Natural History Illustration: Step by step Painting a Parrot

Story posted: Friday, 13. November 2015 by Lizzie Harper

As a natural history illustrator, I get asked to do botanical illustration, entomological illustration and recently, to complete an ornithological illustration of the Yellow Headed Amazon Parrot Amazona ochrocephala oratri for a friend, who has one as a pet.

The first step is always the same, get the reference ready.  In this case my cleint wanted a quick turnaround, but had helpfully supplied me with photos of the parrot.  I went online and collected extra illustrations to be sure the details of the bird were clear, and consistent for the species (for more on painting from photo reference, see my earlier blog).

Reference for parrot natural history illustration by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator

Photographic reference for painting the parrot.

I like using mechanical pencils when I draw up my roughs, the Pentel P205 is a firm favourite, with an H or HB lead.  I always work on Fariano artistico Hot Press watercolour paper; it has a hard enough surface to prevent bleed or blurring, but doesn't leave the paint wet and pooling on the surface for long.

Parrot rough ornithological illustration by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator

So here's the pencil rough, always completely atoanl, ready to be "coloured in".

First step is to use small brush strokes build up the structure of the feathers and thus of the bird, leaving the lighter areas white.  I use Winsor and newton series 7 brushes, in this case a number 1, as I'm yet to find any other brush that holds its tip in a similarly reliable way.

Parrot ornithological illustration step by step by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrato

Next, I use the same layering technique to put in lighter areas of the feathers, again leaving the palest regions white.  This involves some blending of colours too to ensure the gradations in feather colour between areas of green and yellow plumage isn't too stark.

Parrot ornithological illustration step by step by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator

Next, I work deeper into these areas with the same tiny repeated brush strokes, bringing a solidity to the area that I've painted.  Again, it is vital to leave the brightest areas white or the whole illustration will become dingy and lifeless.  The white paper serves as highlights.Parrot ornithological illustration step by step by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator

Here you can see the colours I've been using to mix up the yellows: cadmium yellow light, cadmium yelow deep, Permanant sap green (unhelpfully and inevitably tainting the yellow in the pan), and Indian yellow in the new half pan.

Parrot ornithological illustration step by step by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator

Then it's time for a light overall wash.  This needs to have enough pigment to unite the areas painted thus far, but not so much that it swamps out highlights. I keep it very wet (as you can see from the paintbrush) and allow the paint to dry fully before continuing work on the picture.

The yellow area on the top of the wing shows what the wash looks like in consistency - very pale.  In this case I've used Winsor and Newton Watercolour paints (my favourites) and a mix of cadmium yellow pale and the tiniest touch of Winsor green (yellow shade).Parrot ornithological illustration step by step by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator

Once dry, I repeat the process, this time working into the larger feathers on the parrot's wing, again, trying to fit form and function to the brush strokes I use to build up colour.  Each brush stroke sort of represents a filament of the bird's wing coverts, primaries, scapulars, and secondary feathers.  I tend to plot in one side first and darker than the other, this helps give a sense of depth to the feathers, as if light were falling on them.

Parrot ornithological illustration step by step by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator

As I go along, I tweak the areas of shadow on the parrot plumage, adding a tiny bit of darker paint strokes here and there.  The first two layers of the wing detail are finished.

Parrot ornithological illustration step by step by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator

As with the head and body, I pop a pale yellow wash over the whole.

Parrot ornithological illustration step by step by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator

Next I put in the details, beak, feet, and edges of the eyes.  I find this tough as there's only smooth areas of colour on the beak, so I can't use my normal trick of building up tiny brush strokes to get depth and colour.  Instead, I rely on using a series of darkening washes.  The colours for feet and beak include Yellow ochre, Opera rose, Cadmium yellow, Ultramarine, and a touch of white gouache mixed in to give the right shade.

Parrot ornithological illustration step by step by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator

Finally, it's all about putting on light unfiying washes and working inot the areas of shadow, mostly using purples and blues.  I avoid blacks because it's important the pupil of the eye can be engagingly dark.  I never use unmixed blacks, and favour adding a touch of Permenant mauve to the mix.  Again, highlights on the eye are the white paper which has been left untouched.  The wooden perch was quick (if dull) and then the pencil lines can easily be erased using a soft eraser.

I worked into the red wing epaulettes using cadmium orange and crimson lake, mixed with some yellows.  Red is rather a powerful colour, so it's important to have little echoes of it distributed across the illustration (my Mum taught me this trick).  You'll see it in the eye, the open mouth, and on the feet.

Parrot ornithological illustration step by step by Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator

Finshed!  It took a good long day to complete this painting, and there are areas of it I'm not entirely satisfied with - I feel the wing is a little too static and flat, and I failed to do justice to the gold and browns of the iris.

however, it was an enjoyable task, and even better, my friend who comissioned it was really pleased.  Customer satisfaction is one of the perks of the job, so I'm happy with this commission.

 

On another topic entirely, 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 orTwitter account or email me at lizzieharper@tinyworld.co.uk.  Many many thanks; and apologies.

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