Who knew that there were so many different kinds of seagulls!
This is what I learned when a friend commissioned me to paint her one last fall. (Mentioned in the August post Gallery Feature: “Northern Leopard Frog”)
Someone says “seagull” and you think you know what they look like. But trust me, you don’t. Even seagulls of the same variety can look very, very different.
When I began this commission back in September, I did what any good artist would do — started stalking the local seagulls, of course. Driving slowly through parking lots, walking down by the beach, etc. And then just sitting and observing the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between birds. And you know something? I actually came away from this project with a new appreciation for these lovely creatures.
Gulls certainly create feelings of ambivalence in most people. They’re loud and obnoxious, and they like to crap on things. Sorry, but let’s just tell it like it is: They weren’t given the, er, not-so-affectionate nickname “sh*t hawks” for nothing!
But if you were to see them in their natural setting — out on the water away from people — instead of finding them congregating hungrily in densely human-inhabited urban areas, I think you would feel the same sense of appreciation for them that my friend Mandy obviously does.
Not all seagulls are created equal. Some of them are large with aggressive-looking beaks, reminding me that perhaps the link between birds and dinosaurs isn’t as far removed as we think. While others have a much more delicate and dare I say feminine appeal. With smaller, daintier beaks, and some pretty colourings and markings.
Mandy sent me some reference photos so we could pin down the type of seagull she wanted. In searching for just the right bird, I was reminded once again that you can’t trust online attributions for anything. Here’s my #1 online rule: Captions are just a suggestion for where to start looking for what you really want. Never trust them. Always take the time to look for confirmation with reputable sources — MULTIPLE reputable sources.
After a few conversations and many photos, we decided on the elegant but confusingly named Black-Headed Gull. I say confusing because these little guys don’t always have a black head. (And it’s not really black either — more of a dark brown.) The age of the bird, the time of year it is… all these details make for very different looking birds! See the difference between the breeding adult with summer plumage and the non-breeding adult with winter plumage.
And thanks to colour variations between cameras (and/or bad photoshopping enhancement), these seagulls are often misidentified as the Red-billed Gull (which has a totally different-coloured eye and beak shape, as you’ll notice).
And you know what? The internet isn’t always very obvious and forthcoming about such distinctions. But anyway, we found the right bird, discussed a setting, and I came up with a sketch.
Once the design was approved, I was excited to try out a new toy — masking fluid.
For years I have been wanting to try this stuff out. As an artist who favours a black background, I have spent HOURS painstakingly painting around all the objects I’ve drawn onto the canvas. With the masking fluid, you can paint right over top and then peel it off to reveal a still-clean and white surface! This would have saved me SO much time back when I was working on my still-life self-portrait.
Though I suppose that I still would have had to painstakingly go around all the inside edges of the design with the masking fluid, but… pft, whatever, don’t ruin my moment by pointing out the facts, people. ;P
The masking fluid is very thin when you apply it.
It dries into a rubbery substance, protecting the paper underneath. Now, I’ll save the details for another post, but this stuff is not the miracle product I hoped it would be. I’ll share an epic failure caused by masking fluid at another time.
When you’re done painting, you can just carefully peel the masking fluid off.
While it didn’t work perfectly, in this instance, the masking fluid was a great help. When painting any kind of background, where you want the colour to be behind an object, it’s so much easier if you can just paint in long, unbroken strokes of colour to achieve a smooth and seamless gradation. Normally I would have had to paint right over the seagull’s legs, and after the water was finished, go back and try to cover the unwanted blue with white, and then make them the colour they need to be. It’s a lot of extra steps, and it does take away the smoothness of the paint.
After the water was completed, the rest of the painting came together in about a week.
At this stage of the painting, I want to point something out. Anyone who does woodworking or carpentry (or a builder of any kind, really) will tell you that there is a lot of work that goes into a piece which is never visible in the finished product. And here’s a good example of how that applies to painting as well.
Paintings, like people or furniture, have structure. When you look in the mirror, you see your face. But how often do you think about what’s underneath? Your face is not just a face. There are bones, muscles and cartilage under your skin that give your face its unique appearance. You can’t really see those underlying structures, but you can train your mind’s eye to “see” them.
If you’ve ever heard the term “artist’s eye”, this is what it means. Having the knowledge and ability that’s necessary to “see” things as they really are, both inside and out. If you compare the above photo with the photo of the finished painting below, observe how the look of the feathers has changed, especially where the wing meets the body. Many of the defined feather shapes in the above image are no longer visible at all, hidden now by more wispy, individual feathers. But the point is, those underlying feathers had to be there in order for the top feathers to look correct.
As an artist, you must train your eye to see that which is invisible, because what you can’t see is structurally necessary. I know some will disagree with this, but I believe that without science there is no art. I don’t believe that art is merely a creative outlet, where form and function don’t matter, and abstract ambiguity is king. Art requires substance and purpose.
The painting was completed on October 22. It’s a very simple and clean setup compared to my other Feathered Fauna bird portraits, which always have some element of colourful, or at least complementary, flora included. But when considering a setting for your bird, there are a few things to consider.
1) What is the bird’s natural habitat? You can paint some leaves around whatever creature you’d like, but do the leaves belong with the creature? I guess you can have some “fun” with your work and depict a hummingbird in a winter setting, but personally, I don’t like paintings that don’t make sense. And in nature, you are just never going to see a hummingbird in a snowy dead-of-winter setting. And a seagull? Well, seagulls just belong out on the water. There’s no vegetation, no frills, nothing too fancy. Just the gull and the water. It makes sense. You don’t need anything else.
2) What palette will best highlight the bird itself? You could potentially find seagulls in colourful areas where there’s vegetation — along the shore of a lake, for example. But for one thing, seagulls belong in more open waters rather than smaller lakes and streams. And personally, I don’t think the colour of a seagull is really suited to being paired with a palette of greens, yellows, and browns. Seagulls, by and large, are basically some variation of white and grey. They aren’t brightly coloured like the Baltimore Oriole. Their colour palette is kind of drab. So to place a seagull in a lush, green setting would only serve to overwhelm the bird, not complement it.
You would think that the more spectacularly-coloured a creature is, the less you’d have to dress up its surroundings to make it stand out. And vice versa. But because balance is one of the key elements to making a piece of art pleasing to the eye, it’s actually the opposite. The Oriole is already bright and bold, and possibly bordering on obtrusive. Adding MORE colour to that painting helped to bring that boldness in check so the bird works in harmony with the surrounding instead of dominating it.
In the case of the very limited-palette seagull, however, any additional colours would force the bird to compete with the background, and because the seagull has such subtle colourings, it would be completely overwhelmed and the balance would be lost. So that’s why this painting has such a limited and muted palette. The bird’s simplicity speaks for itself. It didn’t need any greens or purples or pinks. The seagull’s subtleness is what makes it so striking.
One other important piece of styling advice that’s applicable when you’re doing specialized commission work is that you should also consider who’s buying it. And this isn’t just when you’re working for friends either. Friends make it easier because you already possess some knowledge about them, but this step is just as important even when you’re working for a stranger. If I know the painting is a personal piece that will be hanging on a client’s wall, then I also consider how I can best make the piece fit two things: 1) The client’s personality, and 2) The space where the painting will be hung.
#2 is something that a lot of people don’t consider. You know you want a painting for your dining room, but not every piece of art is going to look good in there. If your dining room is done in soft greys, blues and whites, then maybe a painting that’s predominantly red, black and brown isn’t the best choice. The painting may turn out beautifully, but if it doesn’t look good on the wall… you just wasted your money.
So if you ever find yourself working with a commission artist, be sure that if they don’t ask you any questions about where the painting will be hung, that you volunteer some of that information yourself. A good artist will take a detail like that into consideration when designing your piece.
And so that’s another painting in the “finished” pile! Working on this project for Mandy really helped me to see the beauty in subtlety, and how sometimes less is more. And the next time you see a seagull strolling through the parking lot, instead of thinking bad thoughts about it, stop and take a good look: The brightness of its eyes, the structure of its feet, the mottling of colour on its body, and simply appreciate this bird for what it really is — one of God’s perfect creatures.