Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Squirrel Portraits

As a kid I only drew two things (in Biro): pop stars and animals. I was good at animals. Recently though, animals have been fraught with difficulty. It’s because I specialize in watercolour; there is something about the medium that just doesn’t say fur. I think it is no coincidence that most of the successful wildlife artists use oils or pastels. It’s the brush or pastel strokes you need. I am sure that there are watercolour artists who specialise in animals, but the ones I have seen use semi-abstract fluid marks with great simplicity. But if you are going for realism and detail, pure watercolour is difficult. I have had success with birds; the crisp edges of watercolours do feathers a treat.

Then there is the fact that I don’t particularly like a lot of the bigger animals. I understand paintings of majestic lions and tigers sell well, but I don’t really feel any empathy for large smelly mammals with sharp teeth and bad breath. I rather like little things, frogs, fish, butterflies, stuff that hangs around my garden with no intention of eating me. Of course I have been tempted to try wildlife art, there is no doubt it sells well, but it isn’t easy to get copyright free photos. And my budget barely stretches to a day at Mersea Island and an ice cream, I can’t just pop off on Safari. 

Reading an article on a top wildlife artist a few months ago I was interested to see he had an arrangement with a photographer. Unwanted shots were purchased copyright free for a few quid, what a good idea! Well you might be wondering what all this wildlife musing is leading to… in a nutshell (pardon the pun) it’s squirrels; or to be more particular the squirrel in the picture above. This particular squirrel is one of several who visit my boyfriend’s father’s house. They jump up to the window sill and wait for the walnuts that are handed out from an open window, its very sweet to see, and a perfect photo opportunity. So when I found a gorgeous squirrel photo that boyfriend had taken, I couldn’t resist trying to paint it, despite previous dodgy offerings with fur and watercolour.

I started with a background of pure watercolour washes, keeping it splashy and softening the edges where it met the fur. Then I built up the squirrel, starting with watercolour, moving on to watercolour pencil, which I built up in layers and softened with water, and finished with Gouache, using both black and white (not generally in my palette) and a rough, dry brush to build up the fur effect. It was not my intention for it to be a fine art piece, the best I thought it might be worthy of was a t-shirt or a mug on my merchandise store. But actually I am very pleased with it, and may even put it into a frame. Its given me a new appreciation for wildlife art too, its really labour intensive. I think I will do a few more animals in the future; after all I used to be good at them. The teen is unimpressed, it looks, she says “like a rat”.

Often the difference between success and mediocrity for artists is just a bit of luck. So I am hoping for a lucky break. All it takes now is for Lady Gaga or Paris Hilton to get a pet squirrel and my new career as rodent portrait artist will really take off. Then I will be able to afford that safari.


  1. I'm glad he's turned out so well after all your work! Have you given him a name? (He looks a bit as if he's about to make a speech!)

  2. Yes I agree; you can imagine him clearing his throat and starting, "My Lords Ladies and Gentlemen" or, he has just knocked on the window and is waiting patiently for his reward.
    Great Work Michele

  3. Oh I love him, he has great character, and I find watercolor pencils are easier