Background Switcher (Hidden)

How to Paint a Bunting

Thursday, September 3, 2020

 I'm telling about the execution of my most recent Klamm Award commission for the Wilson Ornithological Society. Each year, the Society commissions me to paint something (a bird and associated stuff) for the winner. The recipient in 2020 is John Kricher, multitalented author of  the recently updated A Neotropical Companion, a classic in the natural history field, and now author of the just-published, lavishly illustrated Peterson Guide to Bird Behavior. 

John's wife, Martha Vaughan, was in on the secret award, and she selected a bird that's one of his favorites--a painted bunting! John and Martha are avid bird art enthusiasts, and they already own a few of my pieces, so I was thrilled beyond thrilled to paint something to surprise John.

I emailed Martha to ask if there was any particular setting she'd like me to use. Yes! She and John had lived in Sunbury, GA, south of Savannah, for parts of ten years and had fond memories of both the coastal marsh and of getting to know painted buntings. She asked for a " 'Georgia On My Mind' setting: a palmetto and some Spanish moss, a bit of tidal river marsh."

Well all right! But I wanted to get it exactly right, so I went back to Martha, asking if she might be able to lay her hands on any reference photos. 

"Luckily when we sold our condo and left Sunbury, GA , John gave me a big file of photos that he had taken over the times we spent there.  I uploaded that file and skimmed it for photos that give a sense of what you are looking for.  I have attached six photos that should help you get the ambience of the region and of our marsh, which we both dearly miss.  I included some that actually have painted buntings in them since John really liked them and getting photos of them."

She sent some real beauties. Here is one of John's photos of a painted bunting in palmetto. Now, the first thing I notice about this is the relative scale of bird to plant. Palmettos are big plants, and there's really no way to get an entire, recognizable palmetto in a painting of buntings, if the bird is perched in the palmetto. You can get pieces of palmetto, but that's about it.

And so began many days of thumbnail sketches, trying to figure out how to incorporate 
"a palmetto and some Spanish moss, a bit of tidal river marsh."

I was delighted to get a photo of a bunting next to Spanish moss, and some kind of oak or holly with more proportionately sized leaves. This would be an important shot, going forward. 

But first I had to bash away at palmettos. They are absolutely lovely plants. But they're just huge. 

I was so tempted by this gorgeous shot. But if it were sitting in a palmetto, the bunting would be approximately the size of the word "alamy" in this photo. How to do this??

I remember the evening when the epiphany hit me that I had to push the palmetto into the middle distance and use the broad-leaved shrub as their perch. That would take care of the morass I was in, of trying to figure out how to scale everything properly. I went to bed happy at last, slept on it, got up the next morning and drew the final composition.

I thought the Georgia marsh so very beautiful, and the few times I'd seen painted buntings, they were near great expanses of marsh and water. So I decided to make the marsh the co-star of the painting. 

As I wrote to John and Martha:

Putting it all together turned out to be the work of weeks, all internal, all thinking and stewing and throwing sketch after sketch into the circular file. The thing that was throwing me was scale. Palmettos are huge plants, and I loved the graphic possibilities of brilliant little birds against their massive fronds. If I drew that, though, I couldn’t figure out how to give “a bit of salt marsh” through them, and also include Spanish moss. I took those three elements: palmetto, Spanish moss, and marsh, and mashed them together in every way I could come up with. Thanks to the tiny-bird-large-frond issue, the palmetto always overpowered the composition and the birds, too. I realized that what I (and probably you) loved the most was the “bit of salt marsh,” that feeling of place, exactly where the birds make their living. So I backed up and started over. Composed the marsh landscape. Then figured out how to work in palmetto in the middle distance, and put the Spanish moss in the front with the birds, because it was in scale with the birds, at least, and wouldn’t take over the composition. I’m not sure what the shiny-leaved thing is—yaupon? Oak? It made a fine foil for the birds, so in it went.

As I often do, I started on the rattiest, thorniest, hardest part first: the Spanish moss. Ugggh! My moss wasn't looking very good. How do I do this??
I masked out the palmettos with masking compound, which makes them look yellowish.

Define, define, define. Take a break and paint a sunset sky. This sky went in in a matter of minutes. Since I knew there would be a big dark oak over most of it, I didn't worry too much about the right side. Just enough to suggest the continuity of colors behind the tree. Fun!

As long as I was on a roll, I decided to paint the marsh. Now you see where the masking compound comes in. 

To spotlight the palmettos, I worked in some darks behind them--coastal scrub.

Bringing the marsh greens and the dark coastal shrubbery up behind the Spanish moss sure helped tie the painting together. 
As a painter you just have to have faith that you're going to be able to pull your fat out of the fire.  Speaking of which, the palmettos...errgh. Time to peel off the masking compound and get painting on those.

Oh man, the nitty gritty interface of all those leaves and the dark background, cleaning up all the messy bits, figuring out who overlaps whom...

That part wrestled to the ground, the tree began to grow. 

And as it grew, a funny thing happened -- the sunset began to sing.

Running the dark line of trees beyond the marsh helped tie the scene together. And a few judiciously placed dark marsh edges defined the channel, which glows with the same colors as the sunset. Ahh.

Let's put a bird on it. No other bird in the U.S.  has the precise shade of sea-green as the female painted bunting. 

And needless to say there is no more colorful bird in the States than the male painted bunting. 

It is unreal in any setting. What a miracle it is! It would all be too much without the royal blue head!

More Spanish moss, please, and longer...

Now the humid breeze is blowing, and I am slapping greenheads.

The birds and the glowing channel, and the little catwalk we'd use to get out to the boat, if we had one.

I worked late into the night, cleaning up palmettos and Spanish moss...

I think it's done. As usual, painting the birds was the very least of it. From my letter to John and Martha:

 For me, it’s all about the setting, about the experience of seeing the bird. I could cop out and do a vignette with a washy background and some sprig of plant, but what would that say about painted buntings? What would that say to you? I wanted to take you back to the marsh view you loved and miss so much. I wanted you to feel the humid sea breeze, smell the marsh, and see the sunset again; to enjoy the lurid colors of painted buntings, colors found on no other birds in North America, and do all that without having to slap a single greenhead. I hope you get to go back in real life, but also hope that this painting takes you there each time you look at it. 

As framed by the Wilson Ornithological Society for presentation to John Kricher: 

With all that dark matting it looks to me like a window, looking out on a fabulous fantasy scene! 


Your words and your painting and your birds bring tears to my eyes. Lovely...

Just beautifully done!

Absolutely stunning!!! ❤️

Absolutely stunning!!! ❤️

What a thrill to experience your creativity step by step. What a joyous gift. Thank you.

So gorgeous!! Ah, a perfect view ~

Beautiful! I hope to see a Painted Bunting someday.

Awesome capture of thoughts and scenery. After having dabbled in oils and doing mostly wooded landscapes, it is often a challange to put it all together and make it realistic.

Unreal...your talent is astounding!

You’re a national treasure, Julie!!! Thanks for sharing your thinking processes on so many things!

This is one of the most beautiful paintings I've ever seen. Gorgeous!!!!!!

Ah! Beautiful of course. And amazing to see it borne out of all that thinking and caring about the experience. It was like watching you recreate the tidal pool view out my back window, which made it even more magical for me. Congrats to John!

[Back to Top]