It’s taken me a while to post this painting, my first of 2017. Don’t worry, I’ve been hard at work and very productive, but posting completed projects has been neglected. This Red-bellied Woodpecker was fun to paint. Using a 400mm lens I took photos of a cooperative female in the backyard, but I decided to change it up and paint a more colorful male. I always love the opportunity to paint red feathers, so the temptation of rendering a male won out. In my photo reference you could actually see some of the “red” belly, but this guy, like most, is definitely more “pink bellied.” The naming of these birds could use a little improvement.
Many birds, like this guy, have names that are misleading for a bird watcher. In the field you can almost never see the red belly. It’s usually snugged up against the tree. Years ago while in grad school for medical illustration, I had a work-study job in the Bird Division of the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan. I prepared study skins for their collections. I learned a lot. The staff were incredibly nice, and it was interesting work. My time there shed light on the confusing names that some birds, like the Red-bellied Woodpecker, are saddled with. When you see the study skins in the collection drawers, they all are positioned on their backs with the belly pointing up. In the specimen drawer that red belly is the first thing you notice. Suddenly that name made more sense, as well as some of the others that featured rump and belly colors, like Black-bellied Plovers and Crimson-rumped Toucanets. Of course that doesn’t make the name any more useful in the field.
During this time I was also taking gross anatomy at the medical school a few blocks away. This made for an interesting comparison. Dissecting a 150+ pound cadaver was a lot different than the several-ounce American Goldfinch. Some skills were transferrable. I remember one of the med students being amazed at how easily I could trace out the tiny nerve bundles. I recall saying, “Compared to dissecting a goldfinch, this is a breeze!”
The smells in the cadaver lab were always WAY worse than anything in the bird division. Formaldehyde, formalyn or whatever witches-brew of weapons-grade hazmat chems they used there was uber-nasty. The bird division, on the other hand, usually didn’t have a very objectionable smell. Occasionally, you’d do an olfactory double-take when entering the skinning area; it would reek of skunk. That scent is definitely out of place in a museum. It invariably meant a Great Horned Owl was being processed. Skunks don’t have many natural predators, but the Great Horned Owl has a taste for the stinkers. Lacking a sense of smell comes in handy for these owls.
The only other time it tended to get stinky in the bird division was when we did oiled birds. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, truckloads of dead, oiled birds were bagged and frozen as evidence. After a period time they were no longer needed for the court case, so the federal government offered up the birds to universities and institutions for study. UM sent their wish list to the feds and then had a freezer-full of bagged, oily carcasses to process. Honestly, it was pretty hard to tell what was in some of the bags. A Bald Eagle bag was pretty obvious, but determining whether a black, oily glob was a Murrelet or an Auklet was all but impossible for me.
After being measured, the Exxon birds that were badly decaying were skeletonized by dermestid beetles. It must have tasted fine to them, because everything but the bones disappeared, but really, I suppose their standards are just exceptionally low. The birds that were in better condition were cleaned up and processed like any other bird, except that the cleanup took WAY longer. This gave me a real admiration for the cleaning power of Dawn dish detergent. Though it took a while, Dawn was actually able to muscle through that thick, stinky glop. I couldn’t imagine a living bird having to go through that. In the end, though, the specimens were beautiful and even smelled clean! There were also some surprises. As we were cleaning the birds, we’d frequently have to call someone from the Entomology Department. They’d be awfully excited when we’d find an occasional parasite attached to a bird.
My artistic skills occasionally came in handy in the Bird Division, particularly pen and ink. When a study skeleton is prepared, every bone has to have the museum’s super-long collection number written on it. Think about it: even something as big as a goose has some small bones. Now imagine writing that same number on the tibiotarsus of a Winter Wren. OK, some of the tiniest bones were put in glass vials with the number written on a slip of paper, but for accuracy you always wanted to physically write the number if it was at all possible. My manual dexterity for detail is the same now, but my vision was much better back then!
Working at the Bird Division of the Zoology Museum may sound challenging and a bit on the gruesome side at times, but it was incredibly interesting and a great place to learn about birds. I’m hardly a bird expert, but having that hands-on experience helped with knowing the anatomy when drawing and painting birds. It would be hard to get that any other way.
Northern Cardinal 7×10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper
Northern Cardinal (3×4 inch detail from 7×10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)
Everyone seems to like cardinals. I think the only time I wasn’t happy to see one was when I was birding in Hawaii, where they are an invasive species.
This was an unusual painting for me. Anyone looking at my portfolio will tell you that I love saturated colors and contrast. In almost all of my paintings there is some saturated color as well as some subdued color. In this painting I thought I’d try something different. Male Northern Cardinals are so outrageously colored, why not do a painting dominated by saturated colors? I chose a vivid fall foliage background with lots of yellows behind the bird and some reds in the background. I threw realistic colors out the window, rendering the branch dominated by purple tones and bragging up the blue-green lichens covering the branch. It was a fun experiment.
When I was in high school I wanted everything to be photographically realistic. With time I have found that less and less appealing. I’m drawn to images that have a literal look but but allow me to see the paint and some of the characteristics of the medium used to create it. I suppose that is why I’ve all but given up on the airbrush. I like the look of a hand-done wash.
I was reminded recently of my high school art teacher, Winona Yahn. She had the patience of a saint. I went to a small Catholic high school in southwestern New York. The place was run on a shoestring budget but managed to get an incredible amount done because of the efforts of people like Mrs. Yahn. From my understanding she volunteered her time to run an art program at the school. The necessary supplies always magically appeared for her classes. I’m sure she financed the majority of the program, and art supplies aren’t cheap. She had a great, subtle sense of humor and a high tolerance for the kids’ hijinks. Her job wasn’t easy. With her gentle nature, she tried to lead the kids by example. Some responded better than others. On her own time she painted a lot of well-received religious art.
I loved art class and would opt out of study hall whenever possible for an extra art class if she had one in session. At one point I had a rather large and elaborate pencil drawing of a huge, scaled, menacing dragon. It was standing on a landscape of carnage—dead knights, skeletons and skulls—with the dragon eviscerating one especially unlucky warrior. Behind it was burning castles, siege engines, gnarled dead trees and crows. A real upper! I did a dozen similar themed drawings like this. I was a teenage boy after all. Mrs Yahn came by, looked at the drawing, sighed and said, “Matt, I think you need to paint something happy. How about a smiling purple dragon for your next project?” I remember thinking she was nuts. I’m sure the disgust wasn’t well hidden on my face. But now, after more than 35 years, I see where she was coming from. She just didn’t have “Dude, lighten up!” in her vocabulary.
I might still have that drawing around here somewhere. At this point it would be totally embarrassing. I remember signing it with huge gothic calligraphy. Subtle! Looking back at my own efforts at that age, I’m pretty lenient when judging high school artists. Mrs. Yahn died last year; I never saw her after graduation. I’m not sure if she found out that I went on to make a living from art. It’s possible that she heard it from my dad, since we lived in a small town. I really appreciate all of her efforts for us, and it’s fun to look back at the people who guided us along the way.
I haven’t painted many gulls. Only two come to mind, Herring Gull and Ring-billed Gull. Ring-billed Gulls are almost dirt common. I’ve heard them called rats with wings. Despite some of their less appealing behaviors, I really like Ring-billed Gulls.
I went to a small college in upstate New York. College can be tough in many ways. I’ve made it through life without drinking alcohol, so my college experience and diversions were pretty different than most people. The highlights of my college life were also probably vastly outside of the norm, which is fine by me.
Anyway, for my sophomore year I lived on the fourth floor of a dorm. My room overlooked a section of the dorm’s roof. The view was ugly, but the location came in handy. We got a lot of Ring-billed Gulls on campus. The huge flocks often kept an eye on the cafeteria in the hopes of scoring some food from the students. Lord knows the meals weren’t fit for human consumption, so it wasn’t a shock that some people snuck food out for the birds and dogs that frequented the area hoping for just such a treat. Though it didn’t appeal to many of the humans, apparently it had some desirability to the “wildlife” in the area. I guess it was more palatable than the dried up worms on the sidewalks of campus.
There was one especially porky husky that my friend Bill called the “Nordic Wolf.” That metabolically challenged dog waddled over from some nearby neighborhood for every meal, even in the worst of weather. Always looking for a handout, he knew the cafeteria’s schedule better than most of the students. I watched people bring complete hamburgers out for him to eat. He probably died of atherosclerosis at the age of four, but he went with a smile on his face. Yes, a big, fat atherosclerotic smile.
To make things more bearable, we came up with inventive names for the dishes at the cafeteria. Here is a sampling of what I remember of the menu:
The Elephant Scabs: What they passed off for veal Parmesan. It had a tumorous, lumpy red sauce and some sort of compressed meat. In hindsight I’m pretty sure it was woodchuck or opossum.
Chicken Pucks: Another extruded, compressed, disk-shaped “meat product” they passed off as chicken. Now, I’m not sure what was in those, but I think a chicken could look at the ingredient list and not be offended.
Spackle: Mashed potatoes with little gastric appeal and the texture of joint compound—perfect for your next drywall project.
Lincoln Logs: Sausage links that were always blackened, hard and bark-like on the outside, yet occasionally pink on the inside! Yum… full of tapewormy goodness!
I’ll spare you the names we came up with for fried clams. Let’s just say they were rather horrific.
What does all this have to do with birds? Well, one day there was a bunch of Ring-bills bathing in a puddle on that dorm roof top. I watched them for a while as a welcome distraction between classes. When I hit lunch, the choices were, as usual, less than appetizing. I decided to go to the “last-ditch” cafeteria station and make a PB&J. Three or four bags of bread were there, but all were empty except for the heels. Nuts! Apparently I wasn’t the only one unhappy with the choices. I decided to cut my losses and eat from the care-package my grandmother had sent. Thinking of the gulls, I grabbed all of the bags with the heels and went back to my room. Yes, the gulls were still there. I carefully cracked opened my window and threw out a heel. I was initially disappointed when the gulls exploded off the roof in fear. But, this wasn’t the first bread those guys had seen. One of them looked back and immediately U-turned like a Luftwaffe pilot, landed and started wolfing down the bread. The others were soon hot on his heels. I threw more bread out. Let me tell you, the fastest learners on campus were not paying tuition—they had wings! I was out of bread in no time.
Well, I decided this was so much fun that I should do it regularly. A couple of times a week I’d liberate some of the bread heels from the cafeteria and create a feeding frenzy of gulls on the rooftop. A few times I felt generous enough to smuggle out some French fries, knowing that was the gull’s “natural diet.” Well, the gulls caught on almost instantaneously. The number of gulls got insanely high at times, as did the noise level of the screaming combatants fighting for the food. One day I noticed that I wasn’t the only one watching. Other students were looking out their windows because of the huge racket the gulls made. It was quite a spectacle, and someone was bound to complain to the residence life staff.
I now had a dilemma. Obviously I wanted to keep feeding the gulls. It was too much fun not to. The trick was going to be reducing the schedule enough to evade the wary eye of the staff while keeping the gulls interested. As Pavlov knew, a well-conditioned response needs repetition! At the same time, if I did it too often and attracted too much attention, “The Man” was going to shut down my little operation. While the resident assistants were happy to look the other way for a multitude of infractions—like keg parties, the Ozone Rangers smoking pot all day long, or those breaking the purely hypothetical quiet hours—they wouldn’t tolerate something like this. In the end I was feeding them about three times a week at different times of day. Alas, winter came, the water froze and the gulls hit the road.
Winters are really long in Syracuse, New York. I resumed the feeding frenzies in the spring. A week or two before finals I met the guy who lived on the floor directly below me. His room was Ground Zero for the rooftop feedings. He yelled, “Wait… YOU live in 403?! You’re the one feeding those $%&#$ gulls all the time right outside my window! They drive me nuts.”
I replied, “Your view must be FANTASTIC!” After that I apologized, knowing that with my anonymity gone it was the end of the fun. At least I had made it until almost the end of the semester. In the following years I never had a decent vantage point to watch or feed the birds. After leaving that school I’ve pretty much had “normal” bird feeders, but there was something exciting about the sheer volume of screaming gulls zooming in for completely inappropriate food.
Carolina Wrens (7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP Paper)
Carolina Wrens (3.5 x5-inch detail from 7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor original)
Carolina Wrens are fun little birds. They seem to be clever. My office and studio are in the basement of our house. It’s a nice space with one drawback: I have a only a small window well for natural light. I suppose the benefit is that I’m not staring out the window all day instead of working. I can easily lose an hour looking through a window. Well, the Carolina Wrens occasionally pop into the window well to hunt for insects and spiders. Their visits increase dramatically in the winter, when food is scarce and they get the added benefit of some heat from the house and shelter from the wind. As a matter of fact, one just appeared while I was writing this. At only 7° F, today is a cold one. If I put a suet cake in the window well, they’d probably never leave! In the past I’ve been tempted to put some freeze-dried mealworms out there to keep them going on the coldest winter days. Carolina Wrens are especially hard hit when temperatures drop.
I got the reference photos for this painting using a 400mm lens from the kitchen window. The wrens stop in to visit the suet feeders and for occasional forays to the seed feeders. They investigate everything.
My photos had plain blurry green backgrounds. While pretty for a photo, this can result in a “Bird-on-a-Stick” painting that can be dull. I wanted to paint a pair of wrens, but compositionally, items are best painted in odd numbers. Bird duos occur naturally in nature but make for a design no-no. Their pairing in a painting can lead to the dreaded “dumbbell” composition, which keeps your eyes ping-ponging between two items. To counter this I usually try to bring in other elements that will help move a viewer’s eye around the page. In this case that meant imagining an entirely new background and setting for the wrens.
I tried to arrange branches with lots of diagonals running parallel to the birds’ poses. In theory this adds more movement and energy to the painting. I also wanted to strictly control what the background was doing relative to the birds and branches. This meant having the background decrease in contrast and detail with distance. At the same time my hope was to have the warm brown tones of the birds against cooler colors so they’d really pop off the page. It’s challenging to strike the right balance between getting a good clear image while still having the bird work well in its natural environment.
Struggling with this painting’s composition got me thinking. When I was in art school various popular artists were routinely trashed by students and teachers alike. It was a little too early for Tomas Kinkaid to (deservedly) receive the full wrath of the art school glitterati, so Normal Rockwell was raked over the coals regularly. Although I can’t think of anything positive to say about Kincaid, I was familiar with some of Rockwell’s work and never understood the rage it engendered. Years later I got a few books out of the library on Rockwell to see if the vicious remarks were deserved. While some of his compositions were much more complex than others, the art was always well rendered. I suppose the first strike against Rockwell in the art school setting was that he was an excellent draftsman and was realistic. “Back in my day” art schools seemed to focus on abstract expressionism. Any applied and representation art was considered lowly, unimaginative and derivative. There are a lot of illustrators who get thrown under the bus because of this.
The art school folks dismissed Rockwell’s work, complaining that he painted many popular scenes of average life. So what? Plenty of great artists like Bruegel the Elder, Hopper, Vermeer and others have been genre painters but were celebrated for it rather than being condemned. Rockwell used photos for reference, but so did Vermeer… essentially. Critics also complained that his work evoked the emotional response of the viewer. There is some hypocrisy there, since so many of the avant-garde like Serrano seem to want to have us have a visceral response to their work. Perhaps Rockwell was too patriotic and optimistic for them? I can’t claim to know what they are thinking.
The thing that totally won me over for Rockwell was how well he composed, prompting your eye to move around the page in many of his paintings. Everything in the images works together to this end. That doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a lot of skill, effort and experimentation. In my option many of his works were fantastically designed. If his work is bad… then I hope mine is as bad as his someday!
Who could possibly pick a favorite type of thrush? I love them all. Veery are especially pretty and have a beautiful call to match. If Mozart were a bird, he’d have to be a thrush. Veery have a musical descending call that rolls down in a cascade of rapid, ethereal notes. On the less charming side, I’ve also heard it described as a “flute going down a toilet.” While lacking in appropriate admiration of its beauty, that does describes it perfectly. It’s also easy to remember.
While on a birding trip with the family this past spring, I took photos of this cooperative bird at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. It was a lot less crowed than Magee Marsh.
Growing up in rural western New York, we heard a lot of thrushes whenever we were out in the woods. Calls of Wood Thrushes and Veery were everywhere. I still get to hear those in Michigan, but one thing I definitely miss is hearing is the drumming of Ruffed Grouse. They can really scare the pants off you as they explode into flight. It’s like a perfectly camouflaged acoustic anti-personnel mine waiting to detonate in the woods. If you get too close, blammo!
Years ago I had the displeasure of coming across a hidden Ruffed Grouse while riding a horse. I was enjoying a relaxing ride at walking pace up a forested hillside in western New York. The earliest of the fall colors were starting to emerge, and it was incredibly relaxing… until the horse almost stepped on a hidden grouse. Let me tell you, that grouse exploded into flight, scaring the life out of the horse and myself. The horse went bonkers and started running full blast through the woods. I was pretty sure I was going to have my head torn off by a low-lying branch. After a bit of coaxing, the horse settled down. What probably was only seconds seemed like minutes as we ripped through the woods getting smacked by saplings, while I anticipated a painful lumber-lobotomy.