Drawing Demonstration: Gull


Some of the most common questions or comments about painting we get from students and art-lovers alike seems to center on drawing:

“Do you use photos, or just draw from imagination?”

“How do you draw on a canvas?”

“How much detail do your drawings usually have?”

“I don’t know how to draw/don’t like to draw – can I still be a painter?”

So, today I thought I would walk through my standard drawing process for a study or loose painting. If I were doing a large or complex painting with lots of subjects or elements, I would spend more time working out composition and anatomy – sometimes days. However, for the typical painting this would be my process.

To start with, I look at the photograph and try to spot problems before they happen. Mainly I’m looking for possible tangents (areas where edges line up or nearly touch and can therefore ruin your sense of depth) and some false edges. There are some tangents happening around the head that I need to watch out for, and some misleading edges along the bottom of the bird – especially near the tail – where I need to account for what the choppy water is doing to his silhouette.

Is it okay to use a photograph? Yes. I haven’t yet found a way to make birds sit still for portraits. There is nothing wrong with using a photograph for a general reference of lighting, pose, anatomy, and detail. However, there is nothing that will replace hours and hours of live observation, sketching from life, looking at skeletons, and examining dead birds when you find them. No photograph will give you all of the information you need, and you’ve got to use your artists’ prerogative to interpret the information to fit your painting – not the other way around.

I like drawing with a color mixed from Alizarin Crimson and Green Gold, which gives me some versatility. If I use more Alizarin, I’ll get a stronger mark, and if I use more Green Gold I’ll get a subtler mark. I’ll thin it with a little bit of Gamsol for drawing.

I’m using a 6″ x 6″ Ampersand Gessoboard for this painting.

And yes, I mainly draw with a paintbrush, not a pencil! I’m using a #6 filbert for the majority of this. Look at how big that sucker is!

A teeny tiny paintbrush will do two things:
1:   Make you draw details too soon
2:   Not hold enough paint (think of your brush as an ink quill)

I look for the most obvious angles and “arcs” in the image. In this first stage I’m trying to catch movement and rhythm lines, not proportion. A lot of times I’ll even make a few practice swoops in the air and hold my brush handle up against the subject to visually judge angles before I start.

(I’ve rubbed in the swatches of drawing color to give myself something to start on. White is intimidating; it creates too much contrast to judge my marks.)

Now I can do some very basic proportion-checking, and add in a few more important lines. I’m defining the wings and the gull’s silhouette, but I’m avoiding details. The beak and brow are just structural marks right now.

I use a paper towel to lighten the drawing so I have visual space for the next layer.

Now I measure in earnest, and look for connecting details. I’m defining the knuckle of the wing and the separate bulge of the gull’s neck, which are important to the pose. The back wing is less important.

This is about as far as I would get if I were planning to jump straight into the painting process. I’ve added a few more details – using more Alizarin and a tiny bit of Ultramarine for some extra-dark marks – and added some compositional marks for the waves (or whatever design element I may use in place of waves). Notice how I have not indicated the eye at all, only the brow and the angle between the edge of the eye and the end of the beak.

Since I plan to finish this tomorrow when the details aren’t as fresh in my mind, I’ll “noodle” this a bit. At this stage I switch to my #4 filbert – still quite a large brush, but easier to maneuver in tight spaces.

For the rest of the drawing/underpainting I’m thinking more in terms of shape and value rather than line. This will make issues with the drawing easier to spot since our eyes aren’t always a good judge of 2D shapes. For the extra dark strokes I’m using Alizarin and Ultramarine. For the light areas I simply use a clean brush dipped in Gamsol to wipe back to the white surface. The values I’m adding in are merely placeholders for tomorrow’s painting. Their purpose is to define edges and the general value of a shape, not to describe volume. With the way I work I rarely if ever do a rendered underpainting.


Throughout these three images I’m merely evaluating my edges, checking proportions, remembering my notes about tangents, clarifying shapes. I’ve marked the eyeball and general shape of the beak, but I won’t worry too much about those until near the end of the actual painting process. All of this will be covered up and, as I paint, some of it may change.

I forgot to show an image earlier of my #4 Filbert, for size reference.

And that’s it for my drawing!

Throughout the drawing process I step back often, check angles and measure proportions by holding up my brush, and trust my eye. I’ve made the forward wing a little more dynamic than in the photograph, and to avoid tangents I’ve had to create a more obvious overlap where the knuckle comes in front of the head.

Total drawing time: about 45 minutes

Finish web

Thanks to the magic of TV the Internet, we can fast forward 24 hours:

“Unruffled,” 6″ x 6″ Oil on Gessoboard by Whitney Hall


  • Cindy

    Thank you so much for walking us through the process. I am going to bust out my paints tomorrow and get the basics of a picture started.



    October 16, 2014
  • Hello, I enjoy reading through your article post.

    I like to write a little comment to support you.

    December 8, 2014
  • Hi! I’ve been following your web site for a long time now and finally got
    the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from
    Humble Texas! Just wanted to tell you keep up the good job!

    December 21, 2014
  • nita dixon

    Thank you so much for posting this demo. I’ve looked at it several times, and feel encouraged each time.
    I really appreciate your work. I want to come to one of your workshops

    March 26, 2015

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