Feeding the Birds (Commission): Steps 2 & 3

This is the continuation of the previous post, describing a commission to create and paint a scene of a homemade platform feeder with two cardinals and a chickadee.  Since this is cedar country here in central TX, the background scene would be based on this. 

We came up with a rough sketch to arrange the birds in the first step, and next was to make a color sketch.  The goal with this was simply to get put color to the sketch and see if it works.  I found out there is a big difference between painting a scene from a photo or en plein air, and illustrating a realistic scene from imagination.  It took a few fails and some outdoor adventure to put this all together. Here’s some initial attempts that seemed close, but somehow didn’t feel right. I think the sky blue with the bright red was like wearing plaid short with a rugby striped polo (while I have never done…twice).  Taking out the sky was just depressing.

Attempts to make the birds stand out and also have some harmony with the background. A very humbling lesson.
Attempts to make the birds stand out and also have some harmony with the background. A very humbling lesson.

Time to look down my website list of favorite artists (a long list) for some guidance and inspiration.  The painting below, from Edward Aldrich, shows a perfect example of color harmony.  The rich, dark background has all the colors of the bird if you look closely, making the bird and flowers seem to “fit” in like high notes in a symphony.  Looking back at my color sketches, I saw a squeaks and random, out of tune notes of a middle school band practice, complete with “tuba farts”.  I needed a focal point to draw it all together and something in the background to create harmony.

Edward Aldrich's oil painting showing amazing color harmony
Edward Aldrich’s oil painting showing amazing color harmony

If my background was about cedars, it was time to get out and do some plein air, really evaluating how the bird colors would fit in with this.  I found reds in the cedar bark (male cardinal has red), yellow ochre and rich greens in the leaflets (female cardinal)  and bright and dark grays in the branches (chickadee).  Amazing how much you can find if you look!

cedar tree studies for the painting
cedar tree studies for the painting out near Dana Peak park (Belton, TX)
The cedars had everything from cool blue colors, warm greens and yellows and even chalky white colored branches. Perfect.
The cedars had everything from cool blue colors, warm greens and yellows and even chalky white colored branches. Perfect.

Next came the cardinals.  I searched the web images, took pictures from yard, ranch fields and rooftops, and this is what I found: the male cardinal is just red. Bright, bold red. The female, however, it subtle and varied in color, making it very elusive. The only way I found a female to take pics of was to listen and look for the males.   Oh, Mom, if you notice there’s not many cardinals visiting the bird bath or feeder lately out in the yard, it’s because I chased them with the camera around the yard for a few days. I’m now a living scarecrow to them. Sorry about that. I did it in the name of art, right?

A mash-up of pics from Google searches to my hunting down birds with an ultrazoom camera here and in Weimar, TX.

A mash-up of pics from Google searches to my hunting down birds with an ultrazoom camera here and in Weimar, TX.

After a couple more attempts, I found a color sketch I was comfortable with. (note, it’s meant to be a quick and rough sketch)

Here's a rough color sketch that seems to harmonize a bit better (as you'll see in the final painting).
Here’s a rough color sketch that seems to harmonize a bit better (as you’ll see in the final painting).

With a better color sketch and all the research, I stepped into the final painting feeling much better.  Working back and forth between the birds and background (repeatedly), I found it naturally merged them slowly into it.  I’d paint part of a bird, then use that color somewhere in the background, and vice versa.

There were a couple things that personalized this painting to put a their story in the painting’s concept. The feeder had perfect elements, such as small drainage gaps in the corners and the squirrel proof cone below it.  Also, the female is in the tree because they notice one cardinal feeds while the other stands guard. I’d put her on the feeder and make the male stand guard (as it should be, right), but her colors were perfect compliments to the sky blue (sorry lady).  As for the little, bold chickadee, note the branches of the cedar tie in with it.  Little details like this make a huge difference!

16x20" acrylic on canvas panel.
16×20″ acrylic on canvas panel.

Thank you Mrs.  Harmeyer for this adventure!!

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