Bornean orangutan

Bornean orangutan watercolor portrait

Collaboration with Cynthia Simms


I was looking for an endangered animal to paint. I watched a video of the most endangered species and (coming in at number 10) happened upon this species of orangutan. Their gentle, thoughtful faces attracted me. I am entering “mindfulness month,” and wanted a subject that would require mindful brushstroke after mindful brushstroke. This gentleman’s fur will do nicely.

Anticipated challenges:

  • portraying volume in an almost monochromatic picture.
  • Varieties of ginger hair.
  • The short brown texture of his face.
  • Capturing his expression


I began with a pencil sketch. The body outline was easy, but it was difficult to get the proportions on his face correctly. I kept instinctively drawing his face with human proportions or getting confused and putting the nose and mouth too low. It wasn’t until I started painting and therefore “sculpting” the face that the positioning of the features became obvious.

I painted the variegated green background first. That was easy. Then I began on the fur. Varieties of ginger weren’t difficult, because of my new paint set, which includes mixing trays! As I am constantly re-creating colors, I never get the same one twice. Variety is therefore painless.

The lighter shade on his face went in next, followed by the gold of his eyes. Then I got scared, and went back to painting hair. Eventually, I had to return to the face. I started to add in shading. As I mentioned, that made the placement of the nose clear.

I asked Cynthia Simms (my personal care attendant and – lucky me – a wonderful artist) to paint the nose because it is dark and I was afraid of making a smear of it. She did that and added some definition to the eyes. Cynthia can add some paint and then use a paper towel to soften the mark. That’s not something I can do.  

 Cynthia’s shift was done and I needed to leave for a doctor’s appointment then. The next day, Cynthia asked if I looked at the painting. “I worked on it after you left,” she confessed, “and got a little carried away.” She had finished painting the face. She captured his expression and solved the “texture” problem. It’s beautiful. I’m sure I wouldn’t have done as well. I feel surprise, embarrassed, regretful and grateful. (The regret is not that Cynthia painted, it’s that I don’t have her skill.)


in retrospect, I wish my marks on the fur had been a little more curved to suggest the curvature of the arm.

I was right about this subject being perfect for mindful layering!

I am happy that gratitude is my strongest emotion when I look at this painting.


Posted on

March 2, 2020

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