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Painting Imperial Woodpeckers

Saturday, May 11, 2013

I am excited.
photo by Myra Owens, thank you!! If you click on it, you can read it!

In their Weekend May 11-12, 2013 edition, The Wall Street Journal  published my first book review, and one of my paintings to accompany it. It's a review of Tim Gallagher's excellent book, Imperial Dreams, about his quest for the most likely extinct imperial woodpecker in the Sierra Madre Range of northern Mexico.

You can read the review at this link. 

Longtime readers know that April and May are crazy life-in-a-blender months for me and my family. To the usual mix of nature festival speaking engagements, teaching and travel, add the track meets of our two (ack!) teenagers, various banquets and ceremonies and functions. And then put spring migration and wildflowers and morels and the endless phone calls and now endless Facebook questions about baby birds and nests and what do I do with this bat/bird/injured turtle? 
All of which I answer

So I wrote this review and the editor liked it so much he wondered if I might illustrate it too? When could I get a painting to him? 

Um, third week of May?

Hm. Not soon enough. We may need to go to print earlier.

Um, first of May? (sweeping an arm across the drawing table to clear it)

Because I really, really wanted to paint this bird for this newspaper.

So I didn't fool around. I got down to deal with it. 

 Coming to the concept and drawing took a couple of days. Over and over, I watched the only photographic record of the imperial woodpecker, a video made by William Rhein in 1956. I was almost born in 1956.

I decided to paint a nesting pair. Why not? It's a fantasy, right? A what-if scenario. What if these incredible birds were still alive somewhere and breeding in the Sierra Madres? I went there to live for three days. At least in my painting. The sketch is very basic, but it's got all the information I need encoded. I know where the darks will be, how it will roll out.

I masked out the birds's heads, a bunch of Apache pine needles and branches and got busy.
Pasted that paper down and sprayed it down and threw on a sky wash. They come out how they come out. There's no going back over a wash like that.

 Ghosted in a mountain range from one of Tim Gallagher's photos. I love the purples and mauves. And laid in the suggestion of more pines behind them.
 I decided to put in a couple of big emergent pines to further darken the backdrop against the foreground needles. In the end, those foreground needles would take longer to paint (and correct) than the whole rest of the durn painting. It is ever thus. Grass, pine needles...big old pain in the butt for a watercolor painter.
You can see that I've masked the parts of the birds I don't want to get blue--their heads, backs and white wing patch on the climbing bird. And you can see the ghosted masked pine needles.
I have yet to remove the masking compound ( a rubber cement like liquid).

I put some needles overhead, too, to make it look more like what I saw in the film. 

I can't wait to get to the bark of the Apache pine. It's so fluid and colorful. So I start striping varying shades of brown with a big round brush, just moving my hand and brush freely from the elbow, running up and down the trunk.
I want sun on that trunk. And the way to get sun on the trunk is to give it deep shadow. It really starts to pop when I wash in the shadows.

If I want the pine needles to pop, I've got to bring some darks in behind them. 

Time to get down and deal with the dang needles. Ugh. I peel off the maskoid by rubbing it with my finger. It makes little plastic boogers everywhere. And then paint the white needle spaces. But most of it is cleaning up where the maskoid blobbed or didn't cover or just generally made a mess. Why do I do this? Every time?  We shall see--in the next installment.


Oh Cyberthrush? Something you'll want to see. Come in, Cyberthrush, over.

YES! Lovin' it!! ;-)
(...and I had already linked to your WSJ piece from my Twitter account)

Ah. The Google Alert, she is a powerful thing. Good morning! On your game as usual.

And Twitter...oh yeah. Gotta tweet this. I'm so much more a Facebook person than a Twitter person. Twitter has never sunk in on me, but I occasionally tweet in a sluggish and reluctant way.

I really enjoy how you walk us through your process. Thanks for sharing this with us-especially since you are so busy. I have been thinking of buying this book. Now I will definitely read your review and watch the video.

Ahhh, the bark.....and the needles....and the birds......I love every bit of it.

Sometimes I like to imagine I could paint like that, but I would have to practice. Ah, well. There must be people like me who will buy from the real artists like you!

Kathy in Delray Beach

Posted by Anonymous May 11, 2013 at 9:38 AM

Appreciate this! I adore watercolor. Both article and painting are fabulous, JZ.
- Syd

Posted by Anonymous May 11, 2013 at 2:47 PM

Ditto: article and painting are fabulous as is your blog entry! Wonder Woman! Hope those teenagers of yours make your day tomorrow!

I love how you've framed the whole portrait with those pesky pine needles. Thanks for letting us in on the process. Fascinating.

Posted by Rachel Dickinson May 12, 2013 at 7:38 AM

Love what you're doing Julie!!! Just gorgeous..

Posted by Bette Cain May 12, 2013 at 8:19 AM

Julie, the words you painted with in the review are just as affecting as the forms and colors of the painting, and I'm ordering the book today! Thank you!

Watching a painting grow! This is exciting.

Brilliant as always and a whole new constituency in Zicknation opening up. You can make this the latest entry in that file headed "Monetizing Genius."

I am loving your step- by-step. Thank you for taking the time to photograph and describe your process here. I rarely use mask just because it's such a pain, but this is a great example of a time when it is essential.

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