by Bob Bahr
We photographed Suzie Seerey-Lester’s Quick Draw painting yesterday at several stages in her process in order to show her painting approach. But first, let’s take a look at her materials.
Seerey-Lester prefers to paint on a smooth surface, usually Masonite. For large pieces 24″-x-36″ and above, she switches to linen canvas because of the weight. She prefers flat brushes for most work, and likes brushes that are thin at the tip, allowing fine lines. Rounds are for certain details such as eyes of animals.
Some of the aids she uses in composition are a viewfinder, a grayscale value finder, a mahlstick, and a perspective machine.
Her palette consists of the following acrylic colors:
• Payne’s gray
• ultramarine blue
• burnt umber
• transparent raw umber
• opaque raw umber
• burnt sienna/transparent red oxide
• raw sienna
• yellow ochre
• Naples yellow
• cadmium yellow medium
• cadmium orange (not normally on palette, but useful for this particular painting)
• four neutral grays along the value scale
• two piles of gesso–one for mixing, one for pure white
She was working from a reference photo she took a block from her home in Florida. It showed one wood stork—Seerey-Lester explains that an odd number of animals usually makes for a more interesting composition. The artist says she was not interested in closely adhering to the reference photo. She was mostly using it to remind her of the wood stork’s proportions. “I like the wood storks because they are so ugly, and so beautiful,” says Seerey-Lester. She quickly sketched the bird a couple of times the night before to familiarize herself with the bird’s proportions.
Seerey-Lester first loosely sketched the bird in graphite on her panel. “I do a graphite drawing to get shape, and can modify it as I paint if I don’t like it or the negative shapes aren’t right or what I want,” she says.
She started with the eye of the bird, using a small round brush. “If you don’t get the eye right—and that area of the face—you’re not going to get anything right. It’s the soul of the creature.” Seerey-Lester went on to paint the beak of the bird, starting with the highlight along the top. While this may seem contrary to standard procedure, the artist explained that she needed to put the highlight down to check for proper proportions, and additionally, she will restate the entire bird with stronger color and value later. One of the neutral grays on her palette is what she toned the panel with, so applying it serves like an eraser. This is made easier because Seerey-Lester paints thin at this stage, using transparent colors. It is easy to make adjustments using paint the color of the surface’s tone.
When Seerey-Lester put in the shadow area of the bird, she used a warm color (a mixture of transparent raw umber and white), instead of the typical blue or purple. “Warm shadows make a really rich beautiful shadow area. And since the bird is the closest object and the focal point, I want those warm shadows so it comes forward.” She pays attention to the reflected light and various colors in the white feathers from the very beginning, but at this point, Seerey-Lester’s main objective is to get the composition blocked in. It may seem counterintuitive to paint the features on the bird around its outline, considering that she would then have to cut in around them when painting the background, but as stated previously, the artist will restate the entire bird later. “Acrylic creates hard lines, so I paint the bird transparently first, then get the background in,” she says. “I will paint over the entire bird so there’s no halo effect around the bird. When you pull the background into the foreground it makes the edges soft and round.”
Seerey-Lester next depicted the black feathers at the tip of the wings, most of which are covered by white feathers when it is perched. For this, she opted to use Payne’s gray instead of the expected combination of ultramarine blue and burnt umber. Again, part of her decision is based on keeping the pigment as transparent as possible for as long as possible. “If you do this, you can easily go darker or lighter in any area,” she says.
When Seerey-Lester turned her attention to the background, she followed the example of her reference photo in utilizing a dark background to emphasize the white bird. The artist used very thin and wet paint to paint in the background, cleaning her brush at times to pull off paint and get the panel back to gray to save the area for vegetation and lighter areas. “I’m not painting trees, I’m painting random shapes,” says Seerey-Lester. She is also not terribly concerned with color at this point. Value is the main thing, but she does want the background to be cooler so it recedes, and although it is dark, she left it lighter than the foreground so the foreground could have the darkest dark.
She painted in the ripples near the bird’s legs next, rooting the bird in the water, and creating more depth. Showing the bird’s disturbance of the surface of the water also added to the sense of veracity in the scene. “You can use perspective to put the water back in the picture plane through the use of surface ripples,” says Seerey-Lester. “You just paint larger spaces between the ripples, and wider ripples in the foreground. As you go back, the distance between ripples decreases and the ripples get smaller.” At this time the artist also blocked in the reflection of the bird’s legs.
Next Seerey-Lester painted the reflection of the bird in the water. She measured the distance from the bird to the water along its leg to make sure she matched that distance in her reflection. She noted that reflections are always closer to the middle range of values than they appear in the actual object. Because of the angle the viewer is seeing the bird, Seerey-Lester needed to paint the belly and chin. In this case, Seerey-Lester also had to adjust the colors, as she knew that the underbelly of this bird would have more yellow ochre in it because of the bird’s behavior. “But,” she says, “the nice thing about reflections is that it doesn’t have to be perfect.”
The artist restated the head of the bird, then turned back to the background and water, pulling down some the vegetation color into the water to suggest reflections. The primary mixture for the water color consisted of Payne’s gray, ultramarine blue, and white. A darker mixture, without the white, was used for dark areas of the water. Seerey-Lester pulled the water color slightly into the form of the bird to eliminate the halo effect she mentioned earlier. The artist ignored the reference photo when painting the ripples, instead paying attention to her value system. She painted the ripples over the bird’s legs, knowing that she would restate them.
She moved around the composition in part to keep it coming along as a harmonious whole, but also because of the nature of acrylics. “You have to be careful painting with acrylics because even painting thinly, you have to be sure it is dry or it will lift off all the way down to the surface when you go back over it with a brush,” she says. Seerey-Lester next went into the lightest light in the painting—the white feathers in the light. She used pure white gesso for them, leaving some of the toned panel to show in places to create a sense of depth. Lower in the wings and body of the bird, she worked at turning the form, restating the dark feathers and brushing some lighter feathers over them. Seerey-Lester is an expert on birds, so she is not going to have incorrect feather groupings in her picture. “If you know what birds do, then you can paint them in. If you don’t you won’t show proper structure, won’t have right shoulders, etc.,” she says. She thinks about the correct feather forms and groups throughout the entire process, but avoids detail. “I would rather paint the illusion of feathers than every single one,” says the artist. “If I paint the illusion, I am happy. Transparent paints allow me to get the depth of feathers. It does drive me nuts, but I can’t paint every feather.”
Seerey-Lester moved back to the head, paying some attention to the bird’s beak. “Beaks have texture to them, like fingernails,” she points out. “They have holes and lots of interesting details. So I add colors and textures into the beak.” The artist added some reflected color into the white feathers, and restated the black feathers, again with just Payne’s gray.
More finished details complete the look. The finished painting: “Wood Stork,” by Suzy Seerey-Lester, 2016, acrylic, 9 x 12 in.