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  • Conor O' Connell

Kestrels and Castles

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

About two weeks ago (it seems much longer), I started work on a watercolour that I knew would be a big challenge. It would contain a lot of architecture and stonework, and quite complex shadows and light. Both not very pleasant, but it was the shadows, which are NOT my strong point, that would 'make' the painting- and every artist knows that if shadows are even the slightest bit off, they just look wrong and the painting is ruined.

The scene was, if rendered correctly, a charming one; a family of Common Kestrels nesting inside a local castle ruin, in which the birds often do. Having spent many years just rushing into a painting with no prior sketches/practise and subsequently ruining it, I have forced myself in recent times to 'take a step back' and study the subject(s) being painted. I like taking sketches from life when I can, but frankly I couldn't have been arsed spending days in the field with binoculars trying to do split- second sketches of kestrels when I could simply type 'Kestrel Nest' into a little- known site called YouTube, pausing it at leisure and taking as many sketches as possible, familiarising myself with my subject, all from the comfort of an armchair.


Some pencil sketches of kestrels in flight and kestrel chicks. Some are alright, some are brutal.

I then took out my watercolour sketchbook and attempted to make a few colour- studies of the painting in order to get the shadows half-right. They are awful but that's the point- if I had rushed into the final painting without doing these it would have looked like one of them. A footballer wouldn't run straight into a match without warming up first; it's the exact same principle here.


Yeah. Pretty bad. I wasn't too bothered about putting in the birds. Here's the next, slightly better:



Then it was time to start the final painting. It's very important to leave a day or so after sketching it out on the watercolour paper before adding colour, especially with wildlife where relatively correct anatomical details are key. I'd say 95% of the paintings that go 'tits up' on me are due to errors in the drawing phase, which couldn't be corrected after washes of colour were added.

I don't have any pictures of the painting in progress, as the idea of a blog hadn't been conceived at the time. It didn't seem too bad when I got into it, and painting the stonework details was pretty fun, albeit time consuming. I made a lot of use of the 'sgraffito' technique (using a small knife to scrape a layer of paint away) but only for small highlights eg. stone detail etc- it's not a substitute for preserving the white of the paper and over use can quickly lead to a damaged painting, as I have learned the hard way many times. Here's the painting as it is currently- I've been going over it many times the last few days and don't want to call it finished yet. There are many things I don't like about it- I may even be mad enough to even do another one! I feel as a composition it has a lot of potential and can make a really great painting. Is this it? I'm not sure. Thanks for reading!




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