Natural History Illustration: Step by step Painting a Waxwing

Story posted: Thursday, 29. January 2015 by Lizzie Harper

Science art, natural history illustration, natural science illustrations, botanical drawing; all these terms cover what I do,  But this week's blog is about creating an ornithological illustration, in this case of the Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus.

First step is always to draw up the bird.  I wanted to include background, and hoped scarlet and orange berries would echo the reddish areas in the bird's plumage.  I use a Pentel P205 mechanical pencil, and draw striaght onto my hot press fabriano artistico watercolour paper.

Then I open my watercolour box, predominantly full of Winsor & Newton pans; and get out my trusty Winsor and Newton series 7 paintbrush (sizes 2 and 00).

Natural history illustration ornithology step by step of a waxwing by Lizzie Harper

Pencil rough of the waxwing

I paint by building up a layer of hundreds of tiny little strokes, blending the colour by layering slightly different colours of paint.  As you can see, the point on my brush is exquisite (that's series 7 brushes for you) so there are no blunt lines or blobs of colour.

The pinkish hue of the waxwing head and body proved a real challenge to mix.  I could see it had pinks and ochres in, and was slightly blueish.  However, there was a solidity, a pastel-like thickness to the colour that I could only achieve by mixing in some white gouache.  I normally avoid mixing with white as it makes the paint chalky and heavy, but in this case it achieved exactly the effect I was after.

Natural history illustration ornithology step by step of a waxwing by Lizzie Harper

Paler areas are left white, so they can glow.  I start plotting in the darks with some trepidation, and it's always worth remembering it's far easier to make watercolour darker than to lighten it.

I've added more yellow ochre to the head and body, which helps clarify the lights and darks, and adds a bit of richness to the plumage.

Natural history illustration ornithology step by step of a waxwing by Lizzie Harper

Working closely from my photo reference (oh for a dead waxwing, or a waxwing skin to work from!) I plot in the crisp and dark feathers, again, using endless tiny strokes to build both colour and texture.  All the brighter parts of the wing are left white as I need the reds to be unified so will do them all at the same time, with the same mix of paint.

It's worth saying that I'm a stickler for blacks which feel properly dark and velvety, and I don't feel pre-mixed ones do this.  Adding some prussian blue or purple bulks up a black, and makes it a more interesting colour, too.

Natural history illustration ornithology step by step of a waxwing by Lizzie Harper

I tend to almost finish one area of the painting before starting on the next; I know many watercolourists will work on the whole illustration at once, pulling the entire piece together by degrees.  I favour a jig-saw approach; bit by bit I add colour and detail.

Natural history illustration ornithology step by step of a waxwing by Lizzie Harper

Above is a detail of the head of the bird.  I include this so you can see how simple the whole process is, it really is just optical mixing of loads of tiny lines of colour.  Getting gradations between colour works well using this technique, and I use precisely the same approach for the fur of mammals and often for colour on flowers too.

Natural history illustration ornithology step by step of a waxwing by Lizzie Harper

Similarly, on the wing you can see how the individual brush strokes try to echo the filaments of each feather, which helps give the bird texture.  I try to draw as I apply the paint, and tweak the pencil sketch as I go.

Natural history illustration ornithology step by step of a waxwing by Lizzie Harper

Here the bird is nearly done.  Areas still needing to be addressed are adding tonality to the legs, and all the red areas on the rump, head, mandible and wing of the animal.  I chose to leave these until I'd finished the colour on the berries, and I needed the bird to echo such bright colours so that the viewer's eyes travel across the whole picture, not just the cluster of fruit.

A photo of my watercolour box shows how beaten-up and well-used it is, but also you can see how the colour mixing happens in each area.  On the far right there's all the oranges to go on the bird's feathers.  These were mixed on the base of the berries' oranges and scarlets.

Natural history illustration ornithology step by step of a waxwing by Lizzie Harper

The middle areas are warm greys (the bird scapulars or shoulders) and darker greys which have been used to add definition to the edge of the wing and tail feathers.  The mixing zone on the far left is bright yellows; these are the flashes of gold seen on the wing primaries.

I quite like the way a paintbox tells the story of what you last painted.

And below is the final piece.

Natural history illustration ornithology step by step of a waxwing by Lizzie Harper

Not only have the areas of red been added, but shadows have also been put in.  I was in two minds as to wether or not to put the drop shadow below the wing; I'm glad I did, it gives the picture a little more movement.

For some wierd reason, the very last thing I paint is always the eye.  I suppose I don't like being stared at as I paint!  Although the eyes are always fun to do, I'm also painfully aware that if I make a mistake the entire painting will be ruined.  Painting the pefect curve of pure, solid black for the pupil, and leaving the plain white paper for the highlight is always terrifying.

I'm quite pleased with this one.  It's an amazing looking animal, so it was a treat to paint it.

For more of my bird illustrations, please take a look at my website, thanks.

I'm afraid I've had to turn off the "comments" button on my blogs due to spamming.  If you would like to give any comments or feedback, please do so on my Facebook page or Twitter account or email me at lizzieharper@tinyworld.co.uk.  Many many thanks; and apologies.

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