Op Art Birds

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Baltimore Oriole

Male Baltimore Oriole on a Gray Catbird background, collecting food (assassin bugs) for nestlings 

Baltimore Oriole

Male Baltimore Oriole on a Gray Catbird background

Baltimore Oriole

Female Baltimore Oriole on a Gray Catbird background

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole on a Gray Catbird background

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird on one of my Baltimore Oriole backgrounds

Baltimore Oriole

Male Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Juvenile Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Male Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Male Baltimore Oriole collecting food (assassin bugs) for nestlings

I’ve hit a slow patch with freelance work, so I’ve had some extra time to put into several projects that have been on the back burner for a while. These photos are the result of one of those projects.

When I was in art school, I did a variety of paintings that were op art-ish.* I suppose that style of art appeals to me because it is precise. I was a big fan of Victor Vasarely, Julian Stanczak, Carlos Cruz-Diez and others. Back in 1990 I was doing stripy, taped-line paintings on two-sided, 3D, curved canvases. I thought it would be interesting to investigate those again, this time using the colors from different birds. That sounds simple enough, but here is the tricky part: I wanted to get photos of the actual birds on the art… without any Photoshop trickery.

I designed the artwork on the computer using Adobe Illustrator and Lightwave 3D. After printing each piece, I placed it in the backyard on a special feeder that I built. It’s designed to attract birds as well as to support the artwork, which is sliced into two sections and positioned in front of (below) and behind the bird. The images were taken with a 100mm f2.8 macro on a wirelessly triggered, tripod-mounted camera. Except for small adjustments like cropping and straightening, no Photoshop techniques were used to manipulate these photos!

The Baltimore Orioles were much less skittish than the Gray Catbirds. I had several background designs for each and found that although the backgrounds weren’t specifically intended to work with every bird, they all made for interesting images. The American Robin designs are coming up next.

* Op art, or optical art, is a form of abstract art that gives the illusion of movement by the precise use of pattern and color OR in which conflicting patterns emerge and overlap. 

Red, White and Blue (Immature Ring-billed Gull)

Ring-billed Gull (18 x 24-inch transparent watercolor on arches 140lb HP paper)

Ring-billed Gull (18 x 24-inch transparent watercolor on arches 140lb HP paper)

Ring-billed Gull (detail)

Ring-billed Gull (detail)

Ring-billed Gull (2.5 x 3.5-inch detail from 18 x 24-inch watercolor)

Ring-billed Gull (2.5 x 3.5-inch detail from 18 x 24-inch watercolor)

I used to do a lot of larger watercolors, usually in the 18 x 24-inch format but once working 18 x 72 inches! Later I switched to smaller pieces, when we had kids. My theory was that it would allow me to finish more paintings. At first I settled on 10 x 14 as a typical format. Later I went down to 7 x 10 so i could easily fit things on my flatbed scanner. For insects, frogs, toads and salamanders, I’d bring it down further to 5 x 7 inches. Counterintuitively, I noticed that I ended up packing more detail into the smaller paintings, and I spent almost as much time on them as some of the larger ones. At least they were easier to store!

It took me a while to figure out how to pull off this painting. I had sat on the idea since last October. As a family we drove over to Lake Michigan for my wife’s birthday on a birding and lighthouse trip. While at Holland’s Big Red lighthouse, I got photos of an immature Ring-billed Gull on a blue fence with the blurred-out image of the lighthouse behind it. It was a compelling shot, but the bird flew off before I had a chance to really work the shot and make something interesting out of it.

After it bubbled on the back burner of my mind for half a year, I decided to paint it large and push the whole thing in a graphic design direction, making the fence and riveted wall important parts of the composition. I ended up modeling the walls, bird and fencing in 3D so I could play with the design. After two days of monkeying around with a myriad of different compositions, I came up with one that I felt was interesting, and then I took out the paints. When you strip a painting down to so few elements, it makes the placement of every little thing like the rivets more important. Speaking of rivets, there were 65 rivets and bolts to paint on this one. 

Immature Ring-billed Gull, Holland Lighthouse. You can see the blurred out fence and porthole in the red background.

Immature Ring-billed Gull reference photo from Holland Lighthouse. You can see the blurred-out fence and porthole in the red background.

Painting Drafts, Lightwave 3D

Painting Drafts, Lightwave 3D

Painting Draft (Lightwave 3D)

Painting Draft (Lightwave 3D)

"Winning" Draft (Lightwave 3D)

“Winning” Draft (Lightwave 3D)

Painting a bird in a setting devoid of a natural landscape and dominated by man-made elements reminded me of a painting I did twenty years ago of a House Finch sitting on an abandoned, rusting tractor.

House Finch on Tractor (18x24 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

House Finch on Tractor (18 x 24-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Tree Swallow Transparent Watercolor & Time-Lapse Video

Tree Swallow (10x7 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Tree Swallow (10×7-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Tree Swallow (detail from 10x7 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Tree Swallow (detail from 10×7-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

This was a quick watercolor-and-ink painting. I had been concentrating on doing highly rendered watercolor paintings for a while and thought it would be fun to whip off a less-detailed, quick, inked piece with bragged-up colors. This Tree Swallow was at the top of the “to be inked” list.

This particular bird was at Ottawa NWR sitting on a teak bench. We were on a family birding trip to Northern Ohio for spring migration in 2016. Since all four of us love wildlife, especially birds, we take day trips and occasional overnight trips to go birding during migration, seeking out birding areas wherever we travel.

When I was a kid our family vacations were fairly predictable. Aside from a few exceptions, we went to a beach for a week. My dad loved the coast, swimming in the ocean and sitting around reading books. My mom welcomed a week with a change of routine, but I think she still had more than enough on her plate, not the least of which included wrangling three boys. Since my grandparents and cousins lived in NYC and the surrounding  area, that often meant that we’d vacation on Long Island and visit with relatives as well.

I tended to get bored pretty easily at the beach. My brothers would read, but as a kid I wasn’t into books, unless you count B.C. and the Wizard of ID. At the end of the day I often had a lobster-deep sunburn and, after being tossed around in the surf for hours, a diamond-abrasive clump of 60-grit sand in my swimsuit. On the plus side, those beach trips let me enjoy seeing all sorts of shells, sandpipers, sanderlings. I also loved climbing in the dunes and looking at the storm debris that got washed up high on the beach, finding feathers, crab exoskeletons, fish and bird bones among the detritus. 

Seeing washed-up jellyfish was always cool, although when I was really young I’d give the dead cnidarians about four feet of cautious space. I was fairly certain they might spontaneously explode or perhaps come back to life, jumping on to me, ferociously attacking with deadly, fiery tentacles. Surprisingly, that never seemed to happen! My dad loved telling a story of going to the beach with his cousins while on family vacation. As young boys tend to do, he and his younger brother Joe discovered a “fun” game. They’d find a wooden slat from a sand-break fence, then use it to flick a small, dead jellyfish at their victim. Better yet, if needed, they would use their fence stick to section a bigger, putrefying jellyfish into an appropriate size, thus honing their future skills in the surgical field. Once on the end of the stick, they would flick the gelatinous corpse at the nearest unsuspecting youth. Supposedly a relative took a hit to the mouth once. The tale might be more legend than fact, but that never stopped me from asking him to tell it again and again.

We never did any wildlife-specific trips when I was a kid, but we would often have them tangentially. One of the more memorable was seeing sharks on the beach of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. If you see me in person, feel free to ask the long, convoluted story, which is way too long to share here. During that same vacation we went on a ranger-led hike that was fantastic. The Park Ranger explained the dune system and pointed out tons of interesting plants and animals. That was one of my favorite parts of that trip. We’d always go to zoos and aquariums wherever we went. I loved those day trips. No matter where we went, we always managed to have a lot of fun. 

The one bird-related event that was predictable and always greatly enjoyed when we were really young kids happened when we visited my grandparents in the Bronx. My grandmother would grab a loaf of old bread and ask in her thick Irish brogue, “All right boys, who wants to go to the cemetery?” Now a trip to see gravestones with a stale roll of pumpernickel might not sound like a great way to spend your day, but we knew better. This meant we would be going to feed the ducks that hung out there. Honestly, she seemed to enjoy it just as much as we did. It was definitely a different sort of “birding vacation,” but you have to start somewhere. Little things like that surely got me hooked.

Veery Transparent Watercolor & Time-Lapse Video

Veery (7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Veery (7×10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Veery (detail from 7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Veery (detail from 7×10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

This Veery painting is another transparent watercolor on Arches 140lb Hot Press paper.

I’ve been teaching a watercolor course this year for a small group of homeschoolers. It’s been fun to watch the kids’ progress. They have produced a lot of great art of varied subject matter. It also has been interesting to me to have to verbalize things I’ve been doing subconsciously for 35-40 years. There is quite a bit of subtlety to how you hold a brush and use it that I didn’t think much about until seeing someone else try it and having to explain how to do it with greater precision.

Many fine artists look down on watercolors as being amateur materials, or a beginner’s medium. There definitely is a bias toward oils and acrylics in art schools and galleries. Sure, works on Belgian linen are going to hold up longer, but the majority of oils and acrylics are done on cheaply made pre-gessoed canvases on lousy stretchers and inexpensive canvas. I painted for years in acrylics and oils. I liked them, but they always lacked the luminescent, transparent qualities of watercolor. Neither of those “finer” media could offer the control I can get with watercolors.

For many watercolor is a frustrating medium. I’d be the first to agree that you have to play by the rules to have paintings work out well. The easiest things to do in oils and acrylics, like a completely even, flat application of a single color, can be confounding with watercolor. If you stick with it, watercolor’s idiosyncrasies start to get sorted out, and you’ll find a flexible and capable medium.

I think one of the things that thwarts many people’s attempts is using cheap paper. I’m fairly capable when it comes to the medium, and I don’t think I could get a satisfactory result on cheap paper. I initially learned watercolor from my mom. While painting in several different media over the years, she predominantly used watercolors. She ALWAYS used Arches 140 lb Cold Press (CP) paper. For years I followed her lead and used the same paper. The CP papers really drink up a wash well, making gradients and flat, even application of color easier. Cold press paper also stands up to re-working well, and the pigments seem to hold better and are less likely to lift.

As the years passed and I started developing my own style, I began to feel limited by all those annoying bumps in the CP paper. The tooth got in the way of the detail at times. When I was in graduate school for Medical Illustration, we had a watercolor course. To say that medical illustrators like detail is an huge understatement. I knew that using the usual CP paper was going to be too bumpy to allow for crisp detail. Wanting a really good grade, I ended up getting a sheet of Hot Press (HP) watercolor board and gave it a shot. I ended up doing an illustration of a bronchoscopy procedure and really liked working on the hot pressed surface despite some limitations. I ended up doing all of my projects for that class on Hot Press (HP).

Hot press paper is smooth, but it definitely doesn’t absorb a wash like CP paper. Unless you have a very gentle touch, the pigment can lift when glazing. That’s okay. It’s so smooth it allows for a ton of detail! I was converted. I’ve not bought cold pressed paper since.

For a while I bought blocks of 140lb paper made by Winsor and Newton called NCP (Not Cold Pressed). This was the Holy Grail of paper. It was almost as smooth as HP paper but took a wash perfectly like the CP paper. Alas, they stopped making it about a decade ago. Lana makes a nice HP paper that takes washes better than the Arches HP, but it doesn’t come in blocks. In the end I went back to the Arches 140lb HP paper blocks and had a bit of adapting to do. It definitely doesn’t take washes as evenly.

I have found that certain adaptations are necessary for Hot Pressed papers. Your technique has to be spot on, or you’re going to have uneven washes and lifted paints when glazing. This means you’re going to have to go through a certain amount of paper just getting your wash technique down. Practice!

Sometimes you need to approach things with 3-4 washes to build the tone you really want, especially for darker saturated colors. One pass doesn’t always cut it. I find the working time on HP paper is less than the CP paper. For HP paper you need to really follow the basic rules of watercolor to the letter. Always work light to dark. Always start wet and work toward drier, more opaque colors. You can get away with bending the rules a bit on CP paper, but if you stray on HP, you’ll be lifting colors and making a mess.

Red-bellied Woodpecker Transparent Watercolor and Time Lapse Video

Red-bellied Woodpecker 7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor

Red-bellied Woodpecker 7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor

Red-bellied Woodpecker (detail) 7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor

Red-bellied Woodpecker (detail) 7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor

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.