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Parakeet Painting

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I recently finished a private commission: a portrait of a Carolina parakeet. Jumped at the excuse to paint this bird, as I've only done one other painting of it. I have to say, painting an extinct species like a Carolina parakeet is a lot less daunting than it used to be. It's so much easier to root out images of mounts and the like with the help of the Internet. And what I found most fun was finding images of species that were morphologically similar to Carolina parakeets, like the cherry-headed conure (Red-masked parakeet to you ornithologists) so beautifully depicted in the movie, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. It doesn't take much imagination to turn them into CAPA's. Very appealing birds. I have to think that the genus Conuropsis would have been changed to Aratinga, given a little time. I liked the tilt of this bird's head, so I stole it. But I was careful to watch bill proportions--CAPA bills were a bit finer, and the birds overall more delicate, than red-masked parakeets.

In a painting of this kind, you're only going to be as good as your reference. And no one is going to send you a museum specimen of an extinct bird. So you root around. And with a fast connection and a good Mac, it doesn't take long to build an impressive library of images to work from.

I started with my own photographs from the Field Museum of Chicago, where bird curator Dave Willard kindly let me handle some incredible specimens.

Then, I moved on to Net images of mounted birds. This is probably the prettiest mount photo I found. Immaculate feathers, amazing considering the specimen is probably well over a century old.

And found this Louis Fuertes study of a wing-clipped captive. My favorite artist, in the presence of a live Carolina parakeet. Will wonders never cease. This painting makes me sad, as I'm sure it did him. There it clings to its cage mesh, its left wing clipped. Poor thing. I can feel Fuertes' sadness in his painting.

I decided to give my bird a lively pose, stretching its wing and tail. Here it is, before I added the background wash and modeled the bird and leaves more fully. I could easily have stopped here, but then it would have looked like a plate out of an old book. I wanted to give it some context. I decided to put the bird in a peach tree, since its fondness for orchards was one of its downfalls.

In selecting colors for the background wash, I try to keep in mind what will complement the bird's colors. A cool periwinkle seemed like the best choice for that vibrant canary yellow and orange. I sprinkled some kosher salt into the wet wash to sparkle it up a little. Salt is hydrophilic, so the water pools around the crystals, and the pigment settles out when those pools dry up, making starry patterns.
The finished painting. You can see how I've gone in and tickled in darks all over the bird and leaves, added shadows to the peaches, and toned the whole thing up. I got a card in the mail from the person who commissioned it. He really likes it. Yay! And I get a few more trips to the grocery store and gas pump. So it goes. Beats flipping burgers.

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