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And for Dessert: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Thursday, January 31, 2008

I have been waiting for this day. If there is an American bird of paradise, I believe it is the scissor-tailed flycatcher. Perched on a wire or fencepost by a dusty hot Texas road, it may not look all that unusual, until it takes wing. And there is an explosion of carmine and salmon and a fluttering of tail streamers that always takes the breath and the words right out of my mouth. I love this bird.
For one thing, it's gray, and I love working in grays. For another, it's impossibly ectomorphic and graceful and zippy and just perfect in every proportion. Even its wings are tapered and beautiful. I've painted everything. It's time for the carmine pink. Ready?
BOOM! There it is. That's the other reason I decided not to paint a rose-breasted grosbeak. I didn't want them to fight over who had the prettier pink. So here's most of the top half of the painting, and below that is the bottom half.
And I guess it's done. Time to box it up (now there's a project) and send it off to Washington...

Fast forwarding, it's back safely in my studio, having been scanned in record time. I had it up leaning against the wall (can't really afford to frame it) but every stray drop of water seemed to gravitate right to it, so I stuck it in a drawer until I decide what to do with it. That's the thing about working so big: you'll break the bank trying to ship it and frame it, and once it's framed, it practically commands a whole wall. Which is great if your house looks like a Restoration Hardware catalogue shoot, which mine...doesn't.

When the image becomes a trade show booth, I'll post a picture of the finished product. For now, it's got its own page on the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center site, with links back to the blog posts! Coool! SMBC's site is a terrific place to learn about Neotropical migrants, threatened and not. It's got profiles of especially endangered birds, and in-depth discussion about why they're in such trouble. It's got information on shade-grown coffee and all the things you can do to help our vanishing migrants. I'm more than proud, with this painting, to help give the Migratory Bird Center a slightly higher and prettier profile wherever it goes.

The overall view. Please click on it for a big version!

I like it, non-directional lighting and all. But then I am a bird. And I helped!**

**anyone remember those awful Shake-n-Bake TV commercials, where the little girl yelps, "An' Ah Hayulped!"

Here ends the Fantasy Flock painting blog. Next week, we'll take some walks in the woods.


I almost spit out my Diet Coke reading the Shake and Bake commercial!! I SOOO remember that.

I have to say after seeing the pink on the flycatcher, I really did say "wow, wowee, wow, wow" (special nod to mojoman for his cham-PAHN-yah comment!)

Great link too to the Smithsonian! The migratory bird fest in now on my calendar!

Your paintings are beautiful...
xoxo nita

wonderful... honestly though, I got my dessert first! :-) -- my favorite is the Ruddy Turnstone followed closely by the Hooded Warbler...
and poor Charley, looks like he's asking, "well... where's the Macaw???"

The Bay-breasted is off the charts. They all are. Congrats!

huhhh hum, huhhh hum - could you please change that to dusty hot "Oklahoma" road since that is our State Bird and since you have at least two adoring readers from Oklahoma. And how many from Texas that continually show you unrequited love??? We have ten times the scissor-tails they do - we even have single trees in the southern part of the state that serve as the "congregating point" for migratory take-off. Yep, we have scissor-tail trees. Ok Texans, make yourself known!

Oklahoma Blogbassador

Part 2 - I come from the land of that shake and bake accent and my granddaddy made us shake and bake chicken every Sunday. You left out the "It's Shake n Bake Dahddy..... thanks for the memories.


I love you detail your paintings from start to finish. I feel like I'm taking an art class. Thank you for sharing your work.


This was worth the wait. Looking forward to the next watercolour lesson.

That's a beautiful accomplishment. Your scissor-tail is the only I've seen.

I've got my boots on--let's go!

Wayull, T.R., it occurred to me that y'all might kick up a fuss about that, but Ah've nevah been to Oklahoma, and the only scissorbirds Ah've seen have been in the Lone Star State.
'Ceptin' fer my life scissorbird, an' that'n was at Monteverde, Costa Rica! Like to fell out of the bus.

Thank you so much for sharing this process. I learned a lot about watercolor - never knew about the masking shtuff.
But I nearly had heart failure with every pic of the bird *on* the bird painting.
Finished, it is a stunning painting - must be the skyway to birders heaven.

Bravo! The Smithsonian link is a fine tribute to you - blog posts and all. Wow.

All of the birds in your painting are lifers for me :o/

After all of this suspense, I need a walk in the woods. I'm ready to go.

Hi Julie
What a beautiful piece! I'm so glad you added the Smithsonian link. I'm entranced by learning your process. It seems like you kind of let things happen and then make those things really excellent as you create. The composition is so pleasing.

What a great painting! Thanks for walking us through the making of it. Those are some splendid birds: the bobolink, a favorite of mine, is keeping exalted company!

Woo hooo--I checked out the Smithsonian link. Love that--WORLD RENOWED artist Julie Z.
And the painting is lovely.

My eye keeps going straight for the peachy glow in the middle...then it wanders out to the grays and blues....
Yummy. Satisfying. Delicious.


You have convinced me that there is a place for chinese white in watercolour, LOL! I'll sneak it in, rolled up in my shirt sleeve. Maybe some white gouache, too, in the other sleeve.

What a beautiful painting! I am gob-smacked! Thank you for posting the in-progress photos, I have learned a lot from them. I like grays, too. They're a bit hard to handle, but well worth the trouble, as far as I can see. Let me know if a print of this will become available.

My question is...some folks suggested you use an easel. If you're doing washes in watercolour, and you have your painting tipped, as on an easel, you're going to have paint runnage? I.E., paint running into paint. That's what one wants in a wash, for the most part.

For detailed painting, I have to paint on a flat surface! I also work smaller, LOL! I think you did the right thing for this piece, and it shows.

Julie, do you like the Windsor-Newton paper better than Arches?

Right now I'm using Arches 140 lb cold press, though I'm always up for trying what more experienced artists suggest! Thanks! April

(Applause, applause, applause!!!!!) Take a bow, Ms Zickefoose! Just so beautifully created. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. What a treat to see the creation of something so lovely.

Really lovely! Thanks for sharing your process. And congrats on the commission to begin with!

All I can say is WOW! I'm with April, if a print becomes available please let us know!

Dear April,

Debby Kaspari wrote to say she works flat in watercolors, too, so the easel was something I came up with. As dry as I'm painting when it comes to bird detail, I could probably easily transition to an easel. The big sky washes, though, need to be done on a horizontal surface. I do tip the painting when I want a wash to grade one direction or another.
I can't say why I stay away from D'Arches paper, because friends of mine use it a lot. Should probably give it another go. I started out using it until I found some whiter papers. I don't like its creamy-buff tone, and the sizing smells like sour milk to me. When I'm trying to get a color just right, I don't want to hear from my paper.
Dallas, you're going to have to look the other way in my studio, because Chet Baker likes to leap up onto my lap and straddle my work, hind feet in my lap and forefeet on the drawing table. It is literally a zoo.
KGmom--no, not "world." I'd have corrected them on that!

Of course I was beaten to it, but my first thought was, "gee, I hope prints will be available." I am so envious of your watercolor talent. i love working in watercolor, but I just haven't gotten the skills down yet. This picture is so beautiful, and I'm so grateful for you showing us the process.

I enjoyed the entire process Julie. I am so glad it turned out so beautiful despite Charley taking walking tours of the birds. I bet he was wishing he would fly that high.

Like some of your other admirers I will look forward to your next painting in progress.

How about glicee prints?

As far as the family members participating in artistic creation...
I guess Charlie and Chet have dainty feet (and peticured nails?) on the paper.
My cats lay all over my quilt pieces and on the table, but if they decide to take off in a rush the worst that can happen is the fabric flies on the floor.
If I lay out quilt blocks on the floor, they often like to rearrange them.


Yum! This piece turned out so incredibly. Well done, Julie!

Hey everyone! I just had to pass along an email from my friend (who I've never met) in South Africa. I was kind of surprised no one spotted a lady in the clouds, but Karen was busy, and found two I hadn't known were there! The obvious lady in my cloud is under the scissortail's foot--it's a nice, if unintended, profile of a young, apple-cheeked woman. Here's Karen's comment:

Hi there Julie, have just loved your blog and watching this amazing painting unfold. What a talented person you are. The Scissortail is definitely my absolute favourite of all the birds I have seen in the US - will never forget my first sighting of one near Brazos River Bend NP - it DID take my breath away.........a stunning bird and you have captured its essence - I am reminded of our African Paradise Flycatcher - aka the "Orange Rocket" - and when I hear it in our garden, I always go out for my 'fix'.

I think there are two women to be seen in the clouds - one is right on the edge of the clouds, against the blue and the scissorwing's one wing is just below her nose, while the other one I found is underneath the wings of the BH Grosbeak - tell me I'm half-way right!!?

Greetings from us all and thanks again for a splendid blog - I check on you regularly .

Thanks so much, Karen! Hope to see you in your native habitat before too many more years go by.


Julie, you did such a wonderful job on this! Thanks for sharing this wonderful series with us!

Wow. Wowee. Wow. Wow. I second the "Continental" and raise you a glass of Cham-pahn-yuh for a job very well done.

I never noticed the smell of my paper before...I'll have to go upstairs and have a whiff! LOL!

Great job, Julie!

Cold press? Looks like it but I can't be sure.
Absolutely wonderful!

Great work, Julie. Thanks for the link, too. Smithsonian did well in posting all your blog links. I really liked the way you took us step by step with the process. I really admire those who can paint, especially detailed items like the birds you featured. It's great how you explained why you used various shades of gray and how each bird can stand out on it own, yet blend in with the landscape (or should I say "skyscape").

It takes my breath away - dazzling like the Hubble Deep Field, but home-grown and ours.
Congratulations, Julie.

You mentioned that you scanned your painting. My father has been painting with watercolors for a few years and he mentioned that he's looking for a scanner to use with his paintings - can you recommend one? Thanks!

Dear Michael,

I leave the scanning to the pro's--I don't even own a scanner, but I make these jpegs by taking a picture of the work with my camera. The painting had to be professionally scanned since it is so large (22 x 30"). I've no idea how they did it--perhaps in pieces, then pieced it together in Photoshop. Or perhaps the exhibit preparer has a large enough flat scanner to do it in one go.
I'd imagine your question could be answered by going to and typing in "recommended scanner for large paintings" or something of the sort. Good luck!

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