I was asked by Artists & Illustrators to paint a bird for an edition featuring birds (what else!?) and started with this bittern, emerging from the reeds. I’ve had the reference for a long time and always loved the image, the bittern’s exquisite and subtle camouflage, as beautiful as any tiger. The image below, on 200lb Saunders Waterford is the first effort and I was disappointed in the somewhat overworked result so put it aside and painted a marsh harrier for them instead (!)
I decided to follow my own advice to students, which is, don’t throw stuff away immediately, prop it up and get detached enough to see it with a dispassionate eye. Failures are disappointing and there is a stage in a painting when you’re losing it, trying to deny it, and keep looking for and doing things to ‘rescue’ it, hence the overworkedness. Once you realise you’ve got to this stage the answer may lie in is washing off your original effort under the shower head with a soft sponge, as below
My aim now is to go in with simpler, stronger shapes, less detail, and more confidence. Interestingly, having admitted defeat with the first effort can make you far braver with the second, as there is nothing to lose. The shape of the reeds on the left is painted with Daniel Smith Italian burnt sienna using a size 12 kolinsky sable (Rosemary & Co). These reeds are a chance to practise some gestural mark making, holding your brush high up the handle and describing your reeds with one or two strokes of the brush; it gives them an energy that careful painting cannot replicate. I also add those beautiful markings on the bittern’s neck, adding phthalo blue to the italian burnt sienna, trying not to get too fiddly. Once the initial area has been painted I am dropping in more (wet but pigment saturated) paint to deepen the tones, this keeps the paint looking dynamic in a way that thick dry paint will not. I am also dropping clean water into the lighter areas, to encourage ‘cauliflowers’ and texture
Next up is working into the head of the bird, adding a raw sienna wash to the left side of the neck and the beak and adding detail to the eyes, plus one or two green reeds with a mix of (Russian) Green
Finally I go back in to the reeds on the left with a deeper tone, using phthalo blue added to the italian burnt sienna. And finding some of the reed shapes with a bit of that old magic negative painting! My original painting now creates a receding backdrop.