Arctic terns are great little birds to watch and their subtle soft plumage certainly is a challenge to reproduce. This is a drawing I have been keen to bring to life for quite a while, as I had access to some good reference material of a group of terns perched in a row on fenceposts. Don’t be afraid to use a little artistic licence from time to time, or even a lot, if you feel the image needs it.
As I worked on the composition of the picture, I felt the preening bird needed the space to lift its head and stretch out, and so I ensured there was some extra white space above the bird. A useful tip to bear in mind when cropping your pictures is if the edge of the paper is too close to a bird in the middle of an action, this can look odd; as though the paper would somehow cramp its movements
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Having multiple reference shots from which to work is a definite advantage in the case of a drawing such as this arctic tern picture, as it ensures that each bird can be seen clearly – a single shot of a group of birds may look promising but, on closer examination, may be missing key information about a particular bird or element.
As I didn’t have any pictures or reference of the original posts from my initial encounter, I obtained some from an old fence on some nearby farmland.
Stage 1 – The initial drawing
Unlike the previous projects, the background here is added directly onto the watercolour paper after the tracings of the terns have been placed in the correct positions. The fenceposts can then be drawn so that they meet the feet of the perching terns, which saves a lot of alteration or adjustment. This approach will not work with all background elements, but for relatively simple ones like this fence, it offers a great option.
Use quick sketches to experiment with the format and composition you want to use in the image. The examples here, quickly drawn on spare paper, show some different approaches that I gradually refined into the final example here.
Paying close attention to your reference material, use an F pencil to make detailed sketches of the individual terns on a piece of spare paper, making sure the relative sizes are correct. In this example, the terns are all perching on a fence together, so they should be near-identical in size.
Stage 2 – Creating an order of work
The underlying principles with which you can approach this piece remain the same as usual, but I have broken down the slightly more complex order of work into four main areas in order to simplify things a little. Each main area – the fence and the three individual arctic terns – is bordered with a dotted line on the reference image opposite.
Breaking complex pieces down like this can make them more approachable and less intimidating. As you will see, the individual terns are very similar, so by the time you reach the preening one on the top, you will be familiar with the techniques.
Order of work
A Rightmost fencepost – Because I am left-handed, starting here reduces the risk of accidentally smudging the work as I progress.
B–F Remaining fenceposts – Work each one in turn, from right to left.
H Head of the rightmost tern.
I Beak of the rightmost tern.
J Body of the rightmost tern.
K Tail feathers of the rightmost tern.
L Legs of the rightmost tern.
M Head of the leftmost tern.
N Beak of the leftmost tern.
O Body of the leftmost tern.
P Tail feathers of the leftmost tern.
Q Head of the topmost tern.
R Neck of the topmost tern.
S Body of the topmost tern.
T Tail feathers of the topmost tern.
I generally work from right to left – being left-handed, I have a tendency to smudge the pencil if working the other way. If you are right-handed, of course, you might like to mirror the order of work.
Stage 3 – Mark making
1 Starting with a 2H pencil, draw in the form and pattern of the wood on the first post, then build on top of this with an F grade pencil. This is a great pencil for adding form and shadows As you build up the layers the post will take shape. Now and again, pick out a few highlights with an eraser.
2 Switch to a 2B pencil and use light pressure to gradually darken some areas in various places, then further darken any splits, holes and other areas of deep detail using the same 2B pencil. Carefully pick out a few lighter areas to help make this area look realistic – it could look a little flat if no highlights are picked out.
3 Treat the other posts in the same fashion, using the 2H, F and 2B pencils to build up form and surface details and then an eraser to pick out highlights. Once all the posts are complete, spend a while checking that no areas need darkening or lightning before continuing.
4 Move on to the rusted wire. Using only a 2B pencil and a small circular motion, draw with a varying pressure – more in shadow areas and less pressure for highlighted areas. Once complete, use the 2B pencil to reinforce any shadow areas and along one edge in various places to add form to the wire – even though its only a couple of millimetres across it still has form and shape. With a putty rubber kneaded to a point, pick out random spots along the wire to create highlights and texture.
5 Part of the character of these birds is the fact that they seem to be wearing a black hood, and this is a good place to start on the first tern (see the order of work on page 126). Use a sharp 2B to apply short strokes of a varying pressure to build up the density of the feathers on the black head. Leave a few lighter areas on the crown to show highlights. Draw in the eye and lift out a slight highlight using the eraser.
6 Add tone to the beak using a 2H pencil and then an F to darken it. Draw in the nostril and line between the upper and lower mandible, then very gently remove a little line of pencil along the top using a fine eraser.
7 Start to add a light layer of 4H to the bird’s face and breast area – barely visible in some places, owing to the soft white plumage. Gently build on top of this using a 2H but do not take the tone too dark. Add a very light area of F pencil on the underside of the bird to indicate this area being in shadow.
8 Repeat this approach on the tern’s back, blending from the 2H pencil to the 4H and working down the shoulder and onto the wing. Define the shoulder with a darker layer of 2H and add a hint to the wing feathers, too. Once this layer of pencil is complete, add some F to darken some areas on the feathers and to add more shape to the body. Aim to retain a sense of softness in the plumage.
9 Treat the wings in the same fashion, using 2H and F pencils to pick out each feather lightly, then lifting off a little pencil with an eraser to add highlights. Use a 2B to draw in the black edge to the feathers then add a few strokes of 4B on the edge and on the bird’s crown, concentrating on the area behind the eye and the back of the head.
10 This leaves just the feet and any visible toes. Using an F pencil and short circular movements, block in the area, then add any details – including the very slight shadow at the top of the bird’s legs where they join the underside – on top with a 2B pencil.
11 Follow steps 5–10 for the second tern.
12 With two of the terns in place, we can now turn our attention to the third. It is also a good time to re-assess whether the picture is following the initial plan as it progresses on paper. You may find that the tones need to be adjusted. Lift a little graphite off the fenceposts using a putty eraser – or add a little more tone to strengthen it as appropriate. These are the sort of ongoing decisions that you will need to be making throughout all of your drawings.
13 Once the third tern is drawn in, the same decisions on relative tone will need to be made regarding the individual birds and how they sit in the picture. These are stages of continual critical study, reassessment and adjustment.
The rotten wood on the first post is a great opportunity for dramatic tonal work. Just remember that less is most definitely more – be careful about building up your values. It is always easier to add more than remove too much!
Arctic terns’ eyes are located in the dark feathers near the top of the head. Any real detail is hard to see unless viewed close up, so they can be treated relatively simply.