The inspiration behind this project was a trip that we made to Acadia National Park in the summer of 2015. One of the sights was Champlain Mountain. Standing at more than a thousand feet above the Atlantic ocean, the eastern facing cliff walls of this mountain are home to a number of breeding pairs of Peregrine Falcon. Finding them on the precipice at that height was a challenge in itself and it took a long time viewing through my Nikon P 600 to finally spot one. The interesting part for me was seeing these magnificent birds in their natural habitat and the cracked granite face of this mountain with all it's highlights, crevices and shadows offered some really interesting detail for the concept of this painting.
The photos that I had taken of the Peregrine on the cliff were much higher up and as such the quality and resolution weren't the greatest so I dug into my library of bird photos to find a suitable subject to perch on this interesting ledge that I spotted on the cliff side. I liked this cropped portion of the cliff wall. I thought there was a lot of character with the cracks and crevices, tints of granite pink and blue as well as the shadows being cast in to the hollow. I felt there was good composition in how it framed things and drew your attention to the ledge. And that's where I would position my Peregrine.
With all my reference materials lined up now on my tablet, I begin my rough sketches.
There are a number of things I want to capture in this painting, one is the sense of height. I decided that the painting needed to be tall, something like 15" x 30". To maintain this sense of height the peregrine needs to be placed in the upper portion of the painting and having him looking downwards. Another is the texture of the cliff side. Lighting will be important as this will hopefully give the painting some depth. Without a distant horizon or objects far off in the distance, there's a risk that the painting will look flat if I don't take advantage of the highlights and shadows. My first draft is a scaled down, sort of a thumbnail version of what I have in mind. I try out the composition and see if everything sits well. I like how the bird is contrasted against the dark shadows of the hollow behind him and I'm hoping the different cracks and crevases help draw the viewers eye up to the peregrine. I then work on a more detailed version of the peregrine to the exact scale I intend to do on the painting.
At this stage I like how things are coming together. This is when I start to get really excited about a project and it's difficult to hold back and not start painting right away. The sketching process is important. That's when you start paying more attention to detail and you begin to take mental notes of the little things that you feel are important that you want to capture in the painting.
I decided to try a different technique this time around in preparing my canvas. Rather then using gesso to create a smooth surface i decided to use a pallet knife to create textured and rough surface for the facing cliff wall. The other decision I made early on was to go with a canvas gallery wrap. A gallery wrap is a method of stretching an artist's canvas so that the canvas wraps around the sides of the stretcher bar and is secured to the back of the wooden frame. It allows the artist to actually paint the sides of the canvas either using a framed colour or continuing the painting on the sides. I want this painting to look like an actual slab of rock or cliff wall hanging on the wall, so I thought the gallery wrap would help achieve this effect.
With my canvas now prepped I begin the rough outlines of my painting. I'm not going for precise lines at this stage, just a rough outline of where I will be blocking in my colours. I am trying something new this time around, again in trying to achieve a rough textured look for the cliff wall, I'm going to continue using a palette knife to apply the undercoating paints so I can maintain an almost 3 dimensional effect to this painting. Rather then using the palette knife to slide the paint on like you would a putty knife, I'm actually dabbing the paint on so it leaves a stippled roughness to it.
The cliff wall is coming along nicely. In one way it's very abstract like work. You can't really make any mistakes at this stage. I continue to use the pallet knife to dab and smear my paint pin. I paint in the large crevasses. There isn't a lot of contrast at this stage. I will work those in later with washes of dark umber and ultra marine blue mixed.
I've started working in the shadows and highlights and begin adding some pink and blue tints for the granite. I'm feeling good about the overall look and feel of the cliff wall. The textured effect has added some dimension to the piece and I like how it's coming out. I've put a lot of work into it at this stage, probably 15-18 hours, but it's really relaxing because precision of detail isn't that important yet.
The next stage is the peregrine. I probably said this before, but I like doing the head and eye first. I find that doing the eye breaths life into the bird and things just seem to fall into place easier when you are working on a piece that feels alive. I'm going to have to adjust the shadowing on the peregrine a bit as the sun is coming in at a different angle on the cliff wall.
Attention is now spent on working in the feather groups of the peregrine, details of the beak and shadows under the body and wings.
The last stage involves putting in a bit of foliage in some of the crevasses to give it more depth, adding in highlights here and there and a few more final touches to finish things off. I leave the painting sitting on an easel for a few days and I keep going back doing little touch-ups or adding more highlights and shadows. If I don't make any more changes for a few days, I then sign the painting and spray it with a Clear UV protective finish.
The complete painting "Cliff Hanger" 15"x 30" Acrylic on Canvas