BIRD PAINTING

by GRAHAME HARRIS

I was inspired by my grandfather, who painted prolifically in oils during the ’30s and ’40s, and I guess a little of him rubbed off onto me, for which I will be forever grateful. Sadly, he passed away when I was only 13 years old, so he didn’t have the chance to pass on his knowledge to me.

I found it interesting to read Maurice Middleditch’s profile in the last Watercolour New Zealand Newsletter. Like him, I worked in the profession of signwriting with a couple of other strings to my bow and found the advent of the computerised world and graphic design was in the too hard basket at my age, so I opted for retirement in my early sixties.

I guess I dabbled in painting during my working life but, like most, never had the time to take it seriously until I retired, and then wondered how on earth I had the time to go to work.



My love of birds, especially natives, was the catalyst for trying to capture them in watercolour. But I also found the more common or garden variety birds along with red-billed gulls and black-backed Dominican gulls just as pleasing to paint. I had no tuition to speak of in painting birds, but through patience and study slowly succeeded in capturing their form and colour to the best of my ability. Many a painting was put aside knowing it was not acceptable to me, or to anyone else. These were generally filed in the rubbish bin.

The tui, bellbird and kereru (New Zealand pigeon) are perhaps my favourite birds to paint, but I also find the common sparrow, wax-eye and finch just as intriguing. Did you know that there is not a single black feather on the tui-they are all iridescent.

In bird painting, as opposed to landscapes, a precise drawing is paramount. You can get away with a few rough lines in a simple landscape, but not with bird or animal painting. This is 50% of your painting being a success or failure. If you are considering painting birds, it is important to understand the configurations of your subject - proportions of length, breadth, etc. Through time and experience, I am fortunate enough to be able to draw a bird directly from an image. But whether it is from a photograph you have or by other means, the proportions in your drawing are important.

I have found it best to take a measurement from your original image, for example, a 6”x 4” photo. To enlarge it by 50%, take a measurement from the beak to the nape of the neck, which could be 50mm. Add
25mm thus making it 75mm. Then measure from the nape to the beginning of the tail feathers, then the tail feathers to their end, then the depth of the bird, and finally measure the legs. This way you will achieve a reasonably accurate image.

Another alternative is the old-fashioned but very accurate process of enlarging an image by drawing a grid of 10mm squares over it. Then, on your watercolour paper (which obviously would be larger), repeat the grid, increasing the squares by 50-75%. Next carefully draw the image following the outlines of the bird on the original grid. Your final drawing should be almost perfectly enlarged. The only problem you have is erasing the grid lines, but this can be done successfully with care, using a good quality
mouldable eraser.

There is also available an image enlarger called an epidiascope which is hard to find these days. You would however receive more satisfaction when your drawing comes from within you. It is also important to not have too a heavy pencil drawing – it should be fairly light. I generally use an A.3 DX drawing pen with refillable 0.5 leads, which gives me a fine-lined drawing.

The painting technique you use will depend on your own ability, as will your colour choices, which cover a wide variety in painting birds. This is something I cannot show you in writing. I have found painting New Zealand native birds and a variety of introduced birds far more interesting than painting brightlycoloured
birds from other parts of the world, but perhaps that is just me. The important thing is that you derive satisfaction and enjoyment from painting the birds you feel comfortable with.

I have found my niche in this form of watercolour painting.

Finally, I wish you all good painting for now and in the future.

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