Ben Waddams Wildlife Artist

PUBLISHED: 21:05 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013



Ben Waddams who paints wildlife in the Shropshire countryside - and in more exotic places - shares the tips and techniques of his trade

Ben Waddams who paints wildlife in the Shropshire countryside - and in more exotic places - shares the tips and techniques of his trade

I had been walking since nightfall. The entire area came alive after dark and I was in my element. The sticky, humid night air of the jungle clung to me, constricting my very being as I gasped for any hint of fresh oxygen. My head-torch was my only companion; it was faint and fading. The large lamp in my pack was reserved for emergencies only. I trundled on, physically tired, but emotionally delighted; this was a naturalist's dream. There were tree frogs and chirping crickets, boa constrictors and eagle owls and in the creek, crocodiles slid beneath the water's inky surface.

Then it hit me. Silence. That eerie, deafening silence that only a prey animal knows. I crouched down and turned off my torch. Waiting, listening. There was something moving on the track ahead. The only vestiges of light now came from the luminous bursts of fireflies circling high above like sparks from a fire.

There was a soft thud of a large creature's footfall and a slow, deliberate and guttural breathing. The hairs on my neck stood upright. I flicked my head-torch on and looked up. Nothing. I rummaged through my pack, grabbed the lamp and froze again. The footsteps were moving closer. I switched on the lamp in my bag and as I swung it in the direction of the footsteps, the animal took fright. There was a blur of branches, leaves and twigs and as the creature fled, I managed to decipher one, overriding pattern: spots.

Deep in the rainforests of the Belizean Jungle, I had been stalked by a jaguar.

As a wildlife artist I like to try to 'meet' my animal subjects, but admittedly not always as close as the jaguar. I am equally at home painting robins and rabbits as I am lions and lemurs. But for me half the fun of painting a creature comes not from putting brush to canvas, but from researching it and its habitat. I attempt, where possible, to sketch and paint from life, leaving the camera only to capture the basic shapes, tones and nothing more.

Now I would like to take you on an artistic journey through one of my paintings, from inspiration to the final piece and teach you tips and techniques along the way.

In this exercise we will use the most basic and cheapest of materials available to an artist - student acrylic paints, brushes and surfaces.

In my 'In the eyes of...' series I paint a portrait of the animal and then pay special attention at the end to their eyes, relaying a scene of desperate conservation or of natural beauty through their painted reflections. In my painting, Precarious Living, Perilous Reflections - In the eyes of the Mountain Gorilla, I have shown one of the many threats posed to these majestic creatures in their high-jungle home; deforestation, illustrated with fires and bulldozers, used for slash and burn agriculture in Uganda and the Congo.

The Painting: Highland Reflections

Step One: Materials

After I've done some research through photographs and sketches obtained using wild studies, where possible, zoo exhibits and museum mounts, its time to prepare the painting surface. For this exercise I have used standard hardboard, double primed with white emulsion (not white acrylic). I have selected just six acrylic colours - Orange Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Prussian Blue, Cadmium Red and Titanium White - a range of four brushes and that's it.

Step Two: Sketching

I begin by sketching my chosen pose on the board, putting in the main details - the outline, the position of the eye and some other key lines. I then cover my drawing with a highly diluted wash of Orange Yellow, and Cadmium Red. This seals the graphite enabling me to see my key points several stages into the actual painting and keeping them for reference until I can start building up the detail later. The wash of orange will also 'glow' through and create an ambience that will help bind all areas of the painting throughout.

Step Three: Blocking in lights and darks

After leaving the wash to dry (you can use a hairdryer for this), I start blocking in the major areas of light and dark. Remember, at this stage in the painting (the under-painting), you should always paint the colours darker than you expect them to become. This enables you to build up crucial, lighter areas and put highlights in later, on top of the darker detail. So here I have used a combination of Cadmium Red and Burnt Umber (brown), highly diluted, as a 'base' for the feathered areas. Then a combination of Prussian Blue, Cadmium Red and Burnt Umber, slightly diluted with water, to apply dark areas under the jaw and around the eye. I then gave a bit of colour to the nostrils and beak with diluted Prussian Blue and Yellow Ochre. I haven't used any white yet as I want my basic washes to be translucent and compliment each other.

Step Four: Starting the detail

Next I take an old, battered and splayed brush, bash it some more, and pick up some diluted Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red and Titanium White. The splayed bristles give a great illusion of fine feathers, without having to paint each one individually. This technique is what most wildlife artists use for hair and fur too, it works a treat. As you can see, I am beginning to build up texture now and use my smallest brush to add some finer details to the nostril and beak.

The blue, almost metallic hue to the beak was achieved by two or three brief washes of Prussian Blue, a little yellow ochre and finally some fairly haphazard scuffing with a dry brush and the tiniest amount of white. I use the same blue colour for the skin around and in front of the eye, dabbing little full stops everywhere to show wrinkles and goose-bumps. I add a golden background while I wait for things to dry.

Step Five: Glazes and more glazes

The mouth and nostril area is pretty much complete now. I continue working on the, now lighter feathers, by first going over everything with a darkened red and orange wash. This is called glazing and does not involve white (which would make the colour opaque). It helps add depth, binds the painting and pushes colours back or brings them forward. I can then go in (as I have here) with a small brush and add more light details with the knowledge that if they are too bright or look out of place, I can glaze over them to push them back. This is how I continue. I paint a few feathers in their entirety and a few as quick brushstrokes on the head. But most are just the splayed brush strokes from the previous stage, shining through under the glazes. I add some rough detail to the eye and some darker shadow glazes under the beak, jaw and eyebrows.

Step Six: The finished painting

This may look like a big step, but really it is just a couple more glazes and some highlights. I add some quick feather shapes to act as the back and shoulder. The lack of detail on these means your focus remains on the head and eye. Everything, (including the beak and background) is glazed over with another dark red, made up of diluted Cadmium Red, Orange Yellow and Burnt Umber, before adding some yellow tainted white highlights to the feathers and beak as they catch the light. I then focus on the eye. Adding a yellow background first (watered-down yellow ochre) and then an impression of pine trees in a made-up green. The clouds give a realistic gleam of light, along with a hint of blue and the silhouette of another bird of prey, our eagle's mate?

And that's that. In total it has taken me a little over four hours to complete and I am pleased that the focus has remained on the eye as I had planned and the colours work harmoniously, creating a golden ambience. The work in the reflection gives the viewer something else to study rather than a simple portrait of a Golden Eagle and a sense of wonder at what scene the bird is surveying. Go on, give it a go.

Ben Waddams describes himself as a wildlife artist, writer and adventurer. His work can be found online at and he happily takes on wildlife and pet commission requests. He can be contacted through and his paintings are currently exhibited at The Reynolds Gallery, Shrewsbury.

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