Collared Aracari

It’s been a while since I posted on this blog, mainly due to the nice spring weather and migration time for birds! Consequently we’ve been buzzing about locally and my painting has remained, neglected rather, on my drawing board. It has been difficult to find an hour or two to settle into the painting and, as a consequence, I think this one suffered from that a bit. I think that I rushed the end a little, I’m not over fond of the background or the branches, but backgrounds seem to be my bugbear.

To wind back a little, Mark had taken a photo of a Collared Aracari, a member of the Toucan family, in the garden of Rancho Naturalista in Costa Rica, in November 2010 and I’d recently dug it out. These are colourful birds, with some subtle plumage details, as well as the rather comical bill, and I thought it would make a nice challenge. I have also neglected the watercolour pencils rather, recently, and I wanted to give them a go. Therefore Collared Aracari, in watercolour pencil on watercolour paper it would be.

Now, you may recall that my super pencil sharpener had collapsed on me, much to my distress. Mark took a look and, with the help of a big pair of pliers, had tightened that silly little red nut sufficiently that it works again. I get a nice sharp point, most of the time, but the ‘autostop’ function seems to have stopped working altogether, so the sharp point is generally at the sacrifice of an awful lot of pencil! I see this as a stopgap only, and am still considering what I should get to replace it. In the meantime, I’m keeping the pliers handy and trying not to sharpen things to much, in case I end up with drawers full of stumps.

The bird went quite well, I think. These are pretty shaggy-looking birds and I felt that the feather detailing worked out pretty well, using the Supracolor and Albrecht Durer pencils. I was pretty pleased with the breast feathering, in particular, with it’s shades of yellow, orange, red and black. The bill colouration took to the watercolour treatment, since the addition of water smoothed out any abrupt colour changes. It’s also surprising just how many other shades (like blue, violet and malachite green) can be seen in an ostensibly black feather. In the end it was a looser depiction rather than an completely accurate representation-something I perhaps need to work on more since I am prone to the ‘technical illustration’ style, apparently. It’s still pretty true to life, though, as my resident critic would definitely let me know if it wasn’t!

I had more issues with the branches and the background. I decided to use some of the Derwent Watercolours for this, since I haven’t used them for some time. They worked well but I definitely noticed a difference in the feel of the pencils. These used to be my favourites, but they have definitely been superceded by the Supracolors and Albrecht Durers now. Backgrounds are still an issue; I tried yet again to get some sort of bokeh with the watercolours, but it didn’t really come off. I do think it’s a bit better than previous attempts, mainly because I gave up before I’d filled too much of the page.

I’m not sure why it ended up with quite such a look of surprise, but it is quite endearing!

‘Collared Aracari’, 9 x 12 inch watercolour pencil (C d’A Supracolor, F-C Albrecht Durer, Derwent Watercolour) on 140 lb watercolour paper (Canson XL).

Just a reminder that next weekend sees the art exhibition at Clark’s Harbour Legion Hall, and I will be exhibiting (and selling) some of my pieces. The exhibition is on Friday 08 June from 6-9 pm and on Saturday 09 June from 10 am to 4 pm, and costs only $2 to enter. Over 10 local artists will be exhibiting, and I’m looking forwards to seeing what they have been doing!


Down to the Jetty

I really struggle with landscapes. I don’t think that they work well with my detail obsession and my preference for watercolour pencil work. I suppose the type of landscape I’ve always enjoyed seeing are those with wafts of colour that give the impression of the landscape structures, and I’m just not good at that (and pencil isn’t the medium for it, I think). Anyhow, you work with what you have, so it really is up to me to get better at what I know.

My sister lives back in the UK, and she expressed a wish for a painting- well, a couple of paintings all told, of the same size and orientation. She chose one of my completed pieces, ‘Chegoggin Wharf’, and wanted a companion piece, the only stipulation being for something ‘rural’. She’s not into the birds, so it would have to be a landscape, but I didn’t want to do another wharf. Looking through my photo files, I came across an image I’d taken last summer.

This is a view down to the jetty of the Old Acadian Village at Pubnico, NS. It’s an open-air museum, where a number of old houses, workshops and barns have been moved to the site and set up with furnishings, etc., so that it looks pretty much as it would have done in the 19th Century. It’s an interesting place and my parents and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon exploring it last August. It was actually during the same time period that I took the reference photo for ‘Chegoggin Wharf’, so that was also appropriate. The picture had trees, water, a couple of rural-looking buildings, a dory in the sound and lots of foliage, so I hoped it would fit the bill.

One thing that I wanted to do was match the foreground flowers of ‘Chegoggin Wharf’. There were none, really, in my new reference photo but I thought that a little artistic licence could be used to add in Queen Anne’s Lace and a couple of other species into the right-hand foreground of the new piece.

This is ‘Chegoggin Wharf’, you can see that Queen Anne’s Lace is pretty big in this composition.

The other thing I wanted to do was to frame the grass ‘pathway’ down to the wharf with something on the left-hand side. Just down the hill, and hidden by the foliage, was a pile of old-fashioned wooden lobster traps, so I ‘moved’ a couple of them up the hill a bit! I hope that this helps draw the eye into the picture, and that the buoys add a little colour to the foreground.

I haven’t used them much, recently, but this time I determined to use the Derwent Inktense pencils a bit more. One thing that helped was the purchase of a second pencil cabinet. I had filled the first one immediately on buying it, and my Inktense pencils were one of the sets that I wasn’t able to lay out, consequently I tended not to use them. My new cabinet now holds the coloured pencil collection, leaving more room in the original one for the watercolours. Using the Inktense on this foliage and flower-filled picture made a lot of sense, since once dried, the colour is permanent so additional watercolour pencil over the top did not make the first layer bleed. In addition, it is a very intense colour and pops against the more subdued watercolours. It worked well for some of the green and yellow foliage, the pink/red flowers and the buoys. Finally, a black gel pen was utilized to add the detail of the nets within the lobster traps. I really don’t think that I’d have got a pleasing effect, trying to do that in watercolour!

‘Down to the Jetty’, 9 x 12 inch watercolour pencil (Caran d’Ache Supracolor, Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer, Derwent Watercolour and Derwent Inktense), with black gel pen (Staples) on 140lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

It remains to be seen if this one suits my sister-fingers crossed!

I recently decided to replenish some of my pencil sets. There were a couple of pencils that were getting very short, mainly in the older sets. Although I am still able to use these with pencil extenders, it’s obvious that their days are numbered.

These were the shortest, but there were quite a few others getting that way, even in the new sets. For some reason, I have used the Albrecht Durer Payne’s Grey quite widely, and my Cinnamon Polychromos pencil, unusually, suffered from repeated breakages. I looked at at their open stock, and was surprised to find that some pencils were listed at $3.95 each (with $4.95 shipping), and others (the same pencils, the same colours) at $65 each-that’s for one pencil! It definitely pays to be careful what you click on.

The cheaper-priced pencils all seemed to be coming from one supplier, Jackson’s Art Supplies, in the UK. Well, I decided to try them out directly, instead of going via Amazon. They do ship internationally and hold stocks of all the major pencils. I was able to get replacements for Supracolor, Derwent Watercolour, Derwent Drawing, Albrecht Durer and Polychromos with no problem. Prices are in UK pounds, of course, but seemed very similar to Amazon’s prices (the cheap ones of course!) and they don’t charge VAT (the UK’s sales tax) on orders from abroad. I bought 19 pencils for 27 GBP, they charged only 1.48 GBP for postage and packing, and shipped them the day after I placed the order (30 December). The package arrived here on 12 January, which I think is very good service, considering the New Year’s holiday and the recent bad weather. I wasn’t desperate for them, so the delay was no issue. They were securely wrapped in a paper envelope, covered by a full-length strip of corrugated cardboard wrapped tightly round and then a padded envelope, so they were all fine when I unwrapped them. I wasn’t even charged duty at this end. That’s what I call a good deal!

As you can see, my shorter pencils are mostly the dull colours. All those pinks, blues and purples are hardly touched (in fact, some of them haven’t been, except for making the colour charts!). I will definitely have to start doing tropical bird portraits. I won’t hesitate to use Jackson’s again, indeed I note the recommendation for the Caran d’Ache Luminance White coloured pencil amongst the pencil artist community so might spring for a few of their open stock Luminance pencils to give them a go (I would probably have to sell a kidney to buy the full set!). The Pablo pencils, though…they might be on my birthday list :).

Something Old, Something New…

An appropriate title, I think, for the last day of 2017. Even more so when considering the subject matter of this post. Its an image of a wedding, not just any old wedding but our own, way back in 1993! You may wonder why I chose to have a go at this…well, I’m definitely feeling nostalgic since next April will mark our 25th Wedding Anniversary. It was a bit of a DIY wedding, we had just bought our first house together and so didn’t have much money to splash about. I tried to get a wedding dress, but after several visits to shops where I was shown a variety of lace-covered tents by sneering saleswomen (apparently no one bigger than a size 12 ever decides to get married!), I made my own outfit (I did get real wedding shoes, however…they looked awful at the end of the day and I never wore them again!). We had a reception in a marquee at the local yacht club (a lot less posh than it sounds!), unfortunately it rained so the tent smelled a little like cat pee when we first arrived (we got used to it!). It was such fun!

After the registry office, we proceeded to Colwick Park for photographs. This was appropriate because this was where we met…Mark was the Senior Warden on the park and I’d gone there to birdwatch. In the grounds of the park was an old, ruined church, St, John’s dating back to the Domesday Book, and we though it would be nice to take photos in the grounds (technically, we were supposed to pay the council for that privilege, but there has to be some perks to marrying the warden!). The photos were another amateur affair, taken by my then brother-in-law or any other family member that happened to be standing around, so there are no really great images. I thought it would be nice to finally have a nice wedding picture, so set to, to try and improve on the photos.

There was one full length image that wasn’t too bad, although Mark has a slightly odd expression and I have my eyes closed. This is the photo that has been in a frame since 1993, so the colours are now a bit off. I wanted to improve the faces so I picked out another photo, head and shoulders this time, with what seemed to be better facial expressions.

Another thing to note is that we are posed, both times, in front of an iron gate. The ruins are dangerous so you are not allowed to enter the church, hence the barrier. I though that iron bars didn’t quite give the impression I wanted for a joyous, happy day so decided to leave them off the painting (Mark agreed!). I told you that the photographers were strictly amateur!. The pictures actually scanned very well, considering the age of the prints, although the picture colours are off. Mark’s suit was grey, not blue, so I was able to correct the colouration in my picture.

‘3rd April 1993’, 9 x 12 inch watercolour pencil (Caran d’Ache Supracolor, Derwent Watercolour, Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).
The old rhyme says to wear ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue’ for luck and I did follow that for my wedding day. I wore a silver ring of my mother’s, she had had it since being a teenager (I still have it). My outfit was completely new. I borrowed a lace garter from my cousin, and it had a blue ribbon incorporated, so I was covered there. It seems to have worked, so far!


It is getting wintry around here, so a ‘year tick’ (in birding terms, a species of bird that you have not seen this year) is very welcome. Marsh Wren is considered to be mostly a transient or vagrant bird in Nova Scotia, with only a few actually nesting here. Added to that, they live deep in reedy marshes and can be reluctant to show themselves well, so I hadn’t actually caught up with one in Nova Scotia at all and Mark was missing one for the year. Therefore a bird found in Broad Brook Park in Yarmouth a couple of weeks ago was a tempting target as part of a shopping trip to the big metropolis (well, they do have Canadian Tire and Walmart there- invaluable for stocking up on bird seed, cat food and toilet paper!).

The bird was readily heard but difficult to see, especially as there was a keen, blustery wind blowing and the reedstalks were in constant motion. Fleeting glimpses were obtained, although no good photos, and we were satisfied with the ‘tick’ obtained. Not satisfied enough, however, since other visitors were obtaining much better views, so we headed back to the park a few days later for another look. This time, we had better luck and Mark took a number of very nice photos. One was of the bird in a pretty standard pose for Marsh Wrens, but that seemed more unusual for a painting, so I was immediately drawn to it.

Lots of fun to be had with this!
I determined to stay with the watercolour pencils for this picture, and firstly drew out the picture with 2B graphite. As per the tip I picked up from a YouTube video, I then went over the picture with a kneadable eraser to lighten the marks and prevent them showing through the final painting. I started, as usual, with the eye since I find that I can relate to the picture as soon as the eye is in place-it’s all about the ‘personality’ of the bird. if I don’t get that right, there’s no point carrying on. I did take a couple of ‘WIP’ pictures of this one…

Part way through painting the bird.

Just started the reeds.
and this is the final piece:

‘Legs Akimbo’, Marsh Wren, 9 x 12 inch watercolour pencil (Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer, Caran d’Ache Supracolor, Derwent Watercolour) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

The new set of watercolour pencils, the Albrecht Durers, have integrated nicely with the older two main sets and I am really enjoying working with them. However, it has caused a bit of an issue in my studio (a posh name for a corner of our shared office!) because I was continually hauling out and laying out the contents of three tins of pencils all over the adjoining desk. It was blocking access to a sunny window for our two cats and, because I tend to leave the pencils out during a piece, I actually lost some pencils into the wastebin when one of the cats tried to pick their way over the desk (I found them before any waste got discarded!). Clearly, I needed some sort of better system.

Well, I think I have found it. I came across this nice little cabinet in IKEA (we have one in NS now!), with a series of shallow drawers that seemed just made to lay out pencils in. It meant a trip to Halifax, but it was raining so why not?

It’s called ‘Alex’ and has three shallow drawers and three slightly deeper ones. I arranged it so that my most used pencil sets were laid out inside each drawer for easy access, starting with the watercolours, of course.

There is even room in the bottom drawer for my paper store. It’s keeping my workspace much clearer.

It is not quite big enough to lay out all of my pencils, but the most used sets are all there.
Of course, I don’t want to keep the drawers open all the time, so I devised a ‘work in progress’ tray to keep the pencils, etc., that I’m working with at the time all corralled and safe.

It worked very nicely on this piece, and keeps me much cleaner and tidier! No more lost pencils and brushes in the wastebin. Now, if only I can stop the ex-pickle jar water pot from releasing a powerful whiff of vinegar, every time I take the lid off-but at least it stops the cat from trying to drink it!

Guest Photographer

People who read the blog regularly know that I usually use Mark’s or my own photographic references. Mark, in particular, takes excellent bird and wildlife shots and is very generous in allowing me to use them (if he knows what’s good for him ;), that is!). I have only actually gone to a photo sharing site for one piece (‘An Improbability of Puffins’, Pixabay) and on another occasion I used a photo provided, for a commissioned picture (‘House Sparrows’). However, I was recently sent a bird photo by my father, who needed the species identifying. He and Mum had stayed with us for a month this summer, and he had waved his camera at a number of birds, amongst other subjects. One picture, in particular, was pleasing in its composition and he wanted to know what it was. It’s a Magnolia Warbler, a bird as pretty in appearance as its name would suggest.

I suggested that it would make a good subject for a painting, and he thought I was joking, so, here it is! A thoroughly enjoyable return to the bird images, and done in my favourite watercolour pencils. I was quite pleased with the mottled background, which is getting closer to the blurred leafy image I’m aiming for, but I’m not quite there yet. I used a mixture of pencils from the three main sets and the new Albrecht Durer pencils seem to be blending well with the others. This was a smaller piece than I usually do, the image sent was quite small (via e-mail) and I didn’t want to go too large and lose the detail. I really prefer working on larger pieces, but at least it was much quicker to finish. Thanks, Dad, for letting me use your photo, don’t hesitate to send any more you might have!

‘Magnolia Warbler’ 7 x 10 inch watercolour pencil (Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer, Derwent Watercolour, Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).


Well, here’s the thing. I really enjoyed doing the ‘portrait’ in the previous piece. ‘Cat-napping’, which was a bit of a surprise. I’ve never been that drawn to portraiture previously. So, I decided to capitalise on that feeling and have another go at a portrait, but who to ‘do’? Well, my husband, Mark, had previously said that I could have a go at him. The problem here is that Mark is notoriously anti-photograph, to the extent that I usually have to snap him by surprise or when he isn’t actually looking. Therefore, all of my photographs tend to be of Mark behind binoculars, a camera or a telescope!

The image I chose to try to draw was one with the telescope. We were at Cape St. Mary last week, looking at Harlequin Ducks off the end of the rocks, and he was trying to identify two distant specks, out in the Bay of Fundy, that might have been interesting Loons (but even he has to admit defeat, sometimes, especially when looking at things miles away, in a good swell and in fading light!). For one of my ‘surprise’ photos, it shows quite a lot of face unencumbered by optical equipment, whilst still giving the impression ‘Birder’.

Although I like the flesh tones in the Albrecht Durer set, I still think that the Derwent Watercolour Flesh Pink gives the most realistic base tone for those of us with pasty Northern European skins, so I started with this and then built up the different areas with the Albrecht Durer Light, Medium and Dark Flesh pinks, Caput Mortuum and Caput Mortuum Violet, Warm Grey III and a little Derwent Blue Violet Lake, a colour I have found very useful for shadowed areas. It was quite a cold and blowy evening so there were some brighter pinks than normal. Also Mark has very hooded eyes, which are difficult to portray accurately, especially from the side. He said that I would have to make lots of use of my ‘wrinkle pencil’, but I don’t think that was the case! Anyhow, he was gracious enough to say he thought that it looked like him, so I suppose that’s a success.

‘Birder’ 9 x 12 inch watercolour pencil (Caran d’Ache Supracolor, Derwent Watercolour, Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer, Staedler Karat) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

I thought it might be interesting to look back on the two older sets of watercolour pencils and see which ones have been my ‘go to’ ones. Those, of course, are the shorter ones in the sets, now, and some are getting close to needing a pencil extender and/or the purchase of a new pencil!

These are the Derwent Watercolours, which were the first set of ‘artist-quality’ watercolours I bought, late last year.

The colours used most are Flesh Pink (as mentioned above, good for skin tones), Blue Violet Lake (shadowed areas), Blue Grey and Gunmetal (often used when doing rocks), French Grey (a nice ‘greige’) Sky Blue (in sky), 4 different greens (foliage) and Venetian Red (tree boughs and branches).

These are the Caran d’Ache Supracolors, added to the collection earlier this year.

In this set I have made particularly extensive use of Charcoal Grey (a really useful hark grey with hints of brown), Cocoa (a lighter brown with lots of grey), Black, Slate Grey (a really nice very dark grey with no blue tones), Grey (a colour with blue tones that I like in rocks) and Beige (a colour not often seen in pencil sets). In fact the greys and beiges have taken a hammering, but this probably reflects my preferred subject matter of birds and wildlife generally. You will see that I have included my most used pencil in the latter picture, the Staedler Karat Black. This tiny stub is too short now to be sharpened, so I’m using it in a pencil extender until it gets too blunt (I used it in this piece). I have had no luck yet in buying another one, although I tried in Staples, last time I was in there. Instead they had this set, Staedler Ergo-Soft:

Despite the snazzy plastic box, and the ‘coated’ leads to the pencils (supposed to make them harder to break), the black pencil in this set is no way as nice as the one in the Karat set. They are a definite student set, although the colours do seem to be quite bright.

No colour names, so that’s a down mark, straight away!

There are still pencils in both of the main sets that are yet to be used, other than to prepare my colour charts. I shall have to do more flowers, or butterflies, or, maybe, tropical birds, to get those bright pinks, reds, yellows and blues used!

Wild Cats

Wild cats! Well, not really wild, although they are probably pretty miffed. Quite a few years ago, when we still lived on the outskirts of Montreal, we visited the Biodome at the old Montreal Olympic site. It’s a pretty good use of the old Olympic velodome; basically a zoo but with different areas devoted to different types of habitat. There is a tropical region that you can wander through, with birds and animals free-living amongst the trees. There is also a typical Laurentian region (i.e. the habitat around Montreal), with the sort of shorebirds, fish and animals seen there (no Black Bears, though), and an Antarctic region with a lot of penguins (behind glass in this case, or it would be pretty chilly). Somewhere in amongst all of that was an exhibit made to look like a high rocky cliff, with some logs and vegetation. I remember there was a sort of mesh curtain between us and the cliff (which was set pretty far back from the viewing area) that I believe was there to stop the occupants being bothered by the sight of the visitors. Way back, and high up in the cliff face, was a cleft, and in that were two Canadian Lynx. I tried a couple of photos, not expecting much, using my bridge camera on maximum optical zoom (around then, that was probably only 12x, or possibly 16x) and, to my surprise, managed a half-way decent shot! I’ve always liked the composition and decided to try to do it justice in a painting.

Maybe not the sharpest of images, but quite remarkable given the distance and that it was taken through a mesh curtain! These really are the most wonderful-looking animals, a bit like Bobcats but slightly larger, less spotted and with much bigger tufts on the ears. They are usually solitary, except for a brief period in the breeding season, so this is probably not a totally natural pose, but I do like the way they are snuggled together. I don’t know the sexes of the animals (there is no way to tell), but in my head I felt the one sitting more upright was a male and the other a female (I’m probably completely wrong on that!).

I contemplated using coloured pencil (especially the new set, still to come out of the tin in anger) but decided to go with my trusty watercolour pencils and was pleased that I did. I started with a pretty detailed drawing in graphite, to make sure that the features were all placed correctly (I was enlarging from the photo a little, too) and then followed my usual procedure to paint in the eyes and noses (beaks when doing birds). I always feel if I get those looking right, then the rest will just flow, because the personality is all in the eyes. In this case, the direction of the gaze of the animals, especially the upper one, was changed to have him looking directly at the viewer rather than off to the side slightly; I do think this stare captures the attention. For once I had the camera nearby and snapped a ‘work in progress’ shot when I had just about finished the first cat. I think that it captures something of my method with this piece.

I actually completed both cats before starting on the surrounding rocks and wood. It was a surprisingly colourful cliff! The final touch was the whiskers, completed using the same white pigment ink pen that I used for the same purpose when I painted our own pet cats (‘The Girls’). I did enjoy working on this picture, the watercolour pencils do remain my favourite medium right now.

‘Canadian Lynx’, 11 x 15 inch watercolour pencil (Caran d’Ache Supracolor, Derwent Watercolour, Staedler Karat) and pigment ink pen (Uniball Signo) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL),