Loosening up with a Horned Owl Watercolor

Horned owl watercolor by Michele Clamp.  11"x14"
Horned owl watercolor by Michele Clamp. 11″x14″

It occurred to me that I hadn’t painted an owl watercolor in a good while. I wanted to do something that was more loose and sploshy than usual. Teaching demos tend to make my painting tighten up quite a bit and I needed to shake things out a bit. I’ve painted a variety of owls before – barn owls, saw-whet owls (a favorite), and this one – a horned owl (eagle owl?).

Painting a watercolor owl (in fact any bird) is often scarier than other paintings. The drawing has to be accurate without getting into much detail and the markings can obscure the underlying form of the bird. Watercolor painting is unpredictable at the best of times and with owls doubly so. But I’d decided on an owl so an owl watercolor painting it should be.

Drawing out

I roughly marked the paper (Fabriano Artistico 140lb cold pressed) into quarters. This allowed me to get the proportions roughly right without having to put graphite grid lines all over the paper. Not really necessary but I wasn’t taking any chances. I lightly drew in the main form but with no detail in the feathers.

Planning and first washes

Owl watercolor first washes Michele Clamp

Before even putting brush to paper I planned out the values. The light was coming from the left so the right side of the bird was in shadow. I mentally made a note of this and kept this in mind as the painting progressed. When painting loosely in layers, and with such a lot of patten in the feathers it can be easy to lose track of the values as you paint.

As I was aiming for a loose painting I started with a very loose wash of mainly burnt sienna with a touch of ultramarine. I kept away from the face but pulled the paint out through the edges of the bird. This is very light and will only show slightly in the final thing. It also takes some of the glare of the white paper away, softening the effect. As the first, very loose layer was still damp I put in a darker wash over the shadown side of the bird. This started to show the form but was still very light and nowhere near the final value.

Building the form

Owl watercolor first washes Michele Clamp
Owl watercolor second washes Michele Clamp

Again while the paper was still damp I built up the form further on the shadow side. There’s a lot of feather pattern in there so my marks were choppy but soft and I took care to leave lighter areas. I used my spray bottle a little to add some texture and dropped in slightly thicker, darker paint to darken some areas. At this point I was chugging along and fairly happy.

Face and Feathers

Face and feathers stage for horned owl watercolor.  Michele Clamp
Face and feathers stage for horned owl watercolor. Michele Clamp

The next stage was starting to add some detail. I went into the face and added the eyes, making sure they had shadow at the top where the ‘horns’ were. Adding the pattern to the feathers I started to falter a little. I wanted everything to be loose and soft but probably rushed this piece a little and my confidence started to wane.

Press on regardless

Rocks and detail stage for horned owl watercolor.  Michele Clamp.
Rocks and detail stage for horned owl watercolor. Michele Clamp.

Well I’ve started so I may as well finish this. More color in the feathers and more darks to make sure the shadow side really looks like it’s in shadow. I added some color to the feathers and added some more darks around them to make sure they stood out. A little more work on the feet and the rock and I was almost done.

Final touches

Horned Owl Watercolor.  Final Painting.  Michele Clamp.
Horned Owl Watercolor. Final Painting. Michele Clamp.

Still not very happy at this point. Standing back I noticed the shape of the head was a little off. Some softening and modification to the sides of the head and I was a little happier. As a last resort I added some paint splashes. So am I happy with it? Hmm – not really. It does have the looseness I like but I lost something along the way. Never mind – there’s always tomorrow.

As I’ve said on a number of occasions watercolor birds are hard even though I do a fair amount of bird art. A little disappointed I have to say. Some of my best work has been of owls. We have one of my early ones up on the wall and I’m not sure I’ve ever surpassed it.

Panoramic Penguin Watercolor Painting – The Study

penguin watercolor painting
Panoramic Penguin Watercolor Painting Study. Michele Clamp. 6″x17″

Today was time to get back to the penguin watercolor painting. I had a piece of paper ready cut but it had curled too much to paint on. So while I was waiting for it to flatten out overnight I used the offcut to do a quarter size test study. This is 6″x17″ and the final thing will be 32″x11/5″ which will be a pretty big scale up.

I’d done some sketching out of the composition on the ipad a couple of nights ago and was pretty happy. Everything is out of my head and from experience of previous paintings. I’m still wondering whether a few extra penguins will make their way in there but it hangs together pretty well so far.

ipad composition sketch for watercolor penguins
ipad composition sketch

First the drawing.

penguin drawing
Penguin drawing

Looks ok so far. The shapes are good. There’s lots of overlapping shapes and the background cliffs tie everything together horizontally.

Now into the painting.

penguin watercolor painting first stage
Penguin painting first stage

The sky went in ok. I was thinking of maybe masking the cliffs but in the end it wasn’t an issue. The darks of the penguins look good. Not a lot of detail here. All the work is being done by the shapes.

penguin watercolor painting second stage
Penguin painting second stage

I’m pretty far along here. Everything went pretty straightforwardly. Just goes to show what a bit of planning can do. I’m still wondering whether to add in a couple more penguins on the right. And those two wings in the center two penguins are a little too similar so that might change.

And the final thing

penguin watercolor painting final
Penguin watercolor painting – final

Penguin Watercolor Sketches

rockhopper watercolor penguin sketch
Rockhopper watercolor penguin sketch. Michele Clamp

Penguin watercolor sketches were the topic for today. The reason for this is that I’ve had a commission on the todo list for a while now. Specifically it is for a panoramic penguin painting featuring multiple species of penguins. James has requested it and the final painting will hang in our main living room. It’s going to be a challenge. First things first – start off with some sketches to see how the different penguins look.

There are many different species of penguin

There are apparently 18 species of penguin. Some are more visually attractive than others so sorry, but the little Australian penguin probably won’t make the cut. Of them all the rockhopper sketch came out very well as did the gentoo sketch. I also found out that I’ve been painting king penguins and calling them emperor penguins all this time.

My approach was to pick a penguin and quickly get down the main shapes. I tried not to dwell too much on the drawing accuracy (within reason of course). Keeping the lines and shapes interesting was more important than accuracy. I took a couple of liberties with the feet. Not all penguins have orange feet but I like that pop of color so orange they were. One of the sketches that wasn’t quite as successful as the rest was the ‘unknown penguin’. I really liked the pose with the outstretched wing but the penguin plumage itself wasn’t particularly interesting. I may transplant the pose onto another species and see how that works.

You have to paint quickly on sketchbook paper

I was painting these fairly small (around 4 or 5 inches) in a Strathmore watercolor sketchbook. This isn’t the worst paper to paint on in the world but it’s no Arches or Fabriano Artistico. The paper is fairly substantial but not very absorbent. The paint dries quickly and blending is hard. This means that you have to work fast and not noodle over things too much. It lends itself to a very loose and energetic style which I like.

Next Steps

These penguin watercolor sketches made for an enjoyable afternoon’s painting. The next step will be to compose them so they look interesting and not just pasted in a line. Wish me luck…

Last Demo and Day 1 of 30 in 30 – Standing Heron

This was the last demo in this terms classes. I really liked the contrast between the dark and light blues and the subtle shading on the neck. I really enjoy the classes and, even over zoom, it’s nice painting with a group of people. Having said that it will be nice to have some more time for my own work and hopefully paintings will be coming thick and fast in the next couple of months

Saw-Whet Owl

Saw-Whet Owl. Michele Clamp. Watercolor 11″x14″

Let’s paint an owl I said. I love painting owls I said. They’re really fun! Oh boy, oh boy what a toughie. I’d forgotten how hard all those delicate markings were and this almost ended up in the bin. But I continued on he finally came together. A few fixes needed tomorrow but not too shabby overall.