Blue Jays, Blue Days

Look on the Bright Side, Watercolor, 12×16″ ©Bivenne Staiger, 2020

A few days ago, I painted the above in about an hour and a half as a demonstration via Zoom, a safe way for groups to “meet” and share ideas these days. One question that came up was whether I use frisket, a masking agent that resists watercolor paint; it was not used in this painting. However, the white spots you see as snowflakes are made with salt sprinkled early onto wet paint and, much later, white acrylic paint spattered throughout on dry paper.

I did another blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) painting over the last day that does use some frisket. Here are the steps to paint it:

All images©Bivenne Staiger

As you can see, frisket is only applied to the dry paper where I wish to keep shapes white. I try to use frisket as minimally as possible, and only wherever it’s easiest to paint over many tiny spots with a large brush than to paint around each. I would not use frisket for a large white or pale shape, like the bird’s belly. (Be sure frisket is completely dry before applying paint over it!)

All images©Bivenne Staiger

Though paint covers practically the entire painting in this initial stage, the sketch is still visible and frisket remains in place.

All images©Bivenne Staiger

I apply local color to defined shapes. Note how frisket still serves a purpose and remains in place.

[By the way, these red flowers belong to the male cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides), one of the largest and fastest-growing trees in North America. The female tree produces the cottony fibers that give this tree its name, and every spring I look forward to the arrival of cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), which feed on their fruit before the “cotton” erupts. But I happen to love the male’s red flowers, which also provide food for many creatures. These trees live in riparian zones, and, living so close to the Connecticut River, I am lucky to have a few in the yard and neighborhood.]

All images©Bivenne Staiger

I apologize for the poor quality of the above and next photos, but natural light (which I usually use to photograph my work) was poor due to inclement weather, and incandescent lighting made the next shot appear very yellow. Anyway, frisket has been removed (above) to paint the branch. I apply a very thin wash of pale brown over the white “frisket shapes”, then quickly tap in very dark paint to shadowed branch edges and allow paint to bleed here and there.

All images©Bivenne Staiger

Likely hard to tell above, but the white spots in the red flowers are now largely covered with yellow paint, and shapes, colors, and value are more developed. Unhappy with sky/background to the left of the bird’s belly, I add a few bud shapes and darken the sky nearest the pale belly and elsewhere.

Red, White & Blue, Watercolor, 11×15″ ©Bivenne Staiger, 2020

I wet the paper again lower left and upper right to add and enhance the soft-edged flower and branch shapes. These visually connect the disparate subject and background shapes, strengthening the overall piece. Blue jays were among my Oma’s favorite birds…

8 thoughts on “Blue Jays, Blue Days

  1. I love how the distant red flowers of the cottonwood tree contrast with the sharpest defined ones in the fore ground. The bird is so real I feel like I could reach out to touch it. And… your branches, oh my gosh, twist and turn with highlights like an Italian renaissance painting. Can’t wait to take more classes!!!

    -Chris Dyer Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Chris 🙂 I can’t wait for in-person normalcy again, either! If you ever have time for yourself again, consider signing up for one of my Yale Peabody Museum – NSIP courses ( via Zoom. I offer them on various days of the week, including one on Saturday mornings. They’ll be posted any day now, so if you’re interested AND have time, check often.


    1. It’s always a balance of simple and complex, and of course, that dichotomy can be in either subject or background spaces, sometimes both… It’s part of the challenge of creating a unified, pleasing piece each time.


  2. A lovely and inspiring lesson, Bivenne! I love to paint birds in winter. We have a feeder by our dining room window so I can set up my watercolors and “catch” them instead of working in oil which bothers my asthma in winter/indoor air. If you are comfortable Zooming, you could sign up for Venmo and then we could sign up for lessons and pay you that way ahead of a Zoom session. I do it with my figure painting group and a local master oil painting artist.

    Stay well and keep this up it’s wonderful! Have a quiet, lovely holiday!

    – Barb Hageman

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Barb. I do have Venmo and have held a number of Zoom classes; some are offered at Yale Peabody Museum’s Natural Science Illustration Program ( and will be posted on that site any day now, so keep checking if you’re interested. You’d have to register through them. They also offer great drawing, field sketching, and journaling classes, among others, by talented instructors. I’ll offer other Zoom classes as time allows.
      Happy Holidays to you and your family as well! Keep safe and well!


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