A most egg-cellent collection

As a follow up to my most recent posts on painting bird eggs from the collection of Frederic Church’s family, I thought you might like this egg-cellent post from NYS Parks & Historic Sites’s blog about how the collection is being cleaned and prepared for exhibition. You’ll get a glimpse of the eggs, learn more about their history, and get a sense of how exciting it is to see them in person. Work on the eggs continues in the state’s conservation lab (which has very limited staff in an isolated environment), but the exhibition, slated for May 9 – November 1, may be subject to delay. View the post>

Small Works of Art

Last week’s post An Extraordinary Collection generated a number of questions about bird eggs. I thought I’d answer them with another egg page and a bit of background.

How eggs are made: It all begins with a female reproductive cell called an ovum. As it travels through the bird’s oviduct, layers of albumen (the egg “white”) and shell membranes are added. When the egg reaches the shell gland, more albumen is added, along with a calcium rich shell. The hard outer shell takes about 20 hours to complete and the whole process takes a day. The egg is then expelled from the bird’s body, and Voila! there it is.

  1. It is illegal to collect bird eggs, so working from museum collections or photos are your best options. Looks for Victorian-era collections in natural history museums. I’ve also seen them in libraries and historical societies.
  2. Practice getting the curve of the egg with just one or two lines. You may want to rotate your paper to help you make the curve. The cleaner the edge, the better.
  3. Some eggs are glossy, and others dull; regardless, leave a highlighted area on the egg to help give it dimension.
  4. Work like a bird. Build up color on the egg in several layers. Start with the “ground” or base color. Then add darker tones and shadows, followed by surface markings.
  5. Build up surface colors and patterns in layers, working from light to dark. A rigger brush is excellent for scrolls, while a spatter brush is most effective for creating random spots.

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.

Bringing Hummingbirds to Life

Several days ago, I got an unusual text-message from my son, asking how he might help a stunned Anna’s hummingbird that had struck his dorm window. Based on his description and a photo, it didn’t look good. The tiny jewel likely hit the glass at 30 miles per hour. Indeed, despite his best efforts, the bird died several hours later. Yesterday, I visited the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY, and decided to spend time among the hummingbirds in the collection. They, too, were quite dead…and nearly 150 years old. Despite their tattered appearance, specs of red, purple, gold and green flickered on their iridescent throats and backs. My lesson for the week is that, whether dying or dead, it’s hard to bring hummingbirds to life, but it is certainly worth trying.

Click to view larger.

 

Switching it up

My go-to artist materials are watercolor and ink, so I enjoyed switching it up this week by using colored pencils. I started with pears during an artist’s “Sip & Draw” with master botanical illustrator Wendy Hollender. Wendy often starts with a single colored pencil to develop the basic form and values and then applies layers of watercolor and colored pencil to further develop her subjects. You can see some of this process below, where I left some leaves and pears unfinished (click to view larger).

In this second piece, I used a single burnt sienna colored pencil for the entire nest. I started with the inner part of the nest to develop the darkest values and worked my way outward to build the form. I like the ghostly quality that came from blowing out some of the lightest tones.

Tips and Techniques– If you are feeling stuck or looking to expand your repertoire of techniques, try a new artist medium. It may broaden your thinking and your skill set or give you new ideas to incorporate into your artwork.

Rare Treat

If I were to ask you to name the top five birds that you see most frequently and to make a list of birds that are your favorites, I suspect that only a few, if any, would make both lists. My favorites tend to be reserved for birds that are especially colorful (rose-breasted grosbeak), tuneful (wood thrush, winter wren), beautiful (American avocet), or that I see infrequently because they are associated with unique places or habitats. This weekend, I had the opportunity to enjoy two birds in that last category during a trip to the Massachusetts coast.

Bobolinks and least terns are rare treats not only because I see them only about once a year, but because populations of both have been in a free fall for the last 50 years. The number of least terns in North America has declined by 88% since the 1960s; bobolinks declined by 66% over the same period. For both, the loss of breeding habitat is the main culprit. Least terns nest on sandy beaches where they compete with beachgoers and encroaching development; bobolinks need large grasslands and undisturbed fields, which are also ripe for housing developments or where mowing takes place before young leave the nest. I was fortunate to see both least terns and bobolinks thanks to the work of conservation agencies and organizations who are working to protect nesting grounds and stem the downward spiral.

More rare treats ahead: I’m heading to the Maine Coast at the end of this week to begin my annual trip to the Hog Island Audubon Camp. There, I’ll teach Arts & Birding and see Atlantic puffins, which have been brought back from local extinction by the work of conservation biologists stationed at Hog Island. I plan to immerse myself fully in the program and the place, so you may not see another post for a few weeks. I promise to make up for it upon my return.

 

Untapped Potential

Bird eggs are full of potential. In the most elegant and simple form, they remind us of new beginnings, of possibilities. Surrounding them, of course, is the tangled mess. Sometimes, great things hatch, sometimes not. In this case, the adult robins disappeared, leaving these three eggs behind. In discovering them, I suppose, the untapped potential passed to me. If not in life, then in art, the birds’ legacy lives on.