Snowy Cardinal Holiday Commission

Gouache and Sumi Ink Painting

framed portrait of a northern cardinal painted in gouache and sumi ink, yellow Ren S.K. Studio business card in the bottom corner.

As the holiday season of 2020 was approaching, Trevor reached out to request a custom painting as a gift for his dad. He wanted to brighten his spirits during a particularly hard year in the midst of a pandemic, and imagined a piece that his dad could hang in his office as a sign of hope.

Specifically, he requested the painting to be of a male Northern Cardinal, which carried the sentiment of his late grandmother who loved the birds and decorated her house with them. His story was touching to hear and it reminded me of my own late grandmother who would watch a pair of cardinals nest outside her kitchen window, convinced that they were the souls of loved ones coming to watch over her.

When Trevor asked me to work on this commission, I said “I’m always pumped to paint a bird, let me tell you what!” And that’s the truth.

Birds of Perseverance

Cardinalis cardinalis

If you are from the northern United States or Canada, you likely understand the hope and perseverance that Northern Cardinals represent. Two qualities that were much needed in the turbulent year of 2020. The winters are typically long, around four months, and very dark, especially here in Michigan with seemingly endless cloud cover. Clouds are created as cold air rushes over the Great Lakes. The lake effect keeps our winter temperatures from dropping as low as other northern states, but the trade off is intense overcast and a whole lot of snow. Most birds migrate to warmer homes, but one of the only song birds you’ll reliably see in the winters are these spry little avians. Their cheerful songs break the chilly silence of the season. Their vibrant red plumes are a flash of life against white backdrops of snow.

The Artistic Process

Since I spend a lot of my free time wandering around in natural spaces, I knew exactly where to observe some cardinals for reference. About a half mile from my studio is a vernal pond – water resting as snow for the winter. The shrubs around its edges often come alive with flocks of them snacking on winter berries, fermented fruits left from the summer flush. On this particular occasion, I spotted only one, a male, resting like a flame in the monotone landscape.

Trevor requested the piece to combine aspects from two different paintings I had created. One was a sleepy cardinal gouache painting and a sumi ink snowscape from a portrait of my great horned owl neighbor. For this commission, I imagined the cardinal to be on a branch of ruby berries. Not only do they like to eat them for the winter, they also accentuate their red color.

🎨 Timelapse of Mr.SnowyCardinal. Palette in brilliant red, crimson, ochre, black and white.

The first step was drawing the cardinal on recycled watercolor paper in pencil. I brushed water on the surface where the background would be and applied diluted sumi ink in layers. Then I sprinkled on the salt! This pulls the pigments towards the granules to create an interesting snowy texture. I practiced patience while waiting for this sopping wet sheet of paper to dry. Then, I went to the gouache! Gouache is an opaque, matte watercolor and I’ve found it contrasts the liquidy-ness of ink nicely. I painted the bird and berries in layers, starting with a red base. I chose cool and warm reds for the palette, as well as ochre, black and white. I wanted the intensity of the feathers and berries to pop against a muted background.

artist holding a framed portrait of a northern cardinal painted in gouache and sumi ink

As I was painting, it spontaneously crossed my mind to put a little pile of snow on Mr. Cardinal’s head, to really illustrate that they have been waiting out the storm, much as we have been persevering this pandemic. The final touches of an outline, like that of a key block in printmaking, pulled the image together. I had an extra frame around and housed the dried portrait. Wow, once you put something in a frame, it really takes it to another level! It was the perfect commission: birds, ink and gouache. I couldn’t have been more honored to create it. I hope it brings some hope during these tough months ahead.