Soft Touches

Painting animals using a mixed media technique

Professional artist Vivien Walters shows you how touse pastel and gouache to paint a traditional robin for your very own Christmas card.


The image of a robin in the snow seems to have become synonymous with Christmas, so this month I will be showing you how to create your own personal Christmas card design.Professional printers can easily turn your design into a run of cards, or if you have a personal computer and the know-how you can even do it yourself.

p>I based this design on a photograph of one of our resident robins, taken on a cold and snowy day. I added the holly to give the design a traditional feel using a sprig taken from the garden.

Having transferred the design onto a sheet of Pastelmat I added a couple of thin layers of gouache, then used pastels to complete the painting. In my experience publishers prefer a light toned paper for greeting cards, but working with pastels on light paper can be difficult. A gouache under-painting will provide depth and tone, enabling the painting to be finished in pastel.
Please note that references to left and right are as you look at the painting.

Tip: When designing greeting cards, consider how they are displayed for sale. It is usual to have the focus of interest in the top third of the design.

1I began by drawing the outline of the robin and holly bush on a piece of thin sketching paper, before transferring it to a light grey sheet of Pastelmat using Tracedown paper.

2The next stage began with a thin layer of gouache. I used only three colours - Red, Blue and Deep Yellow - which I placed around the edge of my palette. From these colours I could mix all the colours I needed, including subtle greys which I used in the background.

I did not premix every colour, but picked up colours as I went along and loosely mixed them with the brush on the palette, which gave me subtle, interesting changes of colour rather than perfectly flat even colours. I began by mixing an orange/red for the chest of the robin and thinly applied this. I mixed a soft darkish green for the foliage using blue and yellow softened with red, and then I added more blue and yellow to the mix and painted the holly leaves.

Using a darker red mix I painted in the berries. I continued using these mixes as a base for my subtle greys to use in the background by subduing the colour mixes with the opposite colour as I went along.

I painted these greys thinly over the background area, before painting in the branches. I then deepened the orange/red of the robin’s chest and loosely painted a stronger mix over the foliage at the top of the design.

Vivien Walters is a PA and published animal artist, and teaches animal painting techniques in pastel and mixed media at her home studio near Torrington, Devon.

Her workshops and courses (including a specialist course on pet portraiture) have been successfully developed as distance learning courses and are available by email and post.

Full details are on her website at

3When the first layer of gouache had dried I went over this layer with a further layer to deepen the colours. I painted the foliage loosely, not aiming to cover the first layer exactly, to help to give the foliage depth. I then added some touches of white gouache onto the holly and berries, and the branch that the robin is sitting on.

I also scumbled white gouache over the foliage at the top and top right hand corner of the design. Using pastel now my intention was to allow the gouache to show in places rather than obliterate it with pastel, particularly in the background. As with all the stages, I blended the pastel as I went on with either kitchen roll or a rubber blender.

I used pastel to block in the chest of the robin with Red Brown and Golden Yellow, indicated the shadows across the body with Ultramarine Blue and added White to the sunny areas. On the very top of his head I lightly added Natural Umber and Naples Yellow.

In the background close to the upper half of the robin I used Deep Grey, softening this out towards the edges and top with touches of Ultramarine Blue.

Then I used Light Grey on the lower area of the background surrounding the robin and let this fade into a pinky/grey towards the bottom of the design. Much of this area had already been painted a pinky grey with gouache and I now strengthened this colour here and there using Flesh and Light Grey pastel, however I left a considerable amount of gouache showing.

The foliage was strengthened in places using Deep Grey, and I added touches of White pastel for a frosty feel. Finally for this stage I indicated his tail using Flesh colour, with Light Grey for the shadow.

4 I began this next stage with the eye, the highlight came first and then the red brown to represent the area of the iris which was catching the light. Following this I deepened the shadow around the area of the eye using Bistre, and used this colour to darken the shadow area on his red breast.

Then I added Naples Yellow, Golden Yellow and White to the sunny areas on his head and chest. I deepened the shadows on his greyish white tummy with Ultramarine Blue, Light and Deep Grey, and added more White to the highlights. I used a touch of Black on the beak and scribbled some Orange onto the underside, then I dashed in the highlights to the beak using Naples Yellow and a touch of Orange.

On the area to the left of the robin I softly stroked on an Umber pastel and also Deep Grey then darkened the areas of wing showing at the bottom left with Sepia. On the robin’s red breast I added touches of Orange pastel to represent sunlight. I then gently blended all the areas I had worked on and rounded him off a little at the sides to make him look more fluffed out, after all it had been snowing!

5 My aim was to keep most of the colours in the background cool to create a frosty and wintry look to the design and also to make the robin’s red breast stand out like a jewel. I began this stage towards the top of the design leaving the edges and very top of the design soft, scumbling on a little Dark Green pastel, very lightly, over areas of foliage and background.

Next I added a few touches of Umber immediately behind the head of the robin and then used a Natural Umber pastel to deepen the colour on the very top of his head. I added White pastel to the frosty foliage and added a few accents to it using Umber. Moving down the design I scumbled on some Ultramarine Blue in the background area, around the central area of the design.

The twig he is standing on was then sharpened up using White and Umber and a touch of Orange. I also added a little snow to the lower twig using White. Using Dark Green and Light and Deep Grey I added some depth and detail to the holly, trying to keep the leaves from being obtrusive, then outlined the leaves in places with Light Yellow and White.

The berries were tidied up next using Red/Brown, Orange and Golden Yellow pastels plus a White for the highlights. I almost forgot his foot, the other one being hidden behind the holly. I used Umber to draw in the claws and a touch of White plus Naples Yellow on the outstretched claw. I sharpened up his eye with a little more Black.

6 I wanted to show a few specks of snow softly drifting down from the foliage. To achieve this I mixed White Gouache with a small amount of water, and using a nail brush I flicked the paint over the top area of the painting.

I had previously placed the painting flat on a table and I had covered the head of the robin with a small piece of paper to keep the drifting snow away from his face. Before I began flicking I practised on a spare piece of paper to get the mixture and the technique correct, and then held my breath when I did it for real!