Art in the Making - On Alert

2009Article posted by Admin

I photographed this blue-winged kookaburra in a cage at Healsville Wildlife Sanctuary in the Victorian Dandenongs, only a couple of months before the devastating bushfires swept through the area. I did hear that all of the animals in the sanctuary were transferred to safer quarters, so I hope he’s still OK. By painting him I feel that I have set him free.

Stage One

Equipment Used:
Rembrandt, Art Spectrum and Schminke pastels
Pastel pencils
Mi-Teints pastel support in dark blue

I chose a dark blue support so that any of the colour showing through the pastel strokes would act as shadowing. At the same time, I planned a dark background so that the bird would really shine out against it. I love out-of-focus backgrounds because the main object in my paintings is the subject itself and I don’t always want the background competing.

I sketched the kookaburra in pale blue pastel pencil with just a few guidelines to assist me with feather placement and shadowing. I then chose a variety of browns, ochres, purples and greens in the harder pastels (Rembrandt and Art Spectrum) and began to stroke random blotches of colour, just concentrating on small areas at a time so that I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the patchwork that was building up. It was then a matter of gentle but consistent blending (fingers are best) so that the edges fused and some of the colours overlaid others to create the sense of trees and foliage beyond the bird. I did decide on a triangle of blue sky to give a further sense of depth and I also felt that it balanced the composition a little more.

Stage Two

In all of my animal, bird and human paintings I feel compelled to begin with the eyes. I have to establish that sense of a living being, of a life force within, even if it is just marks on paper or canvas. I need that personality to be established.

The eye is convex, like the hubcap on a car, so I’m always careful to establish shadow and light areas to delineate the curve away from the light. A black pastel is used for the pupil (one of the few times I use black) and the iris is soft blends of browns and ochres with a little burnt sienna. I sometimes use a pastel pencil of similar hue to blend, touching the point very lightly so as not to remove any pastel. Even the smallest finger can be too clumsy in some areas. A dab of soft Schminke white placed the highlight that was the sun, just above the pupil.  For the eye socket I used browns, greys and violets, and just held the eye structure in place with some feather strokes of ultramarine blue light (didn’t like it just floating in space!) before starting on the beak.

The key to naturalistic paintings is careful observation. Not painting what you think you know is there, but what is actually there, blemishes and all. And not to paint a beak or an eye, but the shapes that are the construction of that beak or that eye, and the way the light falls on various planes and how the shadows cause the structure to curve and turn away. This is sculpting with colour and produces almost three-dimensional, realistic work.

I pastelled the beak with more ochre tones plus varying depths of ultramarine blue.

Stage Three

Free, flowing strokes of ultramarine blue light were used to block in the head. I followed the directional lie of the feathers and carried some of the strokes over into the background to give a more natural look. I constantly wipe the edge of my pastel on a sheet of kitchen towel to keep it clean, although drawing a little of the background colour into the feathers often results in a stronger sense of realism. Shadows were introduced with soft greys and deeper ultramarine blues overlaid with touches of violet. For the darker feathers I used burnt sienna and burnt umber with a touch of purple. I tried to keep my arm and hand moving with freedom and rhythm so that the lie of feathers didn’t become too flat and stilted.

Once the entire head was covered I used judicious strokes of Schminke white to bring areas forward and give the bird a sense of form.

Finished Pastel – On Alert – 68cm x 29cm (unframed)

The back and wing feathers are merely suggestions, colour stroked over colour, light next to dark to give the impression that the feathers are overlapping. Browns, siennas and purples were used for the back and strokes of the lovely Art Spectrum cool tones Coral for the areas where the light struck. I used the darkest burnt umber that I could find blended with some purple for the really deep shadows on the wing. I have learned not to be afraid of the darks and love the way they make the lighter areas really sing.

For the blue feathers I used the same blue that I had used for the section of sky, to keep continuity, and a very pale turquoise for the shine. Once again, when working on all the feathers I followed the direction in which they were lying against the bird’s body. And I didn’t paint each individual blue feather, although there is that impression. I placed ragged strokes of the blue and drew some of the dark into each area, then blended downwards with my fingers which created softer shadows, as if feather overlapped feather.

I very rarely use fixative. If I’ve made a mistake I might scrub an area back and then spray fixative to re-establish the tooth of the support. I might use it sparingly if I wish to overlay a very clean colour with darker areas beneath, but I find that even this can make edges too sharp and colour too stark. In the main, I don’t use it at all, and certainly not over a completed work.

I use an excellent framer with whom I have a great relationship and I trust him implicitly to frame my pastels under glass with the utmost care and attention.


Beverley Chitty | February 12, 2010

I found your discription of your work and how you achieved the results were very informative.  Thank you so much for sharing your talent with us.

Ainslie Gilles | April 15, 2010

Hello Gilly,

I came across your work in the lastest issue of Australian Artist magazine and just wanted to say I loved your article and find your art very inspirational. I adore this WIP. Your use of colour, pastel strokes and feeling is just beautiful.

I am about to start a full sheet of Colourfix, soft pastel drawing and find myself alittle unsure, due to the size and not much experience working with soft pastels, (I usually work 9"x12” and with pastel pencils or charcoal). It is wonderful to be able to see how other pastel artists go about creating their work.

I would love to see you demonstrate my artistic muse- the Arabian horse!

All the best,


Barbara Cohen | August 26, 2014

I love your pastel painting, I would like to also
use pastels but I don’t have the confidence to paint on my own, I live in Sydney where do you run your classes, or do you have a DVD I could buy,
best wishes Barbara

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