10 July 2006
The all important Background
Watercolor is a particularly well suited medium for the loose interpretive handling of soft, subtle patches of light and color and intimations of habitat detail. The transparency of color and natural look of watermarks translate beautifully for depictions of these slightly out of focus background fields in natural history paintings.
Here is one of my favorite paintings which I have turned to frequently for instruction on the subtleties of loosely painting background in watercolor. In this case, the neotropical rainforest middlestory. This piece by Larry McQueen is the cover painting for the CLO-Macaulay Library, Songs of the Antbirds CD set. I was lucky enough to see the original painting when it was here at Cornell for scanning a while before the CD set was produced.
I assume that the background of Larry's painting began with a wet on wet wash of yellows, accentuating the well lit area on the right followed with additions of other colors like the greens and blues of the foliated area on the left. A loose bluish streak that shows through on the right side breaks up the open lit yellow space. The areas covered with foliage and the birds were added in on top. The birds may or may not have been masked beforehand. Since the birds have white areas, I would imagine that at least these areas were masked beforehand. Masking gives you the opportunity to start from scratch, layering from clear paper to build up the textures of a birds plumage.
This is an initial concept wash for loosely trying out a few elements I am thinking about for the Screaming Piha piece I have finally begun work on. This has helped me with composition questions, working out a color scheme and allowed for a bit of practice in techniques I will employ when I go to work on the final painting. This Piha is a species found in lowland tropical forest, often in even aged, gallery-like forest. The habitat tends to be on the darker side, but is sometimes punctuated by forest edge or tree-fall gaps. My reference photos are all from forest a bit darker and grayish green, but I am trying to infuse a bit more of a warmly lit look. Even though I am interested in keeping some of the watermark edges in the areas of yellow and bluish sky and green foliage elements, I think a smoothing wash over the top of these elements may be in order. The watermarks in this sketch make some of the background elements too blocky and distracting. They should be a bit more out of focus.