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Time to Paint!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Another year, another Bird Watcher’s Digest cover. My 18th, I think. Maybe 19th. I’ve been painting covers for this wonderful magazine since 1986. Yow. That’s a long time.

This was to be a special painting, one to mark and commemorate the fact that Bird Watcher’s Digest is hosting the Midwest Birding Symposium Sept. 17-19 in Lakeside, Ohio. The Caspian tern is the Symposium’s logo bird. The last time BWD hosted the MBS at Lakeside, Phoebe was very sparsely furred, pot bellied and little enough to sit under my French easel and arrange my paint tubes by color, and stay happy that way for a long time. Liam wasn’t even here; he was just giving me a distinctly Hitchcockian profile. Now Liam’s nine going on ten, and Phoebe is 14 going on 25. I remember the Bird Watcher's Digest-hosted Symposia of 1997 and 1999 as the most fun I’d had in a long time—so many of our friends from the bird world came and hung out. The weather was divine, the setting was Victorian and gorgeous, the speakers were top-notch, the birding was great, and Bill and I were excited to share our little family with the world, even though as a primary organizer he was running around like a crazy man, walkie-talkie in hand, making it all fall together for the nearly 1,000 participants. That was where I first held a Swarovski EL binocular in my hand and said, “If a pair of these drops down from the ceiling of the delivery room when Liam arrives, I won’t need any Demerol.” And I didn’t, and I got my binoculars and my sweet boy.

I wanted this painting to somehow capture the excitement and sense of camaraderie of the Symposium. I also wanted this cover to be different, looser, more fun. I was determined not to tighten up and get all picky. I was happy with the last one (The Missing Pane), which featured my orphaned eastern Phoebe, Luther. But I wanted to push it farther into the loose, slightly sloppy world of watercolor. I’m a watercolor painter, and at the half-century mark, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be anything else. I just love it. I fall back in love with it every time I pick up a brush.

A BWD cover demands that there be something of interest on both the front and back of the magazine. Of course, the main area of interest needs to be on the front cover, but I don’t want to neglect the back, either. There needs to be room for blurbs and the masthead and the UPC code…it’s a lot to think about. In the end, though, I didn’t want a painting that looked like it was engineered around all those little necessities.

I wanted strong horizontal and diagonal lines, and I wanted the birds to be bathed in light—that most of all. Here’s the sketch, which is actually pretty well realized, with the direction of light already worked out.


The thing about watercolor is that it’s fast. So fast, in fact, that I had already masked the birds with film and liquid masking compound by the time it occurred to me to take a photo. I had already put in the surf and sand flats. I had already made my paper dolls of the cover birds, cut them out, and stuck them to the painting so I could see how their colors would work with the sand and water I'd painted. See how the cutout bird is casting a shadow? It's stuck to the painting with tape.


I’d already started figuring out where the reflections were going to go and how they would look. Whoops. Well, that just goes to show you that sometimes life takes precedence over blogging. Lately it has taken a LOT of precedence over blogging, and that is a beautiful thing.

Next: Birds and reflections.


I feel looser just lookin' at those birds and surf...!

Julie, thank you so much for posting your artwork in progress. It is SO helpful and exciting to this li'l artist-in-training. Can't wait to see the end results!

Julie, first of all I want to thank you for your kind words of support on my blogpost about Blossom. She is doing much better and I have hopes that her tail will be saved.

Second, thanks for a peek inside the way your minds works when creating. I have sorely neglected this side of myself in all my birding and blogging. I started a mural on my wall last February and took photos of the drawing to post on my blog...well, it never got any further what with New River and other trips and things. I'm determined to take a break from bird watching and blogging, but so much interesting stuff keeps happening! The hummingbirds have just showed up in force and I find them irresistable!

Your drawing and painting look good so far. I can't wait to see the finished product when my copy of BWD arrives! Keep up the good work and I hope you have a blast at the festival. If it ends with a concert like we had at New River it should blow everyone away! I only have to think of that night and it makes me smile and levitate just a bit!

How do you know those aren't royal terns?

I started my university career as a fine art student..hoped to maybe be as good someday as Ken Danby (one of my profs at U. of Guelph) Life took different turns which is ok, but reading this blog, I just want to grab a brush and go!and sit beside you and watch how it's done! well done.

I always learned so much when I read your posts on paintings in progress.

I love to watch your creative brain work it out Julie. It's so fascinating to see your vision unfold. Staying tuned...

Julie, I too am a watercolorist, been doing it for about 30 years. But there's always something new to learn. Like what in the heck is this film you're talking about and have over the sketch? Looks like tracing paper... I use masking fluid to keep whites or lighter areas when necessary, but I've never used film Can you enlighten us?

Right now I'm doing a small painting a day for 100 days. Check out my blog.

So far so good. Keep goin'!

Hi Cowango,

The pencil sketch is on regular tracing paper. It's where I work out my thoughts. The film I put over the birds' images to protect the paper while I'm painting the sea and sand background is called masking film. It's clear and has a tacky back. I cut it with an X-acto knife to a size slightly smaller than the shape I want, lay it on the bird's image, then (very important) seal the edges with liquid masking compound. If I don't seal the edges with a thin line of liquid masking compound, the paint will creep under the masking film and make more problems than it solves. You'll see later on in the process how the blue paint still got under the head of the large tern.

I'll check out your blog!

Watercolor has always been a great mystery to me--no room for mistakes and how to you keep colors from getting muddy? Thanks for sharing the masking technique. And working fast? Haven't mastered that, either. Love your work!

If I could also mention my blog. You were so kind to visit and post there. I thought of it only because I am in a show later this month to benefit animals. There will be 6 human artists and one dog. Netop's work reminds me of Chinese watercolor--I took a class in that and found it very difficult--guess I need to loosen up! On a good note, I finally found an artist who makes a bigger mess than I do!

My blog address is
and has a link to Netop the Painting Dog. Love the titles of his work.

oops! I see my husband was on my computer--sorry about that--"Kevin" post was actually from me.

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