"Watercolors are not for the faint-of-heart but for those willing to explore and experiment, knowing that they risk failure, knowing that each piece of paper will not end as a 'masterpiece'....So long as you keep rising to its challenges, it will keep opening doors on others. In time watercolor will become a reflection of you and your personality". Gordon MacKenzie, The Complete Watercolorist's Essential Notebook.
This painting became one of those lively challenges. A practice in patience and decision-making that stimulated my desire to learn new skills and new ways to indicate sparkle in a winter scene.
My first challenge was saving whites w/o using a masking medium by painting around the iced limbs. My hope was to capture the bright, muted grays of this winter day illuminated by a coating of ice and snow. Even though an initial wash of "painting around" objects looks a bit awkward at this stage, its appearance changes as you add more elements to the painting. I used French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna (Winsor Newton brand) to mix the gray, adding more water to achieve a lighter shade.
The gray wash was painted on after wetting the paper and being careful to leave the iced branches dry. The paint will move around the dry area. Once the wash had dried, I added more limbs and the brighter colors on the bluebird. The blue feathers are created from a mix of Pthalo Blue and Cobalt Blue.
Next I added the red berries and more limbs. I added darker gray around the limbs below the bird but discovered I preferred the brighter gray and corrected this by spraying clear water on the darker areas to dilute the color.
In the image above, the iced limbs draw the eye to the white and the hard edges. Below, I have softened some of the edges of the ice and added limbs showing through.
I continued to soften the ice edges by lifting with clear water and a scrub brush and softened the lines of the limbs within the ice. I've also added drips to further create the impression of ice and added more detail to the berry pods and the bluebird, shown below.
This was a fun exploration and a good practice for the patience of letting things unfold. Since working on this painting, I have searched for ideas in my watercolor books and found demonstrations on creating the sparkle and reflection in a crystal vase, which is somewhat like ice, and creating sparkles and ice on the surface of water. Though I haven't come across a demonstration of ice on branches, these techniques will come in handy as I continue to explore this kind of winter scene.
The last three weeks of February gave me plenty of reference images for ice on branches here in Tennessee. Below is another image of a bluebird on an iced branches. In this image, the limbs are clearly visible beneath the ice and you can see small reflections. This maybe my next painting challenge!
One of the many helpful insights I've learned over the years is this simple concept: "Every painting is created one decision at a time." All you have to do to move forward is decide what one thing you want to do next.
That concept takes so much of the hesitation and intimidation out of painting. Even if I can't "see" my way to the end, all I have to do is make one decision. And then, make one more decision after that. Each decision builds on the next until the next thing you know, the painting is finished!
I had an idea of where I wanted this painting to go when I began. I was interested in the ice and its impact on our wintering birds. While ice coated everything, I watched the bird community change. New species showed up that were not normally at my feeders, and bird behavior changed as some species aggressively guarded their food source. And right along with all this survival activity, the ice glistened on every limb, twig and blade of grass with an incredible hushed beauty.
I want to suggest that ice-glitter, the smooth ice formations around the burning bush twigs, and the hushed cold mood. I'm not really expecting to accomplish all of that in this first go-round, but I will learn from the effort! The first image you see is where I paused for a decision. The second image is the reference photo I'm using.
What would you do next? How would you begin if you were just starting this study? There are many ways to approach a painting and no one way is right or wrong. Feel free to use my reference image or one of your own and give it a try!
Just as we were thinking that spring was around the corner, winter decided to puff up and bring wintery precipitation of every form to east Tennessee. In a matter of 24 hours we had an inch of sleet, freezing rain, snow, and artic air that plunged the temperature down to 4 F degrees, with lower wind chills due to the bitter wind.
I spent a lot of time feeding and watching birds while ice glistened on every limb, sparkling like crystals when the sun came out briefly and creaking and popping as the wind brought the deep freezing cold front. Feeding bluebirds became a challenge.
Bluebirds are special eaters--spiders, berries and fruits in the winter--they can't digest seeds. Larger birds suddenly became territorial--initially it was an American Robin, claiming all the berries for himself, and then a rogue Mockingbird moved in to claim every food source driving all the smaller birds away. Everybody was stressed!
I simultaneously worried about the survival of my bird friends and stood in awe of the dazzling beauty that surrounded them.
Beauty is certainly one element that inspires our desire to create, but in this case, beauty juxtaposed with these harsh conditions tapped into that desire even more. My mind immediately went to--how do I represent these beautiful ice-covered limbs in watercolor?
I'm just getting started with this exploration. Creating a winter background, saving the white for the ice, getting that bluebird color and shape just right. The only way to know how you will do it is to get started. This process will result in either a valuable exploration or a painting. Either way, the artist wins.
I decided to save the whites on the limbs by painting around them rather than using mask. Painting the subject next will help me see what else is needed as I go along.
Today, we're having a very dark, rainy mid-40's day. I welcome it since the piles of snow that followed the ice disrupted a second week of work at my office. There's always an upside, though. The incredible beauty that surrounded those wintery days, the influx of birds to my feeders with exciting wintering species like Fox Sparrows and Pine Warblers, and the added bonus of lots of inspiration for watercolor projects!
Above is another painting in process that offered some different challenges--a light subject with a dark, textured background. More about this painting soon.