04 May 2019

Bird Modification Process

Final result.

I had a recent request for a commission by a friend who wanted me to copy a painting by Mark Tortorella...but I didn't want to just copy someone else's work. But after some heavy thinking, I came up with a solution that would satisfy both of us: I'd make a 3D version of the painting.

The idea of taking a 2D image (intended to fool the eye into thinking it's 3D) and making a 3D version of it was too fun to pass up. And now you're looking at a 2D version of my 3D results! The circle is complete!

Closer view.

My bird is only a close approximation of the one in the painting, my primary goal being realism rather than copying exactly what was in the original version (it's like maybe 95% like the painting, but closer to 100% realistic).

"Sparrow" by Mark Tortorella

I really like the bittersweet idea that even in death, this little sparrow is still capable of making something as beautiful and hopeful as an image of a rainbow. It's a lovely concept and it's executed exquisitely by Tortorella.

Starting point.

I knew I'd be customizing some kind of store-bought bird (I didn't expect to find an exact match) so the fact that this little guy from a craft store was the wrong colour wasn't an issue; the important thing was its size and shape were perfect for this project.


The body was made of foam and the beak, eyes, and legs were plastic and all of it needed to be painted. I used black primer to provide some shadows in advance since the new colours I'd be adding would be rather light. I bent one of the legs to match the painting.

More paint and wings.

Here I've started airbrushing some light greys and a bit of buff for colour. I made the wings out of Bristol board, cut to the shape of the wings of the bird in the source painting. The backside of the bird (and wings) wouldn't be seen, so there was no need to add paint/detail there.

Workbench view.

As the feathering progressed, it looked more and more like I had an actual little dead bird on my workbench. That didn't bother me, but I was surprised that I did a double-take each time I glanced in that direction.

On the far left is the bag of feathers (pheasant, I think) that I used in various ways to bulk up the bird. I used the canopy glue (with the long applicator that's near the bird) to attach most of the feathers and superglue for the rest.

It was a tedious, finicky, and sometimes frustrating process, but I felt it was the best way and, as you can see, it worked out as well as I could have hoped.

Almost there...

The body is covered in fine vanes cut from the shaft and placed carefully with tweezers and attached with glue. I started at the bottom and worked my way up to the head. The feathers on the wings were ends trimmed to take advantage of the more colourful parts.

I dry brushed the legs with a bit of brown to break up the black and give it some dimension. I used Pledge floor wax to get that nice shine in the eye. I used a bit of it on the beak, too, but it wasn't as important for the beak to be glossy.


As the bird neared completion, it was time to replicate the chalk circle/rainbow. I made a few circles in light pencil using a compass, keeping them in proportion to the bird, then freehanded the rest. I installed a screw which went through the entire assembly (Bristol board on top (glued to thick cardboard), then the foam and backboard which came with the shadow box). I clipped the protruding bit of the screw and I was confident that what remained would be secure.

Final layout.

The pastels I had were way too fat compared to the ones in the painting and, even though I wore them down to a smaller size, they were still too big. Attaching them to the string with superglue was a tricky enough process that I was just happy to have them all there, even though they wouldn't be able to make those circles if spun around. If this was a deal-breaker with the commissioner I'd re-do the circles to conform to the arrangement of pastels, but she was okay with it. Considering the difficulty of this last stage (and the need to keep that white surface pristine while handling powdery chalk pastels) I think "close enough" was good enough.

In the shadow box.

The bird is glued down to the paper so it's not going anywhere, but the pastels, while glued to the string, are free to move and wobble and mark up the paper...and that's okay. In all, this looks pretty great in the shadow box; very "finished."

Before and after.

And for kicks, here's a neat little B&A of the star of the show, the little dead sparrow.

02 May 2019

Kimberley (with Owl) / Favour the Bold

Kimberley (with Owl)
36" x 48", oil on canvas, 2019, private collection

After months of hemming and hawing, I decided late (almost too late; the deadline was April 26) in 2018 to try to get into the Kingston Prize for portraiture. My previous entries were (in chronological order: my Self Portrait (Shoulders) in 2011, George Emlaw in 2013, George Meanwell (Concertina) in 2015, and Kelsey with Accordion in 2017. None of them got into the show. Too many Georges? Too many parentheticals? Not good enough work?

By the end of January this year I decided to reach out to an old friend and ask her if she'd like to be my subject for what could very well be my last attempt. She happily agreed.

I've known Kimberley Tardik (née Black) since high school –right around the time I started painting in watercolours– and I've painted her several times in the 1990s: Mythological, Implies, clear, and in these two paintings featuring the Scarborough Bluffs. Since 2018 marked my 30th anniversary of painting I thought it would be appropriate to paint one of the first models I used once I started shooting my own photo reference...and a good friend.

Early sketches.

In my initial sketch for this portrait I had an owl perched on her far arm. This was a sort of spontaneous idea, but it was easy enough to reverse-engineer the concept and discover that it was, ultimately, very appropriate: owls represent wisdom and that was one of Kimberley's traits I felt would be best to feature in this portrait of her.
Since neither of us had an actual owl, I composed the picture in Photoshop using an great horned owl from a Google search.

One element I completely forgot about when compositing the image in Photoshop was the floating empty picture frame in the little thumbnail –which is an interesting idea and harkens back to The Fiercest Calm– but I'm glad I did because I like the radiating lines making all those interesting shapes better.

And, that's right: this painting has TWO titles. They both suit it, so you can pick one or the other or both. Enjoy!


In my Photoshop composite I lowered Kim's arm so that the eyes of the owl "perched" on it would line up with hers. I made her left eye the centre for all the radiating lines (with that circular shape centered more on her right eye). I also colored the background in PS to give me a road map later on. Already I could tell that leather jacket was going to be fun to paint.

Off-colour colours for interest later.

Because of my peculiar paint application, there are always areas throughout my paintings where the coverage isn't perfectly solid and the surface underneath shows through a bit, so I use orange acrylic as a ground colour (rather than having the white of the primed canvas show through). I also like laying down some dark colours to give interest and depth to the light colours that will be painted over top. It adds some variety to the orange ground.

Skin tones next.


I haven't had the opportunity to paint much leather –the most was probably my Dance Partners series from my WWI project in 2014. One of my favourite textures/materials to paint in watercolours is denim and, with this painting, I discovered I really like painting leather in oils. The exciting challenge is to see if I can paint these textures convincingly.

The backgrounds begins.

I wanted the background to be abstract but still evocative of ground and sky via the colours.

Some art nouveau curls.

I did a doodle to remind myself to add some Alfons Mucha-inspired curls to the ends of Kim's hair and then forgot about it for a long time. But then I remembered and I'm glad I did. Also, at this stage, I lightened the blue areas and made a slight gradation, getting lighter towards the centre.

The owl begins!

Lotsa feathers and lotsa details, but I love a challenge.

Nearly there...

Something had been missing and it was bugging me for a long time...then I realized I had to cool down the shadow areas on the skin, so I added a slight glaze of light blue to Kim's face and hand.

Owl detail.

It was extremely fun painting this horned owl and I can foresee painting owls again. The only thing I would change about the owl is adding a slight "shadow" glaze to the bird to make him seem more integrated into the scene...but I've already submitted the painting, so I probably won't do any more tweaking. Probably.