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Yes, I Still Paint Birds!

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

I am a very lucky bird painter. Every year, the Wilson Ornithological Society commissions a painting from me for their Robert and Nancy Klamm Award for service to the Society. The bird depicted is usually one that the receiving ornithologist has studied or just has a passion for. That's a thrill to me, to paint for ornithologists, to try to capture a scene that will say a lot about the species and, in doing that, perhaps delight them. It's a privilege to do it. 

I know I've done at least a dozen of these over the years, and probably more, but my memory fails me. I went back into my emails to 2015, and searched my computer for jpegs of prior paintings, and between that and my hazy memory, I came up with ten commissions that I remember doing and for which I have photos. An early one was this great tinamou from 2008. That was FUN. Just had to show those highly polished turquoise eggs that make NO SENSE whatsoever for a ground-nester in Neotropical Predatorville, but somehow still exist, persist, and produce baby tinamous. Maybe the eggs are so beautiful, like precious treasure, to make the bird stay invested in sitting on them nonstop so nothing eats them. A just-so story from my hazy mind. Who can say why tinamous polish their turquoise eggs?

I really enjoyed painting this prothonotary warbler in the rain, 2012. I was thinking about what would be nice with its glowing golden color, and I settled on a rainy gray day, because green just seems to compete. As I sketched, I wondered if they ever used red maple flower petioles in their nests. Eastern bluebirds, also cavity nesters, like them and use them as a springy mattress in their nests, and it seemed to me that would be a good nesting material for a swamp bird (red maples being swamp trees). So I took a gamble and painted a male tugging on one against a rainy, watery backdrop.  (First ascertaining that the male participates in nest building). Turns out, the award recipient knew that they DO use red maple petioles in their nests, and he was delighted with the little natural history factoid that informed the painting.

Sometimes the bird in question is one so deeply familiar to me that I have only to look out the window to sketch and observe it. Such was the American goldfinch pair, pictured in chicory on my own road. It was  done in 2013, in a looser watercolor style, and I had fun with it. 

I thought the recipient of a house wren, being an ornithologist, might enjoy an intimate, Baby Birds-style look into the nest, so I did a sort of decorative take on a nest that was in a box in my driveway in 2014. Pretty sure I painted this in 2017.

In the summer of 2019, I painted an American kestrel in a newly-mown field that I frequent. It's the monarch meadow, mown down in late June, before it springs back up to delight me and the butterflies in August. I felt I had to paint the kestrel in flight, though I struggled with myself, wanting to depict its ornate plumage close up, as in a sitting pose. Flying won out, because for me, it's as much about the setting as it is the bird itself. I wanted to paint a big space for that beautiful little dart to traverse. I have been playing with some of the more difficult colors in sky washes and having fun with that. Like, how do you make a blue sky grade to yellow without its going green in the middle? Well might you ask.

The answer is that you don't let the two colors touch enough to mix. You leave a sort of buffer of wet Chinese white, that serves to keep them from commingling and making a green band across the sky. The two colors kiss, but don't embrace. Chinese white is a solid body pigment and it settles into the paper and keeps the other pigments from spreading too much. At least that's how I think it works. Still, the effect is of a gradual gradation, and that's what I was after.

I loved doing the fieldwork for this one! Bobolinks, pictured with chicory and Queen Anne's lace in a place I know in McConnellsville, Ohio. 
I like the dreamy nature of this one. In each of my paintings, I try to do something new, to stretch myself a bit and learn something. That keeps it fresh and fun. That, and the fact that I do maybe two commissions a year.

One of the most special Klamm award paintings in my memory was this oversized piece featuring life-sized swamp and song sparrows for the late Jed Burtt, a great spirit, great teacher and a legend in Ohio ornithology. I raced the clock in late fall 2015 as his heart was failing, and got it done in time to send him photos  of it in progress and finished. He got to receive and enjoy the framed original too.  I remember picking colored black raspberry leaves and deertongue and bringing it into the studio before Thanksgiving. I had to be careful to paint the birds in fresh fall plumage, with that gorgeous buffy bloom, to match the autumnal state of the leaves. Sparrows are never lovelier than in autumn.

So that's a stroll through some of my Wilson Ornithological Society Klamm Award favorites. I thought it would be fun to give you a step-by-step of my latest, which was just gifted to a recipient who happens to be a friend.  I'll tell the story of how that painting evolved and came to be in the next posts.


I just love this glimpse into your amazing knowledge and creativity! Can't wait for the step-by-step of your latest.

I throughly enjoy this series ...

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Those paintings are wonderful! I can hardly wait for your next post. I admire your work so much.

Thank you for posting these very beautiful and thoughtfully considered paintings.

I love all your paintings.

Yes you do and we are richer for it. Thank you for posting these. So very beautiful.

I love your bird paintings. I've been reading your blog for a long time, and I remember when you posted process posts on your paintings. You really inspired me to pay more attention to nature, and to paint birds as well!

Artist indeed. I have been thinking of you as a writer with a side gig of photography and art. What happens when you cross a science chimp with a liberal artist? Well if you do not put Chinese White in to keep them entirely separated, they blend and become Julie Zickefoose. What a rich and wonderful combination surfaces in this blog. Thank you dear one.


I love the Kestrel,I've seen more than ever this year in North Central Indiana. Nice work of art.
A Guy From Indiana

Hi Julie. I love looking at your past commissions. It's fun to see a fellow artist's creations. Just curious as to your sources for the birds. Do you use sketches from real life, your own photo references, or photo references provided by others? The kestrel in flight is especially impressive and hard to get a photo so sharp to model from.

So beautiful. Thank you for sharing your paintings and their history.

I would buy a book of all of your drawings. These are so stunning. I absolutely enjoyed every single one of these. You are so gifted (Briana from The Hungry Little Birdie)

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