There’s no better feeling for an artist than placing another commission piece in the “done” pile. And happily, that’s what I’ve just done.
More wildlife to feature today, this time in the guise of the Pacific Tree Frog.
As with most tree frogs, the Pacific Tree variety is very petite and cute. Measuring in at a whopping 3/4 to 2 inches long, they are one of the smallest amphibians on the North American West Coast.
Apart from its tiny stature, this tree frog has two distinctive features: a dark eye stripe (or as I like to call it, a bandit mask), and sticky rounded toe pads which help the frog grip and climb. Their toes have less webbing between them than some other frogs, which makes their toes look extra long.
During breeding season, the Pacific Tree Frog travels to shallow wetlands and ponds. But the rest of the time, they can be found in many other places such as woodlands, pastures, or even more urban areas, a good distance away from any bodies of water.
For this painting, the client specifically requested the frog be posed on an Alder leaf, and I was happy to oblige. Turn-around time for this piece was exactly one month from the day that I received initial payment.
While I was researching these little frogs, trying to find information and inspiration for the painting’s design and composition, one thing stood out to me the most: These frogs often sit with their front feet tucked under them, sort of like cats do. And this pose endeared them to me immediately.
The leaf actually proved to be the most challenging part of the piece. In order for the frog to sit on it properly, it had to be curved in just the right way… a way that I simply could NOT find depicted in a photo online. And since it’s the middle of winter, there are no real leaves to be found outside. Yet another reason I’m anxious for Spring — the luxury of going out and studying leaves you can actually hold in your hands!
As always, first comes the quick preliminary sketch.
I’m always looking for something to add to each wildlife painting to give it that extra special burst of life. In this case, I wanted to do dew drops on the leaf. You can see my experimenting in the upper left corner.
Next, I refined the design and sized it, making myself a transfer image.
I never like to have full backgrounds in my paintings, and since the tree frog design has a large detailed leaf as one of the main focal points, I decided a more abstract spattered backdrop would be most complementary to the frog.
With this painting I was testing out yet another new paper. *sighs* This is getting beyond frustrating trying to find the perfect material to paint on, and while this watercolour paper was definitely better than some of the others I’ve tried lately, it’s not without its problems either. But since I had never worked with this before, there were a few things I needed to test out before actually starting the painting.
First, I needed to see how easily the paint would slide and blend on the paper, and how much water it would take to do what I wanted it to do. At this stage, I was also testing out what colours to use. And I wanted to see if my masking fluid would work with this (it was a disaster on some other paper I used last fall), as being able to mask over my frog and leaf was going to make my impressionistic spatter-y background a lot easier to achieve.
I’m definitely someone who doesn’t like to waste things, so instead of sacrificing an entire 9″ x 12″ sheet of paper to run my tests, I gathered up the discarded strips I had trimmed off to make the painting the desired dimensions. I saw that there was enough to make a nice little square of test paper and thought “Why not!” So I taped them all together, put a few drops of masking fluid on it, and went to work.
The testing was successful, so I was able to go ahead and mask out my frog and leaf.
If you’re using masking fluid, be sure to have a jar of warm soapy water, and rinse off your brush every few strokes. I’d also suggest you don’t use one of your best brushes for this as the masking fluid can dry between the bristles and ruin the brush.
Once it was dry (about 20 minutes), I was able to start stippling in my background. I chose to make it predominately brown with washes of black. I used green as well but muddied it. Since the frog and the leaves were going to be a fairly solid block of green, I needed some contrast between the fore/background.
The masking fluid made such a difference with this piece! If I was using a hard canvas board, repainting the frog and leaf white wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But when you’re using types of paper, you really don’t want to be adding layers and layers of thick paint if you can help it. It was so much better to just peel away the fluid and find clean, white paper underneath.
I went ahead and peeled it off as soon as the paint was dry. As you can see, it comes off easily with a bit of rubbing, rolling and pulling.
As frequent readers know, we paint from back to front here, so next up was the leaves.
A few base coats of green, and laying out the veins.
Start adding shadows. Just some happy little shadows, just right over here. And now, now let’s give this shadow a happy little friend — ugh, no, sorry, that’s my Bob Ross coming out. ;P
Then the highlights. There is a LOT of work between the last two photos. Colour corrections, shifting shadows, adjusting the lighting… it’s a lot of tedious fussing, especially with no good reference photos, and I knew at this point that there would still be more to come once I completed the frog itself.
Once I had the leaves finished for the moment, I went ahead and based in the frog the same day. It was a few days before I got back into the studio, but when I did, I finished the frog in one extra-long, nearly 6-hour session. Sorry, no progression photos. It’s hard to stop, even momentarily, when you’re on a roll!
There are a lot of layers to this frog, and every tiny adjustment I made, no matter how insignificant at the time, contributes greatly to the end result. As I said in a previous post about my seagull painting, there’s a lot of under-painting that must be done in order to have the top layers sit correctly. Thin glazes of colour over the highlights help bring back the green vibrancy of the frog’s skin. It can be tedious, but it’s always worth it to sweat the details.
The next morning, I still wasn’t totally satisfied with the leaf, so it underwent yet another session of colour adjustment and tonal RE-adjustment, until I got to that moment of, “Yes, this is it. Stop now.”
The final touch was the dew drops on the leaf. This is something I’ve been wanting to paint for years, and I think they were the perfect finishing touch to my Pacific Tree Frog.
One of the things I most enjoy about this piece is how the frog does stand out from its surroundings, BUT it’s also blending in — which is exactly what’s supposed to happen in nature. When it was finished, I asked myself, “is there enough contrast to the frog?” and the only answer was yes, because if I made him stick out any more, then the whole idea of camouflage would be lost. In the wild, the tree frog wouldn’t want to be strongly contrasted against his surroundings because it would make him easy prey for predators.
And I think this a good tip for wildlife artists to remember: You can put your own spin on things and you can paint in your own unique style, but what truly makes a wildlife painting realistic is more about making sure you depict what’s true in nature. If you paint a natural impossibility, people are going to notice, even if they don’t recognize exactly what it is about your piece that’s “wrong”.
This is why I devote so much time to researching my specific subject before I start a painting. So I can have a better understanding of how I would, or more importantly wouldn’t, find the creature in the wild.
As French author André Gide once said, “Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.”