I’ve wanted to paint ravens for some time now, but never seemed to get around to it. I’m fascinated by the gamut of colors emanating from their shiny, deep black plumage, like an oil stain in the parking lot, after the rain. I’d always planned to paint a representational version, then the upcoming exhibition/competition, Avian: Birds in a Changing World, nudged me both towards painting them now and painting them as an abstraction.
The Avian prospectus encourages artists to make a statement concerning the effects our changing environment is having on our feathered friends and I felt the concept I had for a painting in that light, was better communicated through abstraction.
That painting now being complete, get comfortable and I’ll walk you through the process.
I had a clear concept, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to present it. So, I started out by creating a rough sketch, in Photoshop, on my computer. I find it advantageous to do my thinking sketches on a computer, as you can easily try variations out on layers and changes are faster and cleaner than you can achieve with pencil, paper and eraser. The sketch was getting confusing, so I darkened the ravens to more clearly view their shape.
Often the sketch I do at this stage is just a rough thumbnail concept of what I want the finish to be: the composition unresolved. This time, though, I realized my sketch was resolved enough to transfer as is to my 30″ by 40″ canvas. I had difficulty redrawing the sketch, in charcoal, on my canvas. I kept getting scale, shape or placement wrong. I decided to use acrylic paint instead. Following Matisse’s drawing with shape approach, utilized in his cut paper creations, I laid out the ravens as solid black shapes. The acrylics allowed me to quickly add or subtract from my drawing, due to their fast drying time. Eventually, I had a layout on my canvas with which I was happy. In hindsight, I would probably have been better off using a grid system to make the transfer.
With the drawing blocked in, I began adding some collage elements. The concept here is, that with all the refuge present in the contemporary environments the birds call home and less open, wild areas from which to collect natural building materials, the birds are resorting to incorporating elements of trash in their nest construction. I wanted to use actual litter elements to communicate this.
All the collage elements in place, I laid down the nest darks and blocked in the other base colors. I was going for uneasiness in the viewer here and remembered a disturbing gas-lit poolroom scene van Gogh had painted. I borrowed the acid-green color present there for my background. Still, I didn’t feel the background was alive enough and borrowed another van Gogh
vehicle: swirling, pulsating brushwork, to the background. At this point I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with the ravens themselves. I felt I’d better work on the birds a bit. Whatever I did to them was going to determine what I would need to do with the rest of the painting. I knew however I handled the ravens, they would need to feel black overall or they wouldn’t read as ravens.
I decided to use the rainbow of color radiating from the shine present on the deep black raven feathers present on the real birds, that I spoke of earlier, as my inspiration for what I’d do with these guys. I started with the heads, then proceeded to the bodies, adding not only color, but also pattern. I also added the speckled pattern present on real raven eggs, before returning to work on the nest itself.
The nest now looked pretty flat to me. It needed a broader value range, if it was going to live in the same world as the ravens and their eggs. I added some light, mid-value and even a view gray twigs (for some color variation) to the nest. It still looked too flat, so I tried adding some shadowing to the twigs in one area of the nest. That seemed to be what the nest needed, so I continued adding the same shadowing throughout the rest of the nest.
Looking the painting over, the edges where the raven on the left and the nest met the yellow-green background seemed to severe to me. I decided to soften the transitions with a bit of loose painting. You can see the result of these final touches in the finished version at the start of this post.