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Watercolor Workshop-Finishing the Osprey Painting

Saturday, February 25, 2017


This is the second part of a two-part post, a step-by-step of a scene depicting a Scottish osprey spending his winter in Senegal. It’s for an upcoming book by Alan Poole.  

Here is an ultra close up of the beach and wave interface. You can see the masking fluid, dried, still adhering to the paper. You can also see that I’ve sprinkled kosher salt into the dark wet wash. Salt is hydrophilic; it attracts water. With the water travels the granules of pigment, and as the water dries around the salt crystals, wonderful things happen. The salt grain resists the pigment, so there’s a little star or snowflake effect around each grain. The bigger the grain, the bigger the salt snowflake it makes. For some applications I use table salt; for this I wanted kosher (larger grain). I keep kosher salt around in a shallow dish on my stovetop. I like to pick it up in my fingers and throw it in whatever I’m cooking. My fingers are extraordinarily good at knowing just how much salt I’m using; it’s a lot less work and has less uncertainty than a shaker.

 Time for that masking fluid to come off. I peel it off with my thumb. I’ve really gone crazy on these waves, leaving myself a lot of work to integrate the masked areas into the painting. The hard-edged crests will soon be softened by scrubbing with a wet brush and clear water.
Some nice cloud shadow action here. I use the same colors I used in the water and sand, because the clouds are bouncing light from the water. So their bellies will be ocean-colored. Just for fun, I masked the upper edges of the clouds, to give that hard silver lining you see in backlit clouds. 


 All that foreground trash waits to be painted. I’m leaving the horsecarts and the bird for dessert!

 Dune grass, and I’m beginning work on the wave crests. The painting is beginning to come together. My favorite part is still the water/sky interface.

That is, until I get to the horsecarts! Oops, I’ve done it again—painted without shooting progress photos. Got a lot done, too! You’ll notice how much softer those wave crests look. I’ve busily scrubbed them out with a clean wet brush. And suddenly, it’s a whole lot windier—the brilliantly lit clouds, the smeared wave crests, and the diagonal directionality in the sky wash all work together to evoke high winds, typical of coastal areas. I’m pleased about that. Of course, painting the horsecarts is the most fun of all. I manange to discern some of the crops—onions and turnips, maybe? I have a guy in close who’s already headed back from market, perhaps having sold out early. I turn his head so he seems to be looking at this exotic visitor from Scotland.

The finished painting. I’ve used the foreground trash to echo the colors of the pony carts and the sea, to lead the eye toward the main subjects of the painting. Now I can hear the surf pounding. I can feel the wind and taste the salt. I can hear the shouts of the vendors. And through it all the osprey sits, pleasantly phlegmatic, unperturbed, spending his winter dining on fresh catch of the day in a place entirely unlike Scotland.

Watercolor Painting Workshop-Osprey!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I’ve been blessed with a commission, doing five or so paintings for an upcoming book by Alan Poole, one of the world’s foremost authorities on ospreys. You may remember him, last seen cooking local bay scallops for me and Erin in his lovely coastal Massachusetts home. I’ve worked with Alan for a decade starting in 1991, in his former capacity as Editor of The Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st Century. I got to draw North American birds doing things that were hard to depict in photographs. Drawing birds for ornithologists was a blast, and made for a nice steady trickle of income in a freelancer’s life. I drew a lot of nest scenes, good training for doing the paintings for Baby Birds.

Alan wanted me to paint some scenes that couldn’t really be depicted well in photographs. Oh boy. Perfect assignment for me! We batted about ideas for illustrations and came up with a short list. The first one I tackled was ambitious, but I hadn’t done a painting in several months and I was jonesing for a watercolor adventure.

Ospreys from Great Britain and elsewhere often spend their winters on Africa’s west coast. One area, Lompoul Sur Mer in Senegal, hosts good numbers of ospreys, who share the beaches with lots of people. We’ve found this out through satellite tracking of little solar-powered packs on a harness between the bird’s powerful shoulders. Alan and I decided we didn’t need  to depict an antenna sticking off the bird, but that’s how we know they go to this part of Africa.

At Lompoul Sur Mer, the packed sand near the tideline serves as a handy road for vendors traveling to and from farmer’s markets. I was delighted at the prospect of painting an osprey with an ocean backdrop, populated with colorful vegetable carts, people and horses. Here, the Google image search stood me in good stead, and I found lots of drool-worthy images to mix, match and combine in a composition that would evoke the place. Though I’ve never been to Africa’s west coast, I have dipped my toes in the Indian Ocean off South Africa, and I was eager to paint this scene.

Masking. Any complex watercolor of mine is going to involve masking fluid and film. So I may paint freely and quickly, I spend a lot of time masking off areas I don’t want to get covered with color. This would include the bird, wave crests, horses, carts, people and garbage. Like it or not, the photos I found from Lompoul Sur Mer had a lot of garbage in them. I’d try to find a way to work it into the composition without its being too distracting or ugly. It's part of the story, too.

Three ways to mask: Kraft paper covers my ocean and sky; masking film covers the horse and cart; and masking fluid protects the garbage. Now I’m spatter-painting with a toothbrush, as well as flinging paint off a watercolor round brush. I’ve laid down a basic background wash for the dunes and main beach flat, and I’m throwing paint into it as it dries. Obviously, the paint thrown on wet areas is going to feather out and spread, and paint thrown on drier areas will stay put as droplets. If I make a spatter I don’t like, it’s no problem to suck it back up with a damp brush. Lots of fun, and no worries or pressure in this kind of work.

This always happens when I’m painting skies and water. I get carried away and forget to take progress shots. More to the point, I simply can’t stop long enough to shoot a photo—it’s the fast, wet work in watercolor that makes it so special.  I've gone ahead and put in the ocean and the sky, too--the work of less than an hour. 

When I get the ocean and sky wash laid in, you can see just how much masking I’ve done to prepare this painting.
Speaking of working fast, there are wonderful things that happen when a brush drags once across damp and drying paper. 

These marks are called “scumbling” and they’re among the things that make watercolor my favorite medium. Just like that, the brush drags across the rough tops, the teeth of the paper’s surface, and you have sparkles dancing over the water where the sun is glancing in the distance. Or you have little mackerel clouds. Boom. And all you did was lighten up on the pressure as you quickly dragged the brush across.

These are the elements—the little “mistakes” and omissions of paint—that caused early critics of Winslow Homer’s work to label it “primitive” or “savage.” Nothing of the sort. They just didn’t know how to appreciate watercolor.

Next up: Finishing the painting: tricks, tips, and techniques.

I've Got a Girl Crush

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Yep, I stole the name for this post from a popular song. I first heard it on the Grammy Awards show and was smitten. If you don't already know it, I think you'll like it.

Interesting that many country radio stations won't play this hypnotic waltz, because some listeners accuse stations that do give it airtime of "promoting the 'gay agenda'." Good grief. It's a song about longing and disappointment, tinged with jealousy; it's a song about yearning and grappling with rejection. It's a song with multiple edges, co-written by the brilliant Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lee Lindsey.

But I digress. When we last left Ms. Zickefoose she was gasping at the beauty of a certain doe, hoping hard she'd see her again, and be able to photograph her in decent light.

Sometimes dreams come true.  The very next morning after I took those photos of the doe on alert, I raised my east blind in the bedroom, to give me and the orchids some light. I made the bed and came back to the dresser for clothes, looked out the window and saw THIS. Oh oh oh oh oh!! Four deer with black briskets!! Could it be...?

I took off like a scalded ape for the studio where my Canon lives. I have this special run that I do, very rapid small steps, turning corners on two wheels, coming back with a death grip on the big rig, skidding to a halt and shooting out the window. It probably sounds like there's a gigantic squirrel on the roof. 

One of the Blackbrisket fawns was a buck. See his furry button bumps? An older doe is standing behind him, her coat grayer than Mama's. His grandmother? My mind was racing.

One of the fawns was a doe. Both were built like their mama, tall, long-legged and clean-lined. 

They moseyed about the sideyard, heading in a leisurely way toward the main meadow. Heaven. 

The doe fawn and her mama, ears canted exactly the same way, in step with each other. Me and Phoebe, noticing all the same things, alert to it all.  The resemblance between the two, uncanny. 

And the little buck, with the same beautiful lines, great big intelligent eyes and perfect proportions. 

And along came Mama.  When I looked at her face, I heard the angels sing.

Y'all know I love Buffy and Lord knows I loved Ellen. Neither of them perfect by any means. Perfection is not a prerequisite for my love. But I am, in the end, a slave to beauty. It's what I chase down most of every day. It's what I get out of bed for. This animal makes every cell in my body sing Hallelujah. 

You'd think that all deer are pretty, and they are. But there's pretty (Buffy)

and then there's this doe. This doe is Sophia Lauren,  she's Jessica Lange, she's (desperately updating myself) Blake Lively. Her eyes, the bones in her face, her proportions, all perfect beyond perfect.  I thought about her for a couple of days before I came up with her name. 

It had to be Jolene. 

If you'd like to hear Dolly Parton's gorgeous ballad, there's a version from January, 1988 here.  And dig that amazing dress, and her theatrical delivery!  I really prefer the 1973 version from the Porter Waggoner show, though. There's a sweet, pleading sadness in that one, a purity, and pain undimmed by theatricality and swagger. Ain't the Net a wonderful place?

I was talking about deer. Music is always wanting in.

 I found one tiny notch in her right ear, halfway down the curve. Not that I'd need it to recognize this exquisite creature, but at some point I may need to distinguish her from her beautiful daughter.
Here they are lined up, and I want you to look at the topline on this statuesque doe. Straight as a Kansas highway, no tuck-under at the rump.  Her coat is luxuriant and dark. If whitetails were bred for excellence, Jolene would be a founding doe. She's as good as they get.


Let's take a look at the older doe, appearing here in the lower left of this photo. She's hanging closely with the group. Her coat is grayer, lighter, but there's something familiar about her lines and her face. 

She can only be Jolene's mother. All the beauty is there, the slightly slanted eyes, the long face, the proud carriage. She's seen a lot more seasons than her beautiful daughter. And now she's helping with her grandfawns. Yes, these are all guesses on my part, but what's the harm in building a story on what I'm seeing in their faces, in the line of their backs and the length of their legs?

For now, I’m drinking them in. I never know when I’ll see these animals again. I never expected the Blackbriskets to walk right under my bedroom window, the day after I’d finally gotten photos of them!

Look at the difference in coat color between dark Jolene  (grazing at left) and paler Grandma (in the middle). Fawns are behind. Right there, she sticks out for you.

There’s such intelligence in Jolene’s face. She smells a rat, feels someone’s watching her.  She starts down the path and gives the signal to depart.

Jolene leads the charge down the lower path. All flags up!

I hate to see her go, but I love to watch her leave.

Having put a sufficient distance between themselves and the imagined threat, they stop to reconnoiter. Jolene’s tail is still flared. What a long-distance signal flag that tail can be.

I’m grateful for this rare and perhaps never to be repeated chance to document Jolene and her family at close range. 

 I can only hope we meet again.

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