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My field sketches start with a fairly simple pencil drawing (see my previous post) to which I add watercolour. This sketch, of a pair of mating lions, was created early one morning in Kruger National Park, but the watercolour was added later in the day when I returned to the lodge.

I often have to add watercolour later, because animals move on before I finish, or because I am sketching in a vehicle and it is more convenient to add colour when I return to camp. I will choose colours based on my memory of the scene and my personal preference, but I don’t refer to photos or video at any stage of the field sketch process. This is because I want my field sketches to be created in the field, from life.


Stage 1 is perhaps my favourite part of a field sketch – adding the base colour with a large brush. I am covering the parts of the lion and lioness which will be in shadow, but ensuring that plenty of white paper remains too. In watercolour, the whitest white you have is your untouched paper, so it is important to know where to leave the paper visible. You can always add more colour, but you can’t easily take it away, so if in doubt, leave an area white. I am using the colour on the male’s body to show the outline of the sleeping lioness.


Stage 2. Now I add another watery layer of colour, this time beneath the lions, to ensure they are grounded, and don’t look like they are floating in the air. You can see that the yellow used in stage one is still wet.


Stage 3. I add some of the colour from the ground into the still-wet areas of yellow on the lions. I know that all the colours will dry much paler than they appear when wet, so I’m not worried that they will be too bright. Now I need to wait for the paint to dry before I continue. I seem to remember this involved a lovely cup of tea while listening to the chatter of squirrels and babblers.


Stage 4. Now I’m using a smaller brush for the background vegetation. I paint around the lion’s face and mane, using the darker vegetation to highlight these areas – a technique I use frequently and find very useful in my studio paintings too. I add slightly different amounts of yellow and blue in different areas of the vegetation, blending them with clean water, to ensure that there is variety in the colour and interest in the background.


Stage 5. The final touches are with a smaller brush, using the same blues, yellows and greens from the vegetation. I usually limit my colour palette and find that using the same few colours across the painting brings it all together nicely. So, using these same colours, I add detail on the faces, ears and mane. My personal preference is to only use as much detail as I need, never adding too much and always remembering that this is a field sketch.

Here is the finished field sketch, Powernap, 11x14” field sketch by Alison Nicholls.
Here is the finished field sketch, Powernap, 11×14” field sketch by Alison Nicholls.

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Alison Nicholls is an artist Inspired by Africa. She teaches guests to sketch wildlife during Africa Geographic Art Safaris and is a member of Artists For Conservation, the Society of Animal Artists and the Explorers Club. Alison donates a percentage to African conservation organisations from the sale of every painting, field sketch and limited edition reproduction.