Shaunna Russell paints realistic animals. In her style she uses nontraditional, vibrant pigments! She is also a good teacher, which makes her FREE Live Demo a real treat. Following her example, I painted the hawk picture that she shares in her demonstration.

Before I began, I spent some time pondering what I would do because my watercolour palette is extremely limited. My colours aren't the bright ones that would make the desired effect for this painting.

I ended up using coloured inks instead of watercolour because I had a larger selection of vibrant colours.

Ink behaves differently from watercolour. Some things happened in my version of the hawk painting that would have gone a little more smoothly had I been using watercolour.

I looked over both Russell's sketch and the provided reference photo to make my sketch. I used a hard pencil to keep the lines light. I tend to work very small but this time I think the size of my image was pretty close to the original (it was definitely a bit smaller though).

I wet the first large section of the painting and worked with the closest colours I had to match Russell's example. Instead of the deep orangey-yellow, I had a sort of orangey-brown that I had to make do with and it looks alright to me.

The ink feathers more in wet-on-wet than watercolour does so if you're going to use ink, plan for it to feather and maybe work a little larger.

Russell gave the brilliant advice to work in sections so that the paint doesn't dry out before you can get to the whole thing. I liked how she sectioned the painting so I did it the same way.

My green was not as much like hers as I anticipated, possibly because my inks are on the older side, and the ink doesn't have the shelf life that watercolour does.

Still, I enjoyed the wet-on-wet technique! Watching the colours blend into soft gradients and mix on the paper was so satisfying.

When adding feathers, I realized two things. The first was that the inexpensive synthetic brush that I use for ink is a bit too large for this sort of detail.

The second was that I'd been layering the ink enough now that it was going to start sitting on the paper instead of soaking into it.

The shiny top layers of ink are gorgeous. But the more you layer the ink, the more crucial it is that you leave it perfectly undisturbed until it's completely dry. The edges dry more quickly than the centre of the layer and it's impossible to lift the edges once they're caked onto the paper.

The over-layering issue became especially apparent to me as I added more detail. If I were going to do this project over again, still in ink, I would allow more drying time than watercolour.

When I painted the eye wet-on-wet the way Russell did it, my result was a little on the clumsy side but I decided I'd touch it up later and not worry right away. It's more important to avoid overworking than it is to fix a mistake.

Here was my image towards the end of the work. I hesitated to continue adding details since my designated ink brush is a little too big for the feathers. Still, I decided to be experimental and keep going a bit.

My result, in the end, was greatly improved by a bit of white gouache. I fixed the eyes, and I also added some details and corrections in other parts of the picture that Russell had also whitened.

Of course, Russell was using a clay board rather than a paper sheet, so she could get precise highlights with a knife. I just got out a small gouache brush and replicated it to the best of my ability.

Russell mentioned using a gel pen for highlights on paper, but in my experience, it wouldn't work as well as gouache. Gouache is more opaque than gel pen with fewer layers.

For the splashes at the very end, I didn't have a straw on hand like Russell. I decided to load up with blue ink and tap the brush over the paper, producing some nice little spatters. With that, I called my project done.

The key takeaway from the Shaunna Russell demo, in my opinion, is that value is more important than colour in creating a believable painting. As long as your values are correct, you can use any colour scheme that looks good to you.

The key takeaway from my experiment here is that it's important to do the best painting you can, even if you don't have the exact supplies you want. You'll learn no matter what.

If you'd like to go even deeper into the beautiful techniques of Shaunna Russell, try out her Mini Workshop

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Minnesota. She specializes in all things cozy and calm, but adds humor where she can. When she isn’t drawing, she enjoys playing musical instruments, but you’re more likely to see her staring at some silly tree or something. 


  • Edith mcNally said:

    Loved it thanks. I am working toward some Australian Lorakeets so this was really inspiring and gives me confidence. Thanks heaps.

    September 09, 2021

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