Tag Archives: birds

Ellies in Ink by Alison Nicholls

Sketching Strong Shadows

Mid-afternoon in Khwai, the hottest part of the day, and I’m sketching strong shadows. We’re sitting by the beautiful ribbon of water that winds gracefully through the grasses and off into the distance. A Nile crocodile lies on the bank with its mouth open, and elephants drink in the river. The light is harsh and the strong shadows made me decide to sketch with the marker tip of my pen, putting only the shadows down on the paper. It doesn’t work with every animal, but for the crocodile and the elephants it was perfect.

Crocodile in ink by Alison Nicholls

Ellies in Ink by Alison Nicholls

Next I tried some hippos, a goliath heron and an African buffalo.

Hippo, Heron and Buffalo by Alison Nicholls

I was really enjoying this, so of course the sun went down and daylight was vanquished by the shadows. But next time I think the light is too harsh for good sketching I’ll have a great way of handling it!

White-backed vultures acrylic painting by Alison Nicholls, 8x8"

Fascinating Vultures!

Yes, I really do believe that vultures are fascinating! I imagine you either agree with me, or you are pulling some kind of disgusted face. So let me explain. I’m a fan of vultures and love to sketch them (I haven’t created many studio paintings of them, but am hoping to remedy this over the next few years). Their amazing eyesight allows them to spot a carcass from vast distances and they follow other vultures if they start to descend. If they land in trees, maybe they’ve seen a predator near the carcass and need to be cautious. If they swoop to the ground with feet splayed like grappling hooks and land close to the carcass, there are likely to be no predators present. They have an immediately recognizable silhouette, even though there is great variety among vulture species.

White-backed vultures acrylic painting by Alison Nicholls, 8x8"

White-backed Vultures, 8×8″ acrylic by Alison Nicholls ©2017

You might think vultures are common across Africa, but this is no longer the case. Some species, like White-backed Vultures (Gyps africanus) are listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered. Their numbers are declining due to electrocution and collisions with power lines; habitat loss; trade in vulture parts; loss of large ungulate populations which are their main food source; and inadvertent or intentional poisoning. (Poison is sometimes applied to livestock or wildlife carcasses by people in rural areas as a means of killing predators, but this can result in the death of dozens of vultures at a time, as well as the death of any other mammal, bird, reptile or insect which feeds on the carcass.)
One morning in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, we set out for a drive and found the carcass of a young wildebeest. It was completely untouched and had obviously died of natural causes during the night. White-backed vultures, a couple of Rüppell’s vultures and some maribou storks had found the carcass and were collecting around it. Later that same day we passed the spot again and found a completely clean, intact skeleton. I wish I had taken a photo, but I’m afraid I didn’t.
White-backed Vultures drawing by Alison Nicholls ©2017

Studio drawing for White-backed Vultures by Alison Nicholls ©2017

Vultures have an amazing ability to digest rotting flesh without getting sick. Imagine the great wildebeest migration without any vultures to clean up the remains of the many animals who die along the way. There are occasions when dozens of animals die crossing the Mara river – crushed by the weight of animals around them. Crocodiles and other predators would eat their fill, but they alone can’t handle the number of carcasses. Bodies would pile up on the banks and in the river, poisoning the water as it travels out of the national park towards Lake Victoria and the Nile, where thousands of people live along the shores.
So next time you pull a face at the idea of vultures, remember that they, like every other living creature, perform an amazing and necessary function.
A little respect for the fascinating vulture, please!
Take care
Okavango Palms

Art Challenge Day 1 – Watercolor Landscapes

Okavango Palms

Okavango Palms, watercolor 20×16″ by Alison Nicholls

Ant eating chats

Anteating Chats in the Kalahari, watercolor 24×30″ by Alison Nicholls

Khutse Sparrow Weavers

Khutse Sparrow Weavers, watercolor 24×30″ by Alison Nicholls

I have been nominated to take part in a Facebook Art Challenge by my friend and fellow artist Karryl, who creates wonderful whimsical animal sculptures. Thank you, Karryl! The challenge is to post 3 images of my art every day for 5 days, each day nominating a new artist to take part in the challenge. Although this is a Facebook challenge, I decided to post the same pieces to my blog. And, like many other artists who are taking part in the challenge, I’ve decided to use these posts to show you my artistic journey, showing artwork from different years to illustrate how my style developed over time.

I really began to paint when I moved to Africa. Since childhood I’d really only been interested in drawing landscapes. Drawing is still very important for me and watercolor allowed me to combine drawing with color. Having not studied art, I had no exposure to other media, so I stuck with the only media I knew. These pieces were probably completed between 2000-2003 At the time I really wasn’t keeping good records, or taking particularly good photos of my work. And, as you can see, my watercolors were quite detailed and realistic. These were no doubt completed from photos, but already I can see the use of a limited palette of colors in each piece, a careful composition and an element of space, features which still exist in my work today.

Tomorrow, I’ll be posting the next set of images – Wildlife in Detail.

And the next artist I’d like to nominate for the challenge is Asher Jay. She visited my studio in the summer and we had a great day talking about art and conservation. You may already have seen her work. If not, watch her posts, she has some great images to share!

Until tomorrow…

Visit my Website
Join my Mailing List
Find me on Facebook
Art Inspired by Africa


Once a month I will be showcasing the talents of colleagues in the art world and I am very happy to introduce you to Sue deLearie Adair, a good friend and fellow New York State resident. Sue mostly concentrates on little and local members of the animal world, portrayed in amazing greys or splashes of color, or a bit of both. She uses a variety of media and in this post she gives us an interesting guide as to how she chooses the best medium for her next piece. Regardless of which she chooses, you can see that her detailed knowledge and enjoyment of her subject shines through!        

Which Medium Should I Use?
For me it is always easy to decide what subject to draw or paint—I like the little things in nature—frogs and toads, chipmunks and butterflies, and especially birds! I have been an avid birder for almost thirty years and have traveled across North America and abroad in search of birds. A dozen years ago I finally started putting my love of birds on paper in the form of drawings and paintings. But, while subject matter is easy, each time I come up with a composition I still have to decide what medium/media to use to create it. I produce graphite pencil drawings, mixed media drawings and paintings and etchings, so, what to use?
Graphite Pencil is my favorite medium so if a composition would work as a black-and-white drawing that is usually what I use! Subjects that are black-and-white themselves almost always end up as graphite pencil drawings. For example, the pair of Razorbills you see below in “Renewing Their Bond”. They are black-and-white birds standing on mostly gray rocks. When I decided to eliminate the blue background (ocean) to go with a more graphic composition, graphite pencil was a natural for this piece—no color needed!
 Renewing Their Bond web
“Renewing Their Bond”, graphite pencil, 10”x10”, 2012
Subjects with a large amount of contrast, texture and/or patterns also work well as graphite pencil drawings, regardless of the colors involved. In “Scrap Pile Sparrow” a White-crowned Sparrow is portrayed. This species is a medley of browns and grays with a black-and-white striped crown and by pushing the contrast in the body feathers and adding a graduated background the bird looks great in black-and-white!
 Scrap Pile Sparrow web
“Scrap Pile Sparrow”, graphite pencil, 6”x4”, 2013
Color—A little bit of Color
In 2009 and again in 2013 I took week-long solar plate etching workshops and planned my pieces to include a small amount of color. So for these pieces I looked for subjects that were predominately one color, which became the etching ink color, and added the other colors afterwards with watercolor and colored pencil. I printed brown bunnies, reddish-brown chipmunks, and black birds such as “Junco”, a Dark-eyed Junco.
 Junco AP 1 web
                       “Junco”, Etching with Watercolor and Colored Pencil, 4”x4”, 2009
I liked the effect of having just a bit of color and started to experiment with mixed media drawings using graphite and colored pencils together. Some of these drawings have just a bit of color; others look pretty much fully colored such as “High Plains Plover” which depicts a Mountain Plover in its native grassland habitat. I used wheat colored etching paper for the piece and a variety of subtly toned colored pencils. I then used graphite pencil on top of the colored pencil to add definition and detail.
 High Plains Plover web
“High Plains Plover”, Colored and Graphite Pencils, 7.5”x10”, 2012
Color—Lots of Color!
If I like a composition and subject that is fairly low contrast but has interesting colors, then full color it must be! For me this means a mixed media painting. I start with a watercolor background and under-painting and use colored and graphite pencils to add detail. I started using graphite pencil in my paintings to shade, soften, sharpen and add really fine details a couple of years ago because of a pencil sharpener “crisis”. The sharpeners I had been using for years were discontinued (each lasted only about 6 months but made a really nice point on colored pencils without breaking them too often). It took several purchases and many months to find a good replacement, but some of the reject sharpeners handled graphite pencils well enough, so I tried adding them to my paintings—and I liked it! The more I can do with my trusty graphite pencils, the happier I am!
“Mango Shower” is a simple composition of a Green-breasted Mango hummingbird bathing in a rain shower. I liked the subdued tone of the scene and the beautiful colors of the birds tail so it became a mixed media painting. Using watercolor in these paintings also allows me to create interesting background effects, sometimes by using granulated watercolors and in this case by dropping water onto the wet, green wash. Not only would this look have been difficult to do using entirely dry media, but the effect would be rather dull. I created a black-and-white version of the painting in Photoshop to let you see the difference.
 Mango Shower pair
“Mango Shower”, 4.75”x6.75”, Watercolor, Colored and Graphite Pencils, 2013
My last piece, “Blue-wings at the Swamp”, is a composition that I could have created using just graphite pencils. The birds have plenty of contrast and interesting patterns in their plumage and the values range from black to white. But how could I resist that bright spring green!? I decided this would just be more beautiful in color and created this painting. Using watercolor had an added bonus—most of the water is done with a watercolor wash. Creating that even tone in pencil would have been extremely time consuming!
 Blue-wings at the Swamp web
“Blue-wings at the Swamp”, 7.5”x10.5”, Watercolor, Colored and Graphite Pencils, 2012
So choosing my medium all comes down to two things: 1) what I think will look best in the finished piece and 2) maximizing the amount of graphite pencil I can use to get the job done without spending forever on the background! Oh, and 3) who wants to see a butterfly or warbler in black-and-white anyway?
Thanks for reading!
Lots of Pattern and Contrast—Still Better in Color!
 Magnolia Warbler web
“Magnolia Warbler”, 5”x4.5”, Watercolor, Colored and Graphite Pencils, 2013
Thank you Sue!

Until next time…
Art Inspired by Africa and Conservation