arctic tern

Arctic tern in watercolor


My theme this month is exertion. I’m cautiously excited to get back to painting after an almost 6-month hiatus because of surgeries and recovering from them. I’m not yet as strong as I was and my sitting time is still limited because of a healing pressure sore.

The Arctic tern has the longest migration (~35,000 km) to from Antarctica. It takes the birds 90 days each way. .Before beginning their journey, the normally noisy tern colony goes silent. Then, they all take off for their journey at once.  ((National Geographic) Researchers mapping the birds’ migration routes have discovered that they work with the prevailing winds to conserve energy. They make a lengthy stop in the North Atlantic to feed on zooplankton to fuel their long journey. (BBC News) They follow the longest days.

Here’s my source photo and a link to more information (+ video) about the bird. I made a donation to the Audubon Society.


I began this project encouraging myself to use a looser, less realistic style. I thought such an approach would allow me to paint more quickly and therefore spend less time in the chair. Rather than sketching first, I painted enough of the blue background that I started to get an idea of the bird.

I used a light blue to begin to render the shadows on the wings and moved on to the head. I painted very light versions of the black areas (top of head, tips of wings, and legs.)

Using black is always nerve-wracking because (a) when I first learned to paint in watercolor, my teacher told me never to use black from the paint tray. He said to mix it from other colors to create a lively black. I chose to use the paint tray in order to save time and effort. (Not an example of exertion!) (b) painting black leaves little room for mistakes. Once you’ve made the mark, there is no erasing it or recovering from having painted it. It’s there!

I also used a gray from the paint tray to deepen the shadows on body and wings.

Looking at what I had done so far, I decided the bird was not showing up enough, so I darkened the shade of blue for the sky. Then I went around one more time, trying to add volume to the shapes.


  • when painting, I am dancing with my “shoulds,” conversing with my obedient self and limitations imposed by my disabilities.
  • I didn’t see any shadow on the tail feathers but, looking at the painting, I wonder if I should have added some to define the tail as part of the bird…
  • I like the looser style. It seems more energetic and vibrant. (I think I did spend a bit less time.)
  • The bird in the painting is a little chubby for a tern. When I tried to paint the black stripe on the head, I made it too round as if the bird were a chickadee. I am unconsciously trying to think birds I have seen (round headed and bellied) instead of the bird in front of me, which is built aerodynamically skinny. As usual, I prefer the fantasy in my head to the reality in front of me.
  • I wonder what this painting would look like if I hadn’t used gray and black from the paint tray. Would I like it better or not as much? (I don’t want to take the time to paint another tern, but maybe next time there’s a lot of black, I can make a different choice.)
  • Black, on the other hand, is good practice for coping with my perfectionistic self.
  • I am VERY happy to be painting again!

Posted on

February 1, 2022


  1. Lee

    Kate, I’m delighted to see a new painting from you, because I know you love to paint and I’m so glad you’re feeling well enough to paint a bit, AND because this image is beautiful! The sense of volume and movement really comes through. Looking at it, I feel the energy of flight! Thank you for sharing your art and your wisdom.

    • Kate

      Lee, lovely to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words. I’m especially pleased to hear you mention volume, movement, and energy. I’m honored to share my art and writing with you. Thanks for the encouragement!


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