Fast and loose…

My pictures take a long time to paint, generally. Mostly because I have a very precise style, with lots of detail. I’ve long thought I should try being a little looser. Puffins seemed like a good subject to try out a faster painting, as the big colourful bill tends to take the eye away from the feather detail. Get the bill and head right and the rest sort of follows. I suppose. In truth, the pencils are not the best medium for a very ‘loose’ picture, they are more suited to detail, which is why I love them so.

I have it in my head to do one of my ‘portmanteau’ paintings, three Puffins in various poses taken from different photos of Mark’s, so this picture also served as a preliminary go, getting the colours right for the bigger picture. I have also drawn this particular bird before, using this reference photo of Mark’s.

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Last summer, before I’d even purchased my first set of watercolour pencils, I had a go at this using a cheap set of coloured pencils, picked up at Deserres in Halifax, I was reasonably pleased with the result, although it was only a single layer of pencil, not the multiple layers and burnishing that a finished picture would need. I’ve never got back to the coloured pencils, even though I now own a couple of ‘artist’ grade sets. I really will have to have another try, trouble is I’m just enjoying the watercolours too much!

atlantic puffin watermark rsStill, not too bad for a very quick picture, probably a couple of hours total.  At least you can see what it is! 7 x 5 inch, coloured pencil on cartridge paper.

The watercolour version ended up taking all of yesterday afternoon (3-4 hours) and an hour or so this morning to finish, including the preliminary graphite pencil sketch. This is fast for me! I’m pleased with the head and bill, ok with the plumage and think that the sea could use a little work!

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‘Atlantic Puffin’ 5 x 7 inch, watercolour pencil (mainly Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).



The Prothonotary Warbler is a small song-bird that breeds in the Eastern US and winters in Central America and northern South America. It is pretty rare here in Nova Scotia, although one is probably seen annually, and we can wait a long time between sightings. Isn’t it therefore ironic that, this April, three turned up at once?

The first was on a kelp bed at Sandy Cove, just outside Halifax. We were due to head up for an appointment, the day after it was found, so we decided to ‘twitch’ the bird and stay over. It was a nice sighting, but a little distant across a small stream. The bird was unbothered by its new-found fame and remained on its kelp, with the healthy population of flies, for several weeks. It was odd to see this bird out in the open in this way; the first one Mark and I had seen was buried deep in woods around a small pond at the Boy Scout Woods reserve in Texas, and indeed, their preferred habitat is hardwood bog.

Hot on its heels, another bird was found at Taylor Head Provincial Park near Sheet Harbour, again on the beach wrack. We did not go for this one, as it was even further away than Sandy Cove, but it was interesting to note. Finally, a third bird, a very handsome, probably male, bird was located at Pubnico Point. This one was just down the road from us and therefore merited a visit. It was again in the kelp beds near the trail and occasionally flitted up to a bare-branched bush right on the edge of the trail. Here it was unfazed by birders, photographers and occasional lady joggers with iPhones blaring rock music (she was very apologetic!). Even I was able to get some reasonable shots using my 35x optical zoom bridge camera, and one, shown below, was the inspiration for this painting.

prothonotary 3 rs watermarkFor what is ostensibly a yellow and grey bird, there are a lot of colours in that plumage! It also gave me the chance to use some yellows, surprisingly neglected in my pencil sets, considering how many yellow bird there are, out there. I will have to work on more North American warblers. I liked the juxtaposition of the colourful little bird with the browns and greys of the background and branches, and hoped I could make a reasonable picture of it.

Again I was drawn to a mixture of the Derwent watercolours and Caran d’Ache Supracolors. The Derwents had perfect yellows for the head and breast feathers, and a blue-grey pencil that I have found invaluable on several pictures, and proved to be just the thing for the predominant colour for the back and tail feathers. The Supracolors have a great selection of greys, grey-browns and browns that provided the perfect look for the wings. I am particularly fond of a wonderful set of olive green tints in the Supracolors, namely olive yellow, khaki green, light olive, olive grey, olive, olive brown and olive black. You would not think that you could get seven different hues from olive, but they are all different and have been excellent for lichens, mosses and other greenery, as well as the back plumage of this bird.

prothonotary rs watermarked

‘Prothonotary Warbler’, 8 x 10 inch watercolour pencil (Derwent Watercolour, Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

In case you were wondering about the derivation of the name ‘prothonotary’, the birds are supposedly named after a rank of senior clergy in the Roman Catholic church, although why so is a bit of a mystery. It certainly isn’t because the plumage resembles the robes they wear, since the clergymen wear purple! I’m also sure that protonotaries apostolistic (note the different spelling too!) don’t hang about in hardwood bogs, either. The word is also used for a principal clerk in a court, dating from the time of the Byzantine Empire. It is still used in some parts of the world, notably in Nova Scotia, PEI and, previously, Quebec; the Federal Court of Canada (where they are judicial officers, not clerks); Pennsylvania in the US; and New South Wales and Victoria in Australia. Not sure if any of these officials have yellow and grey robes! Thanks to Wikipedia for the info on this.



Low Tide

I’ve been a bit nervous of landscapes; I’ve been unsure that I could make a good go of it since they don’t generally lend themselves to the detail that I like. I decided that I really have to get more practice in, so I’ve determined to alternate the bird pictures with landscapes or wharves. A few days ago we took an evening tour around Cape Sable Island and ended up at the car park at the end of Fish Plant Road, at The Hawk, looking out across the flats at the Cape Light. The tide was low so there were rocks and sandbanks visible, so I took a few photos using my 35x optical zoom bridge camera (that lighthouse is quite a way away!). One in particular, attracted me to try and make a picture.

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I liked the lines of colour crossing the view, where the water had retreated, and the yellowy grass around the lighthouse.  Part-way through I had a bit of a panic that the foreground was a bit empty so decided to add some birds, Brant geese in fact, to give the eye a focal point. I had taken a few Brant pictures on the same tour and was able to choose a nice grouping.

brant at daniels head 3 watermark

Not the best photo, (the birds were a long way away, too),  but there was sufficient detail to provide a reference for these small images. The Hawk is an important migration stop-off for Brant, and there are thousands around in the Spring, though maybe not quite where I put this grouping (artistic licence, eh?). I was reasonably happy with the final picture, and I feel that I have learned a few new ways to work with the pencils.

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‘Low Tide’, Brant geese at The Hawk, 8 x 10 inch Caran d’Ache Supracolor watercolour pencils on Canson XL 140 lb cold press watercolour paper.

Another Wharf

Another Wharf…no, not a half-Klingon security officer, but another of the harbours of Cape Sable Island. One of larger wharves, Clark’s Harbour wharf has plenty of colourful lobster boats operating from there. I took a photo for this image late last year and have only just got around to painting it.

As is my normal practice, I used the Derwent Inktense pencils to really put some colour into the boat hulls, trims and things like the red lights, lifebelt and balloon on the top of the third boat. After that I switched to the Supracolors for the rest of the painting. I particularly enjoyed the challenge of the wooden posts and jetty edges, with the rope bannisters, something that I have not seen used at other wharves in the area. In fact is is fascinating to see the differences in materials and formats used in the wharves , even on such a small area as CSI.

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‘The Wharf at Clark’s Harbour’, 8.5 x 8.5 inch, watercolour pencil on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper.nother Wharf

Whisky Jack-two ways

The Grey Jay, also known as ‘Whisky Jack’, is an engaging little bird, inquisitive and busy but not always easy to see, preferring coniferous woods, low trees and bogs. It is found in every province and territory of Canada, which makes it the first choice for Canada’s National Bird, a choice I heartily agree with!

Last year, Mark was privileged to be invited for a day at Ellis d’Entremont’s camp in Cranberry Bog, where he has a group of remarkably obliging Grey Jays that provided lots of entertainment and photo opportunities. I always particularly liked one shot, of a bird looking over it’s shoulder whilst stood in a colourful bare twig and have had a go at portraying this pose on a couple of occasions.

Firstly, last year, it got the pen and ink treatment.


I was quite pleased with the resulting image, since the subtleties of plumage can be difficult to portray in only shades of grey and black, using lines and stippling! My pen of choice is a technical drawing pen with a 01 nib. I bought a box of these (Zebra Drafix) back when we lived in the UK (so 14 years!) and they are still going strong!

I recently decided to upgrade this image to a painting. After using only one set of pencils (the Supracolors) on the Piping Plover portrait, I thought it would be fun to try the same exercise using the Derwent Watercolours. In fact, I realised that I’d never tried to do that before, I’d always subbed in pencils from other sets. Perhaps a picture of a grey bird was not the best choice for using a set that I’d already stated is a bit limited on greys, but it forced me to be a bit less literal in choosing colours! In fact, the ‘Grey’ Jay has quite a few colours in it’s plumage and, again, for fun, I listed the colours used in the picture:

Bird French grey, burnt umber, gunmetal, ivory black, smalt blue, blue grey, silver grey, sepia, chocolate, burnt carmine, raw sienna, raw umber, Vandyke brown.

Twigs Geranium lake, venetian red, burnt umber, French grey, deep vermillion, madder carmine, bronze

Background Olive green, bronze, raw sienna

I also deliberately tried to draw faster and a little looser, as my work has been described as ‘technical illustration’ style, which is fine but I’d like to make it a bit more lively. It was certainly faster, being finished in an afternoon (although it is not as large as the last few pictures). I hope I managed to portray a little of the liveliness of these charming birds.

grey jay 2 rs watermark

‘Whisky Jack’, Grey Jay, 8 x 10 inch, Derwent Watercolour pencil on 90 lb cold press watercolour paper.

Talking Turkey

Some people might think that Turkey Vultures may have faces that only a mother could love, but I’ve always had a soft spot for them. After all, they do a necessary job, places would sometimes be a lot nastier without them, and they are often quite sociable. In this part of Nova Scotia, right on the southern tip, they have become year-round birds and the Yarmouth/Chebogue peninsula area often has quite large numbers circling and gathering, even in snowy or icy weather.

A couple of weeks ago, Mark and I were taking a tour around the local birding hotspots, and took a trip down the Chebogue peninsula, just in case. There were no surprises, except for a house, quite near the end, which seemed to be covered in Turkey Vultures. There was apparently one on every fence post, several sat on the lobster traps in the yard, and a couple cavorting in the back of a flat bed truck on the front drive. I don’t know what was in the back of the truck, but it was certainly attracting the birds and I don’t envy the owner his clean-up job! The birds were a bit splattered, but Mark was able to take lots of photographs and I was certain that I could make a good picture, as long as I worked around the splatters on the plumage (white streaks, can’t think what they are). They were obviously resting up and digesting whatever they had found in the back of that truck, before they went off to clean their plumage.

I chose four of Mark’s many excellent photos to combine in my scene. I had four birds in mind as a sort of homage to the Disney vultures, with Liverpudlian accents, in the original animated Jungle Book (apparently called Buzzie, Flaps, Ziggy and Dizzy, and based on The Beatles). For some reason they were in my head throughout the preparation of the picture, despite the fact that New World vultures are not related to the Old World vultures depicted in the film, and I doubt very much if they have any accents at all, certainly not Scouse.

The birds were all facing away, but in a variety of angles and all looking over their shoulders at the viewer, so I was able to compose a pleasing arrangement. Other than the bright pinky-red heads and little ivory/pink bills, the plumage is primarily browns and beiges, and surprisingly colourful. It’s easy to think of them as ugly, but they are actually handsome, when in a good light, and were very enjoyable to paint.

turkey vultures rs watermark

Talking Turkey’, 10 x 13 inch, watercolour pencil on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper.



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!

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