19 December 2006

Art of the Field Guide Plate

I guess its that time of year...I have been under the weather for the last few days and haven't been able to muster a post.
I have been thinking for a while about the field guide plate as an art form. Not typically regarded as a form of natural history art worthy of it's own designation, the field guide plate is certainly ubiquitous, and recognizable. I have a real nostalgic connection with the first generation Golden Guides, with plates by Arthur Singer. This was my first field guide and it will always be a classic in my mind. If you have the chance though, check out the second generation, written and illustrated by James Coe a few years ago. Coe's plates in this reinvigoration of the Golden Guide are some of the best I have seen. Take a look at this Warbler plate. These plates combine spot-on species portraits, habitat characters and natural history elements seamlessly in attractive compositions. This type of plate combining birds and their habitat, juxtaposing the understory with the middlestory, transitioning to a different habitat in a different quadrant of the plate has a really nice effect. Contrast this with a more prototypical plate by Larry McQueen. The second plate here is one of McQueen's efforts for the forthcoming Birds of Peru. Just a hint of habitat shown on the perches with more birds per plate are the biggest differences. Look closely at the variability of perch angles, supremely accurate posture representation and interesting depictions of differing, yet diagnostic facial guises. McQueen is truly one of the best painters working today, and I can't wait for a chance to be able to study all of the plates in Birds of Peru when it comes off the presses.

15 December 2006

Fuertes - Elliot Coues, the early mentor

After Fuertes had won the attentions of Elliot Coues, one of the premier ornithologists of the late 1800's, he received a showering of inquiries from the rest of the community. Impressed with Fuertes's paintings, Coues had showcased Fuertes work at the AOU in 1895. He told him in a letter, "I brought your name prominently before the American Ornithologist's Union by exhibiting about fifty of your best paintings and talking about them". This lead to one of the best early opportunities for Fuertes from Walter Adams Johnson who had recently launched a new ornithological magazine called "The Osprey". Fuertes was first published there, on the cover in 1897. Here is the cover with a Fuertes's grayscale painting of Eastern Screech Owl.

The attention received here and interest in his talents, while still such a young man, undoubtedly did wonders for establishing Fuertes as a sought after artist amongst the ornithologists of the day. Soon Fuertes's talents would win him bigger, higher priority jobs, all this while still a busy undergraduate at Cornell.

13 December 2006

Horsfall Prints from Chapman's Birdlore - Continued

As promised, here is the same plate as published in Birdlore in ~1904 and later in Chapman's Warblers of North America.

When I realized there was a discrepancy between the Fuertes plates and Horsfall's, I shifted my interests squarely onto the 4 Fuertes originals. I dug a bit more into Horsfall and his career, learning a bit about his life in this 'Biography' . I had suspicions that the auction house was indeed aware of the fact that these paintings were actually not painted by Fuertes. Selfishly though I focused my attentions on the auction for the plates I was most interested in.
As I wrote in an earlier post 'scroll down from here' , on the day of the auction, luck was not on my side and all of the plates that I bid on crept out of my price range (Bidding via telephone was a real thrill though!). Afterwards, after I actually heard the auctioneer attributing the Horsfall plates to Fuertes, I felt I had to pass on what I knew. I sent them a letter reading...

I participated in the auction of several original bird paintings a few weeks ago. Since then, I have confirmed my suspicions about some of the pieces that were up for auction. All lots 155, 156, 157, 168, 169, 170 were published originally in 1903 in a series of articles in the early Audubon Society publication Birdlore, and then again in a book by Frank M. Chapman called 'The Warblers of North America' in 1907. Two artists contributed paintings for both of these publications, Fuertes of course, but also an artist named Bruce Horsfall. Lots 157, 168 & 169 appear to me to have been painted by Bruce Horsfall, not L. A. Fuertes. Look for the BH monogram.
You may be aware of this already. If so, please disregard. I thought I would share a bit of my research into these works, especially in case you were not aware of this apparent discrepancy.

Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in any further details.

A while later, I received this very short, rather unsatisfying response...

Dear Mr. Clock,
Thank you for the information and participation in our auction.
I still am not sure what the gallery's next step was, but it certainly would have been nice to have been informed. Check and double check provenance is the take home message. I do know that AskArt.com currently lists the Horsfall's in the recently auctioned Fuertes paintings section that you have to pay dues to view.

Stay tuned in a later post for some new and interesting tidbits I unearthed while digging back into Birdlore Volumes 1-10 starting in 1899.

For Fun, here is the first Fuertes piece ever published in color in Birdlore, again derived from a grayscale plate, colorized during the printing process.

12 December 2006

Horsfall Prints from Chapman's 'Warblers' & Birdlore

Robert Bruce Horsfall a bird painter living and working in the late 1800's to the early-mid 1900's created a series of plates for Frank M. Chapman's Warbler guide. Here is one of this plates in it's original form. In the early 1900's printing capabiities didn't allow for full color work to be reproduced for print, at least not in mass production. Plates were painted in gray scale, and in some cases limited color was added later. Note the BH monogram in the lower left side of this plate. I came upon these Horsfall plates through a curious avenue. About 2 years ago, I happened upon an auction for an original Francis Jaques plate. I poked around a bit on the auction site, and then thought to double back to the catalog of the entire auction. Here I found the jackpot, a series of six plates of warblers, ALL attributed to Louis Agassiz Fuertes...ALL Original works. Excitedly, I inspected the photos, I fired off an email to the auction house to request higher-res scans and I dashed up to the library to try and track down where they might have been published. All the while I was a bit suspicious of the strange monogram on some of the plates. Why would Fuertes sign some of the plates and monogram others, especially so differently? At this point, I had lower-res images to scrutinize, but I knew that I could make out the first letter in the monogram as a B, not and L. At the library, my first thought for publication of the plates was Birdlore. Many of the early issues of Birdlore from the early 1900's were beautifully adorned with facing page plates by LAF. I flipped through the bound Birdlore pages and found the first very easily...in color surprisingly. In the next post, I will wrap this story up with the curious resolution of this apparent LAF and Horsfall confusion and in the meantime, I will grab a scan of one of the print-tinted Horsfall plates.
To be continued.

11 December 2006

J.G. Keulemans litho. in Salvin's Biologia Centrali-Americanum

I recently happened upon an amazing new digital resource including some fabulous bird plates from Salvin's 'Biologia Centrali-Americanum', published in the late 1800's and early 1900's in 52 volumes. Here is one of my favorite plates depicting the Pink-headed Wabler and Fan-tailed Warbler, two fascinating species I saw on my recent trip to Chiapas.
Check out the 'Biologia Centrali-Americanum' , a project digitized and hosted in conjunction with the Smihsonian Institute. Click on 'AVES, Vol 1-4', and on the next page click 'View all plates sequentially', to view the plates.

The Discovery of the Scarlet-banded Barbet

Dumb Luck:
The Discovery of the Scarlet-banded Barbet
by Dan Lane

The following is an account of the Louisiana State University (LSU) inventory expedition to the upper Río Cushabatay in the Cordillera Azul in southwestern Loreto department, Peru in July and August 1996. This was my first visit to South America, and my first time on an LSU expedition. The expedition was organized, funds were acquired by, and the real credit goes to Dr. John O’Neill. I just happened to be lucky enough to be the first person to encounter the new barbet… the story follows…

Expedition member Andy Kratter had been sending letters down with the specimens telling us about the third camp and its avifauna... (roughly paraphrased) "the forest on the camp ridge is quite interesting, but the avifauna is odd. Some of the expected birds such as the included Cyanocorax yncas [Green Jay] are here, whereas others are not. They will finish the trail to the peak of the Cerro tomorrow, and I will go with them..." John was excited by what was returning, as it represented more montane species than what we'd been seeing around Camp 2. He looked forward to the "shipment" from the following day.

Because of how we were spread out, now in three camps, we were unable to spare a nitrogen tank for the third camp to preserve fresh tissues of the birds. Instead, we had agreed that the best plan would be to send collected birds back daily with a Peruvian field hand who would then carry needed supplied (food, ammunition, etc.) back to the third camp the following day. Each shipment accompanied by a note describing the events of the day and the data for the specimens, among other things. Only one collecting ornithologist was at Camp 3 at any one time (until the final week), and we arranged to go up for shifts of one week.

Andy was only able to make it to the peak once in his five-day stay at Camp 3 (a strenuous hike of more than 2 kilometers from the peak). His description of the cloud forest and the montane birds ( Anisognathus somptuosus [Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager], Platycichla leucops [Pale-eyed Thrush], Phaethornis guy [Green Hermit], for example) were cause for great excitement among us "lowlanders" at Camp 2. It was decided that I would be the next ornithologist to ascend to third camp and tackle the peak. I wasn't sure I was ready, but I was looking forward to it in any case. I would be there a week - a week without bathing, a week of heavy hiking, a week of food with no variety but a week full of possibilities!.

My first full day at Camp 3 was a washout with rain all day, but I was able to learn the song of a Tangara tanager which, we were hopeful, was "the new bird of the trip." With the knowledge of this vocalization, we quickly realized how common the bird was in the area. The tanager is a form unknown in Peru, but we would find upon returning to the States that it was nothing more than Tangara varia [Dotted Tanager] of the Guianan Shield of northeastern South America, a range extension for this species of more than 1000 miles!

I climbed the peak my third day at Camp 3. Just at the transition zone on the Cerro (about 1200m) I encountered a lively mixed flock, collecting the trip's first Eubucco versicolor [Versicolored Barbet], and delighting in the many tanagers of various species foraging above my head. Above 1300m, where the true cloudforest began, the species makeup was rather distinct from that on the Camp 3 ridge or the lower ridges by Camp 2. Unfortunately, I had only about three to four hours to explore this strange habitat before having to return to camp.

Two days later (after a day spent on the camp ridge recovering from the hike to the peak), on July 15, I returned to the cloudforest. It was considerably cooler and overcast, the weather apparently not able to make up its mind what to do. I made sure to bring raingear, but was leery of the conditions just the same. The cool temperature, occasional drizzle, and cloudcover seemed to prolong bird activity and I encountered an active mixed flock in the stunted mossy growth of the cloudforest. I turned on the tape recorder while I observed the members of the flock. There was a lot of movement, and it was difficult to remain on a single bird for long, but within a few minutes, I had seen or heard species such as Leptopogon superciliaris [Slaty-capped Flycatcher], Basileuterus tristriatus [Three-striped Warbler], Tityra semifasciata [Masked Tityra], Piranga leucoptera [White-winged Tanager], and Syndactyla subalaris [Lineated Foliage-gleaner], among others. In the middle of the confusion, I caught a glimpse of a bird, or rather, its crown and cheek, but no more. Thinking "hmmmm, what's that?" I noted a red crown, white superciliary, and dark cheek patch. The only thing those marks fit, given what was expected at the locality, was Veniliornis dignus [Yellow-vented Woodpecker], so I decided that's what it must have been. I stopped the tape to identify the voices I had just recorded, and named the other species I had seen in the flock. My attention was grabbed again when a chase broke out between two male Piranga leucoptera [White-winged Tanagers]. I switched the recorder back on. As I taped their chase notes, another bird passed through my field of view and perched in the open right in front of me and proceeded to give some Tityra-like grunting notes. With my right hand, I turned my microphone on the bird as I raised my binoculars with my left.

My jaw dropped. It was the bird I had called Veniliornis dignus just a minute before, but clearly it was not a woodpecker. It was a barbet....but one that wasn't illustrated in either the Birds of Colombia or the barbet plate by Larry McQueen for the uncompleted Birds of Peru book (we brought copies of the plates of the latter to "field test" them). I spoke while keeping the mic on the bird, and was amazed to hear how calm my voice seemed "The bird I am looking at now is a new species of barbet..." I started to describe the bird. It was breath-taking: in addition to the afore-mentioned head pattern, the barbet had a white throat bordered with a bold red belt and golden-yellow underparts becoming orangy on the flanks. The back was mostly black with an irregular series of spots of red, then gold, then white, running from the nape to the rump. It had to be a Capito barbet, and somewhat resembled one I remember seeing in the Birds of Colombia. But Peru only has two species of Capito , and we'd already encountered both! This had to be new!

The bird was joined by a second, identical in plumage, and both flew over my head and perched in a tree which was out of reach. I was awestruck and a little disappointed that they were gone. Then one flew back and landed right above me. And then I had it in my hands! Excitedly, I called to Manuel Sanchez, who was just coming up the trail. "Don Manuel, if you see anything that looks like this, COLLECT IT!! It's a new species!" Within two hours, Manuel had acquired two more, and before leaving the cloudforest, I shot a fourth.

I sent the specimens back to John and the others with a note stating in big letters "DO NOT OPEN THIS TUPPERWARE UNTIL YOU HAVE READ THIS!!" The letter attempted to set the scene and break the news gently. I was excited to find, two days later when I returned to Camp 2, that it was indeed a new species.

In the month to follow, a total of thirteen barbet specimens were acquired... mostly by Manuel Sanchez. Andy and I made arrangements to spend a night in a makeshift campsite on the peak and were able to take behavioral notes, get more recordings, and photograph living barbets. Even after we ceased collecting them, the barbet seemed to be quite numerous in the cloudforest, for up to 8 could be seen daily from the relatively small area accessible from the footpath (the undergrowth and lay of the forest preventing much bush whacking).

The main questions that still perplex us are how large is the population of this bird and how widespread are they? The Cerro is not particularly near any other mountains of comparative height, the next nearest peak over 1200m is more than 10 km to the north, and a larger range (disjunct from the Andes) is 40+ km to the west. Do the barbets get that far? In 2000, O’Neill again organized an LSU expedition to the larger range of the Cordillera Azul with finding another population of the barbets one of the main objectives. We spent two months at that site, ascending to 1700 m elevation, but we didn't encounter the barbet. However, we never could reach the kind of tall cloudforest where the barbet was first found so perhaps we were simply in the wrong place.

I am happy to report that Barry Walker, of Manu Expediciones, and some friends returned to the barbet peak in 2002 and found the bird to be very common there. They acquired more tape recordings and video of the species, adding to the store of knowledge on this new and exciting species. In 2000, the barbet was formally described in the Auk (the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union) having been named the Scarlet-banded Barbet (Capito wallacei)

A Note on Collecting - Collecting figures heavily in this piece and I have made no attempt to soften the reality of a typical South American inventorying expedition. This locality had never been studied by biologists ( The cloudforest on top of the peak on which we discovered the barbet may not have been visited by any humans ever!), so the likelihood of new bird species was good, but without specimens, one would never know! Many species and subspecies are by far more cryptic than our barbet (which, by the way, was not the only new taxon [=a named taxonomic category] we discovered; the others will take more work to verify and probably aren't as exciting), and only by comparing specimens can one confirm their existence.

Specimens provide more than skins for museum collections; the catalogs of vertebrate life on earth. They provide as well information on diet, age, sex, plumage molt cycle, and soft-part colors (for artists), elements not easily assessed without collecting. It would take perhaps fifty hours of intense fieldwork to obtain the same dietary information as the stomach contents of five specimens! Frozen tissues are saved and enable later taxonomic work in the laboratory as well as provide the raw material for toxicological and other environmental studies. Unless there is a vanishingly small number of individuals of a species left in the world, an extremly unlikley event in undisturbed forest, collecting even a moderate series of specimens has little effect on the overall (or even local) population of a species.. In the case of the birds we collected, we determined that, as expected, there was a healthy population of individuals still present after we ceased collecting. Science still needs (and always will need) collections in order to help determine how ecological communities work and, in the end, to save them.

07 December 2006

Scarlet-banded Barbet through the eyes of 3

A while back, I received the new Victor Emanuel Nature Tours catalog in my mailbox. Every year I enjoy getting this piece of mail, not because I am keenly interested in going on a tour, mostly because it is so often emblazoned with a beautiful new painting by Larry McQueen on the cover. This year it was a particularly beautiful piece. Scarlet-banded Barbets, discovered on an LSU expedition in northern Peru just a few years ago, a fantastic bird from a fabulous part of the world and existing is perhaps the most beautiful habitat to behold...montane cloundforest. Seeing this painting and admiring it, I immediately also saw an opportunity for a great comparison. I'll get to that next, for now, take a look at this great McQueen piece. I wish the scan came out better, it unfortunately does not do the color justice. but it is the best I can do right now. Incidentally, this painting will also appear on the cover of the new 'Birds of Peru', the forthcoming field guide, started years and years ago by Ted Parker, and marshalled on towards publicatication by his friends and colleagues, Tom Schulenberg and John P. O'Neill. I have heard that the book will be out very soon, (field guide first, plates and maps, detailed species descriptions to be published later in a second volume).

When I saw the McQueen painting and had this idea for a comparison, I tracked down a clipping from Audubon magazine from the late 90's when the Barbet was discovered. John O'Neill has coordinated field expeditions for LSU for decades and is renowned for his ability to pick little known, potentially ornithologically rich patches of the globe for investigation. This skill has helped O'Neill discover and or describe a whopping 13 species of birds new to science in the past 40 years. The most recent, 13th discovery was on the 1996 LSU Northern Peru expedition. In this Audubon magazine description of the expeditions events and successes, O'Neill painted new species number 13, the Scarlet-banded Barbet.

The third painting in this comparison was published on the cover of the Auk in 1997 as a frontispiece in the Scarlet-banded Barbet description. Dan Lane, an artist/ornithologist from LSU was a member of the 96 expedition and was the first to encounter this new species. Here is Dan's painting from the Auk. In a later post, I will reprint a great account that Dan wrote of his discovery.

14 November 2006

Citizen Bird back at CLO!

The Citizen Bird illustrations are back on the walls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology observatory. Through the tireless work of my friend Charles Eldermire, a selection of these fabulous grayscale paintings have made their way back into the public eye. Come check them out on ths walls of the Macaulay Alcove gallery, just left of the Bartel's theater in the northwest corner of the CLO observatory. Here are two of my favorites to take a look at. Come visit and see them in person if you can!

Illustrating the children's book Citizen Bird was Louis Agassiz Fuertes first major commission. While still a senior at Cornell University he produced 108 illustrations for Citizen Bird in only eight months (1896-1897). Many of the illustrations appearing in this book were later reprinted in Birdcraft, a field guide by Mabel Osgood Wright. I wish I remembered all of the details of the fantastic story of how these original paintings came to the CLO, but the sketch involves their discovery from the trash pile in the basement of a publishing house. A man that worked there, not acting with any knowledge of the artworks importance or relevance rescued them based simply on his fondness for birds.

03 November 2006

Parotia's in the news

I have pre-celebrated the Auk cover already...but now it has actually appeared and I am very excited. I have received many compliments from my colleagues here at work which I sincerely appreciate.
A while back, I found this fantastic painting...another Parotia (probably Lawes Parotia) by the master Francis Lee Jaques from 1929. Take a look at my final October 2006 Auk cover
Update: My Carola's Parotia plate is no longer on the Auk webpage. This issue features Julie Zickefoose's recently featured Long-tailed Manakin painting.

28 September 2006

A few 'new' Fuertes images

On a google search a few days ago I came across a few Fuertes pieces that I haven't seen before. Fuertes was a professional artist for his entire adult life, beginning from his Cornell University days. He was able to paint for books, periodicals, commisions and even Museum dioramas as his primary vocation. His productivity translates into a very large body of work now in museums libraries and private collections. Every now and again spotting a great 'new' painting of his, even a simple low-res scan from google makes it exciting to engage in the quest of learning as much as I can about his work.

18 September 2006

Another Fuertes on eBay

I just checked in on yet another Fuertes original on eBay. There has definitely been quite a flurry of pieces up for auction of late. There are two sketches on there now to check out if you are interested. The piece that just sold was quite nice, albeit a bit simple, and very likely a compositional study. After I spotted it I wondered if it might have been a study for the oil in the Fuertes room panels. I ventured out to take a look and indeed, the positioning of the male is quite similar as in this small watercolor, the female is quite different though. The final price just about an hour ago was $1500, a very good bargain for an original.

07 September 2006

Featured Artist - Julie Zickefoose

For the second in my featured artist series, I sent off an email to Julie Zickefoose to test the waters and see if she'd be willing to appear on my blog and answer a few questions about her craft. The idea to formalize the featured artist section - just a bit had been brewing so I set out to put together a quick series of interview questions to send off. I wanted this 'interview' to be brief and informative, about the mechanics of bird painting, but also about inspiration. I also wanted to keep it on the light side, so that interviewee's didn't feel overwhelmed by my request. Julie was a great and enthusiastic participant. I really appreciate her taking the time out of her day to share a few thoughts with me about her painting. Here are my questions and Julie's response.

Who are some of your strongest influences in bird painting?
"Louis Fuertes is the single strongest influence of my youth (age 8 up). In later years, Larry McQueen, Robert Verity Clem, and Don Eckelberry loomed large. These days, I look to Lars Jonsson for inspiration. My friendship with Barry Van Dusen, Cindy House, James Coe, Mike DiGiorgio, Brenda Carter, David Quinn, John Baumlin and Larry Barth is a tremendous source of inspiration, support and enthusiasm."

What is your favorite brush size, the brush you pick up most frequently while painting and have to replace most frequently?... And a favorite paper or two?
"My favorite brush is Daniel Smith's synthetic/sable watercolor round, #6. It's my workhorse. I also use #8's and #1's. The days of double zero brushes are long gone. Lots more paint being used now. I like Winsor-Newton cold press watercolor paper, and Fabriano hot press for pencil drawings. I liked Lanaquarelle's cold press, but ran into sizing issues and inconsistent surface, so had to abandon it."

Is there a bird painting tip, one that you find indispensable, or at least extremely useful that you will share?
"Work from life. Always go back to the living bird for poses and anatomy. Unless you're painting an ivory-billed woodpecker. Then you have to do a lot of supposing, which can be really fun, if a bit dangerous. I was glad to see Mike's lovely IBWO on your blog. He's a beautiful painter."

Tell me a bit about the inspiration you follow when working on particular pieces. I have featured your migrating Black-billed Cuckoos in the blog, and talked about the story it tells. Could you pick a piece that has remained close to your heart, both during the creative process and beyond and share a bit of its story, (and include a jpeg).
"One that might suffice is the ivory-billed woodpecker painting done for the cover of the Auk. It's in the blog archives, with step-by-step commentary."
This piece is chronicled beautifully in Julie's blog. Take a look here at Julies Blog to view the evolution of this painting. Scroll to the bottom of the February archive to find the beginning of the IBWO's genesis and work your way to the top.

Also, Julie has a beautiful new book coming out soon called Letters from Eden. Take a look at other examples of her paintings and writing and hear about the new book at her website. You can even order an inscribed copy from here.

This great illustration of Pileated Woodpecker is, I think another representation of her great talent as a painter of birds.

29 August 2006

A Fuertes? sold on eBay

An interesting auction just wrapped up on eBay yesterday. I spotted this 'Fuertes original' in a no reserve auction about a week ago. There seemed to be a little something fishy about the whole thing. First, it was the style of the piece, very rough, unfinished looking and characterized by a lot of ragged dry brush work on the edges. It could however be one of his very early works. Something he painted when he was very young, hence of a different style. One character of the piece that lends creedence to that theory is the ink outlining in various spots on the bird. Fuertes was hugely influenced by Audubon, especially when he was young and many of his early pieces were watercolor outlined in ink to give the same engraving look seen in the Audubon etchings. The subject matter is another issue. The bird is a King of Saxony Bird of Paradise...a species Fuertes never saw in life, unless it was in captivity. As a young artist though, this dramatic subject may have simply been an interesting species to paint after seeing specimens or illustrations, perhaps conjuring thoughts of the wilds of New Guinea. The signature was another issue. The characters look right, but in ink, Fuertes signature would easily be reproduced...forged.
I took a look at the sellers ratings and they were very good. No reason to suspect fraudulent activities there. The provenance is listed...'this piece is from a weekend outdoor estate sale in Upstate New York', definitely lacking in detail with no real verifiable information.
In the end, I am scratching my head. My misgivings aside, it could certainly be a genuine Fuertes. The piece sold for $1,525 after only a small flurry of bids. Any thoughts from Fuertes scholars lurking out there?

19 August 2006

Johnson Museum King Rail

A few months ago I viewed some Fuertes paintings at the Johnson Museum of Art.

31 July 2006

Screaming Piha

At long last, I am posting the sketch of the 'final' layout for 'The Scream', my Screaming Piha painting that won't seem to jump up into action on the drawing table. I am still working on the feet, and will be doing a fair bit of experimenting on the background in the next few days, but here is the composition of the image. The feet of this bird have been a challenge for me to work out. I am not a big fan of skimping on the feet. Their positioning and overall structure says a lot about a bird painting, even though most observers barely even notice if they look correct. I will post again specifically about depiction of bird feet, and update the final Screaming Piha foot position soon.
Image posting delayed...I will try to get blogger to accept the image again later today.

26 July 2006

Painting of the Day - Barry VanDusen

'Kingfisher at Sterling Peat'. A great field sketch painting by Barry VanDusen. A big subscriber to the school of thought that the best images are gathered from life, painted in the field, VanDusen painted this at a wetland area in his native Massachusetts.

25 July 2006

Technique exploration - from 'The Undercliff' by Elaine Franks

For those of you out there that are old hat with watercolor, the technique I'm going to talk about is bound to be old news. Others might have seen the results, but never quite knew how it was obtained.
When I was younger, I found a great book called 'The Undercliff' by Elaine Franks. The book is a naturalist's sketchbook which explores a place in England along the south shores of Devon to Dorset. In this book, Elaine Franks shares her impressions, from tiny sketches of insects and flowers to full page illustrations of a particular resident to these woods. When I first saw these images I was very new to painting in watercolor. Most of my work in those days was simple, unchallenging washes and dry brush work. The impression these paintings had on me was distinct. I looked at the depth of color and vibrancy, the intriguing textures and was stupified. I really had no idea how to even attempt painting in this manner. I was saved by my teacher at the time, Mrs. Salinger. I brought 'The Undercliff' into art class and asked her to leaf through it with me. I showed her the paintings I had marked to see if she could shed any light on the technique. The pieces are mixed media, often watercolor over ink drawing, but the pure watercolor technique itself was pretty readily decipherable to my teachers more trained eye.
The first piece we worked out involved wet on wet work. This technique was in my repertoire then, but not quite to the extent that it was used in this work. In the bat painting, much of the loose, flowing, smooth gradation in colors, especially well seen in the soft grading of colors along the log is wet on wet. In the Moth painting, wet on wet is also used. In this piece, the pigments are laid on less uniformly and the vein like pattern of water and pigment traveling along, through capillary action is left in the final image. Dependent on what type of paper you are using, and the degree to which you are interested in controlling this capillary action in your painting, you can either use this as an effect or smooth it while the surface is still wet, dependent on whether or not the veining is desirable to you.
Moving on, the wet on wet area on the log in the Bat painting is punctuated by some interesting crackle patterns... there are similar patterns in distinct patches in the Moth piece. This pattern, a very attractive organic looking effect is obtained by laying in a wash and selectively sprinkling a cluster of salt grains on the wet paper. The grains are left until the paper is completely dry, leaving behind these beautiful patterns. Using different kinds of salts can give you different effects. The best, most dramatic effect comes from the large flakes of kosher salt (This remains of my favorite techniques - used very selectively though).
Lastly, a similar effect can be seen in the Moth, most noticeably in the area directly above the large moth in the foreground. This is a blotting effect, most likely using a crumpled-up paper towel. Calculated removal of pigment and water from your paper can create these beautiful patterns, breaking up your pools of pigment, exposing colors from the washes below.
In the end, what appeared to me as a mystery when I first saw these images in the pages of 'The Undercliff', turned out to be relatively simple in practice. It was a great eye-opening experience for me to see the flexibilities within the watercolor medium, even when painting boldly like Elaine Franks' work.

17 July 2006

Featured Artist - Jennifer Brumfield

Copyright Jennifer Brumfield 2006

I came upon the scientific illustration website of Jennifer Brumfield through a friend and was really impressed by her interesting and unique style.
Her website Meadowhawk Art.com has several examples of her work including some great birds like this Mourning Warbler, as well as some stunning Dragonfly work she has completed for a guide called 'Dragonflies and Damselflies of Cleveland Metroparks'. I contacted Jennifer recently to ask her a bit about her work and drawing techniques. She had the following comments in reference to her Mourning Warbler piece and drawing in general. "This MOWA is based off of a 'snapshot memory' that I experienced on the boardwalk of Crane Creek State Park/Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, in NW Ohio (the 'other Point Pelee') on a mid-May morning, height of spring migration 'round here of course. I remember the lighting being perfect..it was particularly overcast and dull and droll..but the cool blue-gray tones of the bird's head were amplified by its lightning yellow underparts. Adult male Mourning is perhaps one of NA's most splendid birds, in my opinion. Typically playing tough-to-get by clamboring around myriad branches of fallen trees....it always spawns absolute gasps when it's seen by newbies and avids alike."

"The illustration was created in colored pencil. Most, if not all of my illustrations are colored pencil, or 'regular' pencil, or pen and ink. I just can't get interested in paints, right now. There's something about sharpening a pencil and just having at it.....paints need to be mixed, brushes need to be washed....I suppose that's a 'simple' part of me (or perhaps lazy?) coming out through my work. Also, I'm smitten with the thick, paint-like quality that I find in watercolor colored pencils....I needn't add water, at all, and I'm completely happy with them. Buy a huge pack for under a hundred, and you're ready to rock."

Check out her website and keep your eyes out for her work in Birding Magazine and elsewhere in the future.

Copyright Jennifer Brumfield 2006


I've been doing some reading about Copyright law in the last few days. I've found a few good sites describing the situations surrounding artist copyright and distribution, but nothing that really satisfies my needs exactly. The following QA, and a few other tidbits from This Website are instructive.

Q: Are there any times that I can use a copyrighted work without risking infringement?

A. Yes. The concept of fair use permits the utilization of copyrighted materials for certain purposes. For example, a newspaper can publish copyrighted works for purposes of reporting news and a teacher can make multiple copies of certain works for classroom use without risking infringement. In order to determine if a use is fair or is an infringement, one must determine how much of the copyrighted work is used and the impact this use will have on the potential market for the copyrighted work. If large portions of a copyrighted work are used or if the use lessons the potential market for the work, there will be infringement.

I think, in this Blog, the use of artists works, with permission where possible is fair. I don't think the value of copyrighted works is compromised. Please contact me if your works are used but you would prefer them removed.

11 July 2006

'Painting Birds' by Susan Rayfield

A few years ago I sent one of my tiny paintings to John O'Neill, a great painter and ornithologist from Louisiana State University. I got some great critique notes back from him including a bunch of tips on technique, equipment and new resources to check out. One of his best pieces of advice was to check out a book called Painting Birds by Susan Rayfield. The book was now out of print he warned, but getting a copy through the used book market was not too hard. It wasn't until a while later when I worked for the Massachusetts Audubon Society on Martha's Vineyard that I came upon a copy. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in painting birds. There is something for every painter in there, irrespective of your style, subject matter or preferred medium. The work of several great painters like John O'Neill, Larry McQueen, Raymond Harris Ching and many others are chronicled. The book is arranged as a series of lessons from the studio, describing a set of techniques important in the repertoire of each artist. There is a section on 'Jungle Birds' with this fabulous piece by McQueen. Check this book out on Amazon or ABE books, I am sure there is something new for most painters to learn in there.
Below is the cover of one of Susan Rayfield's other books, (I couldn't find a single image of the cover of Painting Birds on the web). This book is good as well, definitely worth checking out, especially for the parts chronicling the work of Don Eckelberry and Lars Jonsson.

10 July 2006

The all important Background

Watercolor is a particularly well suited medium for the loose interpretive handling of soft, subtle patches of light and color and intimations of habitat detail. The transparency of color and natural look of watermarks translate beautifully for depictions of these slightly out of focus background fields in natural history paintings.
Here is one of my favorite paintings which I have turned to frequently for instruction on the subtleties of loosely painting background in watercolor. In this case, the neotropical rainforest middlestory. This piece by Larry McQueen is the cover painting for the CLO-Macaulay Library, Songs of the Antbirds CD set. I was lucky enough to see the original painting when it was here at Cornell for scanning a while before the CD set was produced.
I assume that the background of Larry's painting began with a wet on wet wash of yellows, accentuating the well lit area on the right followed with additions of other colors like the greens and blues of the foliated area on the left. A loose bluish streak that shows through on the right side breaks up the open lit yellow space. The areas covered with foliage and the birds were added in on top. The birds may or may not have been masked beforehand. Since the birds have white areas, I would imagine that at least these areas were masked beforehand. Masking gives you the opportunity to start from scratch, layering from clear paper to build up the textures of a birds plumage.

This is an initial concept wash for loosely trying out a few elements I am thinking about for the Screaming Piha piece I have finally begun work on. This has helped me with composition questions, working out a color scheme and allowed for a bit of practice in techniques I will employ when I go to work on the final painting. This Piha is a species found in lowland tropical forest, often in even aged, gallery-like forest. The habitat tends to be on the darker side, but is sometimes punctuated by forest edge or tree-fall gaps. My reference photos are all from forest a bit darker and grayish green, but I am trying to infuse a bit more of a warmly lit look. Even though I am interested in keeping some of the watermark edges in the areas of yellow and bluish sky and green foliage elements, I think a smoothing wash over the top of these elements may be in order. The watermarks in this sketch make some of the background elements too blocky and distracting. They should be a bit more out of focus.

09 July 2006

Painting for the weekend

I am working on a painting of the lowland neotropical rainforest right now, (update to follow soon). Looking through scans of paintings others have done from similar habitats is often a good way for me to wrap my head around a tactic for working on a background from a particular habitat. This Fuertes piece has such a great, loose representation of the forest behind. The story of the Motmot is conveyed even better than if it were just the great bird. I love the termite mound, the loose palm leaves and the overall handling of understory and forest edge light.
Problems with upload of the image. One more try and then I'll have to pick another. Blogger seems to dislike certain images and no matter how they are converted, it doesn't work.

05 July 2006

The Auk - Final

Copyright Benjamin Clock 2006
I worked back into the original painting this weekend to square away some final details before sending it off to the editors. Here is the final image. Mostly, I worked back in to the background vegetation, softening and adding some sap green and titanium yellow highlights, as well as some additional color in the throat shield irridesence. I think the image has a bit more depth now and I think it pops quite a bit more. This view is a little washed out looking, the original and the printed version on the Auk covers has a much more saturated look.
Check out the 'Auk page'

01 July 2006

The AUK!

I am really excited to write about the great news I just recently received about the publication of my Carola's Parotia painting on the cover of the Auk! The October 2006 edition will look something like this image. This is a mock up I made (when I first submitted the painting, and really, really hoped that it would get the cover). I can't wait to see it in print.
I have removed the old version, look above for the final mock up.

29 June 2006

Ornithological art - A mystery

I am the very happy owner of a new mystery piece of Avian art. I found this piece on eBay and snatched it up as soon as I randomly happened upon it and confirmed that it was indeed an original painting. A definite mystery, but many great elements appealed to me immediately, so I decided, despite knowing nothing about the piece, its history or the artist that it was worth submitting an offer. The field notes in the left corner are very hard to make out, especially being that the quality of the scan provided by the seller is very poor. I will post that scan here, but I will try and replace it with a better one once I have the painting in hand. It is a Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock, a fabulous lekking species from nothern South America, for those of you that don't recognize it. The painting appears to me...and I hope that I am right, to be a sketch prepared in the field. The main portrait in color is beautiful, but I think the parts that appealed to me the most are the sketches along the sides of the piece. The two studies of the birds unique feet are great. The view of the bird in display posture, fluffing up its fabulous nuptial feathers is great, but I think the part that grabbed me the most is the superb head on view sketch on the right side. I am always so attracted to artwork which depicts a bird from a more interesting angle, really capturing what it was like to see that Cock-of-the-Rock face on, right there inside the lek, where the artist must have been to capture such a view.
Ok, herein lies a mystery that I'd like to solve. Does anyone recognize anything about this painting which may lead you to conclude who the mystery artist is? Please comment if you have any thoughts at all. I am in the process of trying to obtain ANY background about the piece from the seller, but so far I have heard nothing, and I fear that there may unfortunately be nothing to tell. I have no idea about its age even, although I will be able to draw some inferences when I see the paper. For now, please share any thoughts or impressions. An update, with any new info, a better scan and a detailed look at the notations will be posted later.

Disappointingly I must report that my great find is less great than I had hoped. I received the Cock-of-the-Rock piece today and it is nothing more than a print. I asked the seller explicitly if the piece was an original painting, and the answer was yes. There was a brief glimmer of excitement as I took it out of the package, until I looked closer and saw the poor resolution to the edges of the piece...plus it just didn't pop like a real painting would, even one that was older and possibly a bit faded.
I have communicated with the seller and he is willing to refund me, but I would lose the shipping...both ways. I am trying to decide what to do. It is a nice image, just not at all the same as if it were a painting.

08 June 2006

Favorite Bird Artist Series - David Sibley

A new installment in this series. Here is one of David Sibley's bird illustrations. A giant in the world of birding now, David Sibley has really mastered his own style of illustration. In some ways his painting is very simple, effectively capturing the essence of a bird with few brush strokes. The real success of Sibley's illustration comes from a very sound and practiced painting technique coupled with a great ability to capture diagnostic postures, expressions and specific physical details.

02 June 2006

Fuertes-Canvasbacks Oil Painting up for auction

I spotted a new Fuertes original painting on eBay recently. All of the Fuertes originals I have spotted lately are posted to eBay through an auction house that is now able to take live bidding through eBay Live Auctions. Usually it is as simple as registering for the auction via the eBay link and then watching the auction progress live on the web. The auctions I have seen so far in this fashion have been very exciting to witness. Lots stream by and bidding is relayed to the viewers in real time (although I know from my telephone bidding experience last year that there is a short lag from the auction block-to the web-to the viewer). Bids can be entered in advance of course, or on the fly as you watch the auction. Here is the Fuertes oil painting up for aucion, although this low resolution photo is unfortunately the only one provided.
Take a look at The Auction on eBay.
The opening bid of $2500 and projected sale price of $5-7K is way out of my realm, especially when you consider that most Fuertes auctions in the recent past have sold for 30-50% higher than the projections, plus the buyers premium. This painting could very well cost the lucky winner $15,000 in the end, (and it looks like it could use a professional cleaning as well). Good luck to all who may be lucky enough to contemplate investing in this beautiful mantlepiece. The Auction is on 7 June 2006 at 1pm.
Update: I just spotted the final auction price for this piece. More than I had estimated even! Final sale price at auction $20,000, plus buyer's premium, (usu 25%).

31 May 2006


After a long stint on the road in southeast Arizona and Mexico, I am back at home in Ithaca. The filming and recording trip was very successful with many great new additions to the archive. Here is an image to celebrate my return. The Montezuma Quail...continuing a string of Fuertes images on the blog. A fitting bird to celebrate my return as this species eluded me on the three week journey. Another wonderful reason to return to southeast Arizona again in the near future.

27 April 2006

Something entirely different...

...or at least that was the thought I had when I decided to begin this post. I know that there are lots of others out there with an interest in bird art...and nature art in general. Whether or not this blog has any widespread appeal to an audience of more than a handful though is up for debate in my mind right now. For now, I will keep plugging away with new posts from the giant artists of the past and present. My current painting projects have been railroaded by work, travel and preparations for recording and shooting in Arizona for three weeks...starting next wednesday. Here are some works from the master, another in what I'm sure will be a long series of posts dedicated to the works of Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
The Leafhopper is a painting that I loved from the first moment that I saw it in the Cornell digital Fuertes collection. It is a Scarlet and green leafhopper, although it always looks blue to me. In my past insect collecting days in central NY, I have found these beautiful hoppers commonly on sweeps through aster and goldenrod fields. Clearly the beautiful bug once caught Fuertes' eye as well.
The Kangaroo Rat is one of my favorites from his mammal work. After a completing a series of bird paintings for the National Geographic Society in 1913, Gilbert Grosvenor came back for more of Fuertes work. From 1915-1918 Fuertes toiled over a large and industrious commission of large mammals, small mammals and finally portraits of the breeds of Canus familiaris. Reportedly, Fuertes was skeptical about the quality of the final works. Unjustly so, I believe. Most of the mammals I have seen represent that same mastery of capturing a moment in the life of an animal that is so excellently represented in his bird work.

26 April 2006

An Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Ivory-bills are on my mind this morning. Here is a beautiful painting by Michael DiGiorgio. I presume that this piece was done recently...in response to the renewed attention this species has had of late. I found a picture of Michael DiGiorgio walking through the Arkansas bayou on his Wildlife Nature Artists Group page. He spent some time looking for the bird and sketching bottomland habitat last year.
The search, the rediscovery, the secrets and the skepticism is very close to home for me here in my perch and continues to be a source of unrelenting attention. I am not a fan of all of the negativity being broadcast out there. My opinion about the evidence aside, I really wonder why some people have chosen to represent such a negative attitude about the way in which the detections, the search and the analysis have been handled. Again, I am purposely not sharing an opinion about the birds existence, I am just very uncomfortable with so many accusatory, adversarial and malicious people out there representing to have such a better way of doing things and yet they do nothing but talk.

25 April 2006

Painting of the Day - Louis Agassiz Fuertes

A quick posting for today with a selection from my digital bird art archives. I have a growing collection of pieces collected from all over. Most are pulled from the web, some I scan from books and others I have received from museum collection digital archives. This one seems apropriate as it was just about a year ago that I bid at auction for this original painting. Originally completed as a plate for Frank M. Chapmans 'Warblers of North America' published in 1907, and printed again as a plate in Birdlore, Fuertes completed this and several other fabulous Warbler plates in the early, yet already highly successful and prolific days of his relationship and collaboration with Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History. Check out the really excellent integration of the Acacia thorn into his signature below the Virginia's Warblers belly. I hope that this painting found a great home.

14 April 2006

Favorite Bird Artist Series - Julie Zickefoose

The aspect of Julie's work I enjoy the most is its imaginative qualities. Painting a bird in action, in its environs, or on the wing, and telling a story about its life is a very interesting way to work. The stories she weaves with her paintings add another dimension, an interesting subtext in watercolor. Here is a beautiful piece published on the cover of Birding a while back. You see what I mean about the story of migrating Black-billed Cuckoo...one of the coolest species to hear vocalize as it flies over you on a spring night flight.
Take a look at Julies new website.
And check out a new painting of Long-tailed Manakins featured on her blog. You can track the evolution of this painting and a bit of its back story in one of Julies "making of" posts. In these great blog postings, progress of a painting is traced from inspiration to planning and sketching, all the way through to the final work. Check out the first Manakin post at Julies blog.

An update, I succeeded in my quest to see a Rhinoceros Auklet on my Seattle trip last weekend. I spotted a total of about 45 individuals on the Anacortes to Orcas Island ferry, as well as a very good number of Red-necked Grebe and my best looks ever of Harlequin Duck, a far view from the shore of Orcas, and an amazing, intimate view from kayak. Sketches to come later.

05 April 2006

Favorite Bird artist series - Ian Lewington

Just before a jaunt to the Pacific northwest for a few days, Auks, Auklets and Murrelets on the mind, I am throwing up a quick addition to the series. Ian Lewington is a fine painter from England. His great work can be seen in the Handbook of the Birds of the World Series and is perhaps best represented in his plates for the Oxford monograph, 'The Auks' by Gaston and Jones. These plates will most certainly be one of my guides if I am ever lucky enough to have the opportunity to illustrate a bird guide. Ian has a graphic, yet extremely realistic style, quite popular amongst a prolific cadre of impressive european artists active today. His field guide work is great, but take a look at some of the paintings from his website. Ian seems to enjoy depicting birds in curious perspectives, postures and angles and absolutely excels at conveying the fast action of birds in flight. Here is one of Ian's fine plates from 'The Auks'. I hope to return home from Seattle with sketches of Rhinoceros Auklet of my own.
Here is Ian's website.

Golden-cheeked Warbler

This fine painting of a Texas specialty will surely brighten your day. To my disappointment, It has turned cold again in the northeast. Phoebe's are here and I hope Warbler's are around the corner. At lunch today, I watched a Golden-crowned Kinglet forage in the shrubbery with coronal stripe ablaze...just as vibrant as this Golden-cheeked Warbler on a small scale. More springtime arrivals soon to come I hope. This Golden-cheeked was painted by my favorite artist working today...Larry McQueen.

29 March 2006

A Celebration of Birds-The Life and Art of Louis Agassiz Fuertes

I am really enjoying reading this book on Fuertes. Years ago I passed over this volume, thinking it was largely an image dominated picture book, not realizing that this is really a fantastic and relatively complete biography. Right now I am at the point where Fuertes is coming into adulthood and really coming in to his own as a successful and highly sought after illustrator. So far it has been very interesting. Robert McCracken Peck from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia skillfully prepared this book as a companion volume to a traveling Fuertes exhibit that toured the US in the mid 1980's. A great exhibition I am sure.

28 March 2006

Favorite Bird artist series - Don Eckelberry

This painting is a plate from Brown & Amadon's Eagles, Hawks and Falcons of the World. Eckelberry painted a series of beautiful portraits for this two volume series, along with several other artists including Albert Earl Gilbert, Guy Coheleach and a few others whose plates are not as notable. Eckelberry's style is quite a bit different than the work I normally gravitate towards, being that most of his work is opaque. I have very strong connection to translucent media like watercolor. By no means would I ever downplay Eckelberry's incredible talent as a painter, however, I think his true strengths were in his abilities to so skillfully render his birds in acurate anatomical detail, always in realistic, often diagnostic and usually intensely interesting poses and postures. Eckelberry drew what he saw in nature, he developed a composition from field sketches and tranferred those to canvas. Some of the most impressive renderings of his I have seen are those directly from his field sketches. A bird portrait by Eckelberry always conveyed the uniqueness of the species but more importantly, the nuances of an individual at a moment in time, just as it had perched before him in life.

27 March 2006

Favorite Bird artist series - Barry Van Dusen

I am beginning a new set of posts where I'll talk about bird artists from my long list of favorites. I'll write these up a bit whimsically, not in any hierarchical order. Barry Van Dusen is an artist from Massachusetts working mostly on birds of North America, but also on various projects all over the world, including a series of plates for the forthcoming Birds of Peru project. His website has several examples of his work and is kept up to date with information on current and upcoming shows in the northeast. Here is Barry's website.
Barry has a very loose painting style. His works strike a wonderful balance between underpainting and overpainting. A key element in the success of his paintings I think is his excellent economy of brush stroke. He conveys such exquisite detail with so few strokes. I strive for this kind of economy of brush stroke in my own work but at the same time go for a bit more detail and less of a sketch-like quality. Barry's field guide plates show much more refined detail. There are a few examples of his Peru guide plates on his website. Overall Barry's work is very fresh, vibrant and alive, capturing bird subjects and their environment beautifully.

23 March 2006

Eckelberry field sketches

One of the consumate field artists of the 20th century, Don Eckelberry was a big proponent of natural history artists spending time in the field actually seeing their subjects behaving. More comments later on this front, but for now, here is a great scan of some of Eckelberry's beautiful work.
This is an image from the book 'Masterpieces of Bird Art' by Pasquier and Farrand