Natural History Illustration: Golden Plover in a Landscape January 17th 2014

Story posted: Saturday, 11. January 2014 by Lizzie Harper

As well as scientific illustrations and botanical and natural history illustrations which are cut-to-white, I often have to illustrate subjects within their natural habitat.  This can be a challenge, but also highly enjoyable as you can put in specific details (such as someone's home, or a tree they really like) and it stirs the mind as you have to figure out what array of plants and animals are representative of the ecological niche you're illustrating.

I recently worked on an illustration of a Golden Plover, as a diary cover for my father's Christmas present.  I knew I wanted the plover in amongst typical Yorkshire Dales scenery, and wanted to include my parents' home, Turnip House, in the landscape.  (If you'd like to see this as a youtube video, please click on the link.)

As always, the first step is to collate your reference.  Photos of the plover, illustrations of the moorland plants, and snap-shots of Turnip and the opposite valley were gathered up.  A few thumbnail sketches helped me decide what items of the illustration needed to be placed where, and then I drew up the pencil rough.

Lizzie Harper pencil rough of golden plover natural history illustration

As you can see, the main elements have been plotted in, but the details of the plants and limestone at the golden plover's feet need doing.  I try to keep my pencil roughs completely atonal, and quite light.  I use Pentel mechanical pencils (H or HB lead, 0.5mm), and a soft rubber.  Since this will be a watercolour, I'm using my favouirte watercolour paper, Fabriano Artistico Hot Press.  I also use a wonderful time-saving device, a light projector, which allows me to reduce and enlarge the different elements of the illustration.

Lizzie Harper pencil rough of golden plover natural history illustration

Here I've included plants we commonly see in Swaledale, in the grassland between common-grazing land and moorland; scabious, cotton grass, common quaking grass, and tormentil.  I have to make a dreadful confession about the little yellow flowers of the tormentil; I lazily drew them from memory and have given them four instead of their rightful five petals.  Luckily, this commission is a gift, but it's one of the biggest mistakes I've made in years, and a stark reminder of why one should always consult your reference!

Next, after stretching the paper on a board with gummed tape (which stops the paper from buckling and thus allowing the paint to dry in pools instead of on the intended flat surface), I plotted in the sky.  I'm the first to admit that I'm not a landscape painter, so doing backgrounds is difficult.  My two rules of thumb are to keep the colours light and definitions not too crisp, and to be sure to merge colours a little.  By this I mean bring the blue of the sky down onto the hillside, and the pale hill colour all the way to near the foreground.  It seems to make the background less visually jarring.

Lizzie Harper watercolour illustration of golden plover natural history illustration

I use Winsor and Newton watercolour pans (which I top up with the same brand and colour of tube paints; recently I've discovered you're not supposed to do this, but I've always been stubborn so shall continue) and the best brushes ever, Winsor and Newton Series 7.  For the background I used a number 2, for the details later on I prefer a number 1 and a double zero size.

Next, I work into the detail of the landscape and grass, keeping it light and remembering the brightest colours and greatest contrasts need to be reserved for the foreground and main focus of the illustration; the golden plover.

Lizzie Harper watercolour illustration of golden plover natural history illustration

Turnip house now looks like it does in life, and the opposite hillside (which I grew up staring at as a child) is more or less right.  I checked this by asking my own children, who spend their holidays in Swaledale as I did, if they knew what place this illustration showed, and both got it right straight away.  Very reassuring, and I know they'd've been more than happy to tell me if they thought it looked wrong.

Lizzie Harper watercolour illustration of golden plover natural history illustration

I work into the grass, trying to make the gradation between background and foreground smooth, and making darker shadows the closer we get to the foreground.  I also have plotted in both flying birds (curlew and pee-wit or lapwing) and the distant rabbits.

Lizzie Harper watercolour illustration of golden plover natural history illustration

Here I've painted in the flowers and grasses around the plover; again, keeping the starkest contrast for the nearest areas of foreground. I also try to stay aware of the colour balance in the painting as a whole, so there's quite a lot of purple in the darker areas of the plants to echo the heather on the opposite hillside; and quite a lot of yellow ochre in Turnip House to echo the grassland.

Lizzie Harper watercolour illustration of golden plover natural history illustration

Working into the plover (who'se in summer plumage) I use lots of tiny brush strokes and a mixture of purple and vandyke brown, with more yellow ochre to get the paler details next to the white area surrounding the chest..  Mottled feathers are always tricky to illustrate because we all know if they look wrong, but actually getting them to look right, as a massed area at a distance, requires some careful consideration as to the patterning of each feather, and the details and direction of the markings.

Having plotted in the areas of black, I suddenly wondered if the reference I was working from had the plover in only partial summer plumage, as indeed turned out to be the case.  I extended the area of black to link the chest to the head, and instead of just a suggestion of darker plumage near the eye, used other ref. to get the conventional shape of the region of black feathers on the head correct.

Lizzie Harper watercolour illustration of golden plover natural history illustration

The gradation between the stark dark plumage and the white border required lots of yellow ochre and some cereleun blue.  This was fine, since it echoed the colours in the sky and in the scabious flowers.  The distinctive golden speckling on the plumage was easy; cadmuim yellow light in amongst areas left very pale and areas detailed with yellow ochre (I'd be lost without my yellow ochre, it's far and away the most heavily used colour in my paint box).

Lizzie Harper watercolour illustration of golden plover natural history illustration

Finally, since the illustration is for a diary, I had to add text and a border.  I chose the colours carefully, but always feel slightly sad to be putting text permenantly onto a painting.

I like the final image, although there are several errors.  The tormentil petals, insufficient detailing of the plover wings, cheating on the plover feet (hiding them in foliage is a well-used trick), and I think the grass is too yellow.  However, it does remind me of my favourite place on earth, and wandering about in the hills and dales, so something's gone right.

By the way, if anyone reading this is wondering about where to go on holiday, go to Swaledale (or Arkengarthdale).  It's more than beautiful; is riddled with history and culture (lead mining, anyone?); has the best walks on the planet; boasts a wonderful mix of moorland, pasture, and riverside; and this year (in July) has the Tour de France cycling through it!  What's not to love?

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