Seems like crows are everywhere these days. For us urban dwellers, they’re one of the few representatives of wildlife we see on a regular basis. Social media is full of new scientific studies on their intelligence, and tales of crows bringing gifts. Several friends of mine are cultivating ongoing relationships with individual crows and crow families, and writing about their surprising, heartwarming, and sometimes frustrating attempts to communicate.
Casting about for something to draw to keep me amused and distracted while housebound with a bad cold, I ran across some photos I’d taken of a “murder” of crows in the parking lot of the local grocery. I’ve always enjoyed drawing feathers, whenever I muster the patience to do so, so I chose one to draw, and several for supporting reference.
I used a light blue pencil to sketch the basic shapes, then an indigo Col-Erase pencil to start developing the feathers. I thought I’d better start scanning the stages after I took the above photo, so here’s the sequence:
The paper’s a bit smudgy because pencil drawings get that way. Not to worry, it’s all getting covered over, and if I need to reclaim highlights, I can erase. I wasn’t sure at this point whether to add any background, so I went away and slept on it.
I couldn’t push the indigo any farther towards dark, so I got out a black Prismacolor Verithin. Now, the thing about black coloured pencils is that they usually aren’t very black. This one, in fact, leaned a lot toward brown. There went my cool-toned colour scheme! But I liked the way it warmed up the lower sides of the feathers, and layered with the indigo, made nice lively darks, approaching black while not appearing dead.
I put in some background trees and a road with the lighter blue pencil. I had in mind a misty effect, so I kept the forms simple.
I added more background trees by colouring around the shapes of the existing ones and the new ones with the indigo pencil; the farther back trees get their shadowy nature from being carved out of the existing shadows between trees. This is a typical exercise I use to demonstrate negative painting.
At this point I wasn’t sure whether to keep the branch and the foreground tree lighter or make them dark, so I ran a quick-n-dirty test in Photoshop to see what it would look like.
I decided I liked the effect, and started darkening and adding detail to the branch with the indigo pencil.
The black pencil adds warmth to the branch and the nearby tree while darkening both. I lightly traced outlines of where I wanted tendrils of mist to go in the background and then erased the interior of the mist areas lightly.
I added some black pencil to the background trees, colouring around the mist, and beefed up the darks in the foreground trees.
I used a white Derwent Coloursoft pencil to blend the background; counterintuitively, this has the effect of darkening the colours (which was my intent). This is because the white pencil smears around the pigments from the dark pencil that have clumped on the high areas of the paper, driving them down into the valleys of the paper. The white pencil is not opaque, but translucent, also allowing light to penetrate through to the dark pigment particles. White reacts differently with different colours, and different concentrations of the same colours, so do a test swatch if you are in doubt.
The final result. After the blending, I went back and pushed some of the colours darker (layering coloured pencil over white can enhance already-blended areas), adjusting the depth of both foreground and background. I erased the mist again where needed, and popped a bit more contrast into the crow with the indigo and black pencils.
Since I had all these in-progress shots, I took the opportunity to learn how to make my first animated gif, using this excellent tutorial.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through my process — I won’t say drawing this crow cured me of my cold, but it certainly helped distract me and make me happier while I was sick! If you’d like to try drawing this crow for yourself, here’s the photo I worked from — you’ll have to make up your own fantasy background, though! (Note that my scanner inserted some green highlights, due to scanning this from an old glossy print. Ignore that, or what the heck, make a green crow!)