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Combine Traditional and Digital Techniques for Wildlife Painting with Shelly Perkins

Posted on Tue 18 Dec 2018

My work is inspired by my love of wildlife and being outdoors in nature both in the UK and further afield. Spending time in the countryside brings with it great potential for spotting wildlife in its natural habitat and inspiring ideas for new work.

To create my work I use detailed drawings, watercolour and ink as well as textures and textiles, all of which I scan into the computer and collage together digitally. I love the freedom that comes with being able to work with this combination of techniques. It leaves lots of room for experimentation and the ability to create vibrant and dynamic compositions whilst also retaining the organic and idiosyncratic nature of drawing and painting.


Drawing the line

My work begins with loose compositional drawings, often a five-minute sketch on the back of an envelope when an idea pops into my head. I gauge whether the idea has potential and go from there.

Once I have a composition in mind I go on to develop detailed pencil line drawings of the main animals, plants and background landscape (as you can see in the drawing I made for Clee Hill from High Vinnalls, see below). The background usually is one complete drawing with an even weight of line.


Drawing detail for Clee Hill from High Vinnalls. A sharp HB pencil allowed me to pick out the detailed lines needed for a drawing like this.


The main characters are created using a mix of line weights to give them a lively look. At this stage I look for clean lines with no furry edges, and I try to ensure that the images have a strong outline that I can work with later, once the drawing is scanned into the computer. I create shading through hatching rather than stumping and try to build this up by mimicking the way an animal’s hair grows or the foliage on a tree, to build up areas of light and shade naturally. Patches left bare help to inform the highlights in the image later on. I use a HB pencil so I can press firmly and make a defined line. At the moment I like using the Faber-Castell 9000.


Patterns with paint

Watercolour wash plays a big part in my work and I am particularly interested in the bleed and blend effects that using wet-on-wet techniques generate. I like to use paint to create textural qualities and patination in my work, and enjoy experimenting with masking fluid and resists.

I like to use fairly translucent watercolours. I currently work with Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour (pans rather than tubes) and PH Martin Radiant Watercolours. The latter are not lightfast, but are perfect for my way of working as I can scan them in and make them permanent in that way.

I create swathes of washes, rather than painting directly into a drawing. Once the washes are scanned in, I then use the outlines of my drawings to create masked areas to drop my washes in, or lay them over the background to create landscape effects or dramatic skies.


Wash detail for Clee Hill from High Vinnalls. Wet-on-wet washes allow me to create loose and spontaneous textures for my work.


Going digital

I always use Adobe Photoshop for my digital work. I have an Epson Expression A3 scanner, which is really important for being able to transfer large-scale drawings and paintings into the computer.

Scaling work down is always better than having to scale it up. If scanning in at a 300dpi resolution (dots per inch) you can only really upscale work by about 30 per cent before losing quality.

I generally work in an A3 or A2 sketchbook; anything produced in the A2 sketchbook will need to be scanned in two parts and digitally ‘stitched’ together on the computer. The next step is preparing the animals and plants for their colours and washes.

I use the Pen tool in Photoshop to create a ‘path’ around the edge of my line drawings, which means I can pull the drawing off the page and be left with a perfect stencil outline that I can use to in-fill with washes and colours.

I have a library of textures, such as fake fur and wood, that I have also scanned into the computer, which can be layered under and over the lines and colour to create a feeling of depth and texture.


Roe deer pencil drawing detail for Clee Hill from High Vinnalls. Using the Pen tool in Adode Photoshop allows me to cut the drawing off its page and create a stencil shape to work with.


Depth in layers

Photoshop works on the basis of using layers on which you can place many different elements of line, colour and texture. I liken it to having many sheets of acetate, each featuring different visual information that can be ordered and re-ordered to achieve the desired finish. I always have my pencil lines on the upper most layers with the layers of colour, texture and wash on many different layers beneath.

I can change the levels of opacity and the ‘layer styles’ to achieve different visual effects and to soften and blend different elements. This enables me to achieve a great feeling of depth in my images and allows the viewer to look through a landscape scene, from the minutest details of plants and insects to sweeping landscapes in the background.


Work in progress of Clee Hill from High Vinnalls, layering up elements of the foreground and background details using Adobe Photoshop.


Creating harmony

Once I have worked on all the separate elements of a piece I need to bring them together to make the composition complete. I drag the finished plants and animals across to the background landscape then set about making the elements sit together harmoniously.

Dropping layers of flat wash over the top of the complete composition helps to soften and harmonise an image. I can then add final tweaks, such as colour balancing and adjusting the strength of line, and fading back the rear-ground elements to make the composition work convincingly as a whole. The finished works are digital collages in the form of multilayer Photoshop documents. There is no ‘original’ work as such, as the finished piece exists solely as a digital file until I produce it as a digital print.


Clee Hill from High Vinnalls


Realising the work

I have a HP Design Jet Z3200 Giclée printer, which uses archival quality inks, especially designed to print artist’s work. The prints will last for 150 years before they begin to fade. I print all of my work myself, controlling every element of the quality and colour.

All of my pieces are printed in editions of just 50. This keeps them in line with other original prints and provides buyers with a relatively exclusive piece of art.

Ice Patrol, mixed media and digital collage, (42x120cm)

Many layers of translucent wash in Photoshop help to create a dramatic sky. This was one for the epic landscape scenes witnessed on my Antarctic residency. In January 2017 I was chosen as the Scott Polar Research Institute’s Antarctic Artist in Residence. I spent six weeks on board the Royal Navy’s HMS Protector touring around the Western Peninsular of Antarctica. This trip has informed a new body of work, and is helping me to share with others the beauty and fragility of this incredible part of the world.


Composition is key

I enjoy working in this narrow panoramic format as it allows you to take the viewer through a dynamic moment in time and gives you the opportunity to tell a story through the composition. People often comment that they see something different every time they look at a piece of my work.

I trained as an illustrator and as a result my work often retains a narrative quality. I enjoy working in a narrow panoramic format (see Tickle Channel Transit) as it allows you to take the viewer through a dynamic moment in time and gives you the opportunity to tell a story through the composition.

Adding lots of details into all elements of a composition is important for setting a scene and allowing people to be refreshed and captivated by your work each time they see it. I love the idea that people who invest in a piece of work are buying something that they can enjoy over and over again.

Tickle Channel Transit, mixed media and digital collage, (25x98cm)


Black Faced Impala – Namibia, mixed media and digital collage, (40x60cm).

The warm tones of an African morning call for ochres and siennas. The striking black facial features in these impala make for strong graphical lines. As well as depicting the icy swathes of the Antarctic,

Africa is somewhere that truly inspires me. Like the Antarctic it also brings with it the opportunity to capture the most incredible wildlife and lighting throughout the day. Early morning when the dust from the plains mingles with the golden light is an artist’s dream.


Shelly Perkins

For more details about Shelly’s sketching holidays with Art Safari to Antarctica (January 2019) and Zambia (1 to 8 June, 2019) and her Photoshop courses, visit www.artsafari.co.uk

Her three-day workshop on Photoshop for beginners will be held Suffolk (12 to 14 April, 2019). To contact Shelly email artbyshelly@gmail.com or call 07974 652866; visit her website at www.shellyperkins.co.uk or one of her social media pages: Facebook: Shelly Perkins Illustration and Instagram: Shellyperkinswildlifeart


This feature is taken from the December 2018 issue of Leisure Painter

Click here to purchase a digital copy of this magazine


Combine Traditional and Digital Techniques for Wildlife Painting with Shelly Perkins

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