Janine Helton | JanHeltonArtworks.com

I’ve been drawn to painting birds ever since I began watercolor lessons in the fall of 2009. I already enjoyed watching and photographing my backyard birds, so painting them was a natural transition. Birds are not often still for long, so I aim to preserve those brief moments when birdsong causes my head to turn or a flash of color draws my eye. Although I’ve branched out into other subjects, birds are definitely my first love!  

I remember the first white-crowned sparrow that visited my backyard one winter. He perched only long enough for me to snap a few photos. I was struck by the bold white stripes on his head and knew I just had to paint him right away! 

Spring Fling, original 5.5″ x 8″ watercolor

Mourning doves hang out beneath our feeders year-round. Ruffled was almost titled Sub-zero because the temperature remained below zero on the sunny day I photographed this sweet dove puffed up against the cold!

House Wren Among the Dogwood Blooms, original 7″ x 10″ watercolor

In springtime my dogwood tree flowers spectacularly. One year I had a house wren family in the nest box which hangs in that tree. Beautiful blooms plus the tiny songster was a combination I couldn’t resist!

Spring Chickadees, original 11″ x 15″ watercolor

Chickadees are especially difficult to photograph, as they are so tiny and they seem to be in perpetual motion! I combined several images to create this colorful piece.

Can’t Take My Eyes off of You, original 10.5″ x 8″ watercolor

It was early in the reopening stages of Missouri’s lockdown last spring, and my husband and I took a road trip down to Table Rock Lake. I craved dinner at DeVito’s Restaurant (one of our favorite places to eat,  about a 30 minute drive from our condo. Of course indoor dining was not yet available, and bringing back takeout wasn’t really an option. This Italian restaurant is located on a trout stream in Arkansas, in a wooded area with a large grassy clearing; the staff suggested that we simply eat our dinner on the property. It was a beautiful day, and as we sat in our lawn chairs enjoying our private tailgate party, this cardinal was singing sweetly above us. Of course I always have my Nikon with me and snapped several photos. Cardinals are most beautiful in early spring, don’t you think?

Paint. Love. Repeat.

Losing Control and Gaining Freedom

Completed watercolor study which I have lovingly titled, Jessica with an Attitude.

“Unlike oils and acrylics, where you can wield total control, if you can surrender some control and work with the medium [watercolor], allowing colors to flow and blend on the paper, the most beautiful results oftentimes occur naturally.” ~ David R. Smith

Surrender control? I confess that I am a bit of a control freak. Even in my art, I find it very difficult to avoid being attached to an imagined outcome. But I am getting better at letting things just happen!

Come with me for a sneak peek into my studio practices. I prefer to paint portraits slowly, layer by layer, over a number of days and weeks, in order to achieve the transparency and glowing colors that I desire. 

This 10″ x 10″ portrait of my daughter-in-law is a good example. I chose this because I love her expression and I thought the metal art on the wall behind her might make an interesting composition. I also liked all the warm colors in the photograph, although I’ve been trying to work from black and white reference photos in order to limit my preconceptions.

I work upright and use push pins to hold my watercolor paper in place.

Since this is such a small piece, I consider it more of a practice piece and I feel a bit freer to try different things. When I applied the second layer, I found that I had unintentionally created some beautiful blooms (unpredictable textures also known as backruns, blossoms, or cauliflower). Learning to appreciate and even intentionally create these “happy accidents” only comes with experience. Of course, there are times and places where a bloom is the last thing you want in your painting! The trick is knowing how to handle the ratio of water to pigment on your brush compared to the dampness of the paper.  

I love the blooms that happened in Jessica’s hair and will try not to lose the effect in subsequent layers.

When I worked on the third pass (below), I was overly reliant on the color reference which caused me to be too slavish to the colors in the photo. As soon as I realized what I was doing, I removed the color photo from my board and will use only the black and white image for the remaining layers. This will give me freedom me to make my own color choices.

In this layer, I was successful in preserving the existing blooms and actually created a few more.

I continued to work slowly, adjusting and intensifying color and value as needed. Painting portraits in watercolor is challenging, frustrating, exciting and rewarding (kind of like raising a child). Please visit my website JanHeltonArtworks.com to view all of my portrait paintings.