Saturday, 16 April 2016

From Bird Photography to Oil Painting Birds


These days I like to think of myself as a bird photographer. If you visit my website at  I think you will appreciate why. It is crammed with bird photos! Logical.

I have been taking bird photos for five or six years now. It has been a passion and a very satisfying passtime. I think I have generally improved and certainly never lost interest in the pursuit of better and better photos. Until now perhaps.

Almost since the beginning I have been aware that I have an interest in it that goes beyond just getting clever photos of birds and other wildlife, satisfying though this is. Something else has always been in the back of my mind and has been growing in significance as time has gone on - I am interested in making beautiful pictures. Gradually I have searched for beauty in the photos I take. Take this picture of a Chiffchaff on a wire for instance.

This was quite an early shot of mine, but it has always haunted me. I was alerted to it by a comment made when I was giving one of my illustrated talks, on this occasion to a camera club. A man in the audience said it moved and saddened him to see the contrast between the soft vulnerability of the bird and the harsh cruelty of the barbed wire. That comment opened my eyes to the fact that my photos could be more than just snaps of different types of birds, they also had emotional and often artistic content too.

Anyway, to cut a long story very short, this idea of artistic beauty gradually grew within me until one day I took the daring step to lay down my camera for a while and see if I could reinterpret some of my photos as paintings. Daring! Especially as I had not tried any thing artistic for more than thirty years.

I attended a short oil-painting course and was expertly taught the basics of oil technique and colour mixing. There then followed a period when I assiduously painted oranges, apples and lemons to see if I could actually render a plausible image on to canvas. Then the big leap to working with some of my bird photos as a source. Here is my first oil painting. It is a reinterpretation of the photo above.

It was a very uncertain, but quite satisfying, beginning. I realised how little I knew about painting and therefore how much there was to learn in what remains of my life. I wish I had started sooner!

I was determined in this painting to try to remain true to the idea raised in that camera club talk. Accordingly I tried very hard to reproduce the appearance of the barbed wire. The bird I rendered more softly.

I cannot really describe to you how difficult I am finding this new activity. Each time I sit down before one of my photos and an empty canvas I feel great anxiety and uncertainty. Usually I just stand up again and walk around the house looking for other things that need doing. Any horrible chore suddenly seems more approachable than to attempt a painting. Failure seems to be almost certain and I do not want to fail. But eventually I start.

Sometimes I am surprised how the image grows in front of me. It does not seem to be anything to do with me. I just have to have the courage to keep going, to keep mixing the colours and dabbing on the paint in approximately the right places. Also I need the wisdom to know when to stop! The desire to overdo stuff in an attempt to rescue it is very strong.

My second ever bird painting is shown below.

It is the same bird on a different stretch of wire. Again I have tried to render the wire accurately but this time the bird was more difficult as much more of its feather structure had to be protrayed. These paintings are just 8 x 12" and painted with quite large brushes. I use large brushes because I am fighting against the temptation to reproduce every small detail and thereby end up with an exact copy of the original photo. I want more than that - I will say something more later. But for the time being the problem is, and still is actually, how to satisfactorily portray enough of the feather structure without chasing the details. I think that I have accidentally got it about right in this painting. See particularly the large primary feathers on the folded wing and also the tail. They look fairly convincing just as they are.

The next painting was this one I think, a Long Tailed Tit.

Here, instead of using barbed wire for the emotional contrast with the bird I have substituted a nasty looking bramble. Starting this one was again daunting. Looking back I really do not know where I found the courage. You may think I am overstating the difficulty, but it seems rather real to me! 

Or maybe my next painting was this one. I rather think it was, come to think of it. Another Chiffchaff on another wire in completely different lighting conditions.

Before I ever attempted to paint birds I tried to think of an approach, or vision, that I could embrace and aim for. As I said, I did not want just a copy of the original photo but wanted to add something, or perhaps just extract the essence. I actually never came to a conclusion about the approach to adopt, I just started trying to paint. What I am finding now is that the paintings come out to be different from the photos, but in an accidental sort of way. For now this difference between the photo and the painting is enough for me, but eventually I hope to develop a vision of how I want the paintings to look and what I want them to convey, and set about trying to achieve it deliberately.

This next painting is of a Linnet, again on a wire.

I am struggling a bit with creating backgrounds for my paintings. Normally I ignore the background in the photo (unless it is particularly appealing) and try to think of something that will complement the bird image.

I have done about six paintings at this early stage in my career and am still no more confident when I start each one than I was at the beginning. My technique so far is to transfer an approximate outline of the bird on to the canvas using the "squaring off" method. That is to say, draw a regular grid of lines over the photo, draw a similar grid on the canvas but perhaps larger, then sketch across the contents of each square on the photo until you have a workable outline on the canvas. It is a well know method apparently and it works well enough. I then block in some darkish colours corresponding to the main colour areas of the bird. These under-layers serve as the deepest layer of feathers and I usually build up the lighter upper layers by sparsely brushing them on in the appropriate colour. Sometimes I do the under-layers in acrylic paint as it dries quickly - not sure how I will proceed from here. Before building up the plumage, it is important to get the background in so that I can brush some of the feather ends out into it to soften the bird's outline.

I devote some particular care to painting the eye and the beak with a small brush, but trying not to make it look too fussy. This area of the bird's face has to look convincing I feel.

For my sixth painting I tried this Long Tailed Tit. The canvas board is only 5 x 7" and it was very fiddly to paint the bird.

What I would really like to do at this size is to represent the bird with just a few, bold but well-chosen strokes. I do not seem to dare at the moment and always find myself attempting to reproduce at least some of the details. I really do feel that I have a big hill to climb.

Here is a shot of my work station with the next painting underway. You can see that I have transferred the image and have got as far as blocking in the main colour areas. I am, as always, currently dreading getting back to this for fear of making a mess of it! Have been quite lucky so far though, so fingers crossed. Note that the electronic kit in the background is for something else!

So, that is the story so far. I would like to write another Blog on this subject in a few months time so that we can all see how I have developed.

In the meantime, you can see all my paintings at

Please let me have your reactions to this story. Any  encouragement also welcome at this delicate stage!