Kruger BBQ - All You Can Eat!

I love hornbills. Any hornbill....big ones, little ones, Asian ones, African ones....and they don’t come much bigger than the Southern Ground-Hornbill. Having missed their larger-casqued cousins, the Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, in Uganda and Gambia it was an immense relief to catch up with this beast of a bird last year in South Africa’s excellent Kruger National Park. Not that they were very easy either – at Punda Maria (about as north as you can go in the park) we missed a family of 8 along the road on one day, but finally caught up with a lone male striding across the road the next. What an amazing bird!

We next found a family party of 8 birds (right outside one of the major campgrounds – typical!) and then had excellent views of a pair ripping apart a dead Cape Hare. It was these birds that formed the references for the group on the painting. The female has the lovely blue throat and the family group consists of a dominant breeding pair, immatures and other ‘helper’ adult males.

It was witnessing these birds and the massive bushfire that caused the night-sky to glow orange whilst in the park that gave me the initial idea for the piece. We had seen quite a few tortoises during our stay and I got to wondering how many must perish during these huge fires that left the landscape resembling an apocalyptic nightmare. So, marrying these thoughts together left me with a group of hornbills strutting though the burnt grasslands and eating any freshly barbequed food they find and, luckily for them, they come across a group of tortoises that obviously didn’t make it....crunchy on the outside but crispy on the inside! Watching Cape Glossy-Starlings making the most of the free food near the pair with the hare, grabbing scraps whenever they could, I knew I had to put some in....and they would also bring a splash of colour to what would have to be a rather monochrome landscape.

So the initial layout was planned out, and after much cutting, swapping around and switching back and forth, the final draught emerged and the first layers of colour were brushed over. The basic washes are applied to the birds also, as they need to be built up in relation to the background colours to make sure they work together tonally.



Kruger BBQ

The flames are given a little more definition and several termite mounds are added for background interest. The fallen tree behind the grouping is given more detailing and the ground is defined slightly more, breaking up the monochrome blacker colours with bare sandy earth. Beneath the fallen tree, in accordance with my reference photo, the ground was grey-white with ash so I define that slightly more with the thinking that the paler area will push the birds forward. Several fallen branches and rocks are roughed in just to break up the foreground and more bushes and trees are added.

The left-hand nearest tree is worked on a bit more to bring out exactly where the smoke is billowing out – again, it was weird driving through the park the morning after the fire seeing trees belching smoke! The smoke here and in the background is given a rough uniform direction of flow too. Again, another couple of washes are added to the birds themselves, the facial skin colour has been added and built up which will again hopefully bring the birds out of the landscape. The bird to the left is meant to be a younger bird, hence the pinker skin.

The nearest tree has been detailed now, giving it texture and form and several dead-looking paler sticks are added to break up the background and to emphasize how bizarrely that within the furnace of these raging bushfires some areas are left untouched even though they are surrounded by destruction. The termite mounds are worked up and the white-ash area has been removed as it was just too harsh a contrast. So, to offset this I decide to bring the misty veil of hanging smoke further forward than planned. That’s the beauty of painting – it changes all the time, things that looked like they would work one day suddenly seem out of place the next. I add a Lilac-breasted Roller onto the end of the fallen tree as these birds are synonymous with the bushfires, diving down onto crispy bugs or catching those that flee before the flames – and they’re cracking birds in their own right anyway!

So, now bored with painting varying shades of black and grey I work up the younger bird on the left as he stalks in to the feeding group and it comes out quite nicely. I can now see that even though the birds are all basically black-brown, they will still stand out from the landscape nicely without being too in-your-face. The facial skin and the brilliant white flashes of the folded primaries all help in this too. Also just too bring him out a little bit more I put in a faint wisp of smoke behind him which separates him and the termite mound. I finally put in one of the unfortunate tortoises and this gives the group a focal point and changes the dynamic of the painting. The most central bird suddenly works better by the addition of the chunk of food it tosses up. The roller is detailed in and provides a nice counterpoint to the blue of the female hornbill’s throat.

The foreground has been worked in some more, with a few more burnt grass stumps and stones, but now work turns to the birds themselves. The central bird is finalised and two other tortoise remains are added so that the whole group can now feed to their content! The feathers of the bird with its back to us have been delineated and are now ready to be worked up. The tortoises and the feeding birds’ bills have been given a little hint of bloody flesh but I didn’t want anything to be too gory and a couple of pieces of broken-off shell are added around the carcasses.

Now we’re entering the final straight. The remaining birds have now been worked up (all except for their pesky feet...I hate doing legs and feet!!) and I now add the Cape Glossy-Starlings...and what a joy to be able to use some bright colours!! To give their little group a focus I add some large dead beetles, overcome by the smoke – the reference I found was vague so if they’re not a true African species I apologise, but really I care not a jot as they looked cool!! I also like the way the right-hand starling just happens to cover one the hornbill’s feet with its head – how lucky was that?! ;)

Now come the finicky bits – highlighting feather edges, detailing the hornbill’s faces by using a almost true-black that just brings them out perfectly, slightly muting the flames and adding a little more smoke.

After a last sleepless night’s work it’s finally finished. Another starling was added to the left-hand corner as the other seemed a little centralised and I think it balances it better now. A couple more rocks have been added - again, one of them miraculously covering a hornbill’s foot ;) - the remaining legs are finished off (yeay!) and some of the paler dead twigs in the foreground have been highlighted to give a little extra depth.

So there we have it, hopefully I’ve done these magnificent birds justice with this piece and people will like it due to its originality.