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Step by step work in progress during the making of "Fluffy and Scruffy" (watercolour).
First masking fluid layer
Masking fluid was essential for this piece to preserve the whites of the foreground and wrens. Here I've already done a couple of washes over the first mask.
Second masking fluid layer
Sometimes it is helpful to separate foreground layers in a picture by performing multiple layers of masking. In this case you can see that I've masked out the branches on the left and some leafy branches in the top right after the first washes have been laid.
Masking fluid removed
Here you can see the subtle effect of removing the masking fluid, and the separation between the differentially masked layers. You will notice that the areas masked after the first wash do not come back to being identical to that first wash - the masking fluid when it dries and is peeled off sticks a little to the paint underneath (particularly on smooth hot pressed cotton rag), and lightens the painted areas).
Painting the focal points - the eyes
Here I've started the important process of making the eyes seem lifelike. Having a 'glint' or reflection in animal eyes is one of the most crucial aspects for ensuring that the animal appears 'alive' rather than lifeless and dull. Essentially what the glint represents is the moistness of the surface of the cornea reflecting light (usually from the sky, but also from your flash if you are photographing animals with a flash). Eyes on animals that are no longer alive lose their reflectivity because they stop spreading tears across the surface of the eye, hence it loses its shine.
Soft body washes
Here I have started to add form to the birds by using warm tones on the breast feathers and darker (but still warm toned) greys for the shadow areas.
One of the most challenging part of creating realistic animal portraits is creating realistic details in feathers. This is not a matter of painting a lot of little strokes as you might for fur, but rather you have to paint the shadows between the feathers that show the way the feathers lie. Particularly where feathers are not aligned perfectly (when birds are fluffed up to get warm, or have just been swimming, for instance), this can take a lot of extra effort on the part of the artist.
The second bird
Here I finish off the feet of the first bird, and start adding feather detail to the breast of the second bird (on the right).
The feathers on the second bird are quite a different story when it comes to conveying their scruffiness. Although you still try to delineate upper feathers by instead conveying the shadows under them, you have to do this in a more 'random' fashion, to build the impression of scruffiness. This takes careful consideration.
Starting the branches
Here I finish off the bird tails, and start adding general shadows and colour to the leafy branches above, trying to bring some life into them.
The leaves are coloured according to their position and shadows, however I have deliberately used cooler colours for the branches in the background to draw them away from the eye.
The background leaves are finished in a bluey-grey colour to send them backwards.
It's time for the main branch to be given shape and shadow. In hindsight, this composition might have been better constructed had I left a little more cross-branching in the main branch shape as it too distinctly cuts the image horizontally. The wrens were perched on a very straight branch in the photo I took, however it might have been better to alter it for the painting.
Branches on the left
Here I've finished off the washes of colour on the branches and leaves on the left.
Once the whole image has been painted in detail, one of the most important steps is to tie the components together with a 'stand-back' look. Here it was important to tie the birds to their environment by reflecting some of the dull blue-greys and browns of the branch and background into the lower breasts of the birds. Prior to this step you can see that the birds almost appeared to be glowing because these feathers were so bright.