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How to draw and paint montages of your favourite animals with David Bellamy

Posted on Wed 12 Apr 2017

Wildlife has always fascinated me and from my early painting days I have enjoyed sketching the animals and birds that crossed my path. I began by including them as features or a centre of interest within a landscape composition. Sometimes, however, after watching and sketching for a while,

I would realise that a story was unfolding in front of me and that the collection of rough sketches – some of them quite appalling – related a tale about the particular animal or bird. This came to a head on my visits to the Arctic and when I began working on my book on the Arctic (see next month’s Leisure Painter for details), I realised that it would need a number of paintings to show the many fascinating aspects in the life of a polar bear or walrus and, unless they were displayed together, the effect would be lost. The answer was to create a montage of the various activities these creatures were performing.

For those who wish to paint wildlife, making detailed studies of the creatures in a zoo or safari park is an excellent idea, but to understand what makes these beasts tick you need to see them in their natural, wild habitats. One of the polar bears I watched and sketched for hours – and found her actions both riveting and entertaining – gave me enough material for several montages.

As the bear moved around, the backgrounds were pretty spectacular and needed a lot of space so those were left for the main paintings and I simply focused on the animals and their activities for the montages. At times the bear moved incredibly fast as she chased gulls and I was hard pressed to record everything in sketch form. At quieter moments I managed small watercolour vignettes.

Polar Bear Montage, watercolour on Saunders Waterford 300lb Hot-pressed paper, (20.5x40.5cm)

This montage shows a narrative, a sequence of actions by the bear in which she takes a swim, comes ashore then goes through the motions of drying herself before settling down for a snooze in the snow. I worked from sketches and photographs done on location in Spitzbergen, starting with a rough design layout to work out how it would all fit in. Actually, I had many more actions available, but felt that the composition might be too crowded if I included more.

Where to start

You don’t need to go far and wide to create animal or bird montages, and they don’t necessarily have to be strictly about wildlife. Sketch and photograph the birds at your bird table, animals in a field or even your pets in action. Try to build up a sequence of related actions to make it more interesting, and if possible inject some humour. Interactions between different individuals and species can provide rewarding material. It pays to consider well what you wish to achieve before you go out and how you intend to approach the animal or bird without frightening them away.

Always have an escape plan if they are liable to turn dangerous. You will need to work at speed to capture certain poses so make sure all your equipment is ready for action. Think in advance of some of the varied poses, situations or interactions of several birds or animals that you are likely to record on paper. You probably won’t get all those as you visualise them, but it will help you bear in mind your ideas as you work.

More ideas

You don’t need to stick to wildlife to create a montage, of course. Buildings, bridges, trees of various species, waterfalls, people – the list is endless. You can create ones of your own village or town, and it makes an interesting change from the usual painting.

You don’t need to fill the entire paper or even put any background in, though you might like to suggest the sort of location, perhaps by painting a silhouette shape of a cottage or tree. Practise with various types of lettering, both normal and italic, before committing yourself to the real thing. Just keep it simple and uncluttered, and enjoy using a different approach to your artwork.

Bearded Seal, watercolour on cartridge paper, (21x29.5cm)

This is a watercolour sketch carried out on an A4 cartridge sketchbook, which I tidied up at home by laying on a background wash and adding the notes in pencil. The seal reclined on the ice floe like some aquatic Venus for a considerable time, watching us draw closer. I used binoculars to help draw the head details. Creating informative artwork like this can enhance an exhibition, whether in support of paintings or by itself.

Demonstration Nubian vultures

You will need


  • Waterford 200lb Hot-pressed paper, (23x30.5cm)


  • Indigo
  • Burnt umber
  • Light grey
  • Quinacridone red
  • Cobalt blue
  • Naples yellow
  • Transparent yellow oxide or yellow ochre
  • French ultramarine
  • Warm sepia
  • Viridian

The poor old vulture suffers from a rather bad press, yet it cleans up after messy beasts like lions and cheetahs, and provides excellent subject material for the artist. I came across a gaggle of a dozen or so Nubian vultures near Ngorongoro Crater and was absolutely fascinated by their antics, especially when landing or taking off.

Step 1

1. In this first stage I began with the vulture landing, dropping in a mixture of indigo and burnt umber without any preliminary drawing then spattering around it. The surrounding paper was masked off beforehand.

2. I then drew the series of postures, laying on quinacridone red and cobalt blue over the head and neck of the left-hand portrait, followed by light grey shadows.

3. For the pair chatting together I rendered the left-hand bird in light grey, dropping in a little quinacridone red onto the head while this was still wet. I gave the vulture that’s taking off the same treatment as the portrait.

4. Finally I painted the background to the tree on the right using Naples yellow and transparent yellow oxide, which is quite close to yellow ochre.

Step 2

1. I continued with the detail on the left-hand portrait then worked on the right-hand bird of the pair. Here I aimed at making this bird stand out more so, again, I used quinacridone red on the head then a strong mix of French ultramarine and warm sepia for the body.

2. I used the same colours for the vulture taking off, painted the acacia tree with viridian and touches of ultramarine and warm sepia then placed the vulture on top.

Step 3

I completed the birds and added a remnant of carcass below the left-hand vulture. I then inserted the words with a 3B pencil, guided by faint pencil lines drawn with a ruler. It’s a good idea to write all this out on the rough image before doing the final lettering to ensure it will all fit as well as showing you how the final image will appear. It’s also easy to omit a letter here and there accidentally so keep checking what you have written before it’s too late.

The finished montage - Nubian Vultures, watercolour on Waterford 200lb Hot-pressed paper, (23x30.5cm)

David Bellamy
Find out about David and his work at

Meet David at Patchings Art, Craft & Photography Festival in July, 2017 where he will be a guest demonstrator.

This extract is taken from the June 2017 issue of Leisure Painter

Click here to purchase your copy to read more from David and others

How to draw and paint montages of your favourite animals with David Bellamy


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  • Very nice well done David, good luck with the book

    Posted by Michael Murphy on Fri 21 Apr 11:14:47
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