Step by step – great crested grebes in watercolour

A few days ago, I painted a pair of grebes and was really pleased with them. Foolishly, I decided to repeat the grebes, doing more of a close up on their heads, as I had enjoyed blowing their crests with a straw… I say foolishly, as I often find repeating a subject too soon means that you half-remember what you did in the other painting and lose the spontaneity. If you leave it for a month or so, the memory seems to fade and you come at the subject again with freshness, but still with the learnings under your belt.

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Anyway, I thought I would do a step-by-step. So first I did a very rough and simple drawing. I might not have bothered except I wanted to splatter on masking fluid, as I had the idea of lots of white voids to look like water drops at the end of it all. I didn’t want spots in between the birds, so I needed the drawing to give me something to aim at.


Once they were dry (really dry!), I did a loose wash of quinacridone gold (what a glorious colour that is!) over the background and popped in their eyes (quin sienna, another yummy colour). I also started on their crested with viridian and purple and a touch of turquoise. I wanted some wet in wet action underneath the crests, so I kept it quite light.

grebe2I think I put the children to bed and knocked up a victoria sponge at this point, allowing the wash to dry. I rubbed out the pencil marks and started on the heads. Their head-gear is wonderful, so I put puddles of the purple and viridian and got a straw and blew very hard – instant crests! I also put in their pupils and worked around the eye. I like to get the eye in early – if it goes wrong then the painting will not work, so you might as well do it sooner, rather than later. The beaks had some alizarin crimson in them and I took some of that down into the feathers to tie things together.


I carried on building up the other grebe too and using a flat brush, I put in blocks of colour to represent the back feathers. I thought the geometric blocks contrasted with the detail and flow in the heads. I was trying to leave white as that gives it a sparkle and I knew I had the white spots under the masking too. Actually, I found it hard to keep the white on the beaks and in the eyes, but you can always ‘cheat’ with a spot of gouache at the end. I don’t like to use masking fluid, as it gives hard edges and can pull the paper, but sometimes you need to as with the background here. Gouache does tend to make you lazy, so I try hard to avoid it.

grebe5Now it is a case of building up. I wanted quite an opaque feel to the background, so if things were getting a little muddy I didn’t mind (usually I do). I wanted to build the splatter but keep the centre of the picture quite clean, so I put kitchen towel over the centre while I splattered to my heart’s content.

grebe6Suddenly it was 11 o’clock, Sunday night and I really needed to be in bed. So I left it to dry where the cat wouldn’t walk on it (yes, I have had a promising painting or two ruined by the cat).

Next morning I took off the masking drops and splattered a little bit more (once the children were safely at school). The ‘nose’ on the right hand grebe was really annoying me. The shape was wrong – too big, too much of a bump – my eye just kept getting drawn to it.

grebe7So, what to do? Rhinoplasty. I have some Doktor Power Magic Eraser (I hate this type of spelling – what possesses them?) – it’s a weird white foam block you are meant to use to clean stubborn marks from around the house (buy it in Robert Dyas or similar). Well, our house is a mess and I use it to lift watercolour. As long as your paper is quite robust (this is 200lb unstretched Not Bockingford), you can wet the sponge and give it a pretty hard scrub, then blot. It does not lift all the colour, and some shades stain more than others, but it does let you get back to pretty pale, as you can see below.

grebe8I then repainted the nose, patched up the wash and told myself strictly to stop fiddling. Once dry, it was time to decide on the cropping. I liked the blank and blocks at the bottom, with a bit of dribble, so I cropped in close to the heads – right on the crest, to allow the bottom to show. The finished painting is at the top of the blog. If I am being self-critical, I think the beaks are not fine enough and it is a bit over-worked – not quite as fresh as I would like which is often the way if you paint a subject too frequently. I will not paint grebes for a while and hope that I regain my grebe-mojo.

For completeness this is the first one I did:


2 thoughts on “Step by step – great crested grebes in watercolour”

  1. Thanks for sharing your step by step grebe Liz – it’s fascinating to see how you build up a painting. I may have a go and see what mess I can get into. Jan 🙂

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