed ones.

the hawk 2 rs watermark

My original photo-if you look closely at the horizon you can see the outline of a beached lobster boat; rumour has it that the skipper had had a few on his way back to port, and missed. I left that out of the painting, though.

I have seemingly settled on using a mixture of pencils from the two ‘top’ sets, Caran d’Ache Supracolor and Derwent Watercolour. Each set offers something different, and even colours with the same name can be subtly different in shade, allowing an extra depth. I kept a list of the colours used from each set, again for a bit of fun, and was astonished to find that a seemingly limited colour painting used 48 separate pencils!

Derwent: blue grey, gunmetal, French grey, silver grey, Vandyke brown, bronze, sepia, raw sienna, burnt umber, cedar green, olive green, sky blue, spectrum blue, blue violet, sky blue, grass green, raw umber, burnt carmine.

Caran d’Ache: cocoa, olive brown, beige, olive black, brownish beige, ivory black, bluish pale, sepia, silver grey, black, greyish black, light beige, grass green, olive grey, charcoal grey, moss green, grey, umber, light grey, green ochre, mouse grey, olive, reddish orange, gentian blue, bistre, cream, bluish grey, sky blue, indigo blue, Vandyke brown.

I’m sure that watercolour artists can get by using many fewer colours and blending the shades that they want, but I never really enjoyed that (getting a lot of mud shades myself). I really like that someone else has done much of the blending with all of these pencils.

low tide 2 rs watermark

‘Low Tide II’, 8 x 10 inch, watercolour pencil on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper.

Posted in Bird Art, Caran d'Ache Supracolor, Landscapes, Landscapes of Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia bird art, Watercolour pencil

Low Tide

I’ve been a bit nervous of landscapes; I’ve been unsure that I could make a good go of it since they don’t generally lend themselves to the detail that I like. I decided that I really have to get more practice in, so I’ve determined to alternate the bird pictures with landscapes or wharves. A few days ago we took an evening tour around Cape Sable Island and ended up at the car park at the end of Fish Plant Road, at The Hawk, looking out across the flats at the Cape Light. The tide was low so there were rocks and sandbanks visible, so I took a few photos using my 35x optical zoom bridge camera (that lighthouse is quite a way away!). One in particular, attracted me to try and make a picture.

cape light 2 rs watermark

I liked the lines of colour crossing the view, where the water had retreated, and the yellowy grass around the lighthouse.  Part-way through I had a bit of a panic that the foreground was a bit empty so decided to add some birds, Brant geese in fact, to give the eye a focal point. I had taken a few Brant pictures on the same tour and was able to choose a nice grouping.

brant at daniels head 3 watermark

Not the best photo, (the birds were a long way away, too),  but there was sufficient detail to provide a reference for these small images. The Hawk is an important migration stop-off for Brant, and there are thousands around in the Spring, though maybe not quite where I put this grouping (artistic licence, eh?). I was reasonably happy with the final picture, and I feel that I have learned a few new ways to work with the pencils.

low tide the hawk rs watermark

‘Low Tide’, Brant geese at The Hawk, 8 x 10 inch Caran d’Ache Supracolor watercolour pencils on Canson XL 140 lb cold press watercolour paper.

Posted in Caran d'Ache Supracolor, Derwent Inktense, Watercolour pencil, Wharves and Boats, Wharves of Cape Sable Island

Another Wharf

Another Wharf…no, not a half-Klingon security officer, but another of the harbours of Cape Sable Island. One of larger wharves, Clark’s Harbour wharf has plenty of colourful lobster boats operating from there. I took a photo for this image late last year and have only just got around to painting it.

As is my normal practice, I used the Derwent Inktense pencils to really put some colour into the boat hulls, trims and things like the red lights, lifebelt and balloon on the top of the third boat. After that I switched to the Supracolors for the rest of the painting. I particularly enjoyed the challenge of the wooden posts and jetty edges, with the rope bannisters, something that I have not seen used at other wharves in the area. In fact is is fascinating to see the differences in materials and formats used in the wharves , even on such a small area as CSI.

clarks harbour wharf rs watermark

‘The Wharf at Clark’s Harbour’, 8.5 x 8.5 inch, watercolour pencil on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper.nother Wharf

Posted in Bird Art, Nova Scotia bird art, Watercolour pencil

Whisky Jack-two ways

The Grey Jay, also known as ‘Whisky Jack’, is an engaging little bird, inquisitive and busy but not always easy to see, preferring coniferous woods, low trees and bogs. It is found in every province and territory of Canada, which makes it the first choice for Canada’s National Bird, a choice I heartily agree with!

Last year, Mark was privileged to be invited for a day at Ellis d’Entremont’s camp in Cranberry Bog, where he has a group of remarkably obliging Grey Jays that provided lots of entertainment and photo opportunities. I always particularly liked one shot, of a bird looking over it’s shoulder whilst stood in a colourful bare twig and have had a go at portraying this pose on a couple of occasions.

Firstly, last year, it got the pen and ink treatment.


I was quite pleased with the resulting image, since the subtleties of plumage can be difficult to portray in only shades of grey and black, using lines and stippling! My pen of choice is a technical drawing pen with a 01 nib. I bought a box of these (Zebra Drafix) back when we lived in the UK (so 14 years!) and they are still going strong!

I recently decided to upgrade this image to a painting. After using only one set of pencils (the Supracolors) on the Piping Plover portrait, I thought it would be fun to try the same exercise using the Derwent Watercolours. In fact, I realised that I’d never tried to do that before, I’d always subbed in pencils from other sets. Perhaps a picture of a grey bird was not the best choice for using a set that I’d already stated is a bit limited on greys, but it forced me to be a bit less literal in choosing colours! In fact, the ‘Grey’ Jay has quite a few colours in it’s plumage and, again, for fun, I listed the colours used in the picture:

Bird French grey, burnt umber, gunmetal, ivory black, smalt blue, blue grey, silver grey, sepia, chocolate, burnt carmine, raw sienna, raw umber, Vandyke brown.

Twigs Geranium lake, venetian red, burnt umber, French grey, deep vermillion, madder carmine, bronze

Background Olive green, bronze, raw sienna

I also deliberately tried to draw faster and a little looser, as my work has been described as ‘technical illustration’ style, which is fine but I’d like to make it a bit more lively. It was certainly faster, being finished in an afternoon (although it is not as large as the last few pictures). I hope I managed to portray a little of the liveliness of these charming birds.

grey jay 2 rs watermark

‘Whisky Jack’, Grey Jay, 8 x 10 inch, Derwent Watercolour pencil on 90 lb cold press watercolour paper.

Posted in Bird Art, Nova Scotia bird art, Watercolour pencil

Piping Plovers

They will be back here anytime now, and Mark is checking the beaches daily! Piping Plovers are globally threatened and endangered, and are considered uncommon within their breeding range. In Canada, the best place to see them is undoubtedly the south shore of Nova Scotia, with Cape Sable Island (where we live) being a hot spot. The danger for them here is generally beach walkers, particularly those with uncontrolled dogs, straying willy-nilly into the marked breeding areas. Anyway, here is a painting to welcome back these lovely little birds.

Mark took some photos last year, as the birds arrived back and had not yet started breeding, on Crow’s Neck Beach on the neighbouring peninsula of Baccaro. Three separate photos were combined to produce this image of the stony beach.

piping plover rs watermark

‘Piping Plovers’, 10.5 x 14.5 inch, watercolour pencil on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper.

I have just taken delivery of some ‘posh’ pencils (Mark’s description!), a full set (120) of Caran d’Ache Supracolor II Artist quality watercolour pencils. They were difficult to find in Canada, the only stockist I could find on line was and even then they were sent from the US. On the positive side, they were here within 5 working days of order (and we are pretty rural!) and in perfect condition.

Up to now I have tended to use a mixture of pencils on my paintings, mainly the Derwent Watercolours and Marco Renoir, with odd ones from my other sets, but this time I wanted to give the Supracolors a good testing, so they were the only pencils used on this project.

Certainly the new pencils are expensive, at around $360 CDN they were two to three times more than my next most expensive set (the Derwent Watercolours). The question is, are they worth it? The set of 120 certainly has lots of shades, particularly good in greens and beige/greys, the latter being a colourway I use a lot in the wildlife field, and that is often missing or limited in other sets. The colours also seem to stay pretty true after wetting, as can be seen from my home-made colour chart below.

colour chart supracolor

Three trays of 40 pencils each, all in metal trays rather than the flexible plastic found elsewhere, make for a lot of choices. The pencils are all marked with the colour name, as well as a number (again, not the case with all sets). I do prefer to navigate by colour names. The pencils all have a colour fastness rating too, mostly 2 and 3. No watercolours are very colourfast, but these seem to be as good as any. The pencils took a good point and sharpened very easily, without cracking or flaking the wood case. This is a problem I have had with some of the other pencils, leading to a few very short pencils where the ‘lead’ has broken repeatedly. They were pleasing to use, the colour went on very smoothly, without any need to ‘scrub’ and they wet very evenly with a minimum of brushing. I would definitely recommend these pencils, following my first use. Although pricy, if they are the only ones you buy then it maybe isn’t as expensive as buying multiple sets of cheaper ones (unless, like me, you become addicted!). I can certainly see me using these a lot and, luckily, it is possible to buy individual pencils to replace worn-down stubs- for me that will be browns, greys and blacks, the reds will last a lot longer!

Just for interest, I recorded the pencil colours I used to create ‘Piping Plovers’: Slate Grey, Greyish Black, Dark Grey, Grey, Mouse Grey, Steel Grey, Light Grey, Cream, Orangish Yellow, Light Ochre, Brown Ochre, Cinnamon, English Red, Orange, Reddish Orange, Flame Red, Golden Ochre, Aubergine, Apricot, Granite Rose, Prussian Blue, Bluish Grey, Olive Black, Light Lemon Yellow, Vandyke Brown, Brownish Beige, Beige, Light Beige, Ash Grey, Black, Cocoa, Bistre, Charcoal Grey, Ivory Black.

You see, a lot of greys, browns and beiges, and this is probably one of my more colourful works!

too many pencils rs

So, what of the other, cheaper sets? I still like my Derwent Watercolours, a set of 72 Artist quality pencils, purchased through (currently half-price at around $100 CDN)but also available on line from a Canadian art shop.

My main issue with these has always been the limited numbers of greys, whereas browns and greens are well represented. The pencils take a reasonable point, go on smoothly and wet well. Each pencil has the colour name and number on the shaft and, unlike the Supracolors, they are numbered sequentially, so it is super easy to put them back in the right slot after use (maybe it’s just me, but I do like them to go back to the right spot!). Individual pencils can be bought to replace well-used pencils in the set. I would certainly recommend these as a good option if you don’t want to shell out quite as much as for the Supracolors.

The lack of greys was amply made up for by the Marco Renoir set. Described as Artist quality, they don’t seem to be as high quality as the other sets, which is reflected in the price. These 72 pencils, made in China, are available on for less than $80 CDN. No colour names, just a number, and they certainly do not sharpen as well, being a bit prone to splintering and the lead breaking. This might seem to be a minor point but can get wearing during a painting. Not as smooth to use as the Derwents or Supracolours, and they can need a bit of work to wet properly, but they really can be an excellent budget choice.

Note the shorter pencils, which broke whilst being sharpened. The set comes with a couple of plastic sharpeners that are pretty useless, and a watercolour brush, also pretty useless. Get better of both.

Two older sets are both Faber-Castell, one probably ‘Hobby’ grade (60 pencil Art-Grip) and one basic grade (36 pencil set).

The Art-Grip set has fancy nodules down the barrel of the pencil, supposedly to help gripping the pencil but I’m not sure I’ve noticed any difference. They take a nice point, sharpen quite well (I have had only one repeated breaker) and have a reasonable selection of greens, greys and browns. They are pretty smooth, but maybe take a little more wetting. No colour names, only a number on the pencil shaft. They are probably a slightly higher quality than the Marcos, but are harder and less easy to fill spaces. Unlike the other pencils, these and the other Faber-Castells can only be used on paper, and then wetted. The others can have pigment lifted from the point of the pencil by a wet brush, or the colour can be lifted from a paper palette. Currently running at about $110 CDN on Amazon, but I managed to get mine at a reduced price.

colour chart faber castell rs

This is the basic set, the first ones I bought in the summer of last year, and almost the only ones bought from a physical shop. These have a ‘name’ plate on each pencil, so I suspect they are meant for school use, and came with a really useless watercolour brush. They certainly worked to get me hooked on this medium, but I don’t use them much any more. They work well enough, but the pigment is probably a little weaker in these cheaper pencils (I think they were less than $30 CDN). Not a bad choice if you want to try it out, but I think you will move on quite quickly from these.

Another good choice for a tryout are these Staedler Karat watercolours, readily available in Staples at $24 CDN for a set of 12). They take a very nice point and I have found the black pencil very useful as a lining pencil, it is a very good black. I don’t use the others much. I think you can see that from the picture, unfortunately they don’t seem to sell pencils individually so when this pencil finally gets unusable, I shall have to pick one of the others to use for this purpose!

I have two sets of ‘Artist” quality specialist watercolour pencils, Derwent Inktense 72 and Derwent Graphitint 24. The Inktense pencils are supposed to be like an ink wash when wetted. They are certainly very intense colours when compared with other watercolour pencils.

Although there are 72 pencils, the palette is a bit limited, with few lighter hues, so I find them less useful for the bird portraits although I often include them in the boats and landscape works. They do give a ‘pop’ of colour. Unlike the standard watercolours, they are not re-wettable once dried, so this can be an advantage when  adding additional colour to what is already there. The pencils all have a colour name and number, sharpen well and the colour goes on well. They wet very easily. I certainly do recommend them if you have the need for this sort of colour, or if you don’t mind paying out $110 CDN for a set for very specific uses.

The Derwent Graphitint are very specialised tinted graphite, so they can be used dry or wet. I don’t do much graphite work, but this set’s palette of earthy colours appealed for the landscape work.

Each pencil is marked with colour name and number, sharpens well and goes on smoothly, considering this really is a graphite pencil and thus a different medium. I do like the muted colours but probably don’t use this set as much as I should. Too many to choose from, maybe so!