The Photography Of Art

No new piece to post just yet, but I thought I’d show how I currently photograph my art pieces for this blog. Now, I do have a flat bed scanner, and many artists seem to swear by these for producing the very best reproductions, but it has never seemed to work well for me, for some reason. Maybe I’m using the wrong settings? Anyhow, I started photographing the pieces and have continued to do so. its a bit of a ‘Heath Robinson’ set-up, though – British readers will understand that reference, for others, consider it as a ‘mash up’.

Firstly, I recently got a new camera so I have been able to dedicate my old camera to this use, a Canon SX40HS with a 35x zoom lens. I’m not claiming this to be the perfect tool for this, it’s just that the new camera has the tripod mount constantly occupied by the camera strap I use, so this one is more handy. I got (actually, Mark bought for me) a little table top Manfrotto tripod that holds the camera pretty steady (albeit I need to raise the whole thing a bit to keep it level with the piece-piles of books or, in this case, an unopened pack of printer paper usually suffices).

Secondly, the window next to my drawing table faces south, so it gets quite good daylight most of the day. I have to watch out when the sun is high in the sky, because then I can get the shadow of the sash bar across whatever I’m photographing, but earlier or later in the day is usually ok. To balance up the light, I use my drawing lamp, which is fitted with a daylight bulb, on the inside edge of the supporting board.

I’m currently using a bit of old, primed beadboard that I liberated from the workshop as a support for the artwork and I prop it up against my drawing board at right angles to the window, with the lamp at the other side. This isn’t great, and maybe I’ll try to make a smoother surfaced board that will stand by itself-just looking for a suitable bit of board. I always place a little white paper on the box at the bottom, to reflect up the light.

I set the camera on one of the custom settings and reduce the length of the lens to round about 85 mm, this avoids the distortion that the basic 24 mm wide angle setting would give. Usually my ISO is set to 100 or, at most 200, and I can adjust the aperture and shutter speed to give the best effect, monitoring this on the camera monitor screen which can be adjusted to quite an angle for the camera.. Finally, I always use a 2 second delay on the shutter release to prevent any distortion due to vibration. It works ok, most of the time. Post-photography clean up, sizing and addition of watermarks is all performed in Adobe Photoshop Elements before posting.

It seems to work for now!

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Fish Plant Fence

On our island there are many fish plants, dealing with the catches of a substantial fishing fleet dotted around the coastline. There is one situated at the end of Daniel’s Head, an important bird area on the south side of the island and which tends to get migrant and vagrant birds, in season. This is the season for such lovelies and the fish plant fence and car park recently played host to a very nice bird, a Grey-cheeked Thrush. These are uncommon in Nova Scotia, so much so that this one was a ‘province-tick’ for me, and my 300th species in Nova Scotia, after just 3 years of residence. Why, then, did I not portray the thrush?

Well, I wanted something a little more colourful than that, it does live up to the ‘grey’ in the name, albeit very subtle and nicely marked. In addition, the thrush tended to be on the ground, in amongst tufts of grass (although Mark has some nice images and I’m not ruling it out!) and I wanted an unencumbered image. During one of his trips to see the thrush, he came across (and photographed) a Golden-crowned Kinglet, a tiny little bird only 4 inches long. We have these resident all year, but some do migrate and Mark rather thought this one had just arrived off the sea and was clinging to the first bit of shelter, the Fish Plant’s chain-link fence. I liked the composition and decided to give it a go. Note that this bird is not as bright as some, suggesting it has not yet reached full breeding plumage.

You can see some of the structures of the fish plant, blurred out beyond the fence, which would give the picture a 3D feel.

For media, I had something new to try. Many coloured pencil artists whose work I admire seem to use something called Clairefontaine Pastelmat as paper. I was intrigued to try this, although it is quite difficult to get in North America. As usual, Amazon.ca came up trumps, although even then it was shipped from the UK and took a few weeks to arrive. I had some gift vouchers from my birthday burning a hole, so I decided to order a ‘starter pack’ of 12 sheets, 9.5 x 12 inch, in 4 different colours, coming in at $37.43 (but with free shipping). I hoped this would be a step up in my drawing techniques, especially at that price!.

There was some minor damage to the pad in the top left hand corner, which was annoying. As there was no visible damage to the outer packaging, this was a surprise and rather suggests that the pad was damaged before shipping. Not impressive, since I was hardly going to send it all the way back again! I will keep this in mind if dealing with this supplier (The SAA) again, since it does stand in contrast to my experience with Jackson’s Art, also in the UK, whose shipments have been impeccable and much more speedy. The only plus to going through Amazon is that Canadian tax and duty is paid, so no worries about that (although I have yet to be charged either on any of my Jackson’s orders).

This paper is described as a cardboard sheet (170 lb, 360 g/sq m) to which thin fibres of cellulose are fixed, giving it ‘tooth’, which is of course needed for pastel work. It is very robust and takes rubbing, wetting and many layers of pencil or pastel. As mentioned, four colours are in the pad, buttercup (the colour shown above), maize (a warmer yellow), dark grey and light grey. Each sheet is separated by a layer of crystal paper, and this proved to be very useful as will be seen. I chose a sheet of the light grey, and set to work on the initial graphite drawing. It took graphite quite well and I was able to make a very light drawing of the bird and the fence. I did not worry about the background structures at this time since, as usual, the subject (and in particular the eye of the subject) was first.

I chose to work primarily with the Pablos, adding in a few Polychromos and Luminance pencils, because I do like the range of beiges and olive greens in the Pablo set. This toothy paper certainly took colour, and the tooth remained irrespective of the number of layers I added. However, it was very difficult to render detail, even with a very sharp pencil, and the pencils soon lost the point as they were worn down very quickly by this paper. It was a little like working on fine sandpaper of sanded pastel paper, which I know is also often used by pastel artists. Indeed, I had wondered about sanded pastel paper, but I think I will give that a miss, for now. in short, this paper definitely doesn’t suit a style heavy on detail. The other thing that happened was that my hand started to smudge the pencil that I’d already applied. I’m just not used to this happening when using the smoother papers, so it was a surprise. I utilized a sheet of the crystal paper that came with the Pastelmat pad to protect the right-hand side of the work area from my hand resting on it, and this worked well. I also made sure to blend more frequently, using OMS, which did apply nicely and did not affect the surface. It was true that I was able to go back in with highlights of Luminance white after the OMS had dried, and on these occasions, I decided to blend the white, to ‘fix’ it, using the Prismacolor colourless blender pencil.

On the positive side, it was quick to draw and colour. I found that lots of pigment was transferred to the paper, meaning that my layers were more saturated with colour, although the pencil points disappeared at a quite alarming rate! I really found it difficult to make and retain detail; my poor little bird’s feet and legs look a bit deformed to my eyes. I think that this paper is better suited to a different style of art, or I’m doing something wrong (could be!). The fence wires went in quite easily, but my earlier smudging came back to bite me when it came to the background structures. I had chosen the light grey pastelmat as I thought it would provide the colour for the pale structures, and all I would need to do would be to define the dark areas. in the end, I had to colour both the light and dark areas to take out the smudges. This was quite successful, but used a lot of pencil! Some people use pastel or pan pastels for backgrounds, and I can see why!

I think I’ll be putting my Pastelmat aside for a while, there’s obviously more work to do on my techniques before I can use this one successfully! I do like the picture, but it definitely didn’t turn out exactly how i’d planned.


‘Fish Plant Fence’ (Golden-crowned Kinglet), 9.5 x 12 inch, coloured pencil (Caran d’Ache Pablos and Luminance, Faber-Castell Polychromos) with OMS and Prismacolor colourless blender pencil, on Clairefontaine Pastelmat.

Painted Turtle

Not just a turtle I have painted, but a Painted Turtle! An Eastern Painted Turtle, to be precise. There are four sub-species of Painted Turtle and this one (within Canada) is restricted to Nova Scotia and parts of New Brunswick. Earlier this year we paid a visit to a marsh and pool on the Bay of Fundy side of the NS peninsula (the French Basin trail at Annapolis Royal) and there were quite a few of these engaging reptiles hauled out of the water and taking in whatever rays they could find. The turtles hibernate in the mud and I suspect that they had only just woken up, because they were not very active. The sun, in early April in Nova Scotia, wasn’t particularly warm (surprise!), but it did provide a opportunity for a relatively close look and a few photos.

I took this photo of one of the turtles giving me the ‘evil eye’ and rather liked it. I haven’t done much reptile drawing and thought this might be an opportunity to have a go.

They are lovely and colourful, albeit with a basically grey background. In fact, Wikipedia lists the colour as olive to black, but this one had distinctly blue/lilac tones so I chose to follow my photo. I decided to use coloured pencil, because of the intricate detail of the skin, and chose a sheet of Ingres Pastel paper in a light yellow colour that I thought would mimic the colour of the reeds the turtle was ‘hiding’ in. I was intending to do a vignette, with no background and only a few of the prominent reeds for placement…well, that was the plan! As previously, I used the back side of the paper, which is a little less textured than the front (only a little!).

The Caran d’Ache Pablo greys were the stars for the skin. I have mentioned before that the greys in this set (and the sister watercolour pencil set, Supracolor) have a distinct blue tint that is mostly missing from the Polychromos set, and these proved ideal for working the differing tones of the knobbly skin of the head, neck and foreleg. As the skin has a shiny appearance, I chose to blend using a blender pencil, which not only blends but also gives a burnished appearance. It was tiring work, trying to match that complicated skin pattern, and I found that I couldn’t do much at any one time. Consequently this one took far longer to ‘get going’ than any previous picture, and I really wasn’t sure I’d chosen a suitable subject for me. But, I don’t give up, even when I’m not enjoying it much, and I decided to keep on going. Eventually, I started to like it, but it took a while.

This ‘work in progress’ picture was taken just about the time I started to enjoy this piece!

The blank areas were where the reedstems that I had decided to include obscured the turtle. I did want to have something which placed the animal in context, and I thought this would work. However it was going to be some time before I got to them!. The shell was a lovely mix of blue and mauve tones, and quite dull, not shiny like the skin. I wasn’t sure what I’d use for this until I remembered that I’d just taken delivery of a couple of extra Luminance pencils, and one was called ‘Violet-Grey’. This turned out to be an excellent base colour for the shell, with additional Grey, Dark Grey, Bluish-Grey, yellow, white and red tones overlaying the base colour. A blend with OMS achieved the matte finish I was looking for on the shell.
Incidentally, I’ve taken to buying just a couple of new Luminance pencils whenever I buy any open stock replacement pencils for my main sets, but, and I know this is coloured pencil sacrilege, I’m still not that fond of Luminance overall. They really don’t hold a point so, although they seem to be very pigmented and be good to filling in larger areas, they don’t really suit my main style. I much prefer the Pablos.

I coloured the reeds that I’d decided to use in the picture, blended them with OMS and sat back. It just wasn’t right, somehow…the turtle looked lost in a sea of pale yellow paper. I decided to try and put in a reed-filled background, after all (choosing the coloured paper was a bit of a waste of time, I suppose!) so, following the general gist of the photo, I blocked in some areas of light reed and darker areas, keeping the detail deliberately vague since I didn’t want the background to compete with the subject. It took the best part of a day to fill in the background with minimal layering and OMS to blend, but it definitely looks better to my eyes. I’m rather pleased with the final picture, and definitely happy that I persevered with it!

‘Eastern Painted Turtle’, 9 x 12 inch coloured pencil (Caran d’Ache Pablo and Luminance, Faber-Castell Polychromos, Derwent Drawing), with Prismacolor colourless blender pencil and OMS (Gamsol) on 160 g/sq m Daler Ingres pastel paper.

Framed!

I’m in the middle of a coloured pencil piece, right now, but it’s going to be a lot longer before it’s finished. I thought the pebbles on the last picture were long-winded, but this one takes the cake. It is very intricate and I find I can’t work too long on it before I get tired and have to take a break. I’m pleased so far, but it will be a while before it is ready to post, so I thought I’d do an interim post on a different subject.

I have long been impressed with just how ‘professional’ a piece of artwork looks once it has been framed. I’m always concerned that the pencil works might look a bit amateurish, but that seems to disappear when a mat and frame is added. I’m not talking about professional framing, either, although I do know of a few of my pieces that have been subjected to that great honour. No, I use photo frames from the local dollar store! We have one in the village that seems to get a never ending supply of frames, in different finishes, and all below $20 max. I do know of artists who scour garage/yard sales (or car boot sales for those in the UK!) to pick up old framed pictures that can be re-used; I’ve not tried that yet but it sounds like a good idea.

Most photo frames can be bought with mats, but I don’t often use the ones that come with the frames. There are three reasons:
1.) often these mats are flimsy, there should be a reasonable thickness and a neat bevelled edge to provide the best look
2.) they are often a very bright white, which I don’t think is the most flattering colour to offset the artwork
3.) I’m really bad at keeping my artwork sizes to the standard mat sizes, such as 5 x 7 inch, 8 x 10 inch or 11 x 14 inch. It always expands to fit the paper, so I nearly always have to cut my own mat to accommodate that!

Why use a mat? Well, it’s imperative with watercolours and coloured pencil pieces to keep the surface of the artwork off the surface of the glass, as it can be damaged by contact. The depth of a standard mat is just enough to do that and provide a nice ‘3D’ setting for the piece.

I’ve been framing and matting pictures for years. Back in the UK, I purchased a hand-held mat cutter (it provides that bevelled mat edge) that I used successfully for many years, and which came with me when we moved.

As you can see, it’s pretty basic. The holder holds a razor blade at an angle and at a specific depth, Working on the back of the mat board, you draw the rectangle to be cut, hold the metal ruler along the outside edge of the line, push the blade holder up against the ruler, making sure that the blade sinks into the card, and then push the holder along the ruler to the other end of the line. It needs firm hands on the ruler and the cutter, or wobbly lines ensue; also it can be difficult to judge where to start and stop the lines. Additionally, you need a cutting board underneath if you are not to ruin your desk or table. It sufficed, but it wasn’t ideal, and nowadays I don’t seem to be able to keep the ruler straight enough (the perils of aging?). Anyhow, I decided that an upgrade would be nice and purchased this one off Amazon.

Still made by Logan, this is the Compact Classic Mat Cutter (model 301-1), although at 35.5 inch long and 8 inch wide, it doesn’t feel that compact! It seems to be a substantial block of melamine-like material, fitted with a metal rule the length of the block, a ‘scale’ that can be set to various distances from the ruler and it comes with a bevel cutter (looking a bit like the old one) and a straight cutter (for the outside edges of the mat). It actually takes the same size razorblades as the old cutter. The fixed ruler can be used to cut against (with the flat cutter) when cutting a mat to size, and then the bevel cutter actually slides along it, preventing the need to hold too many things steady at once. The bevel cutter also comes with a mark that you can use to line up the start and stop of the cut, so no more guesswork for that. It does a great job of making quite professional-looking mats, in whatever size I end up needing.

I get the mat boards from Michaels. They have a lot, running from cheap to expensive. The ones I tend to use run at about $10 per board, 24 x 36 inch, which is generally enough to cut several mats-I think these are their own make. I tend to stick to three basic colours, white, a yellow-cream and black. I have a real fondness for black mats, as they do tend to make the coloured pencil artwork ‘pop’.

So, how do the framed pieces look? I may be guilty of a bit of narcissism here, since I do seem to have a lot of my pieces hanging on our walls. Interspersed there are other artists works and prints, and photographs by Mark (mostly my own framing, though) so it’s not all me! I took these photos of the pictures on the walls, in various light conditions, so they aren’t great, but sufficient to give the idea.

Rather than post them all separately, I made a collage of some of my framed  pictures. This does show the wide variety of dollar shop frames I have!
‘Churn Road’ is one of my earlier works, and maybe a bit naïve-looking, especially in the treatment of the background, but it actually makes a striking piece, framed and matted in black.


‘Talking Turkey’ remains one of my favourite pieces, and it has a quite commanding position, off our kitchen on the way to the dining room-maybe an odd choice for a picture of Turkey Vultures! I really like the simplicity of this double mat with the slightly larger dark frame.


‘The Girls’ pops from the black mat, with a narrow white mat edge innermost, and frame.

‘Catnapping’ looked much better with a white mat, and has pride of place on our study wall.

‘Song Sparrow’ was a coloured pencil piece on coloured pastel paper and it was difficult to decide on a mat colour. In the end, the yellowy-cream colour made the best contrast between the picture and the contemporary-looking goldy frame.

I used the same type of frame for our wedding picture-it made an appropriate frame for the subject, and a pale cream mat was also more appropriate for the subject matter than anything black (well, I think so, at least)!

For my most recent piece ‘Cape Island Camo’, I used a larger black frame that already had a white mat. The hole in the mat was slightly bigger than the artwork, so I cut a black mat to take up the gap. Due to the vagaries of my painting techniques, the sizing is about half an inch shorter on the long axis than the shorter one, giving a slightly lop-sided look to the double mat. I thought about recutting the white, but decided I actually like it like this. It really sets off the piece and draws the eye in.

Finally, ‘Halcyon Days’, a piece I did for my parents a year ago and posted home. I was much more careful to keep within the bounds of a standard photo frame with this as it was always going to be posted off, and I didn’t want to add to the size of the package by including a mat. They were able to buy a picture frame with mat (from Asda, which is Walmart for North American readers) and frame it themselves. I was astonished when I saw how nice it looks, in situ.

So, a mat and frame can make all the difference between ‘ok’ and ‘wow’ with some of these pictures, at least in my opinion. I’ve now got to the position of having to remove older pictures in order to frame any new ones, because I’ve definitely run out of room on the walls!

Cape Island Camo

We are lucky to live by the sea, although we occasionally question that when in the middle of a wintry Nor-easter! Mostly, though, we love looking out over Barrington Bay from the front windows every morning and enjoying the great variety of land and sea birds, and the other animals that visit the shores of Cape Sable Island. Cape Sable Island is the southernmost point of Nova Scotia, hence its nickname of ‘the Banana Belt’ bestowed, tongue in cheek, by birders elsewhere in the province. Right at the end of the island, off shore from a small settlement called ‘The Hawk’ (named for a shipwreck), is a low rocky, sandy island which seems to go by many names, but most commonly ‘The Cape’. This is the location of the Cape Light lighthouse, a flock of wandering sheep, occasional humans staying in a couple of cottages and regular visiting birders. Mark loves visiting The Cape, and has been raring to get over there this year. He, and a couple of friends, made their first visit of the year across there, last weekend.

The spring arrival has only just started, so there was nothing too surprising, avian-wise, but they did come across this Harbour Seal, hauled out on a rocky beach.

The Harbour Seal, or Common Seal (Phoca vitulina) is a common sight around our shores but you don’t often come across them hauled out like this. They apparently dislike coming ashore in the presence of humans, so the normally deserted shores of The Cape suits them just fine. I thought at first that this was a pup, but it is too early for pups to be around at this latitude (even in the Banana Belt!), so it is probably an adult, or one of last year’s breeding. I loved Mark’s photo and thought it would be a challenge to draw, I’ve never tried a seal before, and as for that location…!

I decided that it would be primarily a watercolour piece, although I was considering whether to go over the watercolour with coloured pencil to add some texture, I know of some wildlife artists that do just that. I decided to start with the watercolour, and decide as I went along whether to add additional pencil. As usual, I started with the main subject although I had lightly drawn in where the rocks and pebbles were to go. The actual animal painting went relatively quickly, utilizing mainly the cool greys from the F-C Albrecht Durer set. Then I turned my attention to the pebbles.

A ‘Work In Progress photo. The seal was pretty much completed but I had just started on the pebbles and it seemed to be a long way to go!

Now I actually like drawing rocks, although this was a pretty daunting background. I decided to tackle it a section at a time. There are a lot of subtle colours in the stones, and I decided to exaggerate these a little, to add a bit of colour into what could be otherwise a rather monochrome piece, and to make the seal stand out a little from the background. I have always found the C d’A Supracolor greys to be invaluable when drawing rocks and stones, they have a blue-ish tinge that is just not present in the greys in the Albrecht Durer set, and I made liberal use of them, especially Grey, Mouse Grey, Steel Grey, Dark Grey and Greyish Black. However, I also used pretty much all of the warm and some of the cool greys in the Albrecht Durers, as well as beiges, blacks, creams, Charcoal Grey, Payne’s Grey and Dark Indigo from both sets. More surprisingly, perhaps, was the use of Granite Pink, Light Flesh, Aubergine, Brown Ochre, Ochre, Light Ochre, Green Ochre, Olive Brown, Caput Mortuum and Caput Mortuum Violet. All those colours certainly kept the interest going and prevented boredom during the 3-4 days it took to complete the background.

You can see the number of pencils in use by looking at my ‘Work In Progress’ tray, where I keep my working pencils during work. I tidy them back into my storage drawers when finished. You will also see a few coloured pencils, in the right hand side of the tray near my water pot. I did go over the seal’s fur with a little coloured pencil in limited colours (one of the cool greys and Payne’s Grey from the Polychromos set, Ivory Black from the Pablos) and I brightened the light areas slightly with the Luminance White pencil. I defined the darks on the face a little better and added a little texture, but I didn’t do much. I found that the pencil did not go well over the watercolour, generally-I suspect that this isn’t the sort of paper that would work well with that technique.

Finally, there was only the whiskers to do. Now whiskers are always a problem. Trying to keep a tiny area white in such a complicated picture does not seem sensible and I have previously used a pigment ink or gel pen for this purpose, but it has never really felt like a good option. I had read that some artists use gouache, a sort of opaque watercolour, for this purpose, but I was loathe to spend rather a lot of money to buy a tube of gouache just to give this a try. Then I came across a set of 12 tubes of Daler-Rowney gouache in Walmart, of all places.

Now, I know you get what you pay for in the art world, so these were not likely to set the world on fire, but I thought that less than $20 was worth expending to give it a try. Real gouache is supposed to cover normal watercolour, with an opaque finish. I tried mixing a little of the black with a lot of white to give a grey, and applied this with my smallest watercolour brush (a 0000 size liner brush, one of my favourites for wetting tiny details in my watercolour pencil pictures). It didn’t work. Although it was just noticeable, it really wasn’t fine enough to define whiskers. I went back to the Signo pigment ink pen in white, and added a little extra definition with a Staples mini gel pen in black. I don’t have a grey or brown gel pen, white is too stark and black too dark! It suffices, but I’d rather find a better solution, since getting nice tapers on the whiskers can be a real issue. I’m not encouraged to shell out for better gouache, though.

The name of this piece? ‘Cape Island Camo’ was Mark’s description of the seal’s fur and the way it blends in on the beach, and I thought it very appropriate!

‘Cape Island Camo’ (Harbour Seal on The Cape), 9 x 12 inch watercolour pencil (Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer, Caran d’Ache Supracolor), with selected coloured pencils (C d’A Pablo and Luminance, F-C Polychromos), with Uniball Signo pigment ink pen in white and Staples mini gel pen in black, on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

Woodnymph

Hummingbirds, found only in North and South America, have always been exciting to see for us, coming as we did from the UK. In Eastern Canada, the only common species is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird and we are always delighted to see them return in the spring. Our first hummer feeder is already out, in case of early arrivals. That little bit of sugar-water could be a life-saver for these tiny birds after a long, long migration up from Mexico.

Anyhow, one of the highlights of every trip we have done to tropical Central and South America has been the sheer number of species of these birds that we have seen. Mostly extremely colourful, with iridescent plumage, I fancied having another go at one of them. I thought that coloured pencils, combined with the burnishing pencil recently obtained from Derwent, might just help to give a shine to the plumage. I had a photo that I took back in November 2010 at Rancho Naturalista, Costa Rica, of a Violet-crowned Woodnymph. Incidentally, these birds often have the most delightful names, ‘woodnymph’, ‘woodstar’, ‘fairy’ and ‘sylph’ all suggesting tiny, flitting, ethereal creatures, which is pretty close to the truth, although some of them can be extremely aggressive, considering their size!

This is a male Violet-crowned Woodnymph, and you can just see a hint of the violet cap that gives it it’s name. Iridescent plumage is a bit of a problem, since the colour seen is entirely dependent on how the light strikes the feathers; some of the birds can look very dull and dark if in shade. In this case, the blue head and greenish back were nicely illuminated. I’m sure it can’t be fully replicated but it was fun to try.

I decided to try again with some paper that I’d previously used and not liked much. This was the Canson XL Recycled Bristol, which has two surfaces, one smooth and one more textured. I tried the smooth side and not enjoyed it, it did not take to layering well. After recently working with the pastel papers, which do have some tooth, I decided that maybe the textured side was worth a go. Well, it was a big improvement, at least in my opinion, and I’m pleased to add this pack back into my repertoire.

After drawing out the design (the reference picture has a lot of branches and leaves, crossing the field, which I liked as a composition), I started as usual with the bird’s eye, followed by the rest of the bird. Things went well. I used a mixture of Polychromos and, especially, Pablos here. Blending was done using a Prismacolor colourless blending pencil (I think I prefer this one to the Derwent) and, after finishing the blending, I went over some sections of the plumage, those I wanted to shine, with the Derwent burnishing pencil. It did impart a subtle shine to the areas chosen, which really doesn’t come over in the photograph, unfortunately.

I departed from my usual order of composition by deciding to put in the background next, leaving the leaves and branches till last. The photo has a blurry ‘bokeh’ background; something I have tried, and not yet managed, to do. I wondered about leaving this more plain, but I really wanted to have another go. I thought the bird might seem more ‘in context’ if I could pull it off. In another departure, I decided to use the Prismacolor Premier pencils here. I’ve had a set of these, 72 I think, for quite a while but don’t really like them, especially in comparison to Pablos and Polychromos, but thought I’ve give them another go. Also, they are considerably cheaper than the other makes and I thought that backgrounds, that use up a lot of pencil, might be a good use for them. I set to work, trying to reproduce the mix of colours that I could see on the photograph, but pretty soon began to second-guess my choices. I really was not sure if I liked it or not! There was no point in changing horses midstream, however, and I don’t often give up totally on a picture, so I powered on through, staying up late one night in order to finish this layer and blend. This time I used OMS as I didn’t want the shiny finish that I get from using the blender/burnisher pencils. Overnight drying made it look better, but I though it was still a bit bright and ‘in your face’.

This ‘work in progress’ picture shows the completed bird and the background, after blending with OMS. It seemed a bit bright. I decided to go over the entire background with a darker shade, the problem was that the waxy finish the Prismas left made this quite difficult. Luminance came to the rescue, I was able to add a layer of Moss Green over the entire background surface. It wasn’t great coverage but I though it was enough and, after another blend with OMS, I think the background was darkened enough to make me want to carry on. Another ‘work in progress’ picture I think gives an idea of the subtle change this made.

The last job was to draw in the leaves and branches. There is a lot of reflection on these leaves, so I made sure to leave pale areas to indicate that, whilst suggesting the veining with different colours of green- unlike the last picture, there wasn’t much detail on the foliage to get my teeth into. For these I went back to the Pablos and Polychromos, along with a couple of Luminance pencils, finishing with OMS blending (again, I didn’t want the leaves to be shiny, so as not to detract from the bird’s plumage). Funnily enough, once the leaves went in, the background stopped being quite so ‘in your face’ and receded on the page, so a lesson learned there, I think. Try not to pre-judge a piece before it’s finished!

‘Woodnymph’, 9 x 12 inch coloured pencil (C d’A Pablos and Luminance, F-C Polychromos and Prismacolor Premier) with Primacolor colourless blender, Derwent Burnisher and OMS (Gamsol), on Canson XL Recycled Bristol (textured side).

Ornate

Back to the birds, and one of Mark’s photos that I’ve always liked very much. He recently dug it out to feature on the ‘around the world’ facebook page that I’ve previously mentioned, and I asked him to forward a copy to me. This little beauty is an Ornate Flycatcher, such an appropriate name for a little jewel of the rainforest! The bird is only 12 cm/4.7 inches long and is an inhabitant of subtropical and tropical montane forests in Columbia, Ecuador and Peru, where it hangs out in the understory and, true to its name, catches flies and insects. Those big dark eyes are a giveaway to it being a flycatcher. We were on the Eastern slopes of the Andes in Ecuador, back in 2007, when Mark captured an image with the bird sitting on a big leaf, with sunlight streaming through, and with a mottled green backdrop. Really, this is not improvable, but I thought I’d give it a shot at getting somewhere close.

I decided to stick with the coloured pencil for this, because I seem to be able to get better feather detail with this medium than with the watercolour pencils, especially since getting hold of the Pablos-they seem to have upped my game a bit, probably because they keep such a sharp point (and the new sharpener has been a game changer on the sharpness I can get). I wanted to start from a background colour, so pastel paper was the next choice, but my pack of Mi-Teintes lacks a nice green (I think I got a strange selection). In the bottom of my paper drawer, I came across a pad of Daler-Rowney Ingres pastel paper. Now this is very old, I actually bought it in the UK, several years before we moved to Canada, so it probably dates from the last century (or even Millennium!)-luckily, paper does not seem to ‘go off’, especially if it’s been stored somewhere dry. Thirty sheets cost 7.99 GBP, which tells you something about its age, I guess. I’ve been mucking about in the arty stuff for a long time, but never got into pastels (or coloured pencils before the last year), so the pad languished in a drawer, was shipped out to Canada, subsequently moved across provinces and finally got dug out for this. There was a dusky green shade that looked like it would work. I turned the sheet over, for the less textured surface and set to work.

Now I liked the paper a lot. It seemed to have just about the right amount of tooth, to allow for layering, without showing through too many holes. I also decided to have a go with OMS for blending. With the Mi-Teintes, I had tried this once and shied away afterwards, but I thought it worth another go-lots of coloured pencil artists use OMS blending on this type of paper. Well, it looked horrific; in the light areas the original paper colour seemed to show through and all the other colours looked muddy and dark. I was nearly in despair, I thought I’d have to start again, but I decided to let it dry off first. The OMS had soaked into the paper far more than I was used to seeing with the Bristol board. So, I went away and did something else for a while, then came back, more in hope than expectation, to find that the OMS had dried, the colours were back, the lights were light and the base paper colour was not showing through. It looked ok! I determined to carry on with OMS, but every application was a leap of faith, since it looked awful, every time.

I determined not to do more than one application of OMS to any particular area, as I did notice a slight buckle appearing where the paper had been wetted- nothing dreadful but enough. After the OMS dried, I went over details and extra layers with a blender pencil. I have used the Prismacolor colourless blender pencils extensively on other pictures, but I have recently also invested in a set of Derwent blender and burnisher pencils, obtained from Amazon. These came in a blister pack with two blenders and two burnisher pencils, a pencil sharpener and an eraser. What’s the difference between blenders and burnishers? Well, one is meant to mix a colourless wax with the coloured pencil marks to blend the colours together, soften lines, etc., much as the OMS does. Due to the pressure needed to do this, a pencil blender can damage the tooth of the paper and prevent addition of further layers of pencil, so it’s recommended to only do this at the end of a piece. I’ve used this technique quite a lot and like it, but large areas can give you considerable wrist ache! A burnisher is supposed to do less blending (it’s harder) and more polishing, to give a slightly shiny surface to the finished piece. of course, it will still blend to some extent. I used both the Derwent blender and burnisher on this piece, in particular on the leaf, where I wanted to impart a slight shine to the surface. I found the Derwent blender a little harder than the Prismacolor one, so the jury is still out on which of those two I prefer. I liked the burnisher, and I think it will come in handy for some plumage details-hummingbird iridescence, for example. I’ve got a few photos of those, ‘burning a hole’ in my photo file!

So to the final image. I really enjoyed this one, even the leaf texture, which I was rather scared of after the experience with the last ‘leafy picture’. Mark commented that my leaves this time were much better (thanks, love!) and he likes the bird. The final picture is actually larger than the bird in life, showing what a little gem it really is. So many exotic birds to go at, so little time!

‘Ornate Flycatcher’, 9 x 12 inch coloured pencil (Caran d’Ache Pablos and Luminance White, Faber-Castell Polychromos and Derwent Drawing Chinese White) with OMS (Gamsol), Derwent blender and burnisher pencils, on Daler-Rowney 160g/sqm Ingres pastel paper.