An Orchestra of Avocets

I have always liked Avocets. The European version, the Pied Avocet, used to be pretty rare in the UK when I started birdwatching and I remember going to see my first one. Mark said that they had bright blue legs and I didn’t really believe him, but they do!  That was at Titchwell, in Norfolk, I believe, one of the few places you could see that species in those days; now they are much more widespread. Over here in the New World, we have the American Avocet, even more colourful because, along with the black and white plumage, and blue-grey legs, they have a bright cinnamon wash on their heads and necks, when in full breeding plumage. They are rare in Nova Scotia though, and we are yet to see them here, but Mark is looking hard!

Back in 2014, we paid a visit to Texas in February, timed to catch the Whooping Cranes that winter in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The best way to see the cranes is to take a boat trip, so early morning saw us board Captain Tommy’s Crane Trip boat at Rockport, for a ride up the Intercoastal Canal to Aransas. A bonus was the flocks of other birds, roosting in the shallow waters, including Black Skimmers and American Avocets. They were unbothered by the passing boat and allowed good photos in the low morning light.

am avocet rs watermark

Even I was able to get pleasing images with my little bridge camera, including this one that I have always liked. The varying poses of the birds, tapering up to a point, and the shadowy ripples in the shallow water, made me feel that this could be a good subject for a painting.

It was February, so the birds were not yet in their spectacular breeding plumage, but they were showing signs that they were moulting into it, with hints of red on the head and neck. In addition, these birds had brownish primaries, suggesting that they were first-time breeders. Males and females are plumaged similarly, but the bills of the males are less curvy than the females, so I think that these birds were all young males.

I had to alter the positions of the birds in my picture slightly, to fit them into the paper I was using (11 x 14 inch), so my grouping is narrower and slightly taller than the reference photo. I also wanted to keep the background very simple, to highlight the birds and the pattern of shadows/ripples in the water. I was pretty pleased with the final result.

avocets rs watermarked

‘An Orchestra of Avocets’ 11 x 14 inch watercolour pencil (Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

‘An Orchestra’ is apparently the collective noun for Avocets, at least according to one website I consulted. Not sure if that is really the case, but is seemed a nice term for a group of birds that can certainly lift anyone’s spirits.

And, in case anyone is wondering, we got the proverbial ‘crippling views’ of the Whooping Cranes, too!


Piping Plovers

They will be back here anytime now, and Mark is checking the beaches daily! Piping Plovers are globally threatened and endangered, and are considered uncommon within their breeding range. In Canada, the best place to see them is undoubtedly the south shore of Nova Scotia, with Cape Sable Island (where we live) being a hot spot. The danger for them here is generally beach walkers, particularly those with uncontrolled dogs, straying willy-nilly into the marked breeding areas. Anyway, here is a painting to welcome back these lovely little birds.

Mark took some photos last year, as the birds arrived back and had not yet started breeding, on Crow’s Neck Beach on the neighbouring peninsula of Baccaro. Three separate photos were combined to produce this image of the stony beach.

piping plover rs watermark

‘Piping Plovers’, 10.5 x 14.5 inch, watercolour pencil on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper.

I have just taken delivery of some ‘posh’ pencils (Mark’s description!), a full set (120) of Caran d’Ache Supracolor II Artist quality watercolour pencils. They were difficult to find in Canada, the only stockist I could find on line was and even then they were sent from the US. On the positive side, they were here within 5 working days of order (and we are pretty rural!) and in perfect condition.

Up to now I have tended to use a mixture of pencils on my paintings, mainly the Derwent Watercolours and Marco Renoir, with odd ones from my other sets, but this time I wanted to give the Supracolors a good testing, so they were the only pencils used on this project.

Certainly the new pencils are expensive, at around $360 CDN they were two to three times more than my next most expensive set (the Derwent Watercolours). The question is, are they worth it? The set of 120 certainly has lots of shades, particularly good in greens and beige/greys, the latter being a colourway I use a lot in the wildlife field, and that is often missing or limited in other sets. The colours also seem to stay pretty true after wetting, as can be seen from my home-made colour chart below.

colour chart supracolor

Three trays of 40 pencils each, all in metal trays rather than the flexible plastic found elsewhere, make for a lot of choices. The pencils are all marked with the colour name, as well as a number (again, not the case with all sets). I do prefer to navigate by colour names. The pencils all have a colour fastness rating too, mostly 2 and 3. No watercolours are very colourfast, but these seem to be as good as any. The pencils took a good point and sharpened very easily, without cracking or flaking the wood case. This is a problem I have had with some of the other pencils, leading to a few very short pencils where the ‘lead’ has broken repeatedly. They were pleasing to use, the colour went on very smoothly, without any need to ‘scrub’ and they wet very evenly with a minimum of brushing. I would definitely recommend these pencils, following my first use. Although pricy, if they are the only ones you buy then it maybe isn’t as expensive as buying multiple sets of cheaper ones (unless, like me, you become addicted!). I can certainly see me using these a lot and, luckily, it is possible to buy individual pencils to replace worn-down stubs- for me that will be browns, greys and blacks, the reds will last a lot longer!

Just for interest, I recorded the pencil colours I used to create ‘Piping Plovers’: Slate Grey, Greyish Black, Dark Grey, Grey, Mouse Grey, Steel Grey, Light Grey, Cream, Orangish Yellow, Light Ochre, Brown Ochre, Cinnamon, English Red, Orange, Reddish Orange, Flame Red, Golden Ochre, Aubergine, Apricot, Granite Rose, Prussian Blue, Bluish Grey, Olive Black, Light Lemon Yellow, Vandyke Brown, Brownish Beige, Beige, Light Beige, Ash Grey, Black, Cocoa, Bistre, Charcoal Grey, Ivory Black.

You see, a lot of greys, browns and beiges, and this is probably one of my more colourful works!

too many pencils rs

So, what of the other, cheaper sets? I still like my Derwent Watercolours, a set of 72 Artist quality pencils, purchased through (currently half-price at around $100 CDN)but also available on line from a Canadian art shop.

My main issue with these has always been the limited numbers of greys, whereas browns and greens are well represented. The pencils take a reasonable point, go on smoothly and wet well. Each pencil has the colour name and number on the shaft and, unlike the Supracolors, they are numbered sequentially, so it is super easy to put them back in the right slot after use (maybe it’s just me, but I do like them to go back to the right spot!). Individual pencils can be bought to replace well-used pencils in the set. I would certainly recommend these as a good option if you don’t want to shell out quite as much as for the Supracolors.

The lack of greys was amply made up for by the Marco Renoir set. Described as Artist quality, they don’t seem to be as high quality as the other sets, which is reflected in the price. These 72 pencils, made in China, are available on for less than $80 CDN. No colour names, just a number, and they certainly do not sharpen as well, being a bit prone to splintering and the lead breaking. This might seem to be a minor point but can get wearing during a painting. Not as smooth to use as the Derwents or Supracolours, and they can need a bit of work to wet properly, but they really can be an excellent budget choice.

Note the shorter pencils, which broke whilst being sharpened. The set comes with a couple of plastic sharpeners that are pretty useless, and a watercolour brush, also pretty useless. Get better of both.

Two older sets are both Faber-Castell, one probably ‘Hobby’ grade (60 pencil Art-Grip) and one basic grade (36 pencil set).

The Art-Grip set has fancy nodules down the barrel of the pencil, supposedly to help gripping the pencil but I’m not sure I’ve noticed any difference. They take a nice point, sharpen quite well (I have had only one repeated breaker) and have a reasonable selection of greens, greys and browns. They are pretty smooth, but maybe take a little more wetting. No colour names, only a number on the pencil shaft. They are probably a slightly higher quality than the Marcos, but are harder and less easy to fill spaces. Unlike the other pencils, these and the other Faber-Castells can only be used on paper, and then wetted. The others can have pigment lifted from the point of the pencil by a wet brush, or the colour can be lifted from a paper palette. Currently running at about $110 CDN on Amazon, but I managed to get mine at a reduced price.

colour chart faber castell rs

This is the basic set, the first ones I bought in the summer of last year, and almost the only ones bought from a physical shop. These have a ‘name’ plate on each pencil, so I suspect they are meant for school use, and came with a really useless watercolour brush. They certainly worked to get me hooked on this medium, but I don’t use them much any more. They work well enough, but the pigment is probably a little weaker in these cheaper pencils (I think they were less than $30 CDN). Not a bad choice if you want to try it out, but I think you will move on quite quickly from these.

Another good choice for a tryout are these Staedler Karat watercolours, readily available in Staples at $24 CDN for a set of 12). They take a very nice point and I have found the black pencil very useful as a lining pencil, it is a very good black. I don’t use the others much. I think you can see that from the picture, unfortunately they don’t seem to sell pencils individually so when this pencil finally gets unusable, I shall have to pick one of the others to use for this purpose!

I have two sets of ‘Artist” quality specialist watercolour pencils, Derwent Inktense 72 and Derwent Graphitint 24. The Inktense pencils are supposed to be like an ink wash when wetted. They are certainly very intense colours when compared with other watercolour pencils.

Although there are 72 pencils, the palette is a bit limited, with few lighter hues, so I find them less useful for the bird portraits although I often include them in the boats and landscape works. They do give a ‘pop’ of colour. Unlike the standard watercolours, they are not re-wettable once dried, so this can be an advantage when  adding additional colour to what is already there. The pencils all have a colour name and number, sharpen well and the colour goes on well. They wet very easily. I certainly do recommend them if you have the need for this sort of colour, or if you don’t mind paying out $110 CDN for a set for very specific uses.

The Derwent Graphitint are very specialised tinted graphite, so they can be used dry or wet. I don’t do much graphite work, but this set’s palette of earthy colours appealed for the landscape work.

Each pencil is marked with colour name and number, sharpens well and goes on smoothly, considering this really is a graphite pencil and thus a different medium. I do like the muted colours but probably don’t use this set as much as I should. Too many to choose from, maybe so!