Painting project part one from the May 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

This project takes the graceful, dramatically patterned avocet as an appealing subject for an acrylic painting. You will usually find them standing serenely, but a swimming pose gives interesting reflections and adds the challenge of painting water. The photograph gives several options to the artist. Emphasise the bird by dulling and reducing the reflections, or make more of the reflections to highlight the similarities in their shape and the bird’s patterned plumage. Cropping in tightly would focus on the symmetry of the bird’s head and neck. You could adjust the colours to give a sunny day feel and contrast the bird with colourful water.

The photograph that introduces this month’s project: a swimming avocet, cropped from the image, below right. Monochrome is a good starting point for those new to painting water and is ideal for honing your tonal awareness, which will be hugely beneficial for future paintings.

Gathering reference

For painters inspired by wildlife, a swimming bird is an easy subject to find at the local lake. Avocets are an uncommon species, but are often kept at wildlife parks so relatively simple to photograph. Getting close to a wild avocet for a useable photograph would be very challenging, but gulls or ducks are common, fairly tame and can easily be enticed into range of a camera.

As well as using photography, I always recommend sketching from life to familiarise yourself with the subject’s appearance and behaviour. Drawing demands you look carefully at the subject, even if the resulting sketches are not perfect. Colour sketches and written notes are also helpful.

An avocet’s ‘curved’ beak is actually straight for the first half and only curves towards the tip. The head colour is not black, but very dark brown. I was unaware of either characteristic until I spent time drawing them.

The key to achieving a suitable image involving water is to take many photographs. Reflections can change quickly so images taken just moments apart can look very different. Take many more photos than you’ll need so you can choose the best later.

Two successive photographs, taken just moments apart, give quite different images

Comparing my two avocet images, we see they are superficially similar, yet there are significant differences, which make picture two a better choice. The reflections on the second are far more photogenic. The bird has extended its neck, giving a more elegant shape and a better reflection. The thin line reflection is too close to the head in the first image, giving a cluttered look.


Cropping further improves the composition. The bird in the original image is far too small, leaving too much background and large areas of dark colour in the reflections. Most of the action is in the centre of the photo, leaving little interest in any of the corners.

Cropping removes most of the bland areas, reduces the dominance of the dark reflection and emphasises the symmetry of the pattern, resulting in a more balanced composition. The avocet is now in the top right quarter instead of being central.

This bird was in captivity so the thick and thin vertical lines were actually reflections from a post and some wire. Adjusting these to look more like a tree trunk or reed would imply a more natural habitat.


Tone is far more important than colour or pattern, as it gives form to the subject.

In this picture, notice how dark the body of the bird appears and that the reflection is darker still. You can use a greyscale or even just hold a piece of white paper against the image. So despite the subject being a black-and-white bird, there will be very little pure white in the final painting.

There are significant differences between the tones of the bird and its reflection. In the reflection the pale areas become darker and the dark areas become paler, giving much stronger contrast in the bird than in the reflection. A tonal study is useful preparation for this painting.


Notice how little of the body can be seen in the reflection compared to the bird itself. We may expect a reflection to be a mirror image, but this is rarely so, as perspective will play a part. Remember that reflections, irrespective of shape or light conditions, are always directly below whatever is being reflected.

Painting reflections may seem a little daunting at first, but as long as the main shapes and tones are in place, individual marks needn’t be reproduced exactly.

Colour palette

For the painting you will see next month I will use Liquitex Heavy Body acrylic: titanium white, unbleached titanium, cadmium red, ultramarine and burnt umber. Unbleached titanium (titan buff or buff titanium, depending on the brand) is a versatile off-white colour. It retains the warmth when lightening warm colours and makes subtle greys when mixed with ultramarine.

Cadmium red (or any orange-red) may seem a surprising choice, but when mixed with ultramarine and white gives soft greys that are much more pleasing than combining black and white. Instead of using black, ultramarine and burnt umber mixed together give colourful darks that may be biased towards blue or brown. Practising mixing and blurring the colours is useful preparation before starting this painting.

The painting process

Acrylics allow the water to be blocked in first and the bird painted on top, which will be much easier than painting around the bird, especially the beak!

Not fully mixing the background colours will produce streaks that imply ripples.

Thick paint will dry slowly, permitting blending of the colours, or a retarding medium will allow more working time. A large flat brush can be stroked gently over damp paint to blur the water, with a second coat applied if the first looks too patchy.

Smaller flat brushes will be ideal for recreating the thick and thin lines in the water reflections. Other useful brushes for this painting would be a Rigger or swordliner for the beak, and filberts of various sizes for the plumage.

Once the bird has been blocked in, further brushstrokes will make corrections or add details until the desired level of finish has been achieved. Remember to apply brushstrokes in the direction of feather growth or water flow.

Sketching builds knowledge of your subject’s character as well as its appearance and behaviour

Colour studies are useful reference material as the human eye sees more variety of colour than a camera will record

A quick tonal study in pencil or watercolour helps evaluate the relative areas of light and dark in an image

Part two from the June 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

Demonstration Avocet

You will need:


  • Primed panel or canvas, 101⁄2x17in. (27x43cm)

Heavy-body acrylics

  • Titanium white
  • Unbleached titanium
  • Cadmium red
  • Ultramarine
  • Burnt umber
  • Yellow ochre for the underpainting (optional)


  • Large, medium and small flats

Step 1

1. Underpainting rids us of the white surface, which can seem daunting when we begin a new work. The advantage of an underlying colour is that it will show through in tiny amounts, helping to unify the picture. The warmth of yellow oxide is a good counter to the cooler areas of the water.

2. Thin the paint down with water or a matt medium then, using a large brush, work across the whole surface. Some streakiness in the underpainting won’t matter, as most of the colour will be covered over by subsequent layers of paint. Leave this layer to dry thoroughly so it won’t blend with subsequent layers.

Step 2

1. Next, block in the water with a mix of titanium white, unbleached titanium and ultramarine. The resulting tone and colour will depend on the proportions used. Aim for a light to mid-tone without making the colour too pale or the highlights won’t show up. Notice how the underpainting shows through the thin blue layer, adding warmth.

2. Indicate the main darks by mixing unbleached titanium, ultramarine and burnt umber, although you could wait until the drawing is complete before doing this.

3. When the paint is dry draw the avocet. This can be done straight onto the surface with brush or pencil, or use a graphite transfer paper, such as Tracedown. The advantage of drawing first is that any corrections can be made on the paper, before transferring the drawing to the support. Be careful not to press on the drawing or you’ll be in danger of transferring your fingerprints, too.

Step 3

1. The next task is blocking in the subject by quickly establishing the main tones, and not making everything perfect. Working with your darkest colour first, paint the darkest shapes then continue with the next darkest colour, and the next, until all the main tones have been established.

2. Add in the highlights with titanium white. This bright, opaque white should not be confused with zinc white, which is transparent. It is worth making sure your painting kit includes a top-quality titanium white. Cheaper brands may not cover well due to insufficient pigment.

3. We’ll wait until later to paint the beak, as it will be much easier to do when the water is complete. The dark beak will easily cover the underlying colours. Painting the water around a thin line, in a contrasting direction to the flow, would be creating unnecessary difficulties.

Step 4

1. Now that the main tones are in place, you can start to adjust and correct. Let’s begin with the water, as any stray brushstrokes over the bird’s outline will be easily covered when painting the plumage.

2. Mix three blobs of a similar blue to the original colour you used for the water. Add a little white to one blob and a smidgeon of ultramarine and burnt umber to the other. That will give you three slightly different tones of the water.

3. Paint lightly over the water with the medium tone first, taking care not to obliterate all of the underpainting. Then use the darker tone to imply ripples, repeating with the light tone. This tonal variety adds interest to the water on the right half of the painting.

Step 5

1. Continue by mixing dark tones of ultramarine and burnt umber with tiny amounts of unbleached titanium to lighten the dark colour slightly. Use these mixes to paint the dark reflections. Check the reference photo to see how the dark reflection colour varies.

2. Make the reflections lighter than the dark markings on the bird so the bird will look more solid and prominent by comparison.

Step 6

Now return to the avocet, painting the dark markings with a mix of ultramarine and burnt umber. Use a Rigger or detail brush for the beak. The reflection of the head and neck can be painted now too, using lighter versions of the dark mix.

Step 7

1. Next it’s the turn of the avocet’s pale feathers. Although the bird’s shadowed plumage is similar in colour to the water, you don’t want to use the same paint mix. Doing so would make the bird look too similar to the water.

2. Mix ultramarine, cadmium red and titanium white, to give a soft mauve-grey. Again, mix several tones of this and paint each in turn to imply the modelling on the plumage. Blending the tones where they meet will suggest the softness of feathers. The only hard edges should be where dark wing feathers meet light.

3. It’s now a good time to step back and evaluate the painting. The avocet has progressed well and generally the water is working. The two large dark shapes in the reflections – originally a post – are concerning, as they look too heavy and distract the viewer’s attention away from the bird.

4. In a picture, the viewer’s eye will always be drawn to areas of contrast and detail. Detail is not the issue here, but contrast certainly is. You need to break up that shape, by toning it down and making it less solid. Never be afraid to change something that isn’t working in a painting.

Step 8

The best answer is to turn the shapes into reeds, which will also imply a more natural habitat. Just a suggestion will be sufficient, as too much detail will take the viewer’s attention back to that area. A range of lighter tones and a flat brush will do the trick.

Step 9

1. Once you are happy with the reeds, you can add details to the ripples in front and behind the bird. The reeds in the centre of the painting can be lightened, to stop them detracting from the avocet.

2. Finally, return to the bird for last-minute tweaking. The sharp highlight on the breast needs to be softened and the modelling at the base of the neck improved. A lighter brown on the top of the head will enhance the form there too.

3. Now decide whether to add an eye. This isn’t strictly necessary, as a dark eye against dark feathers is rarely seen and there will not be a bright highlight, as the eye is in shadow. Nevertheless, most people prefer to see an eye so a simple crescent will suggest that the eye exists without making it obvious.

4. At this point the painting can be considered finished, although it is possible to keep adding detail if hyperrealism is the desired outcome. You could even crop it, as it works as a portrait, too.

The finished painting

Avocet, heavy-body acrylic on board, 101⁄2x17in. (27x43cm)

Jackie Garner

Jackie teaches art classes and workshops, and gives demonstrations. She also teaches on painting holidays with Art Safari (

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If you complete this painting project, please email your images to [email protected] to be included in the PaintersOnline gallery.