An Extraordinary Collection

I have had an incredible opportunity this week to draw and paint bird eggs that are more than 135 years old. Even more remarkable is that the eggs were collected by the children of American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church. Until recently, the collection of more than 200 different types of bird eggs has been sitting in a large wooden chest in the attic at Olana, Church’s home overlooking the Hudson River. The eggs were brought out to be re-cataloged and prepared for an on-site exhibit at the Olana State Historic Site near Hudson, New York.

I was invited to take an early look at the collection and quickly noted that many eggs had been mislabeled when they were last cataloged back in the 1960s. Some bird names were misspelled, others were incorrect, and, in a few cases, the bird name has been changed by ornithologists. My work with birds enabled me to provide some useful resources to the conservator, who will work with a small team of experts to prepare the exhibit. Once that happens, the eggs that are displayed will be protected under glass and the rest will return to their crate. In the meantime, I hope to have a few more chances to paint more of this extraordinary collection.

Tips and Techniques- The huge range of colors and markings on bird eggs come from just two pigments. These are combined at different intensities and in different ways as translucent layers of eggshell are created inside the bird. Watercolor makes a perfect medium for replicating this process, as multiple transparent layers can be laid down to create an egg. Egg colors are very subtle and quite variable, so I like to keep a scrap sheet handy to test colors before putting them on an egg. This practice works well for any painting, enabling you to get the right shade and amount of water on the brush before painting with it. Your test sheets may occasionally make nice bookmarks, too.

32 Comments on “An Extraordinary Collection

  1. What a treasure to have opportunity to paint and correctly identify the beautiful bird eggs. Your paintings are delicate and lovely

  2. How extraordinary tohave a collection like this in such great shape!
    They still look amazingly beautiful. How blue were the Blue Bird eggs?

    • About like what you see here…pale. Eggs tend to be darker when you see them in a nest because they are full of the embryo/chick. Some of the eggs are dirty, but most are on very good condition.

  3. You mention using just two pigments for the various colored eggs….what were those pigments/ colors?
    What a wonderful opportunity for you to help verify several misnamed eggs. I am sure your input was much appreciated. The delicate washes display such beauty in the humble bird eggs of long ago. Thanks for sharing your documentations and beautiful work.

    • Hi Bernadette- Thanks for your note. About pigments- one is bluish green pigment derived from bile, and the other is derived from blood and produces a range of colors from yellow to reddish brown to black. The brown pigments are on the surface layers, and create a lovely range of lilac and mauve colors within the shell.

  4. I am amazed that they are in good enough condition to be handled at all! Wow! what a treasure, and what a wonderful opportunity for you! You certainly did them justice, Jean. This spread is SOooo beautiful, beautifully composed, captivating painting, complementary lettering. Fabulous!

    • Thanks Rosanne! It certainly has been such a privilege to see them. Eggs can last a very long time if they have been prepared properly. The insides have to be carefully blown out and then rinsed clean. I’m amazed at the work it takes to do that.

  5. The delicacy of these paintings is just lovely, what a beautiful pair of pages in your book! I always have mixed feelings about collections of birds eggs, but an old collection like this has many layers of interest, from a natural history point of view and a social history one too. Being able to contribute your own expertise to the management of the collection adds another interesting layer!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful note, Anna. I love the beautiful variations and perfect shapes of bird eggs, but these are special for all the additional layers you mention.

  6. What a precious find! Your delicate rendition is beautiful and insures you’ll have this collection for years to come. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Beautiful, Jean. They must have been a joy to sit and paint. Your website has given me a new appreciation for the nature around us and it’s place in my sketchbook. I would love to see an exhibition of this sort in our part of the country (SC). Are you aware of any organizations or websites I might check out concerning nature exhibits? Thanks in advance.

    • Hi– Thanks for writing. I’m so glad you are finding new appreciation in your part of the country. One place to look for inspiration closer to home is a blog called South Carolina Low Country by Pam Johnson Brickell. Check Pam’s lovely artwork and journals. You might also email her to inquire further. Hope that leads you to good things in SC!

    • What a nice thought. Thanks for writing. I’m glad you are able to enjoy them a bit here. I didn’t get back to draw more this week. It is quite a stunning collection.

  8. How exciting! In all the years I lived in the metro NY area and the Hudson Valley, I think I only got to Olana once. This exhibit will be a good one and they were smart to invite you to see the collection beforehand. I enjoyed this story, and I love your painting. There is something so compelling about eggs, and so reassuring. 🙂 The observations you made in the tips section about layers are fascinating, too.

    • I feel very privileged to have seen the full collection, as most people will not get that opportunity with the exhibit. I could spend all day with it. Glad you have context for Olana– it is quite a place! Stay well– Jean

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  11. Jean, I am always grateful for your marvelous talent so generously shared. Thank you especially for the introduction to other art-related subjects in your posts, ie Olana. What an enriching time I have had this morning as I explored this “new to me” subject.

    God bless you and your family during this most unusual time.


    Judy Shears
    Winter Garden, FL

    • Thanks Judy! I’m so glad my post led you to Olana. It is an amazing home and landscape overlooking the Hudson River (as you probably saw on their website).

      We are very much “shut down” here in NY, but I am grateful that I can continue to work from home and, fortunately, I don’t know anyone who has COVID-19–yet. Stay well and stay connected! –Jean

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