Project Friday: An Afternoon with Chickens (You Pick Your Own Subject Matter)

July 20, 2012


Left: The first painted sketch from this outing. Sketches are presented in chronological order. Pentel Pocket Brush Pen sketch with gouache, of chicken from life. Read below for more details. Approx. 8.3 x 11.5 inches. Nostalgie paper from Hahnemühle. All of the images in this post were executed with the same materials on the same paper unless differences are noted.

Today's Project Friday is about experimenting with a particular approach or technique for an entire series. The series can be anything you want: drawings, paintings, clay figurines, quilts, vests, linoleum block prints, short stories, or poems. You'll have to adapt it obviously to whatever your medium and end goal is.

Readers of the blog will know that last Sunday I went to a sketch out where there were six chickens free ranging around 18 artists in a Minneapolis yard. 


Right: Chicken with a limited tail taking a dirt bath.


Before going I thought about what I wanted to accomplish for the 3-hour outing. I knew that I was going to be sketching chickens running loose in a yard. I know from past experience that means fast moving subjects. 

I also knew that the area was small and that I could bring a chair. Since I normally stand when I am sketching out I thought about what sitting might mean for my approach.


Left: Everyone drew a lot of chicken butts on Sunday. (Shadow areas on the left are from scanning. This paper isn't watercolor paper and will buckle when wet. I didn't have a weight on this sheet when I scanned it.)

Immediately I thought about working large, working on single sheets attached to a board, and working with freshly squeezed paints and large brushes. I wanted to go for quick, loose sketches with splashes of color. Also working with loose sheets would allow me to keep working even if the previous painting wasn't yet dry, because I could set a sheet aside and not worry about turning over a wet journal page.

120715_7BeatriceBRight: My favorite chicken was a dark black chicken with lovely green luminescent feathers. I told myself not to fuss, and not to go in and add more layers to focus on that aspect. Sometimes working quickly like this we have to give up "things" and then decide afterwards whether or not it was important to use. I did allow myself to fuss just a bit on her eye.

I had a couple reasons for drifting in this direction. First I have been working larger and looser at home, experimenting more with large flat brushes (2- and 3-inch flats). Second the Paws on Grand event is coming up and I get to work seated for that event—sketching fast moving, and not very cooperative models. I wanted to see if pursuing the technique I envisioned would be worthwhile for that day. And third I wanted to work in high heat with the materials I'd selected. (A part of working in high heat for me is letting go of fussing on details—I find in high heat I simply can't concentrate and if I start fussing it gets dangerous rather quickly! This is simply a realistic assessment of my abilities.)

Out of that thinking goals easily followed. For three hours I would give my approach a test run and judge the usefulness for future situations afterwards.

This type of painting isn't something that I can do at the Minnesota State Fair because I can't have an open container of water (that might be knocked over) and I typically can't sit in 90 percent of the places I like to sketch. So it was also an opportunity to play while sketching live animals. And that's always a good thing, because out of that play you can discover new approaches that may be applicable to more "normal" or usual circumstances.


I sketch out at least twice a week so getting ready is not a big planning event for me. On this day, however I was deviating from my typical kit. And I had that chair! Because I was taking freshly squeezed paints I needed to abandon my usual "pans and Niji brush approach."


Left: One of the stipped and speckled black/brown chickens. I allowed myself to fuss just a bit with some opaque blue accents to see how I liked them. I also had fun with the flat brush, stamping in wing lines and splotches. I can also tell that this is the image where my energy level is starting to lag. So of course I pushed myself to do another.

I took several brushes: a 2-inch flat, a 10 round and 4 round (all synthetic watercolor brushes). I also had a roll of Bounty paper towels which I used to smear paint around, and for clean up. I carried a quart bottle of clean water to use for wash water. I had an empty one-quart cleaned yogurt container for my wash water when I was actually painting. (I decided I'd just have one container because of space considerations—I didn't know exactly what to expect at the site.) I had a large 1/2 gallon plastic tub into which I would be pouring my waste water as it got too dirty. 

I knew that working quickly would mean I would get dirty wash water fairly quickly. I also knew I wouldn't be able to dump my waste water on site because of the contamination issue. By organizing my water as I've explained here I knew that I could put a little clean water in my yogurt container, use it until it wasn't useful, dump it into the 1/2 gallon tub (with a lid) and dispose of my waste water when I got home.

This system worked great. I might consider making an adjustment in future: instead of the yogurt container I would find a container that would fit in the cupholder pocket of my folding chair—then I could have my water right there at my arm height, instead of leaning over and reaching to the ground. The last time I did an outdoor painting session with fresh paints my chair didn't have a cupholder in the arm. On the day I found that the cupholder was actually useful to stand my unused brushes in so I might continue with the reach for the water method. (The chair is relatively low to the ground so that isn't much of an issue.)

I selected an A4 pad of Hahnemühle Nostalgie which is a smooth paper I love to sketch on with pen and ink. I also paint in gouache on it. In addition I brought one 22 x 30 sheet of watercolor paper torn into quarters and held on one of those masonite drawing boards with a clip and some stretchy headbands. (I didn't use the watercolor paper, which was a new inexpensive paper I was going to test, but I tested that at home on Wednesday and you can read about that test tomorrow.)

I filled my large plastic folding palette with a minimal palette of Schmincke gouache with which I wanted to work. I was using the large folding palette and fresh paint because I wanted to have large glops of paint that I could pass my 2-inch brush over and have easy color pick up. I also wanted the larger mixing surfaces.

I filled my "pans" in that palette about an hour before departure. I placed the open palette, with a piece of acetate taped over the top to keep the fresh paint from getting on other things, into a large plastic bag with a moist paper towel. When I got to the site my paints were still tube-fresh and remained so for the 3 hour session, with only one spray bottle spritz. (I couldn't close the palette with fresh paint in it because I didn't want the fresh paint to stick to the other side of the palette when closed. Packing up to go home the paint, while still fresh was setting up a bit, so closing the palette for transit was no problem.)

I brought two graphite sticks (4B and 6B, one thin, one very large) to sketch loosely (there's that word again), but I ended up not using them on the day, and instead stayed with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and also the Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy Pen.

All of my loose supplies, went into a canvas book bag. The palette in the plastic bag sat flat on top of the paper that was attached to the drawing board and I carried them flat. With my chair folded and in its carrier bag over my shoulder and the canvas bag on my arm, I could carry the drawing board and palette with no problems. It's very important to always contain your supplies in an easy to transport way. (Unless of course you have minions.) 

Other preparations included dressing so that I could sit on the ground if I chose to do so (long pants); setting up to sit in the sun (a hat and sunscreen blouse, and sunscreen on the face); and bringing enough water to stay hydrated (though I was told we'd have refreshments and there were wonderful refreshments—it's always important to bring your own drinking water).

The Experiment/Project

As you know I arrived, was greeted by the chickens (well 3 of them seem interested in me), met the owner, and started setting up as other folks arrived. 


Left: My final sketch of the day. I followed Lucille around forever. Her comb, which had the habit of flopping jauntily to one side (she was one attitudinal chicken!) was a challenge for me to sketch in my already fatigued state. Before starting this sketch, because of the fatigue, I also decided to work with the Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy pen—to tighten my lines, force my concentration while making it easier to control my lines than with a brush pen, and to get that last little bit of adrenaline into my bloodstream because I was changing something up. I also painted around this chicken after first making splashes and rubs of paint, so that I could paint on her "white" body as little as possible. I allowed myself extra time with her comb, using the opacity of the extra paint layers to hide some of my pen sketch lines.

I got out my pad of Nostalgie and my Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and started doing gesture studies. Since people were constantly arriving and the chickens were constantly moving I spent my first 15 minutes or so walking around the yard picking a chicken, doing a gesture sketch, and moving on as they moved away from someone else who was walking by or setting up their chair.

When I finished my gesture sketches—and this happens when I suddenly click and say to myself, it's time to draw—I decided that I would continue to work with the PPBP.

Now the chicken stalking began. I would pick a chicken and follow her about the yard. I would observe her and then start sketching her in a particular position. As the chicken moved away I would follow and sketch more only when she struck that original pose again. When I had enough of a sketch down I would retreat to my chair in a shady spot (looking directly at the chicken coop where a lovely little chipmunk would emerge now and then to snatch grain) and start the painting process relying on my memory and furtive glances at the chicken under consideration as she ran past me. In some cases I relied on the kindness of others: "Hey can anyone see what color Lucille's eyes are?" I would call out. The person closest to Lucille would call out an assessment.

Normally, when working with the Niji water brush and a palette of pan colors I'm totally portable and can keep moving and painting at the same time. But with an open water container and larger palette, and a huge (for me) brush, that wasn't possible on this day.

All the paintings in today's post are those I was able to execute in this manner on the day, working from the live chickens. When I finished one sketch and added watercolor I would rip it from the pad, leave it on my folding chair with a bottle of drinking water on top of it so it wouldn't blow away, and go off and stalk another chicken.

The paintings are presented in the order in which they were done. (The first 3 sheets were gesture sketches and can be seen in Wednesday's post which I've already linked above.) I painted from approximately 12:15 to 2:20 p.m. There was very little downtime. People sitting next to each other would chat companionably but we would all continue working—laughter and joking making it easier to keep going in the heat. I caught up with another sketching friend after 2:20 since I hadn't seen her for some time, and I talked to a late arrival (but I'd already decided that I wouldn't be trying another sketch). I also ran around taking some horribly blurry reference photos for later use. Then it was time to see what everyone else had created, and time to say good bye. (I did not try to adopt one of the chickens—but I was very sorry to leave before having a chance to sketch the lovely Carmen—a long-haired dachshund.) 


Whenever you work in a series with a specific approach, or try a new medium or new pen, or test new field equipment you always need to do a final assessment of the outcome.

For me it's interesting to look at these 6 paintings. They don't go exactly where I wanted to go, but their execution told me why I couldn't get there on this day. That's important information.

I wanted to get each to a more finished state with more layers of opaque gouache. The humidity was such that the drying time for the paint was really long and I had a choice to wait, or to move on and do more work. When I have live models moving about my choice is always to do as much as I can, even it if is very sketchy, so that I can gather as much mental information as possible—which in the long run will help me with more finished paintings.

So this experiment showed me that I have to choose between less output or more sketching if I want to go to opaque layers in humid conditions. I found that I could execute each sketch relatively quickly, even with the stalking time element, and painting went quickly, but because of the drying time involved with the paint this wouldn't be a useful technique for me for other events such as sketching quick animal portraits at Paws on Grand. I would want to do the extra layers in those types of situations and there wouldn't be time.

Changing paper to a wet-media sized paper might help somewhat with the drying time issue, but that will vary from paper to paper. One can never escape humidity in Minneapolis in the summer and that's the huge factor on paint drying time.

Working loose for me means not getting fussy. For most of the images I was able to do that. I found that when I went in with paint there were times when I dilly-dallied and let paint dry longer than I needed to, and put in extra layers and fussed a bit. I'm not upset with myself for doing this because I needed to push the envelope and see where the time and materials constraints really hit in. But I do know that keeping myself from getting fussy is an on-going challenge. It might be a good idea to go out with a very specific time goal per piece (and a timer), or a very specific rule of two passes of paint, etc. This leads on into another possible Project Friday (see how useful assessments can be).

After your initial post-even evaluation let your items sit, unseen for a day or two and then get them out one at a time and look at them with a fresh eye. Judge all the things that might matter to you—draftsmanship, pen line quality, color use, composition, etc., with a fresh eye. Make a plan for those things on which you want to work.

Note: Over time, looking over your projects to assess them you'll also see your natural energy rhythms emerging. This can be invaluable when planning future sketching or art projects. You'll know when to push yourself and when you really do need to take a break.

Congratulate yourself on even the smallest of things that you did on the fly that totally worked out. An example from my project would be the way I used the flat brush to pounce in color in a striated fashion, depending on the wetness of the paint and the paper. In this way I've created some additional "vocabulary" for my regular painting sessions.

Whether you ultimately like the results or not, congratulate yourself on executing your project. Look at it all again in a month with an even fresher eye and see what you think.

Also during that month, look at your regular work and see if things you learned are creeping into your regular work. Or perhaps you are changing your regular work to reinforce aspects of your method that you want to make stronger and not abandon.

Project Friday Summary

1. Decide on a series you want to work on in a specific period of time. For sketching 3 hours is great. For quilting I imagine 8 hours or two 8-hour days would work better—if you're the textile artist you'll know. People working in clay might also want more time for the entire project.

Note: While working over several evenings is definitely a way to utilize your time and create a series, I recommend that at least once you try doing a series project in a more condensed time frame, when the "steam" of the project can keep you going through out. (Obviously in the quilting example you might want to limit yourself to small 4 x 4 inch samplers and of course you'll want to sleep between the two 8-hour day sessions. But the excitement and energy of the project series will carry on the next day and you really do need to allow yourself to experience that once in a while.)

2. Decide on the media and tools you'll be using. I suggest limiting media and tools. This is a great way to get intense focus on a medium you might not have given undivided attention to in the past.

3. Set your goals.

4. Plan for any special needs. (In my situation water and paint handling are examples of this, because of sketching out at someone else's yard and not wanting to use my pans and a Niji waterbrush.)

5. Execute the project. Remember to breathe. If things don't go as planned, make a new goal at some point in the session and go with it for the remainder of your time. Adapt. Keep going.

6. Afterwards assess the project, goals, materials, etc. and make a new plan for doing it all again in some improved way.

Go get busy!

    • Terry Garrett
    • July 20, 2012

    Roz, I love these loose chicken drawings! So full of energy and they look so alive. Nice work. We are finally cleaned up after our terrible storm July 2nd- lost many trees.

    • Miss T
    • July 20, 2012

    Roz, your chickens are absolutely marvelous!

  1. Reply

    Thanks Terry. I’m glad you like them. I’m also glad that you have cleaned up after the storm. I hope that none of the trees took out any structures or caused repairs to be needed. Hope you are having some cool weather for walks and biking!

  2. Reply

    Thanks Miss T. I’m still in the “I would like them to be more detailed” phase, but they are growing on me.

  3. Reply

    Leslie, didn’t they televise that experiment in living? I LOVE that the scooped out areas are where the chickens sleep. This is a wonderful example of the way we read into things.

    What will people think of Twitter and FB in 1000 years?

    • Caroline
    • July 20, 2012

    Love the chooks! I have some free-ranging in my back yard at the moment, including a magnificent baby bantam cockerel who is already more than a little bit feisty and attacks on sight.
    I would love to sketch him but am not sure how to work around the aggression. He lies in wait for me at my back door every morning when I go to feed the dog. Fortunately his aim is not too good and he hasn’t developed spurs yet. Any tips will be gratefully received (including a barbeque marinade if things do not improve)!
    Even using a camera is dangerous!

  4. Reply

    Thanks Caroline, I haven’t heard anyone say “chooks” in a long, long time. Alas, I’ve had contact with only a few well socialized chickens. The ones on Sunday were just charmers! And so accepting of so many people milling about! I took care of my vet’s flock of chickens for two weeks once long, long ago and they were all WONDERFUL to me, and none tried to go after me. (I don’t recall if she had a rooster though.) And the ones at the Fair are all in crates, except the ones that the 4-H kids take out so that you can meet them and pet them—and those are all familiar with and comfortable with being handled.

    I don’t know what to say. I hope you can find some way to get him socialized. Maybe other chicken growers in your area??? Did you raise him from a chick? If not, maybe the breeder.

    That’s a nasty habit he has, that’ for sure! And you can’t even take photos. Good luck solving this problem!

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