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I am happily working in my studio this winter. I will admit my fingers are itching to be outside working in the soil, watching things grow, but for now I am finding great peace at my table, pencil in hand. I am working on a commission of African birds, these little creatures fill my soul, looking through my photographs, choosing the 'right' postures I am transported back to memories of trips with friends into the African bush. But some Blue Jays have decided they want their portraits done too. So who am I to argue? I have decided to post their progress. Today I am transferring the drawing of the branches to the board, it is a wonderful, slow, thoughtful process.

BJ 1

Step 1. The birds were drawn on tracing paper, then placed roughly in position on a large peice of white paper. I might need to make small adjustments or flip them over to face the opposite direction as the composition develops. But at this point I am happy.

BJ 2

Step 2. On a separate layer of tracing paper the size of the finished image. I first outlined the shape of each bird which helps to place the perching braches correctly. Then it is a matter of creating a pleasing composition. Our apple trees are very old, a 100 years or more so the branches are quite gnarled with plenty of interesting patches of lichen.

BJ 3

Step 3. Paint a base background color on the board. I want the birds to really stand out so a blue Maine sky would not work. So I painted a winter grayish sky, which of course is never gray but full of subtle colors. You can see I have begun the process of transferring the branches in the lower left. The branches will be transfered and painted first then the birds. Did I mention that I am using M. Graham's acrylics - my usual 6 primaries: Ultramarine Blue VB, Phthalo Blue GB, Cadmium Red Light OR, Quinacridone Rose VR, Azo Yellow GY and Cadmium Yellow OY the initials referthe bias of the colors, I rarely use the actual names) and Art Boards Archival Art Supply's Gesso and prepared board. OY, VB, and OY for the background and branches. The branches that come forward will be slightly more yellow, the ones in the middle plane will be slightly more red, those in the back will be more blue. The birds will be VB, VR and a tiny bit of GY.

First paint layer

Step 4. This is a detail of the first layer of paint on some of the branches, the color is mixed using OR, VB, and OY. I mix as I go so I get lots of variety of values and tones, this needs to be organic not flat as I want to begin to build texture.

Placed ready for transfer

Step 5. Well kind of, it took a few layers to get the detail on the branches. Be careful at this point, this is a note to self, I get too focused on the images in the background happily painting the minutest detail forgetting the images in the foreground are the focus, where there will be the most detail. I can always go back and add more later. Now that the branches are 'done' I have placed the drawings of the birds. I use removable tape so I can reposition easily, unless left for long periods it does not leave any residue.


Step 6. Transferring the birds. The one on the right has already been done. I used a referse transfer method: the tracing is reversed, using a B pencil all the lines are traced. The tracing is then placed back in position original drawing facing up. All the lines are redrawn using a hard 9H pencil this time. Once all the lines have been transferred lift the tracing off and use a kneeded eraser to gently lift any transferred lines that are too dark. Then carefully go over the drawing to make sure all the lines are clear and you are happy with the drawing, this is the last time before painting to be sure the drawing is as accurate as possible. A lot of work, absolutely, but if the drawing is not 'right' painting only makes it worse.


Step 7. I have blocked out the white and black areas, using pure gesso and a mixed black. This has been done so that I can check the position of the branches should they be behind or in front of the birds. Not sure I like the branch which appears to be emerging from the bird on the right's head, it may need to come off/changed. Fortunately there is no panic as it is easy to change ones mind when using paint on board, not so when working on paper however, there it becomes instantly permanent. Backgrounds can be easily matched. There are a few ways to lift or make changes. The area can be sanded gently with a very fine sand paper removing the image. You can lift paint, even if dried for some time, by using rubbing alcohol on a brush or small peice of paper towel rolled into a point, but work gently you can very fast find yourself right down to the wood. Or simplest of all is to just paint over the area you want changed. When placing and then blocking the bird on the right, for no reason I can remember I thought the tail should be infront of the branch - which by the way was nicely finished with all the detail added. Once the tail was blocked I realized it would be so much more interesting going behind the branch, which by the way was how I had first imagined it to be, so now that area of the branch is blocked ready repainted - again! For this reason it is a good idea to keep a record of the primaries you used for the background, and subjects.


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Raptor Drawing



Jury Duty

Color Green




Barn Owl Progression

Direction of Growth

Issue of Tracing Photos

Life Upside Down