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Painting in Audubon's Lines

Sunday, June 18, 2017


We all have one in a closet somewhere: an old print that has lost its lustre. 

Sunlight happens. A print that's hanging in a corner that's dark in January is suddenly illuminated by a shaft of morning sun in June. Shine enough such June morning sunbeams on a print, even one behind conservation glass, and bad stuff happens. 


The Arctic tern loses all the color in its blood-red bill and feet, and falls to sea, a pallid, lifeless ghost. 
Red is a notoriously fugitive pigment, subject to fading. We painted our house red, and I hope when it fades it'll have some nice wabi-sabi going on, like an old barn. At least that's the plan. I had to paint it barn red.

My friend Alan Poole has the most beautiful home near the shore in Massachusetts. I wrote about it, and his elegant, spare yet abundant lifestyle, here

In that sweet home hung two identical Audubon prints of Arctic tern. They date to 1835, and they were taken from two Elephant Folios. Many of these original collections,  depicting America's birds at 100% life size, and sold by subscription in Audubon's day,  were broken up, with the pages being sold separately. I'm not sure how Alan wound up with two Arctic terns, but they looked nice in his seaside home. 

Well, they could have looked a lot better with some color.

Here's the little block of wood pasted to the paper on the back of one of the prints. Who knows when this thing was first framed? It was in the days of manual typewriters, and long enough ago for the paper to go yellow.  And I'm trying to imagine folding back the margins of an Elephant Folio print. Geesh!! I guess cutting it down to size was too horrifying to contemplate, and framing all that white paper expanse too expensive.


When I visited in December, Alan asked me if I'd color the tern's feet and bill for him. I gulped. Paint? On an original Audubon Elephant Folio print? Me??

Umm....sure....if you want me to...
Are you sure?

"Look," Alan said. "These aren't doing me any good all faded out like this. Just give it a shot, see how it goes. If the first one turns out well, I'll give you the second to restore."

It was hard getting the print out of its frame. Those glazier's points were rusted in place. But I finally wrassled it free, thinking that it would probably take me longer to do that than to do the restoration.


I Googled images of Audubon's Arctic tern to see how an unfaded print might look. Then I started small, with the eye, and immediately knew I was in for a ride. For though the ink had faded badly, it was still on the paper, and it was resisting my watercolors something fierce. I managed to darken that eye and the bird immediately looked better, more alive. From there I moved on to the bill and feet, holding my breath as I painted inside the tiny fine lines, trying very hard not to go outside them, for there would be no correcting any mistakes on this plushy soft paper. The corner and tips of that bill...aaaack. Fine brush, held breath, steady hand. I got this.

Already it looked so much better. 

The bird still looked flat to me, and I studied the images I'd pulled up. It needed some sense of light and a sense of the direction of that light. Looks like Audubon intended the light source to be in the upper left corner of the page. That's the classical mode, makes sense. I took a bunch of deep breaths and started in on the bird's left wing, which was in shadow. I painted a cool blue-gray wash over the wing, and it took on a roundness it had lacked. I then found Audubon's shadow line on the mantle and painted a darker cool gray wash along it and to the right of it. Boom. The bird began to pop. Do click on the images to see detail.



One of the bolder things I did was to paint some very pale shadow lines to delineate the edges of the white feathers on the rump and tail. I like how that worked. I also painted his faded toenails black while I was working on his feet. I darkened the black on the primary tips, too.


It was a thrilling sensation to run washes over the fine black lines of Robert Havell's engraving. I could feel them beneath the brush. I don't paint birds in anywhere near the detail these prints exhibit; I paint masses of feathers and don't bother with barbule lines. But oh I loved painting over Audubon's and Havell's meticulously detailed work. 

I am keenly aware that purists might faint to see me taking watercolor washes over an original Elephant Folio print. But the owner of the print had asked me to and I was having a ball! Was I altering an historical artifact? Sure. Polluting it? Maybe. Improving it? I thought so, and I hope Alan will too.



When I got to the bird's black cap, the faded ink stopped my progress. It was resisting my paint. So I painted what I could, keeping the faded blue top on the cap, but darkening the lower border of the cap and working with Audubon's highlight areas to create dimension on the bird's head. Yeah, that works.

Then I did something that took nerve. I had always disliked the hard, oversized, sharp, triangular highlight on the eye of this bird. It reminded me of early Walt Disney depictions of Mickey Mouse. Early Mickey is referred to as "Pie-eyed Mickey" by collectors of Disney ephemera. 





 To me, it dated the piece, to a time when that's how people painted highlights on eyes. It made the bird look like a static, dusty museum mount. I wanted this tern to come to life! So I took a deep breath and painted over most of that giant pie slice of white. Then I took a thin wash of Chinese white and cerulean over the top of the eyeball, following its curve. Again, BOOM. Maybe not historically correct, but history's taking a back seat to color and life here. I can almost hear this tern's ratchety growl as it plunges toward the sea.


I think I'm done. I didn't touch the sky and seascape at all.  I loved the colors. Somehow the blue hadn't faded nearly as much as the bird did. I was very thankful for that, because I didn't think I could keep a wash smooth and even over such a large area. Phew!

 With some difficulty, I held myself back from putting a white highlight on the culmen of the bill, because Audubon hadn't. It needs one, but I didn't want to gild the lily any more than I already had.




I was so excited by the time I finished the restoration that I thought I'd add a little historical footnote. If it got sold as a fabulous example of original aquatint whose color had somehow miraculously been maintained, I wanted an astute dealer to see this minuscule penciled annotation, which would explain a lot.


Can't keep a Science Chimp down. It's all about the data, and the story. Speaking of stories...

I'll close with this photo of me and DOD, ca. 1971. Check out the Audubon print we're discussing. I'm destroyed. It's too good. 

Photo by Dan Kemp, ca. 1971

Miss you so much, DOD.  Holy cow. I just noticed that I've scheduled this post for your birthday, without even meaning to. That's what you call synchronicity. Hope you're watching. Know you are. 

xoxoxox Doo-Baby

 (Two Too Many)

11 comments:

I was holding my breath right along with you, you massively brave soul, you! What an amazing job you did! Your DOD was smiling proudly! XO

Nerves of Steel, Ms. Z!

Brilliant. Wow.

Rebirth. You rebirthed that print. We all fear failure, but to not try something difficult is failing before you've even started. And when you took a leap of faith and tried, with skill and heart and soul- MAGIC. DOD's heart is singing his song in your soul.

Incredibly beautiful restoration!! Loved reading about your process. You're so brave!! Alan must be delighted!! xo

Every time I think this blog can't get any more amazing, it does. First Jemima Jay, now this. Julie, you're a ray of light in dark times.

You bring so much beauty and positivity into this world. Thank you for that.

You did such a wonderful job....your watercolors made it pop. I paint with oils, and have never attempted to paint a bird except for a wild turkey. But looking at your work it makes me want to try watercolors. Yours are just wonderful!!!

I had no doubts, no doubts at all..

Oh this is spectacular! I can understand how you would have been worried as people are quick to attack when original anything is not kept original. However I completely agree that in the spirit of Audobon prints--to educate and dazzle the imagination--they would be nothing but thrilled. My GG had one of those huge Audobon books, I remember it as like 16x20 but maybe it was big the way my childhood yard was thousands of acres despite being a .25 suburban lot :) anyway, I was so enamored with that book and she let me take it everywhere as a very inconvenient field guide. It wasn't too precious or collectible to sit in the sand. Somewhere there is a picture of me and her with the book open to flamingo, posing in front of a flamingo at Jungle Larry's in Naples. I can't help but think anything reviving the wonderment and magic of Audobon prints is a great thing.

Wow! Gorgeous. Kim in PA

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