Last year, along with thousands of locked down webcam surfers, I came upon the Loch Arkaig Osprey nest camera and subsequently watched as eggs appeared, chicks hatched, and fledglings eventually left around the same time as their parents.
The camera is running again [or it was, more of that in a minute], and we saw the male (Louis) return and begin his elaborate nest building. But there’s been no sign of his mate Aila and now he seems to have gone off after new talent at a different nest while intermittently returning to ‘ours’ with another chunk of moss, a fish, or a massive stick that he juggles into place. Maybe he’s keeping his options open. We’ve all been watching, commenting, counting twigs and fish and clumps of moss but mostly looking at an empty nest.
And now the live stream has collapsed. The camera is in a remote setting and can’t be physically managed without great difficulty. It wouldn’t be anyway while there’s a risk of disturbing breeding birds. So now we’re looking at a black screen with numbers of viewers underneath ticking up as the day goes on, which is slightly surreal.
But just before this happened there was a beautiful moment of colour on the nest which I said, rashly as it turns out, might make a good painting. People said yes, yes it would, and ooh yes. So here I am with a screen shot, a canvas board, and a sense of imminent underperformance in the face of over-expectation.
Anyone familiar with nests will know that even a pigeon, whose idea of a good structure is three twigs balanced on a branching cleft, wouldn’t build one upside down. This is a complicated piece of engineering with lots of lines that can quickly lead to detailed focus at the expense of overall image. At least with me it does, and I found from one of the OCA exercises that, daft as it sounds, painting something upside down forces me to paint/draw what I see rather than what I ‘know’ to be there. That’s the theory anyway; we’ll see.
I’ve made some lines in charcoal and used a wet brush to soften them. I’ll be looking at tones next and hopefully getting some colour into the shapes as I go. Treating it as an abstract at this stage, I’m hoping to avoid the trap of failed realism and to make something that brings out the life of the place. The caveat is that this may be a total disaster but I promise to keep the duffers up here along with anything that turns out to be half way decent!
Right way up now. Might or might not stay that way depending on how useful it is.
Lots of dilute Payne’s grey washed over the burnt sienna and skimmed off with a cloth. There are some big marks here in white, grey, brown, and green ready to form the ground for the mass of sticks Louis has woven into the cup shaped nest. The symmetry at the back disturbs me – that stick and the two trees are unfortunate contributors to an unintended and not very attractive balance. Trouble is, that’s Louis’ perching stick and those two trees are landmarks for the whole Loch Arkaig osprey-watching community so if they ever see this, they’d better be there or I’ll not be allowed back!
I’ve decided to post just because the links to live webcams have an expiry date and the eaglets are well on the way to theirs. Seems a shame to miss them if you’re interested. Updates don’t register as new posts so if want to see how this painting progresses, please check back here.
Make or break time.
Tomorrow is another day; I’ll either have an idea to bring it back from the brink or I’ll have slapped a coat of primer on it and begun again!
23rd April, and with the ‘nother day comes a ‘nother image. The camera was evidently nudged last night (by what, no one’s saying) and suddenly there’s a much better angle which not only transforms the composition but gives me the best excuse ever for ditching a duff painting and starting again. Same board but with a layer of white primer on top and all the textures underneath.
The nest now is at the bottom left end of a diagonal that goes compositionally up to the right but geologically down into a valley. Let’s see if this brings the painter out in me.
First though the aspect ratio – the image is verging on widescreen but the canvas board isn’t so it’s either a letterbox approach or chopping a vertical edge off the original.
Even better, running the live feed back, I found Lonesome Louie had returned to the nest early in the morning. Still on the lookout for Aila.
I may skip the action shot; the front-on isn’t very impactful, and the profile facing left feels a little unbalanced. That first one though, facing right and looking off down the valley – that one has potential.
There’s some compositional jiggery pokery going on here to get the right image in the right place, stripping the bird out of the original photo and moving it to the right so that the proportions of the photo fit those of the canvas a bit better. I’ve also used gridding which generally sends my eyes off in different directions. This is the base painting made in very dilute acrylics, the idea being to keep pop the bird out of a low key background. Serious restraint required.
And in actual osprey news – a female has arrived at Louis’ nest and no one knows if it’s Aila or not. They chirped and then he flew off with his fish. The chat stream is in meltdown.
24th April. I did a lot of serious leaving-it-alone today. A few dabs then away for a walk or to empty the washer. Even try to finish the audio track for the assessment video I have to make for the course [still 10 seconds too long]. Anyway, the result is a halfway decent bird, I think, and a more impressionistic nest.
These are the colours, those are the hills, and unless you’re an expert with a magnifying glass, that’s the bird. I want him to stand out but I also want the nest to be prominent and with some highlights of its own. It deserves its place; evidently the diameter is the equivalent of the width of a double bed and Louis is an expert builder. Some of the sticks will be recognisable to the Loch Arkaig osprey watchers and that’s important. The rest can be suggested with enough texture to hint at the reality. That vertical one on the left doesn’t come out of nowhere so it needs its origins made a bit clearer and I think that will also anchor that bottom corner.
25th April. I’m on the verge of ‘reimagining’ the nest area on the grounds that the angle is not one you’d normally see (the camera is looking down into it) so it’s hard to make it appear realistic; that it’s a complex piece of organic architecture the risks detracting from the bird; and because stunning photos don’t necessarily make good paintings. What do you think?
April 26th. I’ve been in a real quandary over that nest and actually painted over it to make a fresh and more imagined start. Then I thought about a technique I began using recently which is to re-purpose the photo of the subject as collage material. This is not a straight cut-out-tree-stick-tree-on process, it’s about reflecting the shapes and colours by applying snips from anywhere in the photo. Here, some of the hill area is part of the nest because of the colour, while other parts become sticks and moss by their shape. I’ll be adding some other elements in due course but first maybe it needs dampening a little.
I like where it is. It’s not pretending now to be a classic painting, which is a relief (although there’s a tiny bit of attention needed to Louis’ beak), instead there are background hills in subdued colours, a brighter bird in the foreground, and a chaos of ‘sticks’ representing the nest around him. These birds collect nest material from a wide catchment area, sometimes breaking off large pieces of dead branch while in flight. They are collectors of useful debris and you could say the nest here is also useful debris – or you could say it’s cheating, that rather depends on your idea of what a painting should be! Not done yet though.
Top right you’ll see the corner of a piece of film (OHP A3). That’s what I use to cover my palette to minimise drying and obviously paint sticks to it. I found recently that collages can benefit from the addition of some pieces of this film and so that’s the next step.
I was very tempted by some of the brighter colours on the palette but managed to restrain myself. There are several pieces of film glued into place but only a couple are more vibrant than their surroundings. The rest are slivers of brown, blue-grey, or white positioned to enhance the colour washed photo paper beneath. The sky, though, is nowhere near as bright as it seems – that’s the late afternoon light on the gloss and film! I’m happy with this now so, when the glue is dry I’ll sign it, give it a coat of gloss varnish, and take its final photo.
Here we are, the impossibility of getting a decent photo of a dark, and also shiny surface notwithstanding, Louis on his apparently abandoned nest. He does keep nipping back but seems to have three females on the go elsewhere and whether any of them will turn up here to raise chicks is anybody’s guess.
The Loch Arkaig live stream via the Woodland Trust.
There’s also the Rutland nest (three eggs) and the Loch of the Lowes which also has two, maybe three eggs. And if osprey are a bit tiddly for you, there are eagle chicks in Redding, California that are currently lumbering around like oven ready turkeys and falling on their faces after they’ve been fed. Be warned though, meals are sometimes still kicking when ‘on the table’.