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.

Pulling Light from Dark

I recently went to a demonstration by an artist who specializes in charcoal drawings of figures and drapery. Totally not my interest, truth be told, but the elegance of light on dark paper inspired me to try using toned paper. The results surprised me. I liked the simple, back-to-basic quality of working with just dark (in this case, dark umber) and white to render the Eastern phoebe.

Eastern phoebe, toned paper
Pulling light out of the toned paper felt like such a magical thing. I wanted to see how it would be to bring a mostly white subject to life– hence, the common tern (below, with a plug for my Arts and Birding Workshop in 2015—registration is open!). Again, the simplicity of form and light really appealed to me. Since I usually work in just the opposite way— building up darks with watercolor on white paper— this change of pace is refreshing and fun.

Common Tern- Arts & Birding (Prismacolor colored pencils—white and dark grey, with a touch of yellow and red for the bill, on Strathmore Artagain gray paper)