Prairie

A return to the watercolour pencils for this piece, and a little try at something new, as you will see. I was trawling through my picture files because I really could not decide on a new subject. I knew I did not want to do another flower study right away, and I did want to go back to the watercolours. I came across a picture of Mark’s that I’d popped in my file for future use, a Prairie Warbler, taken a couple of years ago in the autumn.

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Lots of nice feather detail on this bird, and I liked the positioning on that reddish-barked twig, but it is actually rather a dull-plumaged example. In the same file I had another picture of Mark’s, of a much brighter individual, taken at about the same time of the year (both in October).

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I decided that both birds could be combined in a single piece (with a little artistic licence!) and I could work on a larger piece (11 x 15 inch) than my more recent pictures. I thought I would do one bird a little smaller than the other, to give the impression that the top one was further back in the tree; not sure that that actually worked out in the end! The natural slight diagonal of the twig that the first bird is sitting on serves to draw the eye upwards and along through the picture, so that was the perch I chose to put them on.

It was fun going back to the watercolour pencils. I used the Caran d’Ache Supracolor and Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer exclusively for the birds and the foliage, shading small areas and then wetting with my tiny brush (watercolour liner 0000 size), so it isn’t a fast procedure. A couple of ‘work in progress’ pictures illustrate this.

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Out of interest I recorded the pencils I used to fill in the wing panel that is missing in the above picture; astonishingly it was 15 different pencils! Working with the coloured pencils has definitely affected the way that I now work with the watercolour pencils. I am much more likely to layer over different colours before wetting, similarly to coloured pencils before blending. I think it produces a deeper colouration, although it may lose the translucency that is meant to be the essence of watercolour? Ah well, its all a learning exercise, and I do like the final result, whether ‘watercolour-like’ or not.
Incidentally, colours used in that small panel were:
F-C Albrecht Durer: Cream, Light yellow Glaze, Cold Grey I, Cold Grey III, Warm Grey III, Green-Gold.
C d’A Supracolor: Slate Grey, Charcoal Grey, Cocoa, Olive Grey, Olive Brown, Light Olive, Green Ochre, Pale Lemon Yellow, Cream.
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Panel done!

The birds and foliage done, it was time to consider the background. Both photos have an attractive bokeh of autumnal tones, something I have struggled to reproduce in both watercolour and coloured pencils. I have noted a tendency amongst pencil artists to go to pan pastel as a medium for backgrounds, and this might be worth a look (although I don’t have any pan pastels, so it’s a moot point right now!). I have used watercolour pencil shading previously, graduating downwards to darker tones, and that was an option, although it can be difficult to wet the pencil lines sufficiently to lose the ‘linearity’ of the shading. One technique I had never tried was to shave off bits of pencil lead and wet it on a palette, to produce a wash that could be applied to the paper. I didn’t want to use my primary pencils for this experiment, so I dug out some of the Derwent Watercolours, that have been rather neglected lately.

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A sharp craft knife was used to shave bits of pencil lead into one of the wells of my watercolour palette. A flat watercolour brush added water to dissolve the shavings. I used four greens (Water Green, May Green, Grass Green and Mineral Green), an ochre (Burnt Yellow Ochre) and a dark red (Burnt Carmine) to try to mimic the background tones, but without being too picky.

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One thing to be careful of was getting wood shavings in the wells. I found that I did transfer splinters of wood to the paper and they were a pain to remove. Also, it took some time to dissolve, although the Derwents always were harder to wet than the other pencils, so a different make might be easier.

The dissolved colour was transferred to the paper using a flat brush (size 12) and a filbert, with the rounded edges (size 8) that I found very useful for getting in close to the main images. I tend to think of these as ‘large’ brushes, but I guess they really aren’t that big for conventional watercolour use. However, if you generally use a size 0000 liner brush, these are ‘biiiggg’!

The colours blended pretty well, avoiding too many ‘tidemarks’, although I had to learn not to be scared to put water on the paper. Amazingly, there was very little bleed from the already painted bits of the picture, something that I worried about before getting started. This is my experience using watercolour pencils, in general, the colour stays where it is put much more readily than conventional watercolours, something I like for my purposes, although I can imagine it would be a pain for ‘looser’ watercolourists, who want it to flow. I don’t think that the result is perfect, but I’m pretty pleased with it and I do think it a step up from previous bokeh attempts, especially with watercolour. Another technique to remember, going forwards, that I’m sure will come in handy.

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‘Prairie Warblers’, 11 x 15 inch, watercolour pencil (Caran d’Ache Supracolor, Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer, Derwent Watercolour) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

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