New subjects

I’ve been asked how I come up with ideas and concepts for paintings, so I thought I would share my process. Though for me it is usually an animal subject, the same goes for landscape, portrait, still life….

So by way of example let’s look at a commission I have been asked to do – a New Zealand Tui bird with flax flowers. This is a member of the honeyeater family and funnily enough, we don’t have them flying round rural Berkshire.

The first thing to do is familiarise yourself. In real life would be good; zoos, parks etc are ideal. What is their character, their environment, their behaviour? What makes them special and why are they loved? If at all possible sketch the subject from life – drawing helps you truly see. We have all sorts of misconceptions about things, but when we draw we see reality. If you can’t do this from life, then Mr Google will have to help out, or (dare I suggest this) the library might be good!

Sid Mosdell – Wikipedia


Don’t just find a picture and copy it – start to try and form an emotional connection with your subject – it will shine through your work. If you understand its character, it will help with context and composition. Is it bold and cheeky, shy and retiring? Even though I don’t tend to paint an animal in its environment, understanding where it might live informs my decisions.

I’ve found out about the tui – used to be called the curate bird because of its white feathers under its chin. It feeds on nectar from the flax flowers so often ends up with pollen all over its beak. It might look black and white, but it is irridescent and have blue, viridian and turquoise in it – a bit like our own magpies. I’m starting to like them already!

I then like to see how other artists approach a subject. The danger is that you can be overwhelmed with other peoples’ brilliance, or you can be bored with everyone taking the same approach. But if you want to say something personal or new, you need to know how other people have approached it. But, if you see something that is stunning, don’t be tempted to copy – analyse what appeals and consider how you might adapt elements into your own work.

This study is by Fiona Clarke


I’ve found some lovely paintings and images. I’m starting to think of one perched head down on a flax branch, with a flash of pollen. I’m wondering in pen and wash might be a good way to capture their energy. I don’t think I’ll do one in flight, as they seem to spend most of their time eating nectar, so that wouldn’t be appropriate.

If I am working from photos, then I research images. If it is from life, I would have my sketch book or own photos. Please respect copyright. Photographers are hugely skilled and spend thousands on their kit, getting up at dawn to capture illusive subjects which I am far too impatient to do. By all means use them as your inspiration, but put your own creative stamp into your work. Change and adapt because if you just copy a photo, why bother? There are fabulous sites such as Paint my Photo, which has copyright free images for artists. Even then, try to make it your own.

So you know lots about your subject and have identified what you want to capture, now it is time for a thumbnail sketch to play with composition, work out tones and consider colours. My tui, has brown feathers on its back but they verge towards the purple. I am thinking that would be good to tie in to the bark of the flax tree and the pollen on its beak could tie in with the red/orange of the flowers. Turquoise, viridian and blue will come through on the black feathers. (And can you see how its gone from ‘the Tui bird’ to ‘my tui’ – I’ve connected)

Feeling good about this! Maybe I’ll do a flock…..

Do you know what comes next? Stop procrastinating and just do it! Don’t write a blog about planning like I am, just pick up your brushes and get paint to paper!! I’ll do a step by step, so you can see how it ends up.


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