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Audubon's Wood Ducks

Sunday, November 14, 2010

As stunning as the Carolina parakeets are, Audubon’s wood duck watercolor is a serious contender for favorite. I remember getting a phone call when I lived in Hadlyme, Connecticut. Someone had a big bird in his chimney. I hurried to the place to find a thoroughly blackened wood duck flopping around the living room of an elegant old Colonial home. If this seems odd, remember that wood ducks nest in hollow trees. It was spring, and she was prospecting any remotely tree-like cavity. Wood ducks wind up in chimneys quite often. Good thing the blackening was just greasy soot; the fireplace was out of service.

I wrapped her in a towel, put her in a box and took her home, where I gently washed and blow-dried her, rinsing her irritated eyes with saline. What really struck me was first her diminutive size. Next were her huge, luminous eyes, almost starting out of her head, the way a white-footed mouse’s eyes do. And then there were her feet—small and impossibly velvety-soft, not at all as you would imagine a duck’s feet might be. 

All those memories flooded back as I gazed at this incomparable work of art. It was as if the living birds were right before me. Here are the feet of Audubon’s hen wood duck. He’s draped the folds of the webbing, shown the pliability of her toes. I can see that he marveled at them, too.

The male wood duck, in a slightly stiff upright pose, is oddly the most lifelike of them all, at least to me. It’s all in his eyes. I had to think that Audubon had a live specimen before him when he painted this. He was an artist; perhaps he winged it with a shot, and certainly he knew that drawing from a living bird, no matter how frightened, beats a dead specimen in every way. Oh, what a joy to see the hand of the master in this painting. I was dying to see how he’d handled the white chevrons on the bird’s mahogany breast. And gave a little crow of delight when I discovered that Audubon had scratched the maroon paint away with a blade or stylus, exposing white watercolor paper in chevrons of increasing size. No opaque white tints for him!

 Look at the white chevrons on the drake's breast. Watercolorists will know that those were scratched out with a blade.

Discovering this, it hit me that everything Audubon was doing with watercolor was experimental. There was probably no one showing him how to do it. The opaque whites he worked with contained lead, and over time that would oxidize to a strange blue color. Whether he knew that or not, he refrained from using white paint in a situation like this, preferring to let the paper white shine through. Oh, how I wished I could fly back in time with a bottle of Incredible White Masking Fluid. We could have such a good time. I’d turn him on to plastic spray bottles and masking tape and mechanical pencils you never have to sharpen. I’d give him a big John Pike palette, some nontoxic, non-oxidizing Permanent White Winsor-Newton gouache, and some terrific Daniel Smith synthetic blend brushes that never wear out. And then we’d go find some Carolina parakeets and maybe some Van Dykes (his name for ivory-billed woodpeckers), and make a date to visit a passenger pigeon colony in the spring.

Audubon added the hen in the rotted limb several years after painting the courting trio, making a nice focal point for the painting, and giving a satisfying end to the tale of courtship he weaves in the upper two-thirds of the work. Thanks to Curator of Drawings Roberta Olson for that insight.


Beautiful! And I love your story about the Wood Duck in the chimney.

I am enjoying your entries on Audubon's work very much. While I've always understood he was the premiere bird artist, I've never known why until now. Your artist's eye and experience provide a whole new layer of understanding for a dilettante like me. I have also wanted to travel back in time with some of our modern accouterments - I'd like to give Queen Elizabeth a big bottle of aspirin and some shampoo. I bet I'd be a goddess (or burned at the stake).

I would like to know what currently-dead people you would like to have dinner with. And I've always wanted to give Bach a modern piano. What have the greats done without us?

Oh yeah--only everything.

Great post on Audubon's parrot painting. Yes, he was great, and his colors are vibrant, life-like, such as you would expect from a naturalist. You might enjoy his journals. I'll send the full title when I find the book.
Chris M.

That Wood Duck painting is my favorite so far of those you have been showing. Amazing talent!

Love the Audubon posts. P.S. Don't forget to bring him a digital camera with a great zoom-ha.

Julie, just loving your close reading on these Audubon paintings, and sooo jealous .

Anne and I had the opportunity of banding wood ducks this fall, they are beautiful close up.

"currently dead"?
Does that mean they won't be dead later?

Thanks for your beautiful post. I just love Audubon's paintings, and your insights on the wood duck are great. Thank you. I'd like to think he now uses all those accessories you mentioned, and more to paint for the Master Artist.

The colors looks so good and the ducks are alive!

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