A Couple of Quick Portraits…

I’m still working through a long list of bird vignettes for upcoming Mark Dennis publications. To keep things interesting, I like to do a few birds, then switch to a landscape or wharf scene. The vignettes are deliberately quite small and simple, with little background, to enable easy insertion into e-books. There are currently two books on the go, an avifauna of Cape Sable Island and ‘Twitching Times II’, the story of bird trips since we moved to North America. The history of Mark’s twitches in the UK has already been documented in his e-book ‘Twitching Times’, with pen and ink illustrations from me (book still available!). Some examples are on the relevant page of this blog.

For ‘The Birds of Cape Sable Island’, I painted this Common Murre (or Guillemot, if you are in the UK). These birds are usually present in low numbers during the cold parts of the year (January/February in particular) and often seek shelter inside the wharfs, where unfortunately they often become prey to marauding Greater Black-backed Gulls. Nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, I guess.


4 x 8 inch, watercolour pencil on lightweight watercolour paper.

The second painting is of a female King Eider, another of those subtle beauties full of details in browns and blacks. This illustration is intended for ‘Twitching Times II’, since seeing it required a trip to Ste-Luce, near Rimouski in Quebec. This was of course when we lived in the Montreal area, so perhaps not quite so big a journey as it would be from here, but still quite a trip. King Eiders are occasionally seen amongst the winter Eider flocks on the St-Lawrence river but, unfortunately, we have not yet connected with a male in North America.


5 x 7 inch, watercolour pencil on lightweight watercolour paper.


This young Merlin paid a brief visit to our garden back in December, causing consternation in the visitors to our bird feeders. It took up a commanding position on our weathercock, perhaps dreaming of heading south, and I was able to take a quick photo through the office window. I do like the juxtaposition of the bird and the hard steel perch. The background of the original photo was a mixture of dead branches, blurred due to the focus, and I wanted to give some impression of that without taking too much away from the main subject. I almost left the background white, but in the end am glad that I went for some colour.


The original photo, with our rather battered weathercock. Apparently we were enjoying a south-westerly wind at the time.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I like to work in watercolour pencil and am quite addicted to collecting new sets. I mentioned my new Derwent Graphitint pencils in the last post, but didn’t say that, when ordering them, I was also tempted by a set of 72 Derwent Watercolour pencils. They arrived in the same package. Initially, I was not overly impressed, when I did my colour chart (a grid of the colours, wetted, on watercolour paper so that you can see the true colour of the pencil) they seemed scratchy to use. However, I persevered and found that, for this picture, they were my go-to pencils. I think they needed a little work to get the true pigment going. The set is quite rich in browns, though not in greys, but my Marco Renoir set makes up for that. I really think I’m getting to a good place with the pencil sets (and maybe even won’t need any more for a while!).


‘WeatherMerlin’, 6 x 8 inch, watercolour pencil on lightweight watercolour paper.

Tinted graphite

I admit I’m addicted to pencils, so when I came across a set of Derwent Graphitint pencils, I had to give them a try. The set of 24 pencils includes muted and earthy browns, greens, pinks, greys and blues. They are tinted graphite and can be used dry to provide subtle shading or, after wetting, more vivid colours. I thought they would add options for the wildlife paintings and, probably, for landscape work.

I had taken this photo of an old fishing hut on the bar between Inner and Outer False Harbours, at Cape Forchu. last December, with the intention of giving it a go as a painting.


It had a couple of dorys (one named ‘Lady Comeau’) beached behind it. I liked the texture of the hut walls and the muted colour palette. The Graphitint set (24 pencils) lacks yellows and lighter blues, so I supplemented with standard watercolour pencils. I went back to my favourite lighterweight watercolour paper and was overall quite pleased with the resulting picture. A few artistic liberties were taken with the electrical supply box and the number of dorys visible in the picture!


‘Fishing Hut, Cape Forchu’, 7.5 x 9.5 inch, watercolour pencil and tinted graphite pencil on lightweight watercolour paper.





I don’t seem to be short of things to draw right now, but sometimes some images appear that really get me inspired. My husband, Mark, does some excellent bird photography and he has taken to picking out images that he thinks I will like. When he came home with these pictures of male Common Eider, sporting their breeding plumage, I was itching to get started.

I loved the rosy breast on the right hand bird, and the green ‘Darth Vader’ helmets. I decided that three birds would make a nice composition, so asked Mark to dig out a good female Eider picture from his files.


Females may not be as showy, but there is a lot of fun detail in that plumage.

For this project I stepped a little outside my comfort zone in using a bigger and heavier format watercolour paper. I usually choose a lightweight, 90 lb paper that has a nice texture and takes the pencil very nicely. The downside can be a tendency to deckle when wetted, but this is largely eliminated by taping down all the sides of the sheet before starting. This time I used a 140 lb, 10 x 14 inch paper that I’ve had for years, lurking at the back of the cupboard. It doesn’t have as much tooth as the lighter paper and wasn’t as easy to work with. The results were different, slightly softer to my eye. The blacks on the drake birds were interesting to get some contrast between the feather layers. I think I had every black pencil in my collection out for this one. The female bird was a riot of browns and blacks, and was actually the most fun to paint. Eiders are weird-looking birds, they never look that real even when floating around in front of you, but they are one of my favourite sea ducks. I enjoyed this challenge very much.


‘Loafing Eiders’, watercolour pencil, 10x 14 inches, on 140ib watercolour paper.

A New Venture…Greetings Cards!

I thought it might be nice to make up some greetings cards bearing some of my images. The cards are blank, for personal messages or they can be used for short notes. They are on good cardstock, with a nice satin finish, and are 5 x 7 inches. White envelopes are included. Two sets are available:


The ‘Birds’ set has one of each image (5 in total), including Black-capped Chickadee, Thick-billed Murre, Eastern Bluebird, Evening Grosbeak and ‘Churn Road’ (American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow). $10 plus $3.50 p&p (in Canada).


The ‘Boats’ set has two of each of the three images (6 in total), i.e. Swimm Point Wharf, Stoney island Wharf and West Head.

$12 plus $3.50 p&p (in Canada).

Please Contact Me for further information.

House Sparrows, a commission

Birding friends, Richard and Jean from Montreal, recently asked me to paint a picture for them. The House Sparrow, an old-world sparrow that was introduced to North America, is a busy and engaging little bird, usually found around habitation, but is declining sharply both here and back in its European home. It is the symbol of Richard’s blog (http://sparroworks.ca). Richard had a photograph of a single male, perched on a bare branch in his garden, that I could use as a reference. It was significant in that it was taken quite a few years ago when the bird was much more numerous, it has been quite a few years since House Sparrows frequented the yard. Here in southwest NS, there are a few sites locally, but they are undoubtedly difficult to see. As the House Sparrow is a gregarious bird, I suggested adding another male and a female to the composition. Here is the finished picture.


8 x 10 inch, watercolour pencil on lightweight watercolour paper.

Thanks, Richard and Jean, for the chance to have a go at this great subject and for allowing me use the image on this blog.

Should anyone be interested in commissioned works, please Contact Me using the form for more details.

Landscape Fun…

I had never really tried to do a landscape, although it was always in the plan. I get easily distracted by another good bird to draw! However, I was determined to have a go. A watercolour landscape might not be best suited to my very detailed style, though, so I decided to have a go at something with a lot of detail. The answer was this picture I took earlier this month, of the lighthouse at Cape Forchu, near Yarmouth, with its very dramatic and detailed rocks.



I thought it would be fun to document the process. I do like a detailed drawing to work on. This probably stems from my original pen and ink drawing, so my first step was to get the drawing, in 2B graphite pencil, onto my lightweight watercolour paper.


It was quite a job!. After that I switched to the watercolour pencils to start to work in the sky. I do like watercolour pencils and find them fun to work with. The colour stays where it is put, but it is easy to blend into other colours using a minimum of water on the brush. The paper doesn’t ever get too wet and excess colour or water can be blotted off using paper towel. I have quite a collection, but they all have their own characteristics. It is relatively easy to find the right colour, with such a choice!

pencils-2 pencils-1 at-work at-work-2 brushes-rs

The Faber-Castell sets in the first picture are unusual in that they can only be used by drawing on the paper and then wetting it. The Derwent Inktense and Marco Renoir pencils in the second and third picture can be used in the same manner, but also a wet brush can be applied to the tip of the pencil to lift colour, or the pencil end can be dipped in water, allowing additional effects. The Faber-Castell pencils allow a finer tip for detail work. The Derwents are very intense colour, that looks like ink when dried. I generally use a mixture of these pencils, depending on the subject matter, but the Derwents don’t get used much in the bird studies. the last picture shows my main brushes…a no.4 watercolour brush for large areas, like sky. a wider bristle brush for water areas and a very tiny, 10/0 watercolour brush for the details…I generally use this one the most, which is probably why these pictures take several days to complete.


The sky and lighthouse are filled in.


Then I worked on the rockpool and the areas of grass, all yellowed due to having been under snow.


Starting work on the rocks. I decided to try for the feel of the picture, without trying to get the colours exactly right (it isn’t a bird, so I can get away with that!). using the Derwents meant that the colours are bright and pop off the page.


More rocks, working round to the front of the picture. There were more greens and blues in the rocks at the front.


The final picture. I enjoyed the challenge and it has inspired me to try more landscapes. If only there were more hours in the day!