Okay, you want to try painting a Robin, the quintessential songbird of Spring. Where to start?
First, find a good color photograph you have taken yourself or downloaded on-line. Make sure to only use others’ images with permission. Either ask the individual photographer or use images that are listed as free to download, such as Shutterfly. (Just Google “free bird pictures” to find lots!)
Use this photo to make a sketch onto a sheet of transfer paper. If you have difficulty drawing, lay the transfer paper over top the photo and draw the body outline and eye placement to get started.
Sandwich carbon paper between your sheet music and transfer paper, paying attention to where the bird’s head will appear on the sheet music for best effect. Tape or clip the three pages together on a sturdy surface so they will not shift.
Retrace your drawing with a sharpened 2H drawing pencil (a trick I just leaned was to use a red pen so you can keep track of your tracing). Periodically check to see how the transfer is going onto the sheet music.
Gently remove the transfer and carbon paper. You should now have the outline of the bird, eyes and major features. If the some of the transfer is too dark, lightly roll a kneaded rubber drawing eraser over the area to lighten it.
You may like to start elsewhere, but I always begin with the eye. Note where the highlight is on the eye and apply black watercolor paint, leaving the highlight area blank. Don’t be concerned if you cover the highlight. When the paint is dry, you can apply white guache watercolor paint for the highlight.
Also, study the eye and see if there is another color rimming the eye, like in this Robin. Both parts of the eye may take multiple layers of color. Make sure to let each layer dry before adding another. Once the eye is done, you are ready to do the bird’s head.
Apply a very light wash (black watercolor mixed with water so it looks more gray than black) on the head areas. Be sure not to wet the paper very much as old sheet music accepts the paint differently than watercolor paper. If you have some more vintage paper, practice this step first.
Using a #00 brush, I then make many, many little strokes to suggest the feathers. Consult your photo to determine the direction the feathers lay.
Mix a puddle of color for the wings and tail feathers. Apply this with a #6 brush (or slightly larger). This is the tricky part: Do not use a real wet wash of color or the old paper will ripple up. Believe me, I did it a few times!
Do the same for the body of the Robin and the branch. Remember that watercolor is applied in layers, and this is only the first of many, a background of sorts.
Now the basics are in place and you are ready to paint in the feathers of the Robin. Remember to use your color picture as a guide while mixing multiple colors to create depth and shading. Don’t ever use just one shade or the paint straight out of the tube. Mother Nature has many shades and so should you!
On yellowed paper, such as this vintage sheet music, I use white guache paint (also a watercolor, but not so transparent) to paint in white feathers. I paint suggestions of feathers in small strokes using a #00 brush.
Once you get the hang of it, use the same techniques to draw and paint any birds you like. As in all things, the more you practice, the better your paintings will be. Seeing the progression of your skills is as pleasurable as the wonderful artwork you produce.
Any size vintage window can be used to create a unique picture frame. Especially for these birds painted on aged sheet music, the distressed windows are a perfect complement. This six-pane window with prints is shown on our fireplace mantel.
Here’s a four-pane vintage window with my bird prints highlighted. This made a wonderful birthday gift for a friend. Follow this easy tutorial showing the steps in converting a vintage window into a picture frame yourself! You can also change the frame color to fit your decor!
Watercolor painting has become such a joy for me! Many of my readers have asked to purchase prints and so I have started my own little on-line shop. I hope you will go see and enjoy more of my bird and flower paintings. If you aren’t inclined to paint a bird yourself, perhaps you’ll buy a few of my prints to grace your home or give as gifts.