Spruce Grouse Habitat
How to make a bird feel at home
Since entering his first competition in 1994, Jerry Simchuk has competed regularly at top-level bird carving shows around the country. A full-time artist since 2004, Jerry currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where he continues to build his reputation as a wildlife artist, carver, judge, and instructor. You can reach him at Jerry@Simchuk.com.
Choosing the best habitat for your carving can be quite a challenge. Should the bird be on a branch or a rock? If on a tree, what kind? Is it spring or fall? What should you include with the main habitat? Will the piece have a pedestal, or will it be freestanding? And so on.
The great thing about making habitat is that the process is more free-form than carving a bird. It’s fun and creative. Make it your way. If you want to add a dip in the rock, put it in. If you want a bend in the branch, add it.
The carving for this article is a half-sized spruce grouse. Space was a factor with this piece, so I needed to keep the habitat relatively compact. If there had been no space limitations, I might have chosen a pedestal concept with more room for the habitat.
I also had to determine my setting. Since this was a spruce grouse, I wanted to include evergreens. I decided I wanted to place the bird on a deadfall branch, with some pinecones, rocks, twigs, needles, and maybe even some moss. These grouse blend into their surroundings, so I wanted my habitat elements to help with the effect.
I like the rule of odd numbers when selecting the amount of leaves, rocks, branches, and other elements to add to the composition. Sometimes one isn’t enough, so go up to three or five. Be careful not to let the habitat overpower the bird. If it does, start removing components until you get the right balance.
Once you have all the elements in mind for the habitat, you need to determine how the final composition will look. I like to draw thumbnail sketches, quick drawings that help me visualize what I will do. Take no more than a minute to make quick sketches of your ideas to get them down on paper.
For a closer look at each step, please click on the images to enlarge.
WILDFOWL CARVING HABITAT
This is a refined version of the final concept I sketched. There are three different versions with slight variations in profile shape and flow. I drew a top view, too. Sometimes I draw front or back views. Once I have the idea on paper, I can enlarge it to actual size, place the bird’s pattern next to it, and make any additional adjustments. Most of the time I draw out the design on a block of wood so I can make changes on the final block.
This habitat will include a main dead branch, a few rocks, some pinecones, branches/twigs, and ground cover that includes moss or grass and needles. I will carve most of this from a single block but will create the small branches/twigs, pinecones, and some needles separately. The pinecones will be wood and the small branches/twigs will be brass or brazing rod. I can carve some needles into the main block of wood and make others from brass rods or foil.
To create realistic habitat you need plenty of good references. I surround my work area with branches, rocks, pine cones, and photos.
Roughing out the Habitat
Find a block of tupelo that will fit both the profile and top view patterns. Try to find a piece that has the wood grain running in the direction of the deadfall. This will help give the branch a natural look. The quality of the block doesn’t matter. I often use the worst piece of wood I have for the habitat to highlight its rough nature. Cut out the top and profile views on a band saw. I also block out the pinecones wtih scrap tupelo. I use actual cones for my patterns, which I scale down to 50 percent to come up with the starting blocks. Each pine cone will have a slightly different size and shape. Get in the habit of varying your elements/components. This will add to the habitat’s natural look.
Draw and Define the Individual Components
With the main block sized properly, draw in the locations for the deadfall branch, rocks, and ground cover. I draw the top view as well as the profile view. Using a Typhoon, I begin removing all the excess wood—everything above the profile line and outside the top-view line. Continue removing wood until these elements stand out.
Refine the Individual Components
Once you’ve started to bring each component out of the block, start refining with a Typhoon and/or carbide bit or whatever lets you remove a lot of wood quickly. Refine by taking the square out of the components and shaping them to lay or flow together naturally. I want to create a broken and weathered end for the deadfall branch so it looks like it broke falling on the big rock. The rock will go into the ground beneath the branch. To get the right look, carve the rock’s shape first, and then shape the branch around it. Make sure the dead branch is large enough for the bird to stand on comfortably. I carve or shape the back side of the branch to give the impression that it is partially buried in the ground as well. There will be ground cover lying in front of it.
Draw the outline of a pinecone on its block. The base will be wider and gradually taper to a rounded tip at the center. Notice how I also include a little nub at the base, to show where the cone broke off the tree. Cut the outline shape from the two views while keeping the overall cone in block form. This will assure a fairly uniform shape later. Once you’ve blocked in all the cones, round off the edges so you have nice smooth cones all the way around.
Draw the Scales
Looking at a real cone, draw the scale pattern. Notice how a cone has a spiral, layered look. Make sure the sizes and shapes of the scales are random.
Cut in the Scales
Use a small flame bit to cut in the scales. A shallow cut will give you a flatter opening to each scale, while a deeper cut will represent a larger opening. Switch to a football diamond and refine the scales by cutting down the bases while leaving the tops as wide as possible. You can keep the rounded shape and flow going as you refine the bases and edges of each scale. Leave the top/outer edges sharp. Add a little more detailing to the cone by slightly undercutting each scale with a narrow flame bit. This gives each scale a thinner look. You don’t want them so thin they break, so taper in to make the scale thicker as you go deeper into the cone. Now smooth all the cones with sandpaper. You can soften all the edges slightly and remove any scratches or gouges you don’t want.
Add the final touches of detail with a little texture to each scale and indentation. Use the white cylinder and flame stones to create these details. Also, use the white flame stone to soften the edges of all the scales. Carve a break in the nub at the base.
I use small brass wire and silver solder to create a number of twigs to lie in and around the pine cones and ground cover. The key is to make them small and vary their lengths and branchings. I shape the twigs to get a certain flow in and around the other habitat components. This flow will help direct a person’s eye up to and around the bird. These twigs also serve to fill in any empty spaces. If you add too many twigs, remove them until you like the overall look and balance. There isn’t a real need to do much cleanup work on the brass and silver solder. The thicker areas will look like natural imperfections in the twigs.
Once you’ve roughed in the components and given them shapes you like, you can lay in the details. Use carbide and diamond flames to add texture and definition to the rocks and deadfall. This particular rock will have rounded edges and slight undercuts or cracks and dimples on the surface. To create this look, I loosely run my diamond flame football bit along the sides and top surface. I try to create a slightly layered effect rather than running cracks in all directions.
When I draw the bark pattern on the deadfall branch, I show old bark that is thick and has good depth between segments. Using the same football diamond bit, I first create the deep definition between segments, and then go back and round off the edges. I create the waved or rough surfaces of each segment by laying the football on its side and now and then using the point to create an edge or flake segment. Be sure to vary the depths and shapes of these flakes. I create a basic flow from bottom of the branch up so there is a natural looking growth pattern. It’s longer going up and down the tree than from side to side.
I save the ground cover for last, as I want the grass, needles, and moss to look like they are on top of the edges of the rocks and dead branch. Draw the needles where you want them to go and give them a random pattern. Use a variety of diamond bits, from the football to a narrow flame, to cut in each needle outline. Make sure you have a random overlap effect, too. Once they are all outlined you can go back and refine them and create the moss or grass effect with the narrow diamond flame bit. You can use this narrow diamond flame to create some nice depth in the ground cover. You want to get a sense of depth, as though the ground floor has become thick with needles, grass, and moss over many years of shedding.
The Bird and Legs
Once you complete the habitat, you can attach the legs and get the stance just right before painting. This is also the time to get another view of the entire composition and decide on any necessary adjustments. If you have time, let it sit over the weekend and look at it with fresh eyes later. In many cases this will give you enough perspective to notice things you’d like to change. I paint and detail the legs before painting the habitat.
Painting should be an enjoyable stage of habitat creation. Keep in mind that it’s just paint. If you don’t like the color, just go back over it with a different one. The challenge is learning how to use different colors to get you the look you want. Think in terms of layers rather than getting there in one shot. I like to apply colors in many thin layers. Thick applications work sometimes, but in most cases with acrylics, thin layers create softness and subtle transition of tones.
For this habitat, I used Jo Sonja’s Artist’s Colors, which I like for their more realistic matte finish. I used warm white, smoked pearl, carbon black, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw umber, raw sienna, ultramarine blue, burgundy, yellow oxide, yellow light, pine green, and yellow green. I also used other Jo Sonja’s Mediums, including matte varnish.
On all the wood and epoxy parts of the habitat I apply several coats of Curt’s Teekay’s Wood Sealer. (You can also use Deft semi-gloss or other wood sealers, too.) The first coat will be the heaviest. Apply the sealer until you notice the absorption slowing down quite a bit. Let this dry for a good hour or more before applying the second and third coats. The second and third coats can be quite a bit thinner than the first.
When working with metal and epoxy materials, I like to use Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Sealer and Primer. You can tint this primer with paint to aid the foundation color or leave it white. The twigs need primer and the Zinsser creates some extra texture. Just like texture paste, you can stipple the primer on the twigs and create irregular bumps and imperfections. One or two applications are all that you need to properly prime and texture the surface of the twigs.
After sealing and priming the habitat components, I like to work from a white canvas. A few applications of smoked pearl on all the habitat surfaces gets that for me. The twigs don’t need it as they are already white from the primer. Once you have a uniform color tone, add one or two applications of warm white to all surfaces.
For most tree and rock habitats I start with the same type of foundation colors, changing the order depending on what primary color (red, yellow, or blue) I want to dominate. I apply the dominant or primary color last. I want my habitat to contain a full range of colors. I will use burgundy as the red, raw sienna as the yellow, and ultramarine blue for the blue. Burgundy and ultramarine blue are very strong colors so you will want to thin these two down quite a bit.
I apply all these base colors in a single thin wash. If the wash is too thin and there is little to no noticeable color after it has dried, then go back with a little thicker wash. The thin washes settle into the texture. Make sure you apply enough from your 1" wash brush so you get paint running in and around the surface and texture of your habitat—but not so much that you create a river, just a gradual flow of paint in and around the habitat.
Allow these washes to dry naturally. Don’t speed up the process with a hair dryer. Apply these washes to the deadfall branch, rocks, and twigs.
I start by applying raw umber. This starts a brown foundational tone. For the branch and twigs I apply ultramarine blue, then raw sienna, and finally burgundy. The rocks get burgundy, then raw sienna, and finally ultramarine blue. For the branch and twigs I want a reddish tone to dominate, while for the rocks I want a cooler or blue tone as the primary tone.
Once all the primary colors are in place you can play with enhancing one primary over another until you have the desired tones you want. When you’re satisfied, you want to tie the colors together. Do this with a thin wash of raw umber over all surfaces with primary tones. This will tone down all the colors a little bit, which pulls them all together.
The final base color is a dark tone that will help darken the textured areas. It also can help pull the primary colors together. Apply a thin wash or two of a dark mix made of two parts burnt umber and one of ultramarine blue. You want to mix this so it has a slight brown tint to it rather than a blue tint. I prefer the warm tone over the cool tone.
The twigs are pretty much completed with the exception of some highlighting. Dry brush smoked pearl, raw umber, and warm white mixtures to highlight the texture and ends.
Ground Cover Painting
In the areas with grass or moss you can apply a wash or two of raw umber and then a wash or two of pine green. Apply a wash or two of raw sienna to the pine needles. The needles have a slight rusty tone with some brown sienna. Create a mixture of raw sienna with a quarter part of burnt sienna and apply a wash so it settles into the texture of all these needles. Now apply a good wash or two of dark mix to the entire ground cover. This darkens the texture and starts to pull the colors together. Apply less around the pine needles, or make sure most of it goes into the texture. It’s heavier over the grass and moss.
Dead Branch Detailing
I didn’t want the habitat to be too busy so I simply dry brushed a little pine green to the surface of the bark. This green tone implies moss without really being obvious. It also implies a little damper environment. I now add highlights using the smoked pearl and raw umber mixture. Start out a little darker with the highlight tone and gradually lighten it to full smoked pearl and even warm white to show where the light hits some areas. If it gets too light, simply dry brush with raw umber. You can play back and forth with the highlights until you are satisfied with the look. The final touch of detail is getting a sense of shadow and depth. Apply some raw umber or even dark mix along the lower sides and edges of the dead branch as it meets the ground cover or rocks. Any deep cuts or breaks can be darkened as well. When applying, come back and wet blend the edges up and away from the darkest portion of the shadow area. This will create a soft and subtle transition.
With rocks, I add paint until my eyes think I see a real rock. At this point you can add the highlights and variation by stippling a variety of colors over the surface. I will use smoked pearl, warm white along with raw umber, raw sienna, and burnt sienna to speckle a variety of colors on the surface. Then I will go back and apply a wash of dark mix over the entire thing to pull tones together and settle into the texture of the rock. For highlighting, I use smoked pearl, raw umber, and warm white. Start out with a darker tone and gradually work to the lightest. Finally, create the sense of shadow and depth by adding raw umber or dark mix along the bases of the rocks as they meet the ground cover or are covered up by the branch. Wet blend up and away from the dark shadow area for a soft transition.
The foundation tones are now in place. Bring out the grass or moss by dry brushing greens and yellows. If you want the grass or moss muted, then stick with darker tones; if you want some bright green areas then you will go to the lighter green. I use a combination of pine green, yellow green, yellow light, and raw sienna to go from dark to light. Add phthalo green for a more brilliant color; some yellow light will make it brighter.
Highlight the pine needles with raw sienna and warm white mixtures. Highlight the pine needles with combinations of raw sienna, burnt sienna, smoked pearl, and warm white. Dry brushing is an easy way to create highlights because the paint catches on the highest parts of the carving. At this point it’s a matter of refining anything that you might spot. Add a shadow here or there with the dark mix; add some more highlights with smoked pearl, raw umber, and/or warm white, or adjust some colors that may not stand out.
I thought some individual pine needles on the rocks would provide a realistic look and help bring out the three dimensionality. I cut the needles from brass rod and flattened them with a hammer to get the proper thickness. You can also cut needle shapes out of foil. In both cases, grind away the sharp edges. I also beveled each base to show where the needle narrows and attaches to a tree branch. The tips are rounded. Paint these needles like the ones in the ground cover. Start with a foundation color of raw sienna. Then create a mix of raw sienna and burnt sienna to get a slight red tone. Apply raw umber near the bases and along the edges to darken. Finally highlight the tips and edges with a various combinations of smoked pearl, raw sienna, or raw umber. Work in some warm white for a lighter tone.
The pinecones have a brown/sienna tone. Start with a few applications of raw sienna. Make sure you get good coverage. Now darken as the scales go into the cone. Use a combination of raw sienna and burnt sienna and apply a wash or two with a focus from the middle inward on each scale. You want a slight red tone. Next, apply a wash or two of burnt umber to darken even more as the scales go into the cone. Wet blend each application up toward the tips of the scales so you get a soft transition from dark to light. Then apply the dark mix, directed at the innermost portion of each scale. Finally, apply highlights to the edges, tips, and texture detail. Use a combination of raw sienna and warm white. Start with a darker mix and gradually work your way to more of a warm white tone. Straight warm white will be too bright. You can always tone down the highlights by dry brushing raw sienna over the bright areas.
With the habitat and bird completed, it’s time to attach everything permanently. I carefully arrange all loose items and before gluing them into place I wait for a couple of days to make sure I’m happy with the layout. I want a natural flow from bird to habitat. Then I use five-minute epoxy to attach the elements one by one. Take your time. With this one I started with the twigs, and then I went to the pine cones, then the pine needles, and finally the bird.
The final step is to apply a sealer over the entire piece. I used Testors Dullcote. A single good covering is all you need. Once this dries, add any shine you want. For example, you can shine up the toes and talons with matte varnish.
Now you can stand back and know you have created a wonderful living space for your carving. Bird and habitat are truly a single piece of art.