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Finishing the Towhee

Friday, July 7, 2006

Time to finish that towhee painting! I'm determined in this one not to get bogged down in the leaf litter or other unessential elements. To my eye, too many wildlife paintings give equal focus to the minutiae of vegetation or gravel or whatever the background might be, and the viewer's eye doesn't know where to settle. It roams all over looking at detail and then gets tired. Blaahh. I want the bird to be the focus, with some other nice restful elements to set it off. I want to suggest complexity without getting too literal and picky about it. Also, I am lazy.

To get myself in the right frame of mind to paint I always go to Lars Jonsson's work. I sit on the floor flipping through books written entirely in Swedish, just staring at the paintings. Lars manages to suggest entire habitats without delineating so much as a leaf. I don't come anywhere close to doing that, but I look anyway, and some of it rubs off on me, I hope. All you can do is expose yourself to the best stuff and then do it your own primitive way anyway.
As soon as I have a passable habitat it's on to the bird. At this point it's about 3 in the afternoon. I block out the towhee's colors and set about sharpening and modeling it with deeper blacks. I'm sticking with ivory black right out of the tube; it's a nice warm black and it moves beautifully in solution, lifting back up without staining. I love ivory black. I think it's made from burnt bones. It used to be made from burnt elephant tusks, hence the name.
I model the bird and take another look at the background. It looks all right to me, but Bill steps in and comments that the distant background looks too flat and seems to come forward. Hmm. He's got a point. He suggests darkening and defining the distant trunks. So I do, and it immediately looks better. Thanks, sweetie. Now the ironwood trunk is definitely in the foreground. I knock off for the day and decide to do the final fiddling in the morning.
I get up and look at it again. I decide to fiddle a bit with the moss behind the towhee's head. The color isn't working, so I green it up a bit. A light wash of Chinese white over the top of his head and back helps him to pop out of the green, which has about the same value as his head, oops. There's this constant tuning of darks and lights so you have darks against lights and some edges that are "lost" and some that are sharply defined. Hard edges make things pop off the paper, so you have to watch those. But some hard edges are nice, like along the white tail panels.
I think it's done now. It's always good to stop a little before you think it's done so you don't noodle it into fussy obscurity. I want it to look like a painting, not a photograph. The whole time I've been painting, a pair of towhees has been scuffing around under the feeders just a dozen feet away. Ahh. How nice, to be able to refer right to the living bird. It should always be that way.

By the way, Luther is doing spectacularly. I see him cartwheeling after flying insects, and yesterday he took a nice bath in the Bird Spa. He's probably taking about 1/3 as much food from us as he was only a couple of days ago. The weaning is in full swing. But man, it's nice to have a free-living phoebe answer when you call, and come winging in to say hello. They are such lovely little birds.


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