A friend recently asked, “So, what did you do at work this week?”
And I replied, “Uh, this is going to sound weird. I made a hat shaped like a hummingbird.”
I’ve made a bunch of these hats for our kids at Halloween. Over the years, many emails have rolled in from people who saw them online and were curious about them. Many have asked about buying an existing hat, renting one or commissioning one. The problem is that they aren’t just hats. They are mid-sized, detailed sculptures that take a ton of time to make. The most recent one took almost an entire week from start to finish. Plus, shipping the larger hats is expensive. Given the cost, it didn’t surprise me that no one wanted to take the plunge and invest in one… until this year. Someone recently decided to go for it and commissioned a Ruby-throated Hummingbird hat for a hummingbird society meeting in Arizona. I’m happy to report that it arrived without a hitch, and she loved it.
Over the years I’ve actually made a lot of hats. For the kid’s Halloween costumes alone, I can think of 14. In art school a design teacher gave us several hat assignments. At that time he was without a doubt the most feared professor at the art school. He had a history of merciless comments that were like jagged lacerations… memorable and painful, cutting deep and leaving permanent scars. I learned an incredible amount about design in the first semester of his class, and I still have some of the projects I made for him.
His first assignment was to build a “Hat for Two.” This was an unusual design problem: a hat that two people wore at the same time. To add to the degree of difficulty, it had to allow the wearers to discreetly share their opinions (positive or negative) about art pieces at a gallery or art opening. The next hat assignment was perhaps even more interesting and challenging: this time everyone had to build a hat had capable of catching a ping-pong ball and then delivering it to the hat of the person next to you in class. On the day the project was due, the teacher would randomly assemble us in a circle, and the critique would begin. This was somewhat problematic because you had no idea what everyone else would bring. Some people were tall; some short. Some hats had tiny places to receive a ball; others large. Function was crucial, but it’d better look good too if you expected a halfway decent grade!
The day of the critique was always stressful. Some people brought in beautiful pieces that simply didn’t work. Others brought in contraptions that functioned well, but were ugly. Some had ideas that didn’t look good OR work. There were always one or two students who didn’t finish. The hat I remember best was shaped like a fish, constructed with balsa wood and paper. It had a mouth that opened and closed to catch the ball, which then rolled out the“back end” to deliver it to the next student. The only problem was that the wearer couldn’t see where the ball would drop. Designs that relied on gravity often allowed the ball to roll out before the next hat was ready. The most successful designs allowed the wearers to control precisely when they would deliver the ball and to see exactly where it would be placed.
Here are some other interesting assignments:
Musical Shoes: We had to design, fabricate and wear shoes that made music while you walked.
The Whacky Stack: Like many of his assignments, the actual assignment was cryptic, and you had to read the instructor’s mind to figure out what he wanted. This one was a limerick, which for some reason I still remember 20 years later: “There was an amazing stack/ that came in its very own pack./ Such a balancing feat/ proved incomplete/ until the pack was part of the stack.” This makes the class sound fun, but in reality I think everyone in there would agree that there was a ton of stress involved. When asked what he wanted to see from the assignment, the instructor would refuse to answer and just point to the limerick.
Locker-folding Critique Seat: This assignment required building a chair that collapsed to fit into one of the art school lockers. You were required to bring the seat to all the class critiques. If yours broke during the semester, you’d have to fix it or replace it with another invention. If you made something painful, well then you’d have a semester full of critiques to rethink things!
SHMOE and more: The second semester went off the rails with some truly bizarre assignments. Half the semester was spent making a play where all the actors’ words were acrostic poems starting with the letters S,H,M,O and E. Now SHMOE may sound random, but those happen to be the first letters of the Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Erie. Ok… I guess it is sort of a random choice, but his idea was to provide an order and structure, arbitrary as it may have been, to the whole play. Yeah, that was a long semester.
I’ve made a lot of hats over the years, and I’d have to say the bird hats have been the most fun.
Having spent more than 22 years as a professional illustrator, I’ve worked on a considerable number of projects using a wide variety of styles. Stylistically I gravitate towards a particular look, rendering pieces with an abundance of detail, saturated colors and plenty of contrast. I’ve been called upon to create in color as well as black and white, using paper and pencil, pen and ink, brush and palette, software and stylus, generating everything from cartoons to highly rendered 3D art. These choices depend on the project, client needs and whether or not I have to match a developed style or that of other artists working on the project.
Being an illustrator is a lot like being a session musician: at times you have to be a bit of a chameleon changing styles and blending into the surroundings. That’s one of several “truths” I’ve encountered as a professional illustrator. I’ve also found that…
The work tends to be varied.
Some projects are fun; some are not.
Some clients are wonderful; some are not.
Sometimes you are left with great memories; sometimes… well, some projects and clients are best forgotten.
In the school of trying to make something good out of something bad, I thought I’d revisit a few things I liked from projects that were sub-optimal. When I’ve spent a significant amount of time on artwork that hasn’t been fully utilized for one reason or another, I tend to look for opportunities to reuse or reinvent it.
Occasionally I’ve put in some of my own time making something for a client at a level of detail that exceeded their needs because I thought it was interesting or because I thought I could reuse it down the line. I’m always careful to “clock out” when I take a detour like this. It’s most likely to happen when creating 3D models for which I retain the copyright when providing the client with 2D-rendered art as a final product. Last year I had a project requiring various musical instruments used in jazz. Due to the particulars of that client, all the final delivered art had to be in black and white. Despite that and other limitations, I think the art had a lot of charm. Alas, the project turned out to be a dead end, but I still have the interesting 3D models I created for the instruments and for a few related projects, all of which seem worthy of reinvention.
I always thought brass instruments were fascinating with their crazy curves, valves and reflective surfaces. As a kid I remember seeing the stylized trumpet on the poster for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie. I thought it was SO COOL—the horn, NOT the rest of the poster or the movie. I was a big Beatles fan. Whose idea was it to ruin a classic album with a horrible, unwatchable flick? I think that crazy, heart-shaped trumpet was the only positive thing about the the movie. I was a bit deflated to hear that it wasn’t even playable, that it was merely a sculpture. Someone has since made a playable version of it. I have no idea if it sounds decent.
Anyhow, I always thought it would be fun to do some art with a trumpet or French horn. The closest I got to it before was making pen-and-ink drawings of my mother’s flute and my brother’s clarinet. All those valves are levers are über-cool. Well, the poor trumpet I modeled to create the art for the client mentioned above was gray. Why not breathe some new life into it with all sorts of crazy color variations, reflections and shadows? The combinations of straight lines, curves and circles of the overlapping instruments was a lot of fun to play with. Next I have to see what I can do with a piano, banjo and upright bass!
King Vulture (7×10-inch transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP Paper)
King Vulture 4.5×6-inch detail (from 7×10-inch transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP Paper)
I finally got around to painting a King Vulture. (!) I’ve been fascinated by these birds for a long time, and this one presented a great challenge for watercolor. Its textures are tremendously varied: glassy eyes, shiny beaks, fluffy feathers, bristly hair-like feathers, wrinkly scalp, folded-up neck, facial disk and that tumorous wattle on the beak. Its colors are equally varied, ranging from vividly saturated oranges, reds, blues and purples to subtle variations in grey and white. This guy seemed to possess almost every painting challenge conceivable except reflective surfaces! Maybe I should have added sunglasses?
Mourning Dove (4×5-inch detail from 7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor Painting)
Mourning Dove (4×5-inch detail from 7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor Painting)
I often paint things in the “wrong” season. I have to admit it’s a bit odd to be painting an icy cold winter scene of a Mourning Dove when it’s over 90º F outside. Maybe it’s better? It’s certainly easier to be enthusiastic about a beautiful winter scene when you are not freezing cold, day in and day out.
I had a blast with this little painting. I set out to see if I could get a super-soft background that incorporated the best features of airbrush with the best of a watercolor wash. In the past I relied heavily on the airbrush for smooth backgrounds with soft shading. It was easy to “squirt in a background” and add soft, blurry background elements. They looked great, but I found that I always preferred a true watercolor wash. On this painting I did wet-on-wet washes and glazes to build up what I think is a nice, soft background. It has the look of a low depth-of-field photo but maintains some of the unpredictable nature of a watercolor wash.
For some reason it took me a long time to get around to sketching a Mourning Dove. I really love these birds. You seem to find them everywhere, and everyone seems familiar with their plaintive “coo” call. When I was a kid their call served as the background sound on many a trip walking to the top of the hill to catch the bus to school. It was often accompanied by—or drowned out by—the sound of gale-force winds tearing through you on frigid winter mornings in western New York.
Some of my other early Mourning Dove memories are from grade school. No, we didn’t have a birding class. I went to to a small, Catholic school in a quiet, residential neighborhood. It was a two-story brick building. Once you advanced to 4th grade you moved to the second floor. I didn’t see the benefit of this until I hit 5th grade. You see, grades 5-8 all faced east, which was great because it put you at eye level with the trees, and you could see a lot of good activity from there.
During class I’d often get caught looking out the windows at birds and squirrels on the telephone wires near St. John’s. The Mourning Doves would land on a wire, which then sympathetically vibrated, throwing their bodies in a perfect circle of ever decreasing size. The whole time their bodies were being flung around in an ever tightening spiral, their tiny little dove heads stayed perfectly motionless. AMAZING! Additional doves coming in to land got all the bodies moving with the heads completely still. WOW, this is great!Funny to watch, a study of applied physics, social interactions, community ecology… all totally unappreciated by my teachers. “Matty… Matty… Matty… Matthew Bohan!!! Stop looking out that window! COME BACK TO REALITY! We are diagramming sentences. In the sentence ‘Matthew is terribly distracted,’ what is the predicate?”
When doves weren’t on the wire, Gray Squirrels also put on a great show out there, and when the animal activity slowed down completely, you could have a great day dream looking out those windows. You know, windows do that. It’s much harder to have a daydream staring at a blackboard. If you are practiced, you can still do it, but it requires more effort. Give me a window and my mind can go just about anywhere. I’ve always been a pro at day dreaming.
We usually have Mourning Doves nest in at least one of our spruce trees. In general they seem to have pretty low nest success. Their minimum-effort, loose nest of sticks seems almost like an afterthought but obviously does the job most of the time, because there are still plenty of doves around.
They seem to be very agreeable birds. I seldom see them nipping and bullying other birds at the feeder. On top of that, they are beautiful… very well designed. When they glide their pointy wings occasionally throw me off, especially against a white sky, leading to some bad IDs when birding. They can look a falcon-ish at times. I had a birding friend in New Jersey who jokingly called them “Lesser Gyrfalcons” when they’d thrown off an ID, causing him to think it was a American Kestrel or Merlin for a second or two.
Sadly, the Mourning Dove is the most hunted North American species. Their steady, straight flight makes them easy targets for beginners. Apparently, most hunters don’t even retrieve the body after shooting a dove. It’s just for the thrill or challenge of killing one. Some things I’ll never understand.