There were loads of fabulous birds, and other wildlife, on our Australia trip, and it was really difficult to decide on favourites. The real specialities, like the Bowerbirds, Birds of Paradise and Southern Cassowary were definitely up there. Little birds, like the fairy-wrens and robins were very appealing. Odd-lookers, like Bush and Beach Stone-curlews, had their own subtle beauty. In the end, amongst all the fabulous choices, both Mark and I had a special place in our hearts for one bird, the Galah. Not particularly rare, in fact present in flocks on the sides of the roads when we visited Deniliquin, we both loved their beautiful shades of pink and grey. I wanted to see if I could capture those soft hues in a picture, so I looked through my photo files for inspiration.
I found a couple of photos that I thought would work, One, the single bird, was taken on our very first day in Australia on our way west of Brisbane to O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat-it was our very first sighting of Galah.
The other was of a pair, found snuggled together in a tree at Beaudesert, near Brisbane, several days later.
I thought I could group these appealingly. I liked the diagonal direction of the second picture, whilst the detail in the first bird attracted me. I decided that the tree would be the most appropriate setting, and that I could quite convincingly place the first bird on a more horizontal branch and in the foreground, with the pair a little smaller and, thus, apparently further back. I placed those birds a little closer together than in the original picture, to provide a bit more space to fit everything in. My preliminary drawing was quite complex, even without adding in the leaves, which I decided to do after the birds were completed.
What about medium? Well, the very soft nature of the plumage seemed to cry out for watercolour, so watercolour pencils it would be, on Canson XL cold press watercolour paper. I had a large pad, 12 x 18 inches, that seemed to fit the subject matter well. I haven’t used it much (framing will be a nightmare, I think) and it is far too large to fit on my drawing board in portrait mode, so I had to do most of this in landscape mode, working the image sideways-a really odd feeling, looking at the references sideways on. I thought it might affect how the birds looked; might actually make them look unnatural, but it worked ok. Perhaps because I concentrated on doing small sections rather than the overall picture. I also turned the paper so that I wasn’t leaning over too far to do sections, something that isn’t normal for me. usually, I stick down my paper along all four edges (I use Frogtape painters tape for delicate surfaces for that) and leave it like that until I finish, so this was a new departure. At least the watercolour pencils don’t need much water, so the paper didn’t buckle, even when not so securely fastened.
As usual I worked the birds first, starting with eyes and bills on each individual bird; first finishing the uppermost bird, before moving down to the centre one and then the one at the bottom. After that, I lightly drew in some leaves and the branches from the photo. I noticed that the photo had some well-defined leaves and then, further back, some greenish leaf-shapes, not defined. I did the defined leaves first, some as in the photo and adding in a few extra of my own where I thought they were needed. Lots of shades of green, from both of the main pencil sets, with touches of Green-gold, Brown Ochre, Light Ochre and Burnt Siena, made up the leaves, whilst the branches were brownish green (where the pair were sitting) or tones of warm and cool greys (framing the scene). Finally, in an attempt to put in the less-defined foliage, I added vaguely leaf-like shapes in Olive and Olive Brown, behind the previously-drawn leaves. I was quite pleased with that effect.
The original picture had a fairly pale, almost white sky behind the tree, but I wanted to give it a slightly sunnier aspect, so decided on a light sky blue. I decided to shave pencil into my watercolour palette and wet it for this. This seems to be quite successful at avoiding a ‘tide mark’ effect when wetting pencil over a large area. I chose to use the Derwent Watercolours for this, although the Sky Blue in that set is unfortunately not colourfast. Instead I used a mixture of Light Blue and Silver Grey, which maybe was a little bluer that I was aiming for. A light blotting with paper towel, on the wet areas, lightened the effect to a cloudy blue. I was pretty happy with the final effect.
‘Galahs!’, 12 x 18 inch watercolour pencil (Caran D’ache Supracolor, Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer, with a couple of Derwent Watercolour on background) on Canson XL 140 lb (300 g) cold press watercolour paper.
I said I’d be doing a lot of Australian birds, and I’m not done yet. Thinking of those Fairy-wrens, or a Cassowary, next!