In my recently published book “Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide”, (Skipstone Press, an imprint of Mountaineers Books) I share over 130 drawings, paintings, and prints that I’ve created over many years of birdwatching in the western United States. The book is organized by habitat, and includes: backyard & city, wetlands, shoreline, desert and sagebrush steppe, forest and alpine. The book includes many tips, techniques, and demonstrations for artists, among them one of my favorites, that I write about here: sketching on toned paper with pencil, watercolor and white gouache.
My subject is a female belted kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) that I observed in a wetland park near my home in Seattle. I take a lot of photos of birds because they can be quite difficult to sketch from life – and I’ll usually synthesize photos to create my art once I am back in my studio. Often when I see kingfishers, they fly off quickly, as they don’t really like being watched. But this time the kingfisher stayed put in a large tree, changing her head position but little else as she peered intently at the water. It was a very rare experience, as I managed to get several interesting photos of her. I decided to honor that experience by sketching four of the poses in my gray toned paper sketchbook. Why so many? Why not just stick with one? I wanted to convey the delight I experienced while watching her; including four sketches gives a sense of her movements, gestures and a feeling for the living bird.
Sketch the subject. When drawing birds it helps to think of shapes: look at the body and head to begin with. The body of the kingfisher is a kind of long triangle, and the head is also a very elongated triangle. TIP: Hold the pencil lightly when you sketch—that way you won’t feel so committed to the line – I break it up into many short segments, rather than gripping tightly and feeling as if every mark I make on the paper has to be perfect. You can always erase extra lines, though they do add a sense of energy to a sketch. TIP: The toned paper I used is from a 150 gsm, grey toned mixed media sketchbook.
Mix paints for the blue/gray feathers: DANIEL SMITH Phthalo Blue (RS), Carbazole Violet and Quinacridone Burnt Orange. I choose these pigments because they mix beautifully, are strong hues, and do not granulate – the textural quality of granulating pigments is not desirable for creating the hues of kingfisher feathers. TIP: On smooth and hot press papers, watercolor tends to puddle. Try not to load your brush up too much, but if a puddle does form, use a brush to lift out the excess.
Strengthen values on blue/gray. Mix up the same colors as in step 2 plus a little bit of Indanthrone Blue; be sure to add less water to increase the values contrast. Now you will have two values of the blue and gray.
Add rust colored markings and branch. Mix Quinacridone Burnt Orange plus a little bit of Pyrrol Orange. Add a small amount of the blue/gray mixture you have been using in order to tone down the orange. To achieve the branch color, just add even more of the blue/gray mixture for a very neutral brown hue. Wipe out a little of the brown to keep the upper part of the branch illuminated.
Now add the white gouache. Mix the gouache with a small amount of water. Be sure to leave some of the toned paper unpainted, as it will serve as the shadowed area on the bird and will help to model the form. You can dampen your brush and shade out the white paint if you want a more subtle gradation, but it isn’t necessary as this is just a sketch! TIP: Keep the gouache very saturated; if it is too white you can always dampen it to lift it out, but if it is too diluted and watery it will simply disappear into the paper once it dries.
Add final touches. Check to see that there is still good values contrast. Use a white pen for small details that are harder to achieve with a paintbrush: the highlight in the eye, the tops of the individual toes, beak highlights. If necessary, add more darks to dark areas. For darkest grays, a mixture of Indanthrone Blue, Carbazole Violet and Quinacridone Burnt Orange yields a color close to black.
Why I choose DANIEL SMITH Watercolors
I used DANIEL SMITH watercolor paints for all the sketching and painting that I included in my book. The wide array of paints, the reliability of every tube, the high degree of saturation, and the complete information about each paint that is available online helps me to choose the right paint for each bird subject. DANIEL SMITH Watercolors have been my choice for many years.
Seattle artist Molly Hashimoto is dedicated to connecting people to nature, wildlife and birds through her art and teaching. She teaches watercolor and printmaking workshops around the Western United States, including at the North Cascades Institute, Yellowstone Forever Institute, Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, and at the DANIEL SMITH Store.
Molly Hashimoto’s paintings and prints have been published as notecards, holiday cards, calendars and gift books by Pomegranate Communications. Pomegranate paired her paintings with quotations from John Muir for the calendar: Nature’s Peace, published in 2012 through 2017. Pomegranate published another calendar: Birds, that features her bird prints, beginning in 2017; it is available for 2020. A third calendar, Birds & Blooms is available for 2020.
Molly’s other recent book “Colors of the West: An Artist’s Guide to Nature’s Palette”, was released in September 2017 by Mountaineers Books. Her work has been exhibited at the White Bird Gallery in Cannon Beach, Oregon, the Michael Pierce Gallery in Seattle and the Whatcom Museum of Art in Bellingham, Washington. She is currently exhibiting her bird prints at the Elizabeth Jones Art Center in Portland, Oregon.