Posted on 35 Comments

Watercolour birds

Watercolour painting of a sparrow by Emma Cownie

My left leg and ankle is now at the rehab stage of my recovery (if you would like to know how I ended up with a broken leg you can read about it here). That means I can put partial weight on the leg and I have to do a series of exercises 5 times a day. My ankle is incredibly stiff and my leg is pretty weak from almost 2 months of inaction. When I try to lift my toes, I can feel the plates in my leg. It’s very wierd. It feels a bit like aliens have control of my ankle! The muscles get sore. It’s also very tiring. Actual walking seems a long way off!

In terms of practicality, it means that I am pretty much confined to my bedroom and cannot use my usual oil paints. This is due to the lack of room and the fact that oils are much too messy for a bedroom. So I have dedicated myself to spending this time with my watercolours. I have learnt a lot about the qualities of the different colours and how I can and can’t use them over the past few weeks. I have been frustrated and pleased in equal measure.

In between the exercises, I have been painting birds in watercolours. I have painted many garden birds in oils over the years. I am particularly fond of sparrows. Here’s a selection of my oil paintings to illustrate:-

I have also painted many robins, wrens, blackbirds and a few puffins too!

I have decided that watercolour is a medium that works really well for painting garden birds. It is quite possibly better than oils. Its transparency is particularly well-suited to conveying the lightness of birds. I am experimenting with tight control of the paint versus letting it bleed in parts of the painting. The results of interesting and varied.

Watercolour painting of robin
Robin #1 (SOLD)

I have been trying out different watercolour papers too. My earliest birds were painted on Etival 300g/m (140 lb) rough texture paper. It was what I happened to have in the cupboard.

Out of curiosity, I tried a different make, Bockingford. Their paper is Acid-Free, and archival quality. I tried two weights. First I tried very heavy 425g/m (200 lb) paper, rough texture. I liked the substantial thickness of this paper, and the paintings turned out well enough but the grain of the paper doesn’t photograph well. I might try scanning them instead, when I am finally up and about.

The second Bockingford paper I tried was a lighter 300 g/m rough texture paper. I think that this suited me best in terms of how the paintings look in photographs.

I have ordered some Bockingford 300 g/m cold press (not) texture paper to try out too. That should be coming early next week. So trying that out will come as a welcome break from my rehab exercises!


On this occasion, I ordered my paper from Jacksons Art, as they had an extensive range of watercolour paper and paints on offer.

They also stock the excellent M. Graham watercolour paints. It’s not cheap and so far I have one tube of this paint but I love it more than all my other watercolour paints put together!

In the past I have also used Ken Bromley and Great Art.

Rosemary and Co also make beautiful brushes

Please note that I am not being paid to promote any of these stockists. 

35 thoughts on “Watercolour birds

  1. Lovely painting of the sparrow Emma
    A good subject if you can’t get out. We feel that we have had more birds and more species in our garden since the planes have been grounded, but that might just be our fancy. Certainly colours are sharper and bird noise is louder

    1. Thank you, David. Yes, I certainly can hear more birds that I ever used to from the bedroom window at the front of the house. All I usually hear is traffic and the children in the primary school across the road.

  2. Beautiful paintings!

    1. Thank you so much. I am glad you liked them.

  3. Good morning. I just read your account of when you. broke your leg/ankle. Quite an ordeal. Let’s hope that you start to heal more quickly now….although it will take time. It’s really good that you are watercolour painting for all the reasons that you described. I am quite sure you will come out of this with new ideas and thoughts about how you will proceed once you are completely back to normal as it were. FYI I have enjoyed Sanders & Waterford NOT or HP. Also. you can purchase really good sample packs of watercolour paper from Ken Bromley. Meanwhile, enjoy your bedroom studio and keep painting. Janet. 🙂

    1. Thank you for the watercolour paper tips. I sometimes feel the universe has conspired to make me sit in this chair and get the hang of water colours because I have given up on them in the past. I also wonder how they will change my approach to Oil painting. I think they have encouraged me to be more brutal with simplfying compositions and editing out details that are not essential. The ankle is incredibly stiff but the exercises are having an effect (very slowly). I am focusing on regaining movement in my ankle and building up my withered calf muscle before trying to put too much weight on the leg.

  4. Clever work on the sparrow….how are such straight lines achieved? The paper?

    1. Thank you, Michael. The straight lines are just drawn by hand. They are not that straight!

      1. In my limited experience with watercolor, the pigment soaks into the paper and spreads our irregularly, blurring any attempt at a line.

      2. Patience and planning is everything, I find. I have learnt not to paint next to an area I have just painted or else it will bleed (unless I want it to bleed). I have taken to going and have a cup of tea whilst I wait for the painting to dry before tackling the next part.

      3. Also, best wishes on your complete recovery Emma. You are making good use of the time with this work.

      4. Thank you Michael

  5. Your watercolor paintings are amazingly beautiful. I like them all. I hope that your left leg and ankle will heal completely soon so that you can go out and walk again, soon.

  6. what lovely watercolors, emma. you are such a talented painter

    1. Thank you so much, Beth. I am still learning and I have quite a way to go.

  7. Ah, the magic of watercolour! The humble sparrow has been taken to new heights. (Our sparrows seem to have disappeared over the last decade.) Have you tried Daniel Smith watercolours? I love the way they flow.

    1. No I haven’t but are on my list of brands to try. Are there any particular colours you especially like? I think I am in need of a Mauve and Raw Sienna/Naples Yellow soon. I have to hold myself back from ordering everything in sight (I could bankrupt myselfgiven half a chance)!

  8. I love the watercolor birds. You are right there is a lightness that suits the birds. It gives them an ephemeral quality as if at any moment they might take wing and fly away!

    1. That’s very nicely put. Thank you, Leueen.

  9. I love seeing your birds on paper, and especially love wrens! Best wishes for continued healing. It sounds like you have come a long way. Keep painting and sharing.

    1. Thank you, Pam. Wrens practically paint themselves, they are so distinctive. I have come along way with the leg and I realise that rehab is another journey, altogether. Much longer than I thought it would be.

  10. Dear Emma, so much talent you have. I confess I am envious. I do not do watercolours anymore. I am not that good. But there is a paper maybe you want to try. Hanemuehls bamboo paper. It is very heavy and sturdy. I do use it for acrylics, but it can also be workerd on with watercolours or oilpaintings. I used this paper here:

    1. Thank you so much Cecile. I haven’t used this paper but I think I saw it listed on a website. Thank you for the tip.

  11. It will be good to see how the texture-less paper works for the birds. You have a deft hand with them~ I quite like them, especially one toward the end. A robin, is it?

    1. Yes, European robins. they are smaller than their New World cousins.

      1. Cuter, too, not to be disloyal.

      2. You have plenty of really cute birds like the chickadee.

      3. Oh yes, I do love the chickadees, and this morning I was awakened by a wren singing outside my window. Adorable.

      4. How delightful!

  12. you adapt quickly Emma and I love your bird paintings! Seeing as how your in your “bird period”,why don’t you paint one of my eagles? Pick a picture you like and I’ll send it to you?

    1. Thank you, Wayne. I’ll have a look and let you know

  13. Your Bird paintings are pretty!

    1. Thank you, I am glad ypu liked them

  14. I love your oils, Emma, but I admire you for trying other mediums in this difficult time for you. 🙂 🙂

    1. Thank you, Jo. It’s still painting, even if it a bit of a challenge for me.

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