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Painting Imperial Woodpeckers-Part II

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Why do I mask all those nitty pine needles, and cuss for hours trying to clean up the boo boo's that masking fluid always leaves?

Because, with enough cussing, it winds up looking cool. Realistic. Ooh! Almost time to paint the birds!! It's been a long day, and I've got more to do on the habitat first. I go into the second day of painting, still cleaning up pine needles.

Those rough scumbled edges on the trunk shadow are deliberate. I want to make sure it still looks like a painting, not a photograph. I want the paint and the process to show around the edges.


I'm excited to start the birds. I always start on the feet. They're non-threatening, fun, hard to mess up, a good place to start. I have to get in the mood to switch from habitat to birds.





Huge claws, and from what I can tell from skins, they were pale--horn-colored, perhaps-- as were the scutes on the legs and feet. I recall Nancy Tanner, widow of ivory-bill authority James Tanner, telling me that ivory-billed woodpeckers had very pale, whitish feet and claws, so I go with her advice and my hunch. 



Here she comes, emerging from the clouds. The strongly recurved crest is typical of a female imperial woodpecker. Female ivory-bills showed it too, to a lesser extent.


I try to convey how bouncy it looks in the video. I decide to paint all the blacks on the male, too. I'm guessing on eye color. I have always thought their eyes would be more white than yellow, though most artists depict them as strong golden-yellow. I tend to follow George Sutton's lead, because he painted ivory-bills from life. That's as close as I'll come to knowing the eye color of the imperial.


See how, in painting the sky wash, I've swept a little blue in where I know the white wing patch of the climbing bird will be? I knew I wanted that white patch against blue. These decisions must be made quickly. Wet washes won't wait.



Here comes the red of the male's crest.


That's why I've made him emerging from the hole--so I can put that red against the tree trunk.


Shadows on the birds, highlights in Chinese white stroked across their foreheads and shoulders...I think I'm done. Never mind the pinkish sky here--snapped late at night under incandescent and flourescent light.

The next morning, when the sun finally breaks through, I take the piece outside to photograph it with my Canon 7D. It does such a good job, handheld, that I can see the texture of the watercolor paper (140 lb. cold press Winsor-Newton) in the jpeg. And it nails the colors. Amazing color shifts occur under flourescent and incandescent light.  Pardon the progress photos--they were snapped in varying light conditions (mostly poor) and some with my iPhone. I was working so fast I could hardly stop to photograph it. When it's going well I don't stop even to eat. I keep a jar of almonds on the table and keep going.


That's how I work best--with a wicked deadline. See the painting and my review for The Wall Street Journal here.

Or, if you click on this image, you can probably read it right now.


Photo by Myra Owens, kindly scanned and sent to me. Couldn't find a Weekend WSJ in Marietta...but some hard copies are on their way as we speak. 


6 comments:

just an interesting technical side-note (since you're the 'science chimp'):
The cover of Tim G.'s book depicts an Imperial with "zygodactyl"-arranged feet (claws), whereas you got it RIGHT with a "pamprodactyl" arrangement! (This issue also comes up in the depiction of Ivory-bills.)
Just curious, if you gained that knowledge from reading or from examining museum specimens?

From the birds, always the birds...wish I could say from direct observation, but no, from photos of living ivory-bills, with that huge long outer toe swung to the side and forward. And common sense...If you're going to hang a body that heavy, you probably don't need two of your four toes facing backwards. Zygodactyly is for cuckoos.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

Beautiful! I love your painting-in-progress posts, the process is so fascinating to me. Even more so since I signed up for the Arts of Birding session on Hog Island this summer, where I'm looking forward to meeting you!

Thanks for taking the time to show us your painting process even though you didn't have a lot of time to take "in-process" photos. Love the mention of the almond sustenance! You are magical!

Great article, Julie. And I love your work-in-progress photos, too! I'm not a birder, but am getting fascinated by the enthusiasm you all show towards our avian friends. Me, I've got a hummingbird feeder stuck to my window and talk to them as they stop in mid-air to feed.

Posted by Deb Haggerty May 14, 2013 at 9:34 AM
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