I began my “Proud Cardinal” painting with a detailed pencil drawing. Many of my watercolors are started with a watery wash of color over blank paper, then a general pencil sketch, and then I dive right in to the first stages of painting. However, after drawing several sketches of cardinals, I felt like creating something more substantial in pencil as a beginning to a watercolor. (I love to draw with a mechanical pencil. No time sharpening = more time drawing.)
Next I added just a hint of cerulean sky. Here you can see my dreadful palette. Well, it would be shocking to some, but as my space is limited, so is the size of my palette. One of my favorite attributes of watercolor is its ability to be reconstituted and used again once dried. Once my palette becomes too crowded, I wipe down a section of the palette if I need to create a specific space for a color (like I did here, for the blue of the sky).
I added more color to the sky, and I added the first layer of red on the cardinal and brown on the branch. To the right of the painting in the photo, you can see a scrap of some junk mail from a collage I was creating at the same time, about which I will write later. Notice the texture in the sky, formed by the natural way that watercolor dries when I paint with lots of water. It will help form the shape of the clouds later, though at this point I was planning on leaving the sky as-is.
Atmospheric layers of yellow and blue were painted onto the branch for light and shade, and I painted another layer of red on the cardinal, in which I added more details to the feathers and got closer to the saturation of color I wanted to achieve.
I worked a lot of details into the clouds next because I felt that the painting lacked unity between the sky and the cardinal. The clouds have lots of detail over the top of the painting, fading to areas of less definition and color saturation at the bottom, giving depth to the painting’s background.
Next I started adding details to the cardinal in dark navy blue. Most of the details in dark blue were painted over the heaviest pencil details, emphasizing their shape and tone. At this point, I felt like the painting was really coming together.
Here you can see the painting in its penultimate stage, along with my palette again, in case you are interested in its evolution. I finished painting the navy details on the cardinal, and I added lots of bright red details to the feathers, particularly on the chest and back of the head. I saturated the red on the wings and tail, creating more contrast between the bird and the sky.
Although the cardinal was a bright, striking red, I felt a lack of atmospheric light in the painting. It appeared a little too flat and needed a delicate burst of warmth. I added a few areas of faint but bright yellow washes over the branch, the cardinal’s feathers, and his toes. Tiny dots of yellow and red followed the curves of the feathers for a final flourish.