Thursday, March 22, 2012
It’s an honor to be asked to paint The American Birding Association’s Bird of the Year. It’s a special thrill when the B.O.Y. turns out to be a bird I adore, a bird that’s part of my personal history, dating back to my childhood in Virginia, an unprecendented and never again repeated invasion of the birds in the mid 1970’s, and the first and most fabulous feeder my father ever built for me.
The Bird of the Year is chosen carefully. Most of all, it’s spotlighted for conservation reasons. Evening grosbeaks are declining overall, and we’re not really sure why. Research is needed. Many yearn to see this bird, but fewer and fewer do. In southeast Ohio, it’s been almost twenty years since an evening grosbeak has so much as lit at our feeding station. If any species deserves the limelight right now, the evening grosbeak does. See ABA’s special page devoted to the program, which we hope will result in greater attention to its decline and research as to its causes and, we hope, eventual arrest.
Part of the push is the sticker/badge you see above, and part is a cover for Birding that features the chosen species. I was asked to do both.
My first, and most grandiose idea for this magazine cover was a flock of evening grosbeaks in flight. Color, motion, forward movement for the ABA…it was all so appealing. I was soon to bump up against the hard reality that a flock of birds doesn’t work very well on a vertical magazine cover. To make a flock, it takes more than three or four birds; it takes a village of birds. After a couple of days of drawing, I just couldn’t get around the reality that each bird would have to be less than an inch long to get a decent number of them all on the page. I am too old to paint inch-long birds. Just getting all their eyes in the right place would be an enormous challenge at that scale, not to mention all those tiny flight feathers.
The magazine cover’s vertical format means that in order to get more than one or two on the page, you have to stack the birds one atop the other. I considered asking editor Ted Floyd to print just this one issue of Birding sideways, so I’d have more space to play with. Shouldn’t be that big a deal to reformat the whole magazine and staple the short side, right? The proposal died aborning. I kept struggling with the vertical flock.
I worked on that for two and a half days and threw in the towel. Then I tried just a few birds. But still they were small, small, small, and I didn’t want to paint small. I wanted big fat juicy birds that you could caress with your eyes. Birds with structure, birds with volume. Grosbeaks are neat chunks of mustard and butter, hearty well-built streamlined units. I decided to perch them and heaved a sigh of relief as I put my flying grosbeak drawings in a drawer for later.
I went into my old sketchbooks from the last time we had evening grosbeaks at the feeders in the early 1990’s. I was so glad to find some lively sketches, which brought the living birds right back for me.
I knew I wanted a nice male to be the “totem” Bird of the Year, just for color and graphic appeal. And I decided to be a little bold with the pose—looking head on at you over his shoulder, which would show the nice white wing patches, the bright yellow rump and coronet, and the massive bill. I hoped it would work. I didn’t want it to be boring, and the best way I know to avoid boring is to go right to the living bird.
Here’s the final drawing, transferred to tracing paper, then to be transferred onto watercolor paper. I do this by taping the drawing made on tracing paper to the back of the watercolor paper and putting the whole affair on a light box. You can also tape it to a window—the poor artist’s lightbox. It’ll give you the same effect, which is a strongly backlit setup so you can see to trace, but it’s a bit harder to draw vertically!
I’ve now traced the drawing onto the watercolor paper. You can see the watermark on the Winsor-Newton paper in the upper left corner. Everything’s on the paper now; all that remains is to take a deep breath and start masking the birds so I can paint a sky behind them.