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Bonus Features April 2017

Bonus features from six talented PaintersOnline gallery artists, plus a demonstration from contributor to The Artist magazine, Morgan Penn, and an extract from Alan Woollett's new Search Press book, Bird Art.

Amanda Watson   Brendan Smith   Des Welsh   Morgan Penn   Petra Palmeri   Rodney Kingston   Shirley May   Alan Woollett

Pushing the Boundaries with Amanda Watson

'Don’t ever be afraid of ruining a piece of work, you can rescue it or throw it in the bin. If it goes in the bin, you can do another!'

This is the advice my tutor gave me during a tutorial critique on my drawings, and  has stayed with me and, I would say, it was the most important thing I learned on my degree course. It has shaped my practice and forms the foundation of all I do.

All artists struggle at times with a painting or drawing that just isn’t working. I do, regularly, and every time this happens I think back to that tutorial and the advice that was given. 'Don’t be afraid to ruin it!' That can, I know, be a difficult decision to make, especially when hours of time have been invested in a piece. But for me it’s a risk worth taking.

The way I learn and develop as an artist is to push and experiment with my chosen media. If I know a painting is lacking a 'spark' (usually after leaving it alone for a while and then returning to it) I know I have to alter something. Sometimes this can be achieved by just changing or adding something, but some paintings are beyond that and need a radical approach to get them over the finish line. This does mean failures, but some of my better paintings have been completed quickly on top of old discarded ones!

So my method involves two approaches:

  • A thoughtful addition or slight change to one or two aspects of a painting.
  • A radical transformation achieved without conscious thought.

Evening Priests Cove is an example of method one. I thought it finished and even framed it, before deciding I wasn’t happy! So I re-worked the parts I believed weren’t working and ended up with the finished piece below.

Another example is this sunset, below, which was okay, but just lacked that certain something.

The painting of Fleetwith Pike was originally a seascape that lacked life! I used what was there, working from memory and almost subconsciously ended up with the image below. Working quickly and without worrying if it worked or not (the original painting was destined for the bin anyway), I produced something I was happy with. This is an example of method two.

Another example is a small study of Ullswater; it just wasn’t something I wanted to take further.

So rather than throw it away, I totally transformed it into Fleetwith Pike and Buttermere in Fog! The original brush marks helping create a texture that brings some definition to what is essentially a scene lacking contrast.

Problem = risk taking = solution (or not, but at least you will have learnt something!)

This method is risky, but it works for me. It allows energy to flow without conscious thought. It reminds me of a quote I read in the catalogue for the George Shaw exhibition, My Back to Nature.

'When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – are all there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.' Philip Guston, quoting John Cage 1960

Having revised quite a few works, I began to alter my whole approach to how I set about painting. It is an on-going process, but has at its foundation the belief that I can rescue something if need be. For me there is a balance to aim for when painting, a mixture of thought and letting go. If I’m too thoughtful the work can lack life, if I let go at the wrong moment I can end up making a mess. It all comes down to experience and making lots of mistakes. I have found that I need to know the subject well, to have the shapes fixed in my head, I can’t fully let go whilst referencing a sketch. But with practice comes the ability to bring it back, to rescue it by whatever method you choose.

When I start a painting it’s usually a conscious decision, I have a place in mind that has inspired me. So, starting is a conscious act; I’m thinking and aiming to get the structure right. But there has to come a point where I leave reference behind and push, let the painting become an object in its own right and allow it to develop by having a dialogue with it as a painting, not as a representation of a place.  How do I achieve this? Firstly by not worrying about ruining it, listening to certain music helps; anything that allows reverie, blocking out the analytical mind. My working method, which involves layering and scraping back then adding more paint, develops a natural texture and creates a palimpsest. I aim for an image that has energy, and is visually interesting and stimulating. In order to achieve this, I’m willing to destroy my painting!

Yiu can see more of Amanda's work in the PaintersOnline gallery by clicking here, and on her website,, Facebook and Twitter.

Amanda will be Artist in Residence at Burton Agnes Hall, East Yorkshire from 21st – 30th May, 2017.

An exhibition of her work will be at Rydal Hall in Ambleside, Cumbria, during May & June, 2017.

Paint a London Street Scene in Acrylic with Brendan Smith


I have been painting and drawing for most of my life but began painting full time in 2014. My early work was mostly in gouache and watercolour, fuelled by my interest in illustration for which, traditionally, these were the preferred media. Some of my work still has an illustrative bent, but for about the last 15 years I have also been using acrylics. They allow a greater looseness, depth of colour and texture which can be difficult to attain with the other media.

I will tackle almost any subject and I use whichever medium is most suited to the scale and complexity involved. Having said that, I find  my most satisfying work is usually in marine, aviation and townscapes, though more recently I have also been drawn to portraiture!

I have exhibited work with the Guild of Aviation Artists at the Mall Galleries and at DRAW 16, the open exhibition of the Society of Graphic Fine Art. I exhibit regularly in Surrey as a member of the Tadworth Art Group (website More of my work in all media can be seen on my website at

My demonstration painting is a view down Lower Regent Street towards St James’s Park in springtime. This is one of my favourite parts of London and whenever I have the opportunity I take a camera and sketchbook to record anything which catches my eye. At this time of year it often has a sparkling light which bounces off the vehicles and buildings. My main objective with the picture was to convey this and the atmosphere of a spring day. I thought that acrylic would best capture the depth of tone and colour in this subject. Most of the painting was completed using 1” and ½” flat brushes, with a rigger for fine detail in the very last stages.



  • Winsor & Newton Galeria paper

Acrylic paints: (all Winsor & Newton):

  • Pthalo Blue
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Ultramarine
  • Pthalo Green
  • Magenta
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Naples Yellow
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Cadmium Red
  • Permanent Alizarin Crimson
  • Titanium White


  • Daler-Rowney System 3: 3”, 1” and ½” flats.  Pro Arte No.2 rigger


  • Plastic painting knife

Spring Light Lower Regent Street

Reference photo and initial sketch

Stage 1

I stretched the paper on a plywood board. I often use discarded watercolours as a support for my acrylic work but in this case I wanted to try a less absorbent ground. I also liked the slight canvas texture which the Galeria paper offers. I marked out the dimensions of the painting based on my (cropped) photo and tonal sketch and placed masking tape around the edges.

Stage 2

I washed over the entire surface with the 3” brush using a weak mix of magenta, pthalo blue, pthalo green and burnt sienna. This is primarily to establish a warm mid-tone. I rarely do a preliminary drawing for acrylics but I roughly hinted at the bus shapes and the building on the right, as these are the main points of interest.

Stage 3

Using the same colours in greater strength, I blocked in the major shapes, including the shadow areas, with the 1” brush. The aim at this point is to establish a kind of tonal map showing the extremes of light and dark which are the bones of the composition. As you can see all the dark areas connect and create a small number of varied shapes, indicating a good structure. I also put in a few directional lines towards the approximate vanishing point and focal area.

Stage 4

Using some titanium white with a touch of cerulean I blocked in the sky and the lit portion of the street. At this stage I was not interested in the actual sky colour but just settling the major light elements of the scene, and more accurately defining the edges of the buildings and vehicles by cutting into the dark areas. I decided that the distant monument was too central and moved it to the right. I also used my dark colours to hint at the major figures in the right-hand shadow area.

Stage 5

Having roughly fixed the tonal range I began to introduce more detail and local colour into the picture using my 1” and ½” brushes, looking for reflections and light effects to create variation and interest.  I knew that perspective, edges and tones could be tightened up as I progressed and I didn’t finish anything completely. I usually avoid putting much detail into buildings in my pictures but in this case I felt that the character of the place required a more careful treatment, especially of the stonework on the right. I was now using increasingly opaque, lighter colour, primarily mixes of cerulean, Naples yellow, burnt sienna, cadmium red and a very little titanium white.

Stage 6

Continuing the process from Stage 5, I further refined details in the background treeline, buildings and street scene and gradually built up the intensity of the sky and lighter areas. I worked on the foreground figures and tables, incorporating just enough information without detracting from the central focal area. The male figure behind the sitting woman is an invention to link the foreground with the crowd further back. I considered whether another figure was needed on the sunlit pavement area but concluded that this would obstruct the visual path into the back of the painting.

Final Stage

Spring Light, Lower Regent Street, acrylic on paper (14”x16”)

I assessed the picture overall to see if any major changes were needed. In acrylic this can go on indefinitely but there is a danger that ‘correcting’ every detail can kill the vitality of the picture so I restricted myself to essentials. I decided to further emphasise the light source by lightening the right-hand sky area with Naples yellow using a plastic painting knife which gives a nice random texture. With the same aim I brushed a bluish glaze over the right hand building in shadow which I thought was too warm, and I softened the shadow edge on the pavement. Using my ½” brush and rigger I drew the lamps and other street furniture. I put in the final highlights and small details with mixtures of titanium white, Naples yellow and lemon yellow. Holding these until the very end gives the painting real ‘zing’ but mustn’t be overdone! I felt I had caught the atmosphere I wanted without overdoing the detail in what is a complex scene. On looking at the painting a couple of days later I thought that I could have reduced the building details even further without detriment to the picture. Those decisions are all part of the learning process!

See more of Brendan's work in the PainterOnline gallery by clicking here, or by visiting his website

Brendan will be exhibiting at the Tadworth Art Group exhibition at the Peter Aubertin Hall, Elmore Road, Chipstead from May 12 - 14. Visit the website for more details.

Frankel - Tom Quealy Up by Des Welsh

Acrylic on canvas, (70x50cm)

This painting commission was completed using photographic reference as requested by the recipient, a very big horse racing fan.

After transferring the pencil drawing with as much detail as possible to canvas, I study the reference photo. At this stage I let the various aspects of the subject dictate where I shall start. For this reason I print out close-ups of each important aspect of the subject, for example the hat, silks, boots and eye. I also print close-up parts of Frankel's head and body.

In the first instance it was the jockey's helmet and silk hat cover that leapt out at me as a challenge to create the desired effect with the paint. This was also the hook to spurred me on to paint the jockey silks and boots.

A kind of momentum is built up as I paint, and I then quickly moved on to the backdrop - to take away the empty feel, and to 'place' the subjects in the frame. Acrylic is ideal for this as it drys quickly, allowing you to move on or correct anything you're not happy with. The reference photo did not have a sky, but I decided to add one as I felt it would improve the atmosphere.

Next, to create the star of this work which is of course Frankel!

I worked on the head first, starting with the eye which must be accurate to give him life. Using light to dark, I sculpted the head and also focused closely on the bridle work.

The whole body was then blocked-in, observing the position of the muscle forms to get that realism. It was also important to make sure that the mane looked correct to impart that racing movement.

Taking a break now and then focuses the eye on every return to the work, allowing you to touch-in and adjust as you see fit to create the final piece.

Frankel - Tom Quealy Up, acrylic on canvas, (70x50cm).

See more work from Des in the PaintersOnline gallery by clicking here.

Bill Skinner, Jeweller - a Portrait by Morgan Penn

Bill Skinner, Jeweller, oil on linen, (70x55cm)

Bill Skinner is a Jeweller extraordinaire based in Kent, creating amazing jewellery pieces that are highly coveted. His family wanted him immortalised in oil on canvas, sat at his workbench in his studio. Bill wanted lots of references to his life and interests, such as his favourite motorbike and vintage monogramed leather rugby ball.

The portrait took ten weeks to complete using mainly just three colours - ultramarine blue, yellow Lake and alizarin crimson, with a titanium white. The three colour process gives me a consistent drying time, and a guarantee that the painting will be chromatically balanced. I use Michael Harding paints as it is frankly the best oil paint you can buy as it contains only pure pigment and oil. Most other companies use fillers and extenders in their paint which is why you don’t get the same luminosity and intensity that you get with Michael Harding paints.


Using burnt umber, the basic outlines and shapes are roughed out using large brushes and rags to keep things loose.


Underpainting is the engine of the portrait, so careful consideration is given to how the base colours will affect the top colours. For example, a warm brown orange was used for the blue jeans as they are opposing (complimentary) colours on the colour wheel. I made sure that this colour scumbled through the blue to create a visual kick to an area that could have been very lack lustre. Red is the most awkward colour in a palette. The only way to create a bright red is to use the white of the canvas to illuminate through a transparent red such as Michael Hardings crimson lake. This was my bright base for the motorbike. I also start to build up the mid tones around the painting.


I underpaint my skin tones with a pthalo turquoise, as it is my insurance that the skin will be chromatically balanced, and will not look sun burnt. Turquoise is the only colour that is difficult to create from the three colour process involving ultramarine blue. I now start forming up the details, giving thought to which areas I leave unfinished such as the knee of the jeans, or the drawers. I can always revisit these areas if they don’t appear to work when all the other elements have been painted.


As more detailing is added, I make sure that the darks are dark enough, and the highlights are bright and effective enough. When I have completed all the still life and background, I then start to paint the skin tones. A portrait is finished when I realise that any further amendments are not adding anything to the composition.



You can see more of Morgan's work by visiting his website,

Dawn Farley took the opportunity of talking to Bill Skinner (who has a shop opposite our offices here in Tenterden) who said: 'Morgan came to the studio, where he took many photographs of me and of all the bits and pieces round and about. The whole process worked out beautifully. I felt completely at ease, and Morgan was full of ideas and inspiration for the painting, he really paid attention to 'stuff'.

'Morgan must have taken several hundred photographs (he actually took 3,000), taking about three or four hours, and really looking at me as an individual, which definitely shows in the finished portrait which captures an essence of me and my personality.

'The details in the portrait are amazing, even down to my cup of tea which I stir with a spanner!'

You can see some of Bill's incredible jewellery on his website,

A necklace from Bill's Tea Party range

Three Marbles - Still Life Oil Painting by Petra Palmeri

 I work from photographs as the light doesn't change. I feel that a dark background allows the focus to fall entirely on the subject, creating a dramatic effect.

I set up the composition next to a large window, using a reflective surface that acts like a mirror. Sometimes I add a second light or maybe a light from the side to get even more control of my composition.

Three Marbles, oil, (60x30cm)


  • Stretched linen canvas 60x30 cm


  • System 3  0, 3/4, 6, 8. 
  • Graduate dawler-rowney 10/0. 
  • Royal & Langnickel Series 4200 Mini-Majestic 2/0, 1/8, 12/0

 Winsor & Newton Artist’s acrylic white and black gesso

 Daler-Rowney Cryla Artist’s Acrylic Colours

  • Titanium white
  • Mars black
  • Phthalo blue
  • Ultramarine
  • Prussian blue
  • Payne’s grey
  • Cobalt turquoise
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Opaque oxide of chromium
  • Orange and Pyrrole red

 Winsor & Newton Artist’s Oil Colours: 

  • Titanium white
  • Mars black
  • French ultramarine
  • Manganese blue
  • Cobalt blue
  • Prussian blue
  • Payne’s grey
  • Cadmium green pale
  • Green phthalo
  • Olive green
  • Orange pyrrole
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Naples yellow
  • Indian red
  • Mars violet
  • Burnt sienna


I mixed white and black gesso and I applied a base coat of grey gesso to the canvas. I began with a very basic sketch, drawing the basic elements of the composition. I used a homemade circle template to trace the outline of the marbles/spheres shapes.


I use acrylics as underpainting layers for my oil paintings. I keep the acrylic layer thin. I usually paint the background first and then the form around it. Using a large brush (3/4) I applied Mars black to the background and using a mixture of titanium white and Mars black, I painted the grey/reflective surface.


I then used 8 and 12/0 brushes to map out the marbles and to refine the distinctive individual shape and character of each one. At this stage I avoid getting too detailed.


When the acrylics had dried completely I finished the painting in oils. I used Mars black for the background and grey (mixing titanium white and mars black oils) for the reflective surface. I studied how the light plays across the different materials.


I started to add greater details to the marbles. I also use this step to refine the drawing where needed. I left the painting to dry and then I worked into the reflection of the window with white titanium. Even at this stage I correct my drawing as necessary.


I worked up the reflective surface and acquired the shadow and reflections of the marbles using a transparent layer of colour with a soft brush and finishing off with just a few bright white highlights.


You can see more of Petra’s work in the  PaintersOnline gallery by clicking here, on Facebook and on Twitter.


Painting a self portrait in oils by Rodney Kingston

Before getting the paints and palette out it is important to plan the composition of your painting. My home studio is in a semi-converted loft. For my self-portrait I positioned myself halfway up the ladder entering the studio through the loft hatch. To capture the image, and provide myself with a reference, I set up a camera on the floor of the studio and took a number of photos using the timer function on the camera. The resulting image shows my face and shoulders at eye level to the viewer but the studio appears from a worms eye view.

Having decided on a photo to base my painting on, I used photo editing software to lay a grid over the image on my computer. Then it was time to paint.

Stage one

Usually I paint on small boards or large canvases, but I prefer the way paint and brushes move over the smooth boards so, for my self-portrait, I experimented with a new support which was an aluminium panel. This allowed me to work on a large scale but reproduce the smooth surface I like. After applying three coats of gesso I drew a grid on the 61cm x 61cm panel to correspond to the grid on my reference photo and lightly sketched the key areas of the painting.

Using acrylic paints I painted a mix of yellow ochre, cadmium red and titanium white for a warm coloured background. To add some texture to the under painting I dripped lucid mixes of ultramarine blue and cadmium red. The grid and sketch were still visible through the paint that had been applied so far.

Stage two

Continuing with acrylic paints I mixed ultramarine blue, cadmium red and burnt umber to give me a warm black. I used this mix to build up areas of dark tones in layers, using the acrylic paint with lots of water. This stage is useful for establishing some of the drawing with paint and to generally familiarise myself with the image. This stage is all about providing guidance for the oil painting. This under-painting could be done in oil paint but I wanted to move onto the next stage quickly so I used acrylic which dried within minutes as apposed to waiting for hours.

Stage three

When the acrylic paint was completely dry it was time to move to oil paint. I absolutely love oil paint! The smell, the feel and the resulting look – it just gets my art juices flowing so this is when it gets exciting for me. I used the following palette of colours for my painting: titanium white, cadmium yellow, naples yellow, yellow ochre, cadmium red, alizarin red, ultramarine blue and burnt umber. I used a mix of turpentine and linseed oil for my medium to help with the flow of paint.

To begin I blocked in the largest areas of colour which was the back wall of the studio. I was working in the studio so I was able to look at the actual surroundings when mixing colours and didn’t have to rely fully on the reference photo.

Stage four

Gradually I blocked in more and more of the background until I was at a point where I could suggest areas of detail. I tried to use a minimal amount of brush strokes and marks – enough to make the objects look real but not overworked. I’m attracted to paintings that look realistic but are also obviously paintings. When looking at other artists’ work I like to be able to see how they’ve painted it and imagine each stroke being applied to the surface. This is something I try to achieve in my own work by using broads brush strokes.

Adding highlights on the stool and the screw-nut on the easel brought the background to life.

At this stage I also worked on the hoody so that the majority of the painting was well underway before tackling the portrait.

Stage five

One of my favourite things about painting portraits is picking out unexpected colours like greens and blues. I spent some time really looking at my face and then mixed colours on the palette for different areas. Daylight from a window and a warm white bulb from a light on the opposite wall to the window made my skin look quite yellowy-green in places. I began the face by blocking in some areas of colour.

Stage six

Once the initial blocking in of colour had been done the original sketch was no longer visible so I spend much more time studying the reference photo and comparing it to my painting than I did applying paint.

Taking part in regular life drawing sessions at my local art club helps with this process of looking, painting, looking some more, correcting mistakes and so on. It’s usually obvious when a portrait isn’t right but it is the practice of looking that helps realise what is wrong and what needs fixing. Also the more you study a subject and understand how it fits together the less likely you are to make mistakes in the first place.

The portrait came together reasonably quickly but I definitely found it useful to spend a bit of time away from the painting so that I could look again with fresh eyes. I also found it useful to take photos of the painting on my phone and look at these away from the studio as I quite often spot things that need correcting that I hadn’t noticed before.

Final stage

This is the time to add some finesse to the painting. Giving the eyes some colour and highlights immediately brought the painting to life. I painted some paintbrushes on the desk in the background which helped emphasise the perspective and also added a skull underneath the desk as a little nod to artists of the past who used skulls to represent mortality. I’ve added symbols in portraits before and I like the added narrative simple little objects can provide.

Finally I debated with myself whether or not to add some detail to the area around the loft hatch. The mechanism and part of the ladder could have been included but I decided I would leave it as it is as I wanted to show some of the original transparent acrylic paint. There are other parts of the panel where this layer of paint can be seen too which can be a nice way to show the history and journey of the painting.

Thanks for reading. I hope reading about my process for painting a self-portrait has been useful to you.

You can see more of Rodney's work in the PaintersOnline gallery by clicking here, or on his website,

Red Amaryllis by Shirley May

This is about a watercolour painting I completed at the home of my painting friend Rosie, of her red amaryllis.

I prepared a board at home which I started with a graded wash of yellow on stretched paper, tilting the board to 45 degrees.

I turned the board upside-down and added a wash of blue at the other end, so it graded in the opposite direction, again tilted at 45 degrees. I then added a wash of red in the middle, and moved all three colours around slightly with a flat brush.
I left this to dry, and then added some water splatters which I agitated with the brush to lift off the paint a little.

I left all this to dry and took my prepared board to Rosie's, where her red amaryllis caught my eye.

I decided on a close up view, as the paper was only about A4 size, and the flowers were so beautiful.

I began by making a light pencil drawing, which involved plenty of erasing and redrawing as I came to understand the lines of the flowers.

I made the decision to paint using the three primaries of cadmium red, cadmium yellow and cobalt blue. With big puddles of each colour, and using each one separately to begin with, I took the plunge and waited to see how it would all develop.

So, cadmium yellow first. Looking for the yellow and lightness in the petals. I didn't have to consider the background for this picture, as that had already been done by the washes.

Then cobalt blue, picking out the darker parts, ready for the last colour - cadmium red.

I knew it wouldn't go exactly as planned. That is the fun of watercolour. It's like steering a boat on a choppy sea, with a lot of bobbing about!

I only had two hours, so I needed to get as much done as possible within the time, although I did take a reference photo for later.

I waited for the blue to dry completely, before I added some red. The red was followed by some yellow and blue, and got a bit carried away!

Time ran out so I took it home to consider later. I always expect to find some things which I hate later on, and usually make a few changes.

Later, I found I didn't like the thick red paint, so I lifted some off. I also lightened the flower on the right, to make it recede. I added yellow over the petal areas that are lit from behind. Removed some of the blue in the central flower, and mixed a purple to improve the darks. I also lifted out some of the highlights on the edges of the petals with a damp flat proline brush.

I felt that the front petal needed blurring on the left edge for some reason, and, having done this, it is finished as far as I am concerned. I just get a feeling when a painting is done. I'm pleased with the final result and hope you are too.

The finished picture

You can see more of Shirley's work in the PaintersOnline gallery by clicking here.

Drawing Arctic Terns - an extract from Bird Art by Alan Woollett, published by Search Press

Arctic terns are great little birds to watch and their subtle soft plumage certainly is a challenge to reproduce. This is a drawing I have been keen to bring to life for quite a while, as I had access to some good reference material of a group of terns perched in a row on fence posts. Don’t be afraid to use a little artistic licence from time to time, or even a lot, if you feel the image needs it.

As I worked on the composition of the picture, I felt the preening bird needed the space to lift its head and stretch out, and so I ensured there was some extra white space above the bird. A useful tip to bear in mind when cropping your pictures is if the edge of the paper is too close to a bird in the middle of an action, this can look odd; as though the paper would somehow cramp its movements.

Materials used

  • Paper: Fabriano artistico HP smooth extra white 300gsm (140lb)
  • Pencils: Lumograph – 2H, F, 2B, and 4B
  • Putty eraser and precision eraser


Having multiple reference shots from which to work is a definite advantage in the case of a drawing such as this arctic tern picture, as it ensures that each bird can be seen clearly – a single shot of a group of birds may look promising but, on closer examination, may be missing key information about a particular bird or element.

As I didn’t have any pictures or reference of the original posts from my initial encounter, I obtained some from an old fence on some nearby farmland.

Stage 1 – The initial drawing

Unlike the previous projects, the background here is added directly onto the watercolour paper after the tracings of the terns have been placed in the correct positions.

The fence posts can then be drawn so that they meet the feet of the perching terns, which saves a lot of alteration or adjustment. This approach will not work with all background elements, but for relatively simple ones like this fence, it offers a great option.

1. Use quick sketches to experiment with the format and composition you want to use in the image. The examples here, quickly drawn on spare paper, show some different approaches that I gradually refined into the final example here.


2. Paying close attention to your reference material, use an F pencil to make detailed sketches of the individual terns on a piece of spare paper, making sure the relative sizes are correct. In this example, the terns are all perching on a fence together, so they should be near-identical in size.

3. Make individual tracings of the terns and position them relative to one another on the paper, then add the fence posts using a 2H. You can draw right over the individual birds’ tracings to make sure that the picture works.

4. Once you are happy, overlay the whole piece with a large piece of tracing paper and trace the whole composition.

Stage 2 – Creating an order of work

The underlying principles with which you can approach this piece remain the same as usual, but I have broken down the slightly more complex order of work into four main areas in order to simplify things a little. Each main area – the fence and the three individual arctic terns – is bordered with a dotted line on the reference image opposite.

Breaking complex pieces down like this can make them more approachable and less intimidating. As you will see, the individual terns are very similar, so by the time you reach the preening one on the top, you will be familiar with the techniques.

Order of work

A. Rightmost fencepost – Because I am left-handed, starting here reduces the risk of accidentally smudging the work as I progress.

B–F. Remaining fence posts – Work each one in turn, from right to left.

G. Wire.

H. Head of the rightmost tern.

I. Beak of the rightmost tern.

J. Body of the rightmost tern.

K. Tail feathers of the rightmost tern.

L. Legs of the rightmost tern.

M. Head of the leftmost tern.

N. Beak of the leftmost tern.

O. Body of the leftmost tern.

P. Tail feathers of the leftmost tern.

Q. Head of the topmost tern.

R. Neck of the topmost tern.

S. Body of the topmost tern.

T. Tail feathers of the topmost tern.


I generally work from right to left – being left-handed, I have a tendency to smudge the pencil if working the other way. If you are right-handed, of course, you might like to mirror the order of work.

Stage 3 – Mark making

1. Starting with a 2H pencil, draw in the form and pattern of the wood on the first post, then build on top of this with an F grade pencil. This is a great pencil for adding form and shadows As you build up the layers the post will take shape. Now and again, pick out a few highlights with an eraser.

2. Switch to a 2B pencil and use light pressure to gradually darken some areas in various places, then further darken any splits, holes and other areas of deep detail using the same 2B pencil. Carefully pick out a few lighter areas to help make this area look realistic – it could look a little fl at if no highlights are picked out.

3. Treat the other posts in the same fashion, using the 2H, F and 2B pencils to build up form and surface details and then an eraser to pick out highlights. Once all the posts are complete, spend a while checking that no areas need darkening or lightning before continuing.

4. Move on to the rusted wire. Using only a 2B pencil and a small circular motion, draw with a varying pressure – more in shadow areas and less pressure for highlighted areas. Once complete, use the 2B pencil to reinforce any shadow areas and along one edge in various places to add form to the wire – even though it’s only a couple of millimetres across it still has form and shape. With a putty rubber kneaded to a point, pick out random spots along the wire to create highlights and texture.

5. Part of the character of these birds is the fact that they seem to be wearing a black hood, and this is a good place to start on the first tern (see the order of work). Use a sharp 2B to apply short strokes of a varying pressure to build up the density of the feathers on the black head. Leave a few lighter areas on the crown to show highlights. Draw in the eye and lift out a slight highlight using the eraser.

6. Add tone to the beak using a 2H pencil and then an F to darken it. Draw in the nostril and line between the upper and lower mandible, then very gently remove a little line of pencil along the top using a fi ne eraser.

7. Start to add a light layer of 4H to the bird’s face and breast area – barely visible in some places, owing to the soft white plumage. Gently build on top of this using a 2H but do not take the tone too dark. Add a very light area of F pencil on the underside of the bird to indicate this area being in shadow.

8. Repeat this approach on the tern’s back, blending from the 2H pencil to the 4H and working down the shoulder and onto the wing. Define the shoulder with a darker layer of 2H and add a hint to the wing feathers, too. Once this layer of pencil is complete, add some F to darken some areas on the feathers and to add more shape to the body. Aim to retain a sense of softness in the plumage.

9. Treat the wings in the same fashion, using 2H and F pencils to pick out each feather lightly, then lifting off a little pencil with an eraser to add highlights. Use a 2B to draw in the black edge to the feathers then add a few strokes of 4B on the edge and on the bird’s crown, concentrating on the area behind the eye and the back of the head.

10. This leaves just the feet and any visible toes. Using an F pencil and short circular movements, block in the area, then add any details – including the very slight shadow at the top of the bird’s legs where they join the underside – on top with a 2B pencil.

11. Follow steps 5–10 for the second tern.

12. With two of the terns in place, we can now turn our attention to the third. It is also a good time to re-assess whether the picture is following the initial plan as it progresses on paper. You may find that the tones need to be adjusted. Lift a little graphite off the fence posts using a putty eraser – or add a little more tone to strengthen it as appropriate. These are the sort of ongoing decisions that you will need to be making throughout all of your drawings.

13. Once the third tern is drawn in, the same decisions on relative tone will need to be made regarding the individual birds and how they sit in the picture. These are stages of continual critical study, reassessment and adjustment.

Inset pic. 1 - Woodgrain

The rotten wood on the first post is a great opportunity for dramatic tonal work. Just remember that less is most definitely more – be careful about building up your values. It is always easier to add more than remove too much!

Inset pic. 2 - Birds’ eyes

Arctic terns’ eyes are located in the dark feathers near the top of the head. Any real detail is hard to see unless viewed close up, so they can be treated relatively simply.

Finished work

This is an extract from Alan Woollett's new book, Bird Art, published by Search Press

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