Posted in Bird Art

Halcyon Days

‘Halcyon’ denotes a time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful. It comes from the name of a mythical bird, usually identified with the kingfisher, supposed to breed at winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea and with the power to calm the winds and tides. All very fanciful but the name has since been used as a genus name for some of the tree kingfishers, albeit not the species in this picture (Alcedo atthis). However, it is a blast from the past for me, so the title is appropriate!

Common (or sometimes called Eurasian) Kingfisher is an old world species of Europe and Asia, and is the only kingfisher commonly found in the UK, any others are extremely rare vagrants. They are small birds, about 6 inches long, and usually solitary, but they do pair up in the breeding season, hence the image shows a breeding pair. The female is the right hand bird, identifiable by the red/orange lower mandible of the bill. Despite the gorgeous plumage, these birds are often very difficult to see as they remain stationary looking for fish, so a sighting is always extra special. They are depicted sitting in a marsh of Greater Reedmace (Bulrushes).

Common Kingfishers were present on the park in the UK where Mark was a Warden (and where we first met), before we moved to Canada, and so evoke happy memories for us. I wanted to paint a picture as a gift for my parents, so this subject seemed like a good idea. I shall be sending this one off soon!

common kingfisher rs watermark

‘Amongst the Bulrushes’, Common Kingfishers, 8 x 10 inch watercolour pencil on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper.

Posted in Bird Art, Nova Scotia bird art

A Promise of Spring

Spring…at this time of the year it seems a long time coming, so I wanted to paint a picture that really felt like Spring and raise the spirits. Many of the bird portraits involve a lot of grey, brown and black, fun to do but maybe a bit repetitive,  so I also wanted a chance to use some of those lovely colours in my pencil sets!

We are lucky enough to have 5 or 6 old crab apple trees in our garden, gnarly things but that also have a good crop of apples for the birds and the deer every year. The blossom comes out in May, and for a week or two is glorious. To our delight, last May, a flock of Cedar Waxwings visited and proceeded to take flower buds. This was such a colourful spring-like image, I had to have a go. I don’t do many flowers (not yet, anyway), so they were a new experience and a chance to use up to 7 different shades of pink! Waxwings have a very subtle colour, also, and a blend of up to five pencils were required to match that lovely pinky/cinnamon glow.

cedar waxwings rs watermark

‘A Promise of Spring’, Cedar Waxwings in apple trees in May, 10 x 13 inch, watercolour pencil on 140 lb watercolour paper.

Thanks to Mark for his beautiful reference photos:

aa cedar 2 foliage watermark

aa cedar 1 foliage watermark

A couple of examples, above, from which I took images to make my picture. I had to simplify the foliage a little, otherwise I would still be painting flowers. As it was, the picture took most of the week to complete!

We get both types of Waxwing here; the Bohemian Waxwing seems to be the most common one in the winter, the Cedar seems to be more of a spring bird, although they are present all year round. Mixed flocks are not unusual, either.

I used a new watercolour pad. I already had some 140 lb paper, that I had owned for years, and used on the ‘Loafing Eiders’ picture, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the lighterweight paper, probably because it did not have quite so much ‘tooth’ on the paper so it seemed harder to transfer pigment from the pencils. For the record, the heavier paper is ‘The Langton’ by Daler-Rowney in the 10 x 14 ib size, and my lightweight paper is Bienfang 90 lb cold press in the 9 x 12 inch size. On our last visit to Halifax, I was able to nip into Michaels, and picked up a block of Canson XL 140 lb cold press paper in the 11 x 15 inch size. This one has a really nice, durable surface and proved to be a good choice for a larger picture. I think I have found a good alternative paper for these larger images.





Posted in Bird Art, Nova Scotia bird art

A Chattering of Starlings

Not everyone likes the European Starling, especially over on this continent, where they are definitely interlopers. They are, however, beautiful birds, with striking plumage especially when breeding. There are iridescent purples, blues and greens when the sun hits them in the right direction. In addition, they are never alone, always busy, noisy and entertaining. their mass flights in autumn, called ‘murmurations; are always stunning, and I have always been fond of them.

We found a substantial flock at Daniel’s Head last month, feeding in the snow on and around some lobster traps and Mark took pictures.

starlings reduced watermark

I decided that they (or at least some of them!) would make a good subject for a painting; I chose birds from different parts of the flock as subjects. It isn’t a huge piece (only 5 by 10 inches) but it still took me several days to complete. These birds are not yet in full breeding plumage; the buffy edges of the feathers have not yet worn away, giving them a very speckled appearance and a surprising amount of colour in the plumage. It was quite a challenge.

‘A Chattering of Starlings’, 5 x 10 inches, watercolour pencil on 90 lb watercolour pencil.

THIS PAINTING HAS BEEN SOLD. Prints available to order, at $25 plus p&p.

Why ‘chattering’? It’s one of the collective nouns for this species, others being (apparently) ‘clattering’, ‘congregation’, ‘cloud’ and ‘murmuration’, although I have always associated the latter with the large flying flocks. Anyway, ‘chattering’ does seem to describe them well.

Just a reminder that the Clark’s Harbour Duck Carving and Painting exhibition starts tonight, Four artists are exhibiting (including me!) and at least 5 duck carvers. Details are below.



Posted in Bird Art, Nova Scotia bird art

Exhibition Details


As mentioned in a previous post, I am participating in a local exhibition of duck carving and paintings, and my recent artworks have all been made in support of that aim. exhib-poster

The exhibition is in the Legion Hall in Clark’s Harbour, right at the tip of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia. Five local duck decoy carvers will be participating, alongside two local artists, Cal Kimola Brown and I. Cal will be presenting a painting demonstration on Saturday afternoon. Artworks will be available for sale. Pop along if you are in the area!

northern-pintail-rs-watermark ltd-rs-watermark harlequins-rs-watermark common-goldeneye-2-rs-watermark king-eider-female-rs-watermark



Posted in Nova Scotia bird art

Pictures for an Exhibition…

I have never exhibited before so when a friend, Cal Kimola Brown, told me about an exhibition coming up in Clark’s Harbour, I was all for being involved. The only issue was that the pictures had to be of ducks, the theme of the exhibition was duck carvings and paintings. Scenes were ok, but they had to include ducks. I quickly realised that I did not have much ready in the duck department, although I have nothing against ducks per se. Actually, they are often delightful birds and can be a joy to paint. I enlisted Mark’s help in finding suitable reference photos and set to, to build an inventory.

I had already painted a female King Eider, and decided that this would be number one in the exhibit list.


It is, however, quite a small image (5 x 7 inches) and so my new paintings would be larger. I aimed for 8 x 10 inch, since framing with mats would be simple for this size.

My first painting was taken from a medley of shots of Long-tailed Ducks, provided by Mark. Flocks of these ducks are a common sight around now, off the coasts of Cape Sable Island. The drakes can be quite peculiar-looking, although undoubtedly colourful and charming. The picture has three drakes in various poses and a single duck.


‘Long-tailed Ducks’, 8 x 10 inch watercolour pencil on 90 lb cold press watercolour paper.

For the next project I wanted to draw something with a little movement, and Mark’s photo of a female Common Goldeneye coming into land on a lake was just what I was looking for. Female Goldeneyes are not particularly colourful, but lots of subtle greys, browns and blacks were great fun to use. I think this picture was the one I most enjoyed painting. Again, a relatively common bird of the area in the winter months.


‘Splashdown’, female Common Goldeneye, 8 x 10 inch, watercolour pencil on 90 lb cold press watercolour paper.

A spectacular duck, occasionally seen in the area, is the Harlequin. They have always held a special place in my heart since Mark and I drove overnight from our previous home in Nottingham, UK, to the north of Scotland to see a very lost female Harlequin on a river in Wick, Highlands, many years ago. The trip was fun, the bird a bit nondescript but amazing, none-the-less. Of course, the drakes in full breeding plumage are anything but nondescript, so my painting would obviously include a male. Mark provided a few reference pictures for my portmanteau image of a full male and an immature male Harlequin Duck. The immature’s plumage, of mostly browns, shading to blue where the adult colours were peeping through, was much more of a challenge than the spanking full adult.


‘Harlequins’, adult and immature males, 8 x 10 inch, watercolour pencil on 90 lb cold press watercolour paper.

My final picture for the exhibition was of Northern Pintail. A really smart duck, in the adult male plumage, they are seen around and about during the winter months. Mark’s picture of an adult drake was an excellent start, although I was puzzled initially by the green speculum, since I had never noticed this feature in the field (it is there, though!).


‘Northern Pintail’, adult male, 8 x 10 inch, watercolour pencil on 90 lb cold press watercolour paper.

Frames were obtained and the final set of pictures looks like this:


I always enjoy how a mat and frame can really finish off a painting.

All of these pictures are for sale. they will be on sale at the exhibition, or can be purchased through this blog. Please use the ‘contact me’ form below and add your requirements into the ‘comment’ section.  I accept payments by cheque or PayPal, details available if interested. Pictures will be shipped unframed, or can be purchased with the frames at the exhibition. Large pictures are $50 (plus p&p), the small picture is $35 (plus p&p).

Note also that I can accept orders for ‘print to order’ prints for any of the pictures on this blog that are 8 x 10 inch or larger, at $25 per print, (plus p&p).

The exhibition of Duck Carving and Paintings is at the Clark’s Harbour Legion Hall, on 10/11/12 March 2017, with a $3 entrance fee. Many thanks to Councillor Rex Stoddard for allowing me to participate!



Posted in Nova Scotia bird art

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.

Posted in Nova Scotia bird art


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.