Ornithological Art

Carolina Pigeons (Mourning Doves, J.J. Audubon

I’ve always been an admirer of artists who paint realistic scenes. Whether watercolor, oil, acrylic, woodcut, or anything else, the skills involved are considerable and way beyond me. I took two short painting classes and rapidly realized how out of my league I was. Bird art, I think, is especially challenging because of the birds’ special characteristics of colored feathers and flight. Over the years, as we learned more about ecology and birds and as art techniques and technology evolved, bird art changed. Originally bird art put birds in all sorts of situations and backgrounds with no heed for their ecological relationships and early woodcuts and paintings were not very lifelike.

         The earliest natural historians sketched their observations, as minimal as they might be, and some turned out to be flights of fancy. Conrad Gessner in his Historia Animalium of 1604 depicts a goat-mermaid he called a “sea-devil.” “Bestiaries” were illustrated volumes that described various animals, each usually accompanied by a moral lesson. No distinction was made between existing and mythical birds, so the Phoenix was mentioned along with the pelican.

         As ornithologists and artists paid closer attention to birds, they noticed more subtle characteristics, such as the shape of birds’ feet: were they webbed, lobed, or fitted with long talons? Are their bills straight, thin, wide, upcurved, or hooked? What are the identifying characteristics – wing bars, eye rings, fancy plumes, or iridescent colors? The more they observed, the more they learned, and the more detail went into their artwork. Artists spent more time in the field, observing what habitats birds lived in, what they ate, how they flew, and how their colors changed with the lighting.

         Most of a bird is feathers. Illustrating their texture is a challenge, but even more so the accurate depiction of the shapes of particular feathers. Spread wings reflect the aerodynamic properties of the bird. The primary (outer) feathers of the wing are asymmetrical but increasingly less so towards the middle, transitioning to the inner, more symmetrical, secondary feathers. The feathers on the thumb serve as a flap to reduce turbulence and need to be properly pictured upon takeoff and landing. The same with tail feathers. The wings and the body are covered with overlapping feathers called coverts that streamline the body for smooth airflow. Precise artistry is needed for an accurate and realistic illustration.

         Audubon did a lot of field work but his art was often based on the bodies of dead birds wired up into a more or less realistic pose. Audubon’s work is certainly the most famous of all bird artists, but later artists were better. Above is a work of Audubon’s, originally called the Carolina Pigeon, now known as the Mourning Dove. Below is a work by Bruno Liljefors, a Swedish artist, entitled Hawk and Black Game (Capercaille) which I think is spectacular.

Hawk and Black Game, Bruno Liljefors

         And then there is Elizabeth Butterworth whose parrot paintings are ultrarealistic in detail. Of course, there are many more excellent bird artists. Does it make me want to try painting again? No, I know when I’m defeated.

Scarlet Macaw, Elizabeth Butterworth

2 thoughts on “Ornithological Art

  1. I do believe you are comparing apples to pears, superficially so too boot, Dr. Lederer. Audubon was 200 years in advance of the present generation. His was a giant leap, much as Dürer had been. Present-day artists are standing on giants’ shoulders, plus they have all the technology from photographs to moving pictures, the science and the materials to help them to move their genre forwards. Those parrots would not have been possible given the available palette of the 1800s, believe me! And had they been, they would have faded to a muddy brown by now. You conveniently forget Audubon was uniquely reporting species seen for the first time, yet took the amazing step not simply reporting the facts but making them and their natural habitat visible to scientists and naturalists who would never have the opportunity of seeing for themselves. He not only made important discoveries, but recorded them for all time in a highly effective and accessible manner, which has stood the test of time. His record lives and breathes, unlike the dessicated feather corpses in natural history collections around the world! Maybe his style and technique don’t rock your boat, but there cannot be an ornithological artist alive today who does not owe a huge debt to him and his groundbreaking work. That parrot could also have been a dead specimen for all the information it confers, and the Liljefors may be exciting, visceral record of a moment in time, but now you are comparing apples and oranges! There may be much to please the artistic eye, but little to satisfy the serious naturalist or student.
    Regards from Wales – home of the late Charles Tunnicliffe,

    1. I don’t disagree and I certainly didn’t mean to diminish Audubon’s contribution to the world of bird art. But I also think that Mark Catesby, a century earlier, accomplished much of what Audubon did.

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