Kestrel step by step

The lead up to Christmas was hectic, so sorry this blog has been so quiet. I was lucky enough to have loads of commissions including one for a kestrel. So I thought a step-by-step might be in order.

I don’t know about you, but I do a lot of thinking ahead of a painting and always have a bit of a look at how other artists have approached a subject. I was really surprised how few people seem to paint the ‘hover’. For me, the sight of the kestrel hovering above the hedge with its eye on some rodent-snack is the key to this bird and that’s what I set out to capture. I wanted the wind under its wings, so making it a portrait shaped painting was obvious. I sketched out the basic outline from a number of photographic references and decided on a palette of quin sienna, light red, aurolean, neutral tint, moonglow (a Daniel Smiths premix – sort of a dirty purple) and indigo. I also put out a mix called Cotswold Stone, but didn’t end up using it.kestrel1

kestrel2I reckon starting with the eye is always best, so if you muck it up you have only lost a few minutes. If you wait until the end and then muck up the eye, you have lost an hour or two, haven’t you? I also think it makes sure the eye doesn’t look like it has been sewed on, but is fully embedded in the skull.


While the eye was drying, I started on the wing, using a size 16 round and confident strokes to get the flight-feather’s shape, before moving to a wet-in-wet treatment to get the softer feathers and then worked back towards the head.


And then on the body, which I wanted to keep quite simple so that the focus was on that wing.


When the wing tips were almost dry, I lightly sprayed them with clean water from a spritzer, just to give a slight blur of movement and then it was on to the tail. I used bold brush marks with a flat brush to get the shape and markings and again a light spritz to infer a hover.kestrel7

The further wing was simpler and more blurred and then I started on the eye markings and beak, along with the feet. They are very yellow in the kestrel and yellow is a blooming tricky pigment – it gets dirty so easily, so being aware of how wet/dry your paper is, is important at this stage.kestrel9

Now is the fun wet-in-wet bit to build up the background and get the air under those wings. By wetting the paper and dropping colour in before tilting it, I got the flow of transparent colour I was after and defined the white edges of the feathers. I really wanted a feeling of height, so the dribbles helped a lot.kestrel10

I turned the paper upside down to do the background above the bird and encourage a few blooms by adding clean water to the drying wash. I also did a light sprinkle of salt to add a little textural interest to the background. And then a few splatters to help the eye travel around the painting. I held my nerve when a rather huge bloom developed under the tail in the centre of the painting, hoping that when it dried it would fade back a bit. If something unexpected or unwanted happens with your painting, the worst thing to do is to fiddle when it is damp, as you simply transform it into a muddy-splot.


Once it was dry, I took another look and adjusted a few things, such as lifting out the top of the head to lose the edge and adding a few fine marks with white gouache on the legs and a few white splatters to break up a dark patch. And here is the finished painting – it’s about 35×45 cm and I used a 200lb Bockingford paper with a Not/Cold pressed surface.kestrel3

I was happy I’d achieved the feeling of air I was after and I’ve had a lovely message from the person whose present it was. It is always nice to know people like what you have done!

9 thoughts on “Kestrel step by step”

  1. This is beautiful and thanks so much for the step-by-step—very interesting to see how you build the different parts and bring it altogether for the finished piece. All the best for 2017!

  2. Absolutely wonderful painting. Nicest Kestrel image I’ve seen. Love it. Is it a Common British Kestrel ? Best wishes, Mark

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