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Painting a Phoebe

Thursday, April 5, 2007

As those of you who've been with me for the past year know, eastern phoebes are special birds for me. In several of the springs of my life, I've done a phoebe painting. Phoebes move me, enough to have named our firstborn for one, enough to make me paint pictures of them that have something to say about the stages in my life. And last summer, with a lot of help from Phoebe, I raised two orphaned phoebes: Avis and Luther.On March 13 of this year, a phoebe showed up singing in the yard. He sang around the garage and the back deck. When I walked out to the driveway, he flew to a low branch on the ash tree that hangs over the pavement. Hmm. The same branch Luther used to go to when he wanted to be fed. When I moved closer, calling his name, he didn't retreat, but kept chipping and wagging his tail. From there, he flew to the birch tree that overhangs the birdbath where Luther drank and bathed. It was a favorite hangout. I have no proof it was Luther, but I felt I knew him, and it seemed he knew me. He certainly wasn't skittish around me. Time will tell; if the weather lets up (it's in the 20's today) perhaps this bird will decide to stay, and one fine day come in to a Pyrex plate full of mealworms. That would be something fine.

Clearly, it was time to paint a phoebe again. I thought for a month or more about what I wanted to do with this painting. For me, the bird image is the least of it. The setting is everything. Ever since we were in New Mexico in November, I've wanted to paint a barn interior. I saw light streaming into adobe structures, old wood and sunbeams...Reading The Girl with the Pearl Earring, a fictionalized account of the Dutch master Vermeer's life, just enhanced that feeling. I wanted to play with light coming in a window. So I designed a scene that would incorporate some of the things I love most: a phoebe, a barn interior, and sun coming through a window.Here's the drawing, already transferred to the watercolor paper. The painting will be nearly a square at 13 x 14 1/2".

Because there will be a lot of darkness in the painting, it's going to be necessary to mask the bird and foreground perch (a copper bucket, also a beloved possession that dates from my early childhood in Kansas). Here, you can see the yellowish masking compound that I've painted on the bird and bucket to protect them from the dark brown washes I'm planning to lay down. Here, with the finished drawing, transferring it to watercolor paper, and masking it, my first day of work ends.Ohhhhh.....this is too much fun. I'll take you a bit into the second day so you can get a peek at how the painting will evolve. I decide to block in the window and the wall. The window has some of the darkest values in the painting, and I want to lay something really dark down so I can dial up or down from that as I build the rest of the scene. I put a sunny buff -yellow underpainting down on the wall, that will give me some of the lightest values.At this point, the inevitable depression set in. I should see it coming, but it always creeps up and surprises me. It's a stage I go through with every painting, even when it's going well. I become convinced that it is in fact a piece of crap. I think one of the reasons I love to write so much is that it's mysteriously free of that downcycle. When I'm writing, I just go.

I sank deeper into an unproductive despair, until I realized that the only thing that would fix me was going out for a walk. So Chet and I set out on the Loop, and a good soaking in 80-degree sunshine, a handful of butterflies and a deep draught of wildflowers was just what the doctor ordered. See yesterday's post!

Refreshed and recharged, smelling of sunshine and fresh air, I was ready to make the wall look like wood. Another couple of washes of burnt sienna, quinacridone yellow and burnt umber, and I got the plane laid down. It was no longer a flat field of color; it was lying in space the way it should. I painted in some of the woodgrain and really felt the painting begin to take off.

Here's how it looked by the middle of the second afternoon. I kept painting until the light went away, and a lot more happened that afternoon, but this seems like a good place to stop. The painting is starting to look like something now. I hope from this you see that watercolor is not a medium over which one should linger and noodle. It takes nerve and speed, and if you're working well, it really doesn't take long to make something out of nothing. In the end, that may be my favorite thing about it. That, and the luminosity, the way you can layer one wash on another but still see the first wash, and the way the paint feels, flowing out of the brush. OK, there's nothing I don't love about watercolor.

Tomorrow: sunbeams, more wood, and a bucket.


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