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Let's Paint an Eight-foot Duck!

Sunday, August 22, 2021

 I'd like to give you an up-close look at the process of painting a common merganser, about eight feet long.

I found some cool videos online of mergansers underwater. Things happen to colors underwater, as you can see...everything goes gray and dull and silvery. So there's a lot of lying here about the clarity of the water and the lighting, too. There's a push and pull between wanting to show it as it really would look and wanting to give it the detail and color that will make a satisfying image for people to enjoy.

My sketch, which got blown up with a digital projector. I have a hazy idea of how the feathering would go.

I started slapping paint on this the same afternoon I finished the Problematic Otter. It felt so dang good to be painting a bird at last. It didn't matter that it was bigger than me. I was just so happy to be out of the mocha mud of fur. Don't get me wrong--I'd be glad to paint more otters. 

But birds are where I live and breathe.

I blocked out the colors and markings. It went very fast. As you can see I am wearing one of my finest T-shirts, the better to get paint all over it.

photo by Sarah Arnold, courtesy

Within a couple of hours, it looked like a merganser. And then all the light was gone and it was time to go home. We painted in the tunnel by natural light only, and it was quite a challenge in the middle of the passage. Much more fun to paint at the ends!

 I took this photo of it (below) to take home and ponder, because something about it was bugging me. It's an enormous boon to be able to take a digital photo and look at something very large, reduced to very small. When I was doing a lot of illustration, I used a reducing glass to look at my drawings to see how they'd look when reproduced. Same deal here. Things jump out at you that you can't see when you've got your nose to an enormous duck on an enormous wall. 

And what jumped out at me was that it looked flat. The shadow running along the bottom wasn't relevant to the overall form. And the feather tracts divided the form up into sections that kind of lifted off the form, and distracted from its overall shape. Hmm. After sleeping on it, I had the solution. I came in the next morning, fresh, and decided to define the overall form of the bird with feathers. Everyone around me was painting scales.

 I decided I would paint some feathers, even though you can't see individual feathers on a diving merganser. I had to round out that form, and the feathers would travel over it and tell of its shape. I sought out some photos that would tell me the size and direction of the feathers, because none of that was  evident in my blurry video grab of a diving bird. 

And when the feathers traveled over the surface of the bird, it was suddenly more rounded, solid, more beautiful to my eye. Not only that, but I could reach most of it without a ladder! Heaven! I'm painting a huge bird, and I can reach all of it without risking a fall! (I'm storing away these observations for future mural projects. The others were all painting at eye level--it seemed like my stuff was mostly huge and high up!)

photo by Michelle Waters, courtesy

Add some silvery bubbles, and that duck is paddling underwater. I added a little eelgrass, too. 

As you enter the tunnel from the south, this is the scene to your left.

I was happy with my merganser, and looking forward to finishing with a bang--painting a diving belted kingfisher nabbing a chub! 


So beautiful! There need to be postcards from this mural.

Fantastic! Please tell us there is some special coating you put on at the end to try to protect all this from vandals.

That merganser came out beautifully! Great job.

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