After Audubon

Wings, skulls, feathers, skeletons, legs, specimens, live birds, bird paintings. I’ve got birds on the brain! To prepare for several upcoming workshops I am teaching on drawing birds, I’ve been brushing up on bird anatomy and biology, drawing skulls and bones, and watching and painting birds. Best of all, I made a trip to the New York Historical Society to see Audubon’s Aviary, John James Audubon’s original watercolors for the print edition of The Birds of America (1827–38), engraved by Robert Havell Jr.

Audubons Aviary

At the New York Historical Society, NYC

Though I’ve seen reproductions of Audubon’s engravings many times, I was thoroughly taken by the beauty and mastery of the original paintings. Audubon used a combination of graphite, watercolor, gouache, pastel, and glazing to create hundreds of life-sized birds, each one rendered in minute detail. Among my favorites was a simple painting of a male and female dark-eyed junco and a clay-colored sparrow, rendered with no background.

Back home, I decided to finish a small study of an Eastern Phoebe using the highly detailed approach that Audubon used in his paintings. I applied layers of very dry watercolor with the smallest brush in the arsenal— a size 0 — to complete the details. Thankfully, the phoebe is a very plain bird– I can hardly imagine painting intricate feather patterns on hundreds and hundreds of birds, as Audubon did.

Eastern Phoebe















Compare this sketch with the much looser painting (below) of a phoebe and nest that I did several weeks ago. In this painting, I was trying to convey subtleties of color and light, rather than paint every detail.

Eastern Phoebe and Nest

















Both styles have merit. I like knowing how birds are built; I like being detailed and accurate; but I also like the idea of jumping off from there, of letting some of the details go and allowing the wet paint to do the work. The later approach seems to be more evocative and engaging — and yet, just as elusive and hard to achieve as painting every feather.

17 Comments on “After Audubon

  1. I love them both, and find it hard to choose between the two. Your work has a delicate quality about it that I really appreciate. I always enjoy it.

    • Thanks! The paintings are done for different purposes, really, but I sometimes find that the more I strive for “perfect” the less evocative the piece is. That’s not always true, but I’m experimenting to find the right balance. Sometimes I just like the challenge of painting something really complex– just to see if I can do it. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts!

  2. Your work has a wonderfully simple look to it; the Phoebe looks alive. I like both renderings. And by simple, I mean it looks so easily done yet I know it isn’t. Very inspirational and I enjoy reading the stories behind each piece.

    • Thanks Carole– I do try to eliminate background elements to zero in on the main subject. It was interesting to learn that Audubon often employed other artists to paint his backgrounds, something he was not as skilled at.

  3. Both pieces are stunningly beautiful. Very evocative.

  4. I find the different approaches appealing in their own ways. For learning purposes, I see great value in the Size 0 brush approach to really learn the lay of the feathers and the structure of same. And there is certainly much to be said for the looser approach that allows the viewer to play a role in the art by completing or adding what may only be a mere suggestion in the art.

    I find myself drawn for more to the latter than the first I think because as I’m getting older, I’m impatient to see and do more as I sense time is of the essence. I also want the viewer engaged in the hope of inspiring a closer work not just at the art, but at the subject.

    Both are beautiful pieces of art!

    • Amen! Well said! I have found that people appreciate the pricise paintings I’ve done for the skill and artistry of the subject, but they respond much more to my looser, imperfect pieces and journal work. I think it’s because the journals are more personal and maybe draw people in more (though I’ve never asked).

  5. These are beautiful, Jean! Who knew Audubon used so many mediums in his watercolors. Thanks for sharing your journey – both approaches are really lovely.

    • Yes, who knew! The man was genius! Except for paintings were the birds were watercolor and the background was oil, the mediums are so well blended you can barely tell what’s in there without a magnifying glass (which the museum provided).

  6. They are both lovely. The color in the second one makes up for any lack of detail and the close up of the phoebe’s head and eye in the first one makes up for any lack of background or environment. How can you call this bird anything but beautiful 🙂 As usual you’ve done a superb job.

  7. Finally I can comment on your site! I want to see more of the owl cartoon. What is he up to?

  8. Jean, this is such an interesting post. I had no idea that Audubon used so many different mediums (media?) in his paintings. Accuracy is important and great for teaching and record-keeping but I do love the looser style you have on the second phoebe. He is just lovely, and so is the mossy greenery! You do so well with both styles. hugs, Nancy >

  9. Love the Phoebe! Amazing! Are they available for purchase? Thank you!

    • Thanks Sarah! Most of my work is available for purchase. I have prints of the phoebe with nest for $35 plus mailing. Let me know if you are interested and we can make arrangements via e-mail.

  10. Wow, this is a really late comment. But I just wanted to say that I think part of art is about finding the balance between detail and expression. They’re not inversely proportional, per se, but sometimes emphasizing one more will require a sacrifice from the other. I love your art style!

    • I agree– finding that balance is important to me as an artist. There’s no right way, but I have ridden the line of trade offs, many times sacrificing something in the process. Mostly, these days, I don’t worry about it too much– which probably means I found a balance that I’m comfortable with and know when to push in either direction. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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