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Art Masterclass - 82


July 2013


Night Herons, oil, acrylic and pastel on board, (46x32cm), by John Threlfall

From The Leisure Painter, the monthly magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters, giving practical instruction in painting and drawing in watercolour, pastels and oils, as well as news of art events, exhibitions and competitions open to leisure artists;




How to Paint Wildlife

John Threlfall

I draw and paint from life as much as possible, whether it be sparrows and squirrels in the garden or peregrines and puffins on a wind-torn coastal edge.

As ever it is a question of allowing the eye to lead the hand and pencil, without preconceived intentions (preferably bypassing the brain), following the contours of the bird, the directions of motion. Learning to draw from memory is also a useful skill to develop, freezing a movement in the mind and getting an impression down on paper before it fades.

Capturing the subject

It is worth acquiring some knowledge of anatomy. If the creature is going to be a significant, albeit small element in a landscape painting, it is more important to capture the gesture of the animal or bird than it is the detail. This is often referred to as the ‘jizz’ of the species, which translates as ‘general impression, size and shape’. It is the overall look, attitude and behaviour that dominate, unless you are very close or have excellent optical equipment.

To watch an otter working its way along a shoreline is to be very much aware of its litheness, the sinuous flow of line from nose to tip of tail and not the detail of its fur. The aim is to capture its shape and form and its palpable aliveness. At the very least, whether at rest or moving, wildlife in a sketch or painting should look as though it breathes life.

Arran Otter, oil and acrylic on canvas, (28x46cm).

This otter was sketched from a distance through a telescope. It was mostly doing not much, quite relaxed with the occasional sniff and scratch, until something caught its attention away to the left, which led to a more interesting pose.
It was a very still, calm morning and I kept the colours and tonal contrasts soft in keeping with the day.

Studio painting

Painting in the studio is much more contemplative. There is time to reassess the composition, to redefine the drawing, the arrangement of shapes, the strength of the tones and the use of colour and texture to emphasise key elements. My aim is to create something new, something visually interesting or stimulating in its own right whilst preserving the emotion of the field sketch.

I may use a range of materials to effect this, although whatever the medium my priorities remain the same: to rekindle the feelings that I experienced first -hand; to express the aliveness of the bird or animal portrayed within the context of its habitat; to produce a painting, rather than an illustration, based on good design and strong brushwork or mark making.

I often use mixed media as the freedom of washing on the first layer, often in acrylic, knowing that it will be augmented by the next set of marks in pastel or oil, is quite liberating. This process supports a bold approach that can suggest a direction for the painting that hadn’t previously come to mind. I need to be excited by the process of making marks on paper, board or canvas as well as by the subject. It is too easy to become a slave to your subject matter and to forget the fun of mark making.

If you are fortunate enough to see an otter on the shoreline, I think you can believe me when I say that the background will not be in sharp focus! I therefore believe that a more impressionistic approach to portraying wild creatures in their natural habitats more accurately reflects that precious encounter and experience.

Winter Owl, oil and acrylic on board, (30x30cm).

This barn owl was hunting in broad daylight during a prolonged period of snowbound days. It was constantly turning its head to look and listen, so it was a case of keeping two or three drawings going in the hope that one of them could be developed further.
There is much exquisite detail that could have been put into this finished painting if I’d had photographs as reference but the shape and gesture of the turned head, the decorative element of the reeds, the excitement of seeing this beautiful bird, a sketchbook, me and the cold was what the experience was all about.

John Threlfall is a member of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) and is a previous winner of the Bird Artist of the Year Award. He is a member of the Artists for Nature Foundation and participated in their 2010 project to Sark in the Channel Islands. He has recently completed work on his second book Drawn to the Edge, a study of the coastal habitats and wildlife of the UK due to published by Langford Press later this year. John is an invited tutor on ArtSafari journeys and Field Studies Council workshops. His work can be seen at the SWLA annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries, at the British Birdfair at Rutland, the National Exhibition of Wildlife Art in Cheshire and at Birdscapes Gallery in Norfolk, telephone 01263 741 742,


This feature was taken from The Leisure Painter, subscription information can be found here.



The Leisure Painter



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