Interview with Jenny Dolfen
Owl in Mixed Media
News for August
Owl in Mixed MediaBehind the Art
by Melissa Acker
I love owls, but they can be an absolute nuisance to try to draw or paint. The intricate markings that camouflage them so well in their natural surroundings can be almost overwhelming to try and depict realistically. Now, there are some artists out there with the technique and draftsmanship to draw in every feather and spot. I do not have the technique or patience for it, not yet anyway. This is how I approach the subject.
Reference photos are very important, and it's important to use your own whenever you can for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is copyright issues. The image I am using is of a great-horned owl I took in a local zoo a few years ago. I chose this species, as opposed to, say, a barn owl, because their markings are very intricate and I wanted to see if I was up to the challenge.
This photo has some strengths that work in its favor as reference material. The overcast light leaves few very dark shadows or washed-out highlights, making it very easy to see where the different feather tracts are and the major color patterns. The overcast light has its drawbacks as well, though. With no very dark or light areas, it has little contrast, and way the subject is framed (in the direct center of the image) is not visually interesting. So, composition-wise, we have a little work to do. But that's part of the fun of the artistic process!
I usually do my mixed media pieces on cold-press illustration board. It's a very forgiving support, able to take a lot of abuse. It takes watercolor very well, although you have to be a tad more careful about your brushstrokes than with watercolor paper, and it also takes beautifully to ink and colored pencil. You can even just use graphite on it with pleasing results! This piece is about 10 by 16 inches in size.
I already suspected, when I chose this photo, that I would be cropping into the picture quite a bit. I decided on a vertical composition and very roughly sketched in the general shape of the owl to see if the general idea I had would work.
While it's simple, I know that by adjusting the colors and values I can turn this into an interesting composition. The next step is a detailed drawing. Because of the heavy watercolor and, later, colored pencil that I will be using, I don't really have to worry about making my pencil lines too dark: no matter what, they will not be visible in the finished piece. I pay a great deal more attention to the face and eyes of the owl than anything else. They will be the focal point of the piece, and will have the most detail and contrast to draw the eye to them. For the rest of the animal, the sketched in feather tracts will do.
Ink is next. With this particular technique, I always do the background first and let it dry before I continue. I always keep my ink brushes separate from my watercolor ones, as the ink is a little harsher on the brushes than the watercolor. Since the illustration board will hold on to the brush strokes a little more starkly than watercolor paper, I can't just fill in the space willy-nilly. I usually move the brush in circular motions to give the background some movement for the eye, and spraying it with water gives it some texture as well. I also carefully paint around some of the feathers on the neck and by the beak, drawing them with negative space.
Once the background is dry, I get to work on the owl itself. The head is full of precise detail and very black darks, while the rest of the body gets progressively less detailed and has much less contrast. I very loosely brush in the feathers and, in the case of the belly feathers, the dark streaks of pattern that can be found there. Several very thin layers on the body start to give the appearance of depth to the feathers and pattern.
Watercolor begins to add some color to the piece, but it also serves the dual purpose of softening the severe black of the background. The initial wash is mostly mixes of raw sienna, burnt sienna, and winsor blue. The very basic local colors and value pattern is now roughed in. The head is also lighter in value than the body to provide more contrast in that area.
More watercolor still. Using increasing smaller brushes, I start adding in detail and refining the local colors. I work on pattern and value at the same time, moving back and forth, keeping the brush moving in the direction of the feathers. Again, most of the detail is focused on the face to keep the focus there.
This piece didn't actually need a great deal of colored pencil to be finished. The eye, beak, and head feathers got the most attention. I always burnish the color on the eyes; the eyes should always look smooth and wet, not filled with rough pencil strokes!
I made some of the transitions between the darkest shadows in the feathers a little more gradual, and added more shadows and details where it was needed.
And that's all it really needed. Not every single feather or spot is detailed in, but you can still see the difference between the different feather tracts on the wing, and the striped patterns on the belly feathers. I've given just enough detail that the viewer's mind fills in the rest. Not nearly as intimidating as it looks, is it?
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