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Bald Eagle in Ozark pigments by Madison Woods.

Bald Eagle No. 1 | Ozark Birds of Prey series

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.

A bald eagle photo by Terry Stanfill that I'm using (with permission) as a reference for my painting.
This excellent reference photo is by Terry Stanfill, used with permission. Click on it to go to my shop listing for the original.

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.

The original and prints are available, but prints aren’t listed yet in my shop. Email me if interested and I’ll send you a price list. [email protected]

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.

Trying out the frame for my bald eagle painting. This is for sale, btw, if you're interested.
Title: “Don’t Mess With Me”
Medium: Watercolor, Ozark pigments
Size: 20″ x 16″
Media: Fabriano hot press watercolor paper, 300#
Contact me at [email protected] to inquire or go to the listing.

The Process

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.

Blank canvas

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.

The blank canvas, full of possibilities.
The blank canvas, full of possibilities. I draw lines on the reference to give me better perspective for where to put things when I do the sketch.
A quick doodle sketch just to see if I have the right feel for it.

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.

The first lines to go down for my bald eagle painting is the rough sketch. I do it with a brush and paint.
The first lines to go down for my bald eagle painting is the rough sketch. I do it with a brush and paint.

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.

Color Blocking

Background

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.

Background on Bald Eagle No. 1 is ready for me to move on.
I may work more on the background later, but now I’m ready to move on to working on the eagle itself.

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.

Shows the progression of painting the back wing of this bald eagle.
Progression of the back wing.

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.

Working on the details of my bald eagle's wing.

Progress

More progress to come soon. Check back or follow me on Instagram where I post progress as I make it.

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Judiann Edwards-Burrus
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Judiann Edwards-Burrus

It’s looking good, and I’m looking forward to seeing it as it progresses.

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