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, 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.


Beachy Nuthatch

Mark has been taking a few trips to The Cape recently. For those who don’t know, ‘The Cape’ is a sandy island off the end of The Hawk, Cape Sable Island, inhabited by sheep, birds, the automated Cape Light lighthouse and occasional mad birdwatchers. It is reached by a small boat, navigated by an indomitable 89-year-old, and can attract interesting birds on migration, as well as Canada’s only breeding American Oystercatchers, hence Mark’s interest.

On a recent visit, with Ronnie d’Entremont, the birding was quite slow but they did come across a Red-breasted Nuthatch, perched on a bleached log on the rocky beach. Nuthatches are a permanent resident of the coniferous forests of Nova Scotia, so not rare, but the perch on the log was very photogenic, and rather unusual. It suggests that this bird was a migrant, rather than a resident, especially since the only trees on The Cape (the famous ‘Forest’) are a small clump of wind-blasted shrubs (the name is a bit sarcastic!). The brownish tinge to the wings and tail of this bird indicate that it has not yet completed the moult to full breeding plumage. Mark took a shot of the bird and though it might inspire a painting.

red breasted nuthatch rs watermarked

It definitely got me interested. The bird itself was relatively simple to draw, it was the rocks and, in particular, the wood that took the time. My version left out the flotsam ropes and other articles, and ended up a little more colourful than the original (hey, artistic interpretation is allowed!). It was fun to try and produce ‘rocky’ textures on the sea-washed rocks, through the medium of watercolour pencil.

redbreasted nuthatch rs watermark

‘Beachy Nuthatch’, Red-breasted Nuthatch, 10 x 14 inch, watercolour pencil (Derwent Watercolour, Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

This species is an extremely rare vagrant to Europe, with only two having been found in the Western Palearctic region. One of these was an overwintering individual in Norfolk, UK – Holkham Meals to be precise – in 1989-1990. It is a pine forest, so perfectly suitable habitat for Nuthatches, but this bird’s ‘tin trumpet’ call gave the game away. And, yes, Mark did see the Norfolk bird! See his excellent e-book ‘Twitching Times’ for details.


A lighthearted romp through the birding scene in the UK, following twitching* trips to rare birds, the length and breadth of the country. Cover art and internal pen and ink illustrations are mine. Available from iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble for a very  small amount!

*twitching-to actively chase rare birds. A UK term that is slowly making its way across the pond.


Red Letter Bird

Spring in southern Nova Scotia is well under way, and we have been blessed by a plethora of excellent and unusual birds. Our garden feeders have been busy with Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings and Baltimore Orioles, amongst the more common visitors, but we have yet to be graced with one of this species, the spectacular male Scarlet Tanager. One turned up at the home of Joan and Al Comeau very recently, much to their delight, and they were kind enough to let us know and allow us to invade their home to see the bird. A Nova Scotia tick, and such a lovely one, is definitely a red (scarlet?)-letter day!.

Mark took a very nice photo of the bird, posing in their apple tree, and I was inspired to have a go at a painting.

scarlet t rs watermarked

Note that this is a male bird, but it is not yet in its full breeding plumage. In fact, this bird, in late evening sunshine, had a lovely combination of reds and oranges to work with. Using only the Supracolors for this painting, I ended up using scarlet (of course), vermillion, flame red, reddish orange, orange, fast orange, golden yellow and pale yellow on the ‘red’ portions alone. It is difficult to capture the sheer intensity of the colour on this bird, using a transparent medium like watercolour, but I found that going over the painting with another coat of pencil, once the first layer had dried, did get closer to the true vibrancy. In retrospect, this might have been a good subject for the Inktense pencils, maybe as a base coat? I will have to try that, elsewhere. The fact that the Inktense are not re-wettable, once dried, might also help. Anyhow, I rather enjoyed working on this bird, especially the spectacular ‘scarlet’ plumage…a chance to work with some of the lesser-used pencils in my set!

scarlet tanager rs watermark

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