Turtle Prints and Watercolors

by Brian Gordy

Turtle species are built for specific habitats.  Painted Turtles, Snapping Turtles and Red-eared Sliders prefer ponds, lakes and slow moving deeper water.  Softshells and Map Turtles like faster water.  Musk, Mud and Spotted Turtles are usually found in wetlands and muddy, backwater pools. I have been lucky enough to discover a spot that has proven to be a "Mother Lode" for observing the different species of native turtles.  This river bend has fast water and sand bars to the inside of the bend and a lazy, deep water current to the outside, it also has swampy little seasonal mud pools.  The banks in this area are undercut from erosion and laced together with swirling sycamore roots.  These roots, along with numerous fallen trees laying their entire lengths out into the water, combine to create a most important feature... turtle bleachers!  A ridge runs alongside the river, well above the water's surface, that allows me to spot basking groups or individuals from a fair distance, and out of the "Wary Zone".  From this ridge, I plan the approach that might bring me the best opportunity for a composition with enough detail that warrants a painting. From this spot alone I have  identified 9 species of turtles:  Northern Map Turtles, False Map Turtles, Painted Turtles, Red-eared Sliders, Eastern Snapping Turtles, Spiny and Smooth Softshells and Musk Turtles (Stinkpots).

Today's subject, a Spiny Softshell  was basking just beneath an undercut bank... I got lucky this time.  The Softshell species, the athletes of the turtle family, are very fast, very jumpy and usually very large.  They tend, more than other species to pull out right on the bank and snooze in the sun.  Many times, while inching my way through the brambles and tangled saplings toward a promising basking group, I would happen upon a Softshell hidden by the bank. The commotion caused by the surprised turtle scrambling hysterically into the water would warn all other turtles for 1000 yards that something was amiss... in they would go...all of them... taking my turtle day with them.  I happened to discover this one early enough. 

The Softshell Turtle is an interesting character, unique from the rest of the native turtles of this area.  Its shell, devoid of the obvious presence of scutes - the geometric sections that constitute the shell of all other turtles of the area - has the look of a pre 1930's football helmet... more of a "head pad" than an actual helmet. Its snout, pointed and elongated, defies the "cute" stereotype that childrens' books and animation have exploited through the ages...perhaps making this turtle seem a bit too reptilian or dinosaur-like to be appreciated.  The pliability of shell, coupled with an odd luminosity, and exotic proportions make the form of a Softshell Turtle a very interesting study for a watercolor painter.  It is, in fact, one of my favorites.


Watercolor Notes:

This being a great example of a Spiny, rather than Smooth Softshell, it seemed important to make the reason for the distinction obvious, which really isn't that obvious at first glance.  So, the drawing, defining the spines around the perimeter of the shell, was of utmost importance. From there it was a matter of first preserving the shape of the turtle, while washing in the tones of the water.  In this instance, the water has a coppery hue caused by the vegetation and bottom-mud tinted water overlaid with the blue reflection of the sky. I began with an overall wash of Burnt Sienna, lightened with water in areas that would need to show more blue influence.  While that warm wash was still moist, I flooded in a wash of Cobalt Blue (with a touch of Dioxazine Purple), being cognizant of areas that needed to remain warm, neutral, or cool. The turtle form and the elements of land - logs, branches, rocks - the still remain white.

While the water is just barely damp, I brush in a few accents of Burnt Sienna to emphasize reflections. 

The turtle shell, deeply colored and opalescent in normal light, is highly reflective in this instance. It's important to paint what is seen rather than what is known. So, here, a very light Yellow Ochre undertone, with an overlaid wash of Terre Verte creates the overall color.  A little dose of water into that wash helps to convey the effect of glare upon a smooth surface.  A Violet adjustment(Dioxazine Purple) to that soft green wash gives the shell its dimension.

Lacking reflectance, the flesh of this turtle shows the wonderfully mottled design that helps it remain inconspicuous in the wild. The first wash, a mixture of Yellow Ochre and Cadmium Orange, is followed by some tinting with Burnt Sienna and Cerulean Blue. When still damp, I lay in a wash consisting of Sap Green, Burnt Sienna and Cobalt Blue. It's here that I indicate the mottling by denser amounts of color dabbed into moist paint to create soft edged dots and patches.

As with most turtles, the camouflage inherent in their near-perfect design is subverted only by the brilliant coloration that occurs on the underside of the animal.  In this case, the rim of the plastron (bottom part of the shell), and the underside of the flesh - a mixture of Cadmium Orange and Cadmium Red -  are integral to the composition, providing just enough complimentary color to bring the gray greens of the turtle's flesh to life.

As usual, finishing touches are adding darks to enhance luminosity. Mixes of sepia with cobalt for shadows and reflections on the water, violet with sap green and burnt sienna for the underside of the turtle. 

A trick I learned from Winslow Homer is next, and the final, final touch.  Around the face, I hop up key shadows with a dab of dry brush Cerulean Blue.  I do the same on key highlights with Cadmium Red.












Written by Brian Gordy — January 29, 2014

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All of the images you’ll find on this site were created in watercolor. All prints are giclees (jee-clays) printed on acid free, heavy weight “fine art” paper using permanent, light- fast inks. Each signed and numbered giclee is published in an edition of 100 images each per listed size. Prints are available unframed, or matted and framed with ebony stained wood frame and natural white mat (see "Framing Examples" below).

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