Pied-billed Grebe: step-by-step

Copying is a great way to quickly improve your drawing skills. It helps to be able to see the process that another artist uses. As you imitate the approach or even individual drawings of artists that you like helps you understand how someone else draws. You can then adapt those ideas for your own drawings. This will not make you a clone of another artist or stifle your creativity. Absorb what is useful and discard what does not resonate with you.There is a long tradition in the arts of copying drawings by other artists to learn their secrets.

Animated gif of the steps in painting a Pied-billed Grebe

Here is a step-by-step series of drawings in my process of painting a Pied-billed Grebe. I hope some of these ideas are useful in your own work. If so, leave a comment with your thoughts. You can click on the images at each step to see it in more detail. You may also drag the enlarged image of step one to your desktop, print it out, and use the printed version to experiment with painting techniques.

Line drawing of Pied-billed grebe for watercolorStep 1, Shape

A good line drawing is essential for a good painting. If your initial drawing does not have the right posture, proportions, and angles, no amount of painted detail will save it. Make sure your initial drawing is solid before you continue. The bird artist Matthew Dodder suggests making sure you have the expression (relationship between eye and bill, eye shape, forehead angle etc.) before moving on. Once the bird “looks back” at him, he knows he is ready to move on. I think this is good advice.

Step 2, Shadow

I like to lay in my shadow first. If I wait till the end, it will feel like an afterthought and I often loose the contours of the birds. In addition, painting the shadow on top of existing details may blur and distort them. Here I lay in my shadows with a mixture of Daniel Smith Shadow Violet and Black Tourmaline Genuine.

Step 3, Local Color

Once the shadow is dry I can paint over it without causing it to lift and blur. I add the body color quickly so as not to leave behind too many brush strokes. When using watercolor, it is easy to make things darker but hard to lighten paint that you have already applied. For this reason, many artists start with the lightest values and work their way toward darker colors. Bird artist Keith Hansen recently pointed out to me that the “corners” of the bird eye often show and that they typically are at a diagonal (here at 10 and 4 o’clock).

Step 4, Develop the Darks

Using Daniel Smith Bloodstone Genuine (my all around favorite dark brown), I build up the dark areas on the back with broad strokes. I also lay in details and line lines with a sharp brush. This part of the painting process feels more like drawing with a brush than painting. I hold the brush lightly and work the tip to draw the fine lines. On the flanks, my brush strokes are made from back to front, with a little flick at the end to make the brush mark taper towards the front. You can build up layers of darks, adding more paint on top of dry paint.

Step 5, Punch in the Black

I want a full range of value in this painting to show off the contrast between bill, and eye ring with the eye and the feathers on the chin. I push the dark values with Winsor and Newton Neutral Tint, my go to black. Make sure the layers below have dried completely to get crisp edges. When I work in my studio, I use a hair dryer to speed this process.

Step 6, Texture and Detail

I use a dark brown Verithin pencil to add feather texture with sets of parallel lines made in the direction that the feathers lay. I also use the brown pencil to crisp up the edges by strengthening the line around the edge. On top of this I add highlights and pale areas with a white Prismacolor pencil. Many of these lines transition from thick at the edge that will catch the most sunlight to thin. I make these marks by starting where the line will be thickest, wiggling the pencil back and forth above this starting point to make a wide mark, then flicking it toward the small end. These white pencil lines also follow the direction of the feathers and contours of the body.