Wednesday, February 22, 2017
I’ve been blessed with a commission, doing five or so paintings for an upcoming book by Alan Poole, one of the world’s foremost authorities on ospreys. You may remember him, last seen cooking local bay scallops for me and Erin in his lovely coastal Massachusetts home. I’ve worked with Alan for a decade starting in 1991, in his former capacity as Editor of The Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st Century. I got to draw North American birds doing things that were hard to depict in photographs. Drawing birds for ornithologists was a blast, and made for a nice steady trickle of income in a freelancer’s life. I drew a lot of nest scenes, good training for doing the paintings for Baby Birds.
Alan wanted me to paint some scenes that couldn’t really be depicted well in photographs. Oh boy. Perfect assignment for me! We batted about ideas for illustrations and came up with a short list. The first one I tackled was ambitious, but I hadn’t done a painting in several months and I was jonesing for a watercolor adventure.
Ospreys from Great Britain and elsewhere often spend their winters on Africa’s west coast. One area, Lompoul Sur Mer in Senegal, hosts good numbers of ospreys, who share the beaches with lots of people. We’ve found this out through satellite tracking of little solar-powered packs on a harness between the bird’s powerful shoulders. Alan and I decided we didn’t need to depict an antenna sticking off the bird, but that’s how we know they go to this part of Africa.
At Lompoul Sur Mer, the packed sand near the tideline serves as a handy road for vendors traveling to and from farmer’s markets. I was delighted at the prospect of painting an osprey with an ocean backdrop, populated with colorful vegetable carts, people and horses. Here, the Google image search stood me in good stead, and I found lots of drool-worthy images to mix, match and combine in a composition that would evoke the place. Though I’ve never been to Africa’s west coast, I have dipped my toes in the Indian Ocean off South Africa, and I was eager to paint this scene.
Masking. Any complex watercolor of mine is going to involve masking fluid and film. So I may paint freely and quickly, I spend a lot of time masking off areas I don’t want to get covered with color. This would include the bird, wave crests, horses, carts, people and garbage. Like it or not, the photos I found from Lompoul Sur Mer had a lot of garbage in them. I’d try to find a way to work it into the composition without its being too distracting or ugly. It's part of the story, too.
Three ways to mask: Kraft paper covers my ocean and sky; masking film covers the horse and cart; and masking fluid protects the garbage. Now I’m spatter-painting with a toothbrush, as well as flinging paint off a watercolor round brush. I’ve laid down a basic background wash for the dunes and main beach flat, and I’m throwing paint into it as it dries. Obviously, the paint thrown on wet areas is going to feather out and spread, and paint thrown on drier areas will stay put as droplets. If I make a spatter I don’t like, it’s no problem to suck it back up with a damp brush. Lots of fun, and no worries or pressure in this kind of work.
This always happens when I’m painting skies and water. I get carried away and forget to take progress shots. More to the point, I simply can’t stop long enough to shoot a photo—it’s the fast, wet work in watercolor that makes it so special. I've gone ahead and put in the ocean and the sky, too--the work of less than an hour.
When I get the ocean and sky wash laid in, you can see just how much masking I’ve done to prepare this painting.
Speaking of working fast, there are wonderful things that happen when a brush drags once across damp and drying paper.
These marks are called “scumbling” and they’re among the things that make watercolor my favorite medium. Just like that, the brush drags across the rough tops, the teeth of the paper’s surface, and you have sparkles dancing over the water where the sun is glancing in the distance. Or you have little mackerel clouds. Boom. And all you did was lighten up on the pressure as you quickly dragged the brush across.
These are the elements—the little “mistakes” and omissions of paint—that caused early critics of Winslow Homer’s work to label it “primitive” or “savage.” Nothing of the sort. They just didn’t know how to appreciate watercolor.
Next up: Finishing the painting: tricks, tips, and techniques.