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Manakin Art

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The long-tailed manakin, Chiroxiphia linearis, lives in Central America, and has to be one of the coolest birds on the planet. Males lek, gathering in groups to display for females. They'll sit close together, and voice a loud, mellow whistle: To-le-do! in unison. Two or even three males may display cooperatively, doing a complex dance in which one male launches himself in a parabolic flight over a horizontal perch, while another male zoops in beneath him, and launches when the first bird is about to land. They make a rolling Catherine wheel of color, their azure backs and crimson crowns blurring.
As a college student, I was fascinated--obsessed--with manakins, these birds I had never seen in life. I studied every bit of scientific literature I could get my hands on, and wrote papers in several independent studies with graduate students who had seen them. Boy, I love manakins. Since then, I've seen three species, including this coolest of all manakins, but have never been able to spend a lot of time watching them. It's a dream that I hope someday to fulfill.
Close enough, though, is being commissioned to paint long-tailed manakins. And for a PhD candidate's surprise present, no less. Stephanie Doucet just successfully defended her thesis on plumage coloration in long-tailed manakins at Auburn University, and her husband Dan Mennill contacted me and asked if I'd make a painting as a present for her. SURE! My favorite kind of job: Finite, colorful, and fun.
Dan sent me terrific reference. These videos of dancing manakins were the best. The first video
shows two males whistling and cartwheeling. Oh, man, I was excited.
The second video is even better: two nutso males AND two olive-drab females on the same branch, with a bellbird konking in the background! It's almost like being in Costa Rica.
Computers, and especially my beloved Mac, make being a bird artist so darn fun it ought to be illegal.
So I was well set-up with action pics of dancing manakins. As far as Dan knew, he was getting a portrait of a single male, but I couldn't paint just one. It would be like eating one potato chip, a single spoonful of Cherry Garcia. So I started sketching action poses. There were so many to choose from it was torture to pick just two.
Picking my two favorite poses of males in flight and in ready-to-fly mode, I came up with a simple drawing that I thought conveyed the motion and zest of the birds.
Then, I shaded it to figure out some of the values involved. As you can see, the flying male has moved to the left, to give a better impression of the wheel-like flight.I wanted that blue and red to really pop against a complementary background of vivid tropical forest green. And I didn't want to get all hung up in the foliage...because when you're watching manakins dance, I guarantee you're not paying any attention to leaf textures.
At this point, I'd worked for most of a day on the pencil sketch phase, just chomping at the bit to move on to painting. But it's well worth thinking it all out in black-and-white, because no amount of painting technique will make up for a weak drawing. To be continued...


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