The first painting off of the easel this decade is a bald eagle. Since I started painting my series of raptors, I’ve had a lot of queries about when I was going to do an eagle. To be honest, the prospect of doing it made me nervous. There are so many good paintings of eagles already out there. I didn’t know if I could do one good enough or different enough.
However, once I saw this photo my photographer friend Terry Stanfill posted to his Facebook profile, I knew I had found the eagle I wanted to paint.
And although they look simple enough, all black and white like that, I have learned by now that ‘simple’ at first glance usually means anything but. First of all, they’re not ‘just’ black and white. There are a lot of subtle differences in the shades of black and white. Then there’s the white in the black and the brown in the black and the gray in the white to contend with. Once I got started and had gotten past the color blocking, I realized the feather patterns on this bird were different than any of the others I’d done so far. No bars on the eagle, but a mish-mash of something that seemed more like fish scales in arrangement.
Of course, I don’t have blue to work with, so I created a different background from my imagination. This is generally what I’ll do with a photographic reference anyway. I’m not really trying to recreate the photograph. I’m trying to capture and express what I see in the photo.
Below you’ll find all the messy in-between stages as I paint the first bald eagle in my series of Ozark Birds of Prey using handmade watercolors made from Ozark pigments.
The Bald Eagle in my vision
A bald eagle is perched high on a stout hickory limb with a portentous red dawn sky in the background. Ephemeral ribbons of mist are filling the Ozark hills below. She is proclaiming her place in the world. She is impressive, with an aggressive posture and appears to have a full belly (crop), so I thought a fitting title would be “Don’t Mess With Me”.
Maybe the eagle in the photo is just trying to maintain its balance, or is getting some sun on more area for warmth. I’m not even sure it’s female. But I liked my interpretation of a mature and dominant female standing her ground, especially in a world where mature women in general are often overlooked or taken for granted. This eagle is definitely not about to go silently into the shadows.
The eagle in the reference photo only has blue skies behind it. That would have been easier, except that I have no blue in my palette of Ozark pigments. I considered doing a sepia or ochre yellow for the background, but in the end decided to use my imagination and give it something different.
One of the things that really scared me when I first began painting was a blank canvas. Now, after a year and a half of practice, the blank canvas brings a sense of excitement. I can’t wait to see it fill with the earthy colors of Wild Ozark. I’m always curious what I’ll end up with. One thing that hasn’t changed at all is the notion that I haven’t a clue *how* I will do what I’m about to begin doing.
I decided to do a quick little doodle sketch in pencil on a scrap of paper before working with the paint brush on the larger paper. For the canvas I’m using Fabriano Hot Press 300 lb/640 gsm paper. The size is 20″ x 16″.
A case of jitters
It makes me nervous to put the first marks down on the ‘real’ sheet. I’m worried I’ll ruin the paper. It costs too much for something to wad up and throw in the fire. But I’m trying to remind myself that I can always just cut it smaller and use other parts of it if I have to. That relieves some of the anxiety.
When I do a sketch on the large paper, I don’t use pencil because I want to be able to move the sketch if I need to. So I try to use a paint that doesn’t stain the paper. However, this paper seems to take the paint and hold it more than the Arches brand does. So the sketch was pretty permanent once I put it down.
It’s close, but not right, and I can’t lift the paint like I wish I could. So there’s a momentary sense of panic as I figure out what to do. I just went ahead with the color blocking and worked from the original sketch.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted for the background, but I knew I wanted to use some of my beautiful red. So it would be a red sky at dawn.
Back Wing, Front Wing
There’s a twist in this wing that was important to show. This is what I have so far on it. I’ll refine the feathering later, but I think I’ve got the shading and torque on it right enough for now. Excuse the rosy hue due to poor lighting on the first image.
Devil in the Details
So this is the first of the raptors I’ve done that doesn’t have ‘barring’ on the wings. This bird’s feathers are different. So it took me a while to figure out how to do them the way I wanted them done. Finally I’m happy with the results. Here’s the before (after I’d already tried and had to erase a lot of the color) and after of the first wing. I’m doing the details in the same order I did the color blocking. Except for the face, eye, and beak. I did all of that before starting the wing.
It’s finished! The original is for sale, and there are prints available.
Madison Woods is a self-taught artist who moved to the Ozarks from south Louisiana in 2005. In 2018 she began experimenting with watercolor painting, using her local pigments. She calls them Paleo Paints, and her artwork features exclusively the lightfast pigments foraged from Madison county, Arkansas. Her inspiration is nature – the beauty, and the inherent cycle of life and death, destruction and regeneration.
Her online portfolio is at www.MadisonWoods.art.
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