From inception to completion: a step-by-step guide to formulating an image on paper


I was recently asked the question "How do you pick what to paint and what inspires you to paint a particular scene?" I couldn't answer this question immediately and came out with the usual answer: that it just happens or the idea just comes into my head. For days after, that question stayed with me and I did come to an answer, but it was a multitude of items which build up over a period in my mind and come together to form the picture. The items usually piece together like a jigsaw in my mind. In the picture illustrated here the ingredients were the Brambling and the beech hedges/trees which are near to my house. I always wanted to paint them but could never think of what species I wanted in them. This was yet another habitat logged in my mind along with all the other snippets I have stored from places like Spurn.

Mixed Finches

Living on the edge of Cheshire and the Peak District, I have a good variety of habitat and seasonally I take the opportunity to take some vegetation and landscape shots as records. When I am out walking I always take the camera to photograph branches, leaves, water puddles — anything that would look good in a painting — many of which I would never use, but at least once on a walk out of 30 photos there will be one which strikes me and sticks out from the crowd. I normally store these separately and when looking at the subject when photographing it I think to myself which species of bird is sitting on the branch or poking its head out from behind the tuft of grass. On certain days I see certain species and these sometimes just interact with the habitats in my mind and a picture is born!

The finch painting was just that, and I think I have to put the colours down to the link between the birds and the habitat. I like to have some intrigue to some of the paintings; I wanted this painting to make the observer look to see if they had located all the birds and not missed any due to the similarities in the colours between the vegetation and the birds' plumage. When observing a Brambling flock in Norfolk, the orange colouration in the birds immediately struck me and linked to the beech hedges I observed elsewhere, particularly with the accompanying male Chaffinch that stood out from the rest of the flock as the light shone on them. The concept of the picture was born and I now had to work out the composition and content.

I try to work from sketches and memories, but photographs and field guides are used for plumage references and confirmation. Depending on the subject or use of the finished work, I do my paintings on rough grade stretched watercolour paper, usually about 180gsm in weight. For identification plates I tend to work on a smooth grade watercolour paper.

I work from field sketches and other references and build an outline of the bird/birds I am happy with. I also work on a piece of paper that is usually double the size of the finished painting; this gives me the opportunity of changing the overall composition of the painting and moving the edge of the painting if I think it's right as the work progresses.

Fig 1. The initial concept is born and transcribed to paper; the layout is then fine-tuned with regards to the individual bird positions and the overall size of each bird. This is then used as a base to produce the individual bird drawings. The positions of the birds in this initial mock-up are a rough guide only, and tend to change to work in with the composition.

Initially I pencil the painting on a piece of scrap paper; the birds are usually blobs and the surrounding vegetation is also roughed in. This gives me the composition I require. In my opinion, no matter how good you are at technical painting, if the composition doesn't work the painting won't! Then again, the composition being right can be a very subjective thing and what can be one man's splendour can be another man's disaster. I always try to stray away from having the usual composed text-book compositions and always put something in that unbalances the composition by a small amount. In this painting the inclusion of the Brambling behind the male Chaffinch to me knocks out the main composition but I personally like that.

Recently somebody mentioned how they really liked a painting that I did for the Spurn Yearly Review. My own views on this differed enormously, so much so that I had banished the said painting to the back of the plan chest when I first saw it published. I have many paintings that won't see the light of day, but other people who see them cannot understand what I see wrong in them.

When I am happy that I have the painting roughed out, I tend to draw the birds individually and work out the finished size of the painting. By drawing them individually I can then move them around the sheet, or tweak them slightly to firm up the finished layout.

Fig 2. The individual birds are sketched out paying particular attention to the size they are needed. These will be moved around the sheet to produce the final composition.

When I finally am happy with the layout I then map the finished outline on the watercolour paper. I don't tend to pencil in every branch and leaf. On nearly all occasions I will do a lot of the branches, leaves and other landscape aspects straight on with the brush where I feel the composition needs it or where blank spots occur.

I always start painting the background first. There are two main reasons for this: firstly it's very easy to overwork a background and when this happens it's very difficult to rectify in watercolours. Secondly, my backgrounds are pure watercolour and I find these more difficult than the bird itself — while the bird is also done in watercolour it can be corrected with gouache (opaque watercolour) but I find it difficult to create backgrounds that look reasonably convincing using gouache.

After working up the painting in layers of washes, I then start to pick out the detail. This is where it gets dangerous for fear of overworking, so you have to know when to stop! I personally leave the painting between each stage for a few hours at least so as not to rush, and come back to it with a fresh mind.

I usually take the landscape to 80–90% complete before I put the initial washes onto the bird. Sometimes the white blob of the space for the bird misleads, and when the initial washes of the bird are added they change the feel of the background. That is why I never totally finish the background before I start the bird.

Fig 3. After the birds are drawn out and positioned on the watercolour paper, the initial washes are applied; in this case both the trees and sky are the first elements, followed by the first washes on the vegetation.

It is difficult sometimes not to make the bird too wooden or flat, and I found this is prone to happen when finishing the background in its entirety before starting the bird. A certain amount of blending is required at the final stages between the bird and its surrounding so it sits nicely and belongs in the painting.

Fig 4. The background is taken to a certain level and then the birds are started. I always start with the birds that are furthest away in the picture, working towards the front and the closest subjects.

When I get the surrounding complete, I then work up the detail on the bird. This is usually done in layers so I get to a stage of the bird belonging in the scene and not putting on one heavy wash that will look both flat and too sharp at the edges. I do use gouache to pick out certain features and it also gives a nice crisp line and also allows you to correct or overpaint areas that have not worked.

The last stage of the painting for me is usually the work around the eyes and the face of the bird, and this is where it can all go wrong in one wrong brush stroke. I particularly find this with owls and birds of prey: the eyes have to be perfect. The other issue is not making the eye too black, as it can look flat and dull. The size and shape of the eye on smaller perching birds is crucial but I find mistakes here can be rectified with the use of gouache — but you usually only get one chance! The penultimate stage is leaving the painting when I think it is finished and then coming back to it a few days later to see if it is finished — or some glaring omission may kick right out at me!

Fig 5. The painting is nearing completion and now requires touching up and dealing with any correctable errors. In this instance, the Brambling on the left will be dulled down slightly.

The final touches have now been added and the picture is complete. The Brambling to the left has been dulled down as I thought the brown tones were a little too dark for the positioning in the painting, with the bird being further away than those in the foreground.

Fig 6. The finished painting!

My artwork can be viewed on my website. You can also follow it on my blog. Please feel free to contact me through my website if you have any queries.

Written by: Ray Scally