Not all those who wander are lost.

 –J.R.R. Tolkien

A Steller’s Sea-Eagle and Daniel Smith Gouache Meet in my Sketchbook

I wanted to test Daniel Smith’s new line of gouache paints for this blog post. I had not decided on a subject as of last week. And then an extremely rare vagrant bird wandered back to mid-coast Maine last week. Yes, back. This magnificent bird, a Steller’s Sea-Eagle,returned to the same area in Mid-Coast Maine that it had visited last winter. Its story is a tale of ‘unbelievables’.

The Steller’s Sea-Eagle is massive, one of the largest of the world’s raptors; it’s normal range is half a world away from my New England home, on the rocky seacoasts and rivers of northeastern Siberia in Russia and northern Japan. It is a rare bird with only 4 to 5 thousand estimated to remain in the wild. They are classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List. So just how did it get here? Well, it flew.

A Wandering Mythical Bird

In August of 2020, a Steller’s Sea Eagle was spotted in Alaska along the Denali Highway, far inland from where they would intermittently show up in Alaska. The next sighting of a Stellerʻs was in March, 2021 in Texas; it was thought to be the same bird, but they were’t able to confirm at that time. Then in June 2021 a Steller’s Sea-Eagle was spotted on the Gaspé Peninsula in Canada. This time, photographic evidence of its upper wings color patterns confirmed it was the same bird as the one spotted in Alaska. In December of 2021 it was actually spotted in southern Massachusetts only about an hour away from me, but it only stayed two short days. By January it had settled into Maine. 

I was deep into the illustrations for Morning Leaves and felt that I didn’t have time to run up to try to see it, even though my sister lives only about an hour away from where it was.

This Time Around…

Fast forward to last week when, unbelievably, it showed back up at one of the same places in Maine where it spent time in last year. It had spent the summer in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. 

This time, I wasn’t going to miss my chance to see this rare, magical creature. It was just about the equivalent of seeing a unicorn, this rare, almost mystical bird from halfway around the world, only about 4 hours away from my home in Connecticut.

We arrived to find her perched mostly hidden from the sight of all of her admirers gathered on a small rural bridge over a tidal river in Mid-Coast Maine. She was very far away, so her size was hard to gauge. I scanned my binoculars over the ducks in the river, gulls flying by and soaring hawks trying to use something familiar with which to understand how large it was.  Most of the birds that were near her were little dark dots even in my binoculars. And then the call went out; she’s flying!! She lifted into the air, flying quickly out of sight around a bend in the river that I could almost believe she truly was mythical, but the fact that we could see her so clearly from such a distance meant that she was indeed much larger than the hawks and bald eagles in the trees and skies around her.

Just How Big is She?

I’ve seen photos of her next to Bald Eagles, which at 10 lbs with a 7-foot wingspan are one of our largest flying birds. She towers over them, making them look diminished in appearance. The Steller’s Sea-Eagle is about a foot taller and longer than an adult Bald Eagle and can weigh up to 20 lbs with an 8-foot wingspan. I’ve been fortunate to see a California Condor soaring in the wild, a bird that is even larger than the Steller’s, but seeing the Steller’s lazily flapping away so quickly was a sight I will not forget!

I’ve seen them up close at the Edinburgh Zoo and the Pittsburgh National Aviary, they are impressively and unbelievably large, with a massive golden bill. A perfect subject for testing out some new gouache by Daniel Smith (link here)!

Daniel Smith Extra Fine™ Gouache – My Casual Observations

How saturated are the pigments and how do they respond to painting almost directly from the tube?

These paints are really juicy and super-saturated straight out of the tube. I used a Stay-Wet palette to keep the paints moist while I worked in my sketchbook. (Note: I used the cover after an afternoon of painting and found that all the paints were still wet the next morning.) They would perform very well outside in the field, squeezing the paint out on a damp paper towel in your palette. I would still have a small spray bottle on hand to keep the paint moist for a long painting session or if I was in a dry climate.

How do they paint on white watercolor paper?

I tested the colors on a piece of Fabriano Artistico hot press watercolor paper. The colors are saturated and clean on white paper. They dilute very nicely with water. Adding titanium white produced clean tints of all the colors. The paint reconstituted nicely; they didn’t seem to ‘split’ or change working properties. Straight colors painted nicely over a broad brushstroke of white and one of black. The diluted tints painted over black picked up a little of the black paint, so care must be used with how much water is added to avoid picking paint from earlier layers.

How they paint on a toned surface, especially black?

I paint with gouache on toned paper a lot. I love the versatility of using different colored papers as an instantly established tone and value. I especially love painting with gouache on black paper; it is just so dramatic and striking!

I tested the colors on a piece of Legion Paper’s Stonehenge Aqua Hotpress Black. It is a gorgeously deep, rich black paper that takes gouache very nicely. Again, the colors are very saturated and clean. As a matter of fact, I think they just shimmer against the black background! They dilute very nicely with water, and here you can see how you can use the tone and value of the colored paper come through the washes adding dimension and interest. Adding titanium white produced clean tints of all the colors. As I said before, the paint reconstituted nicely; they didn’t seem to ‘split’ or change working properties. Straight colors painted nicely over a broad brushstroke of white. I can see some more paintings on this black paper with Daniel Smith gouache in the future!

How did they perform in sketchbook studies?

I like to do sketchbook studies with gouache. I find it a quicker medium than watercolor; from experiment with colors, creating value studies to finished paintings. I am continually trying to paint in a more loose manner, more ‘painterly’ and gouache seems to help me with that goal. My working method tends to be starting with diluted washes similar to watercolor and then building the study with consecutive layers of mixed colors to continue to build form, lights and shadows. My favorite property of gouache is the ability to work light over dark, hence the tests I did of the paint over a white strip and a black strip. I love its visual qualities of transparent, translucent and opaque.

Light to Dark

The Daniel Smith gouache performed as nicely as any other gouache I’ve used. It was especially nice for mixing colors; they were clean mixes not muddy or chalky. Washes laid down easily and cleanly. Despite the fact that gouache is inherently an opaque medium, I could thin the color enough with water to create lighter toned transparent washes. Layering washes allowed for some of the underlay color to shine through, similar to watercolor. Wet-in-wet washes can be exciting and unpredictable, and gouache is no exception you can see how the small area of wet-in-wet created the illusion of the eagle’s back talon. Thin layers of color, diluted and tinted with white create beautiful translucent passages, one of the unique aspects of gouache that I truly love.

Dark to Light
As I build up a gouache study, I rely on the opaque properties of gouache to begin to paint light over dark. It is particularly well-suited to creating details such as the lighter tips of feathers over  the dark parts of the underlying feathers. A tiny bit of Titanium white straight from the tube creates a perfect highlight on an eye. If I were using watercolors I would have to either paint around the paper color to maintain the highlight or use some type of mask. It is ever so much easier to paint at the end after getting the eye colors just right!

The Daniel Smith gouache worked exceptionally well light over dark; based on the color tests on black paper, I figured it would, at least I hoped it would, and it didn’t disappoint. It was very easy to use a mix of more pigment/less water/titanium white to paint lighter valued colors over darker ones. Again, I was impressed with how clean the colors were; they didn’t seem muddy or chalky like some gouache can. 

Blending, Lifting and Softening
Gouache doesn’t cure and become impervious to water like acrylic or egg tempera. Because it can be reconstituted with water or wet paint, it can be manipulated on your painting. I like to push and pull the paint to mix areas, create an even transition of color, and soften edges. I loved how easily this paint was to manipulate. I was able to get a very subtle transition of color and value in the eagle’s eye and I didn’t have to struggle and repaint several times to get there. Another important note, I was able to pull up color with a clean damp brush easily when I needed to.

In Conclusion

Yeah Daniel Smith! I was hoping I would love your gouache as much as I love your watercolor. I am not in any way paid or compensated by Daniel Smith to promote their products, I am just a fan. In conclusion, I will be adding the remaining Daniel Smith Extra Fine™ Gouache colors to my now-burgeoning gouache collection!  Feel free to contact me if you have any questions, I’m happy to help. I truly believe that gouache is a medium to be played with and not put in a corner while it’s more traditional cousins get all the limelight. And I won’t wait until I see another mega-rare bird before I paint and post about gouache again!