Loosening up with a Horned Owl Watercolor

Horned owl watercolor by Michele Clamp

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

horned owl watercolor first washes
horned owl watercolor first washes

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

horned owl watercolor building the form
horned owl watercolor building the form

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

horned owl face and feathers
horned owl face and feathers

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

Horned owl press on regardless
Horned owl press on regardless

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 by Michele Clamp
Horned owl watercolor by 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.

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