One of the questions I’m most often asked is what I use for references in my paintings. I always begin a painting by gathering many different references from various sources—some from my own collection of photos and field sketches, and some from the collections of other willing photographers. Often, I’ll study similar species that might share physical characteristics, behavior, or environment in order to gather additional information and inspiration. Then, I draw a series of small thumbnail sketches without using any references in order to create an original composition that has roots in my own imagination and experience. After a basic design is reached, I piece together possible photos and field sketches that will help me construct what I envision. I take the head of one bird, the eyes of another, the posture of another, the coloring of yet another, etc., in order to devise a “Franken-bird” of my own creation. Eventually my franken-bird begins to come to life with a finished line drawing.:
I begin the watercolor process with light washes of local color that I can build on. Since it's easier to dull a color with successive layers than it is to make it brighter, I lean towards a higher saturation for these initial washes.
With this particular painting I experimented with a dry brush technique. Color and value were built up slowly using small amounts of dry pigment in the brush. You can see some of the finished result on the bird below. I began with a bright wash of cyan on the back and head. Then I dry-brushed darker blue over the top, allowing the cyan to peek through. The technique creates color variation in the final result. It's important not to dry-brush straight over the white of the paper or else the final color will be dull and anemic.
I continued to use this same technique until the two birds were complete.
Finally I added the branches and feet and stepped back to see what else would be required to finish the composition.
I decided a few transparent branches in the background would create one more level of depth and not take away from the simplicity of the final design.
These nuthatches are one of six small paintings (a series of winter birds) that will be shipped in March to the Nahcotta Gallery in New Hampshire for a small works show.