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An Offer I Couldn't Refuse

Sunday, January 27, 2008

I've been saying for awhile that I wouldn't do any more illustration work. That I'd just work on my next book. But a statement like that needs to be qualified. Is it still illustration when you're given completely free rein to do whatever you want? Or is that a commissioned painting? I don't know. I just know that that's my kind of illustration job, baby!

Russ Greenberg is Director (and founder) of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, whose mission is to help imperiled migratory birds through study, education and activism. At least that's how I'd describe their mission. From their web site:

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center bridges the academic, policy-making, and public worlds to coordinate efforts to protect migratory birds and their habitats. We bring public and policy issues to bear on our research--looking both at the way human-made changes affect bird populations and the way bird habitat preservation will affect human populations--and we translate our research findings into recommendations for public and policy action.

From the start, Russ has asked me to illustrate SMBC materials, from pamphlets to books to posters to Auk covers to booth displays. I've done pencil drawings, scratchboards, and paintings, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. Russ is ridiculously easy to work with and very appreciative of my efforts.

Here's how some of my watercolors were used for a booth display promoting shade-grown coffee:
The original oriole painting is a half-sheet of watercolor paper, maybe 11 x 16". I couldn't have imagined that, blown up to 8 FEET tall, it would look this good. I have to give due credit to designer Clayton Tompkins here. It's an inspired design. I would like Clayton to design my next kitchen, or house. I love everything about this booth. Russ says people just flock to it, because it's so visually appealing. And what a good cause--promoting shade-grown fair-trade coffee, which is good for coffee workers, coffee drinkers, and migratory birds, who love the habitat shade-grown plantations provide.

So when Russ e-mailed to ask if I'd be interested in doing a painting for SMBC's trade show booth, I listened. Here were the guidelines he laid out:

SMBC is doing a fancy new booth for all of the events and festivals we perform at. I know this is a total long shot. But is there any chance we can commission you for a painting for this? We want something that is face-melting in its beauty and captures the essence of what we are about. You are the one to do this, if you aren't totally booked...

He had me from "face-melting." Wait. Is this really work? To be asked to create something beautiful depicting birds, with no strictures on which birds or what the setting will be?

So I started thinking about migratory birds. It seemed only natural that the birds would be in flight. Up in the sky. So, having been completely enthralled with the skyscapes this autumn, I decided to put the birds against some really cool-looking clouds--my favorite--thunderheads against a blue sky. Yaaahh! Watercolor is just the medium to do that. Nothing like it for cirrus and billowing cloudbits, active sky washes and crisp edges.

I started taking pictures of every arresting cloudscape I saw. There were some doozies on the way to Ashland in September 07. You just can't get clouds like that in the winter. What a treat, to be able to paint something I love looking at so much.What birds to paint? It was wide open. I decided on a suite of birds which are imperiled, for many different reasons. Whether it be habitat loss on the wintering ground, habitat loss on the breeding ground, pesticide spraying in the boreal forests, clearcutting, destruction of food base, or loss of nesting sites, these birds are all in some kind of trouble. Bobolink seemed an emblematic grassland species, losing habitat faster than almost any species. Bay-breasted warblers are being hammered on the breeding grounds by pesticide spraying of spruce forests. Ruddy turnstones are having their migration food base (the eggs of horseshoe crabs) "harvested" right out from under them. And so it goes.

And then there was beauty. And the thrill of painting a hooded warbler next to a ruddy turnstone, a bobolink next to a scissor-tailed flycatcher. It didn't have to make any real sense; it's an allegory for beauty and courage in the face of peril. Such a delight to compose. I spent several days in the composition phase, always the most time-consuming. I had to draw the birds, make sure they were in scale to each other, and arrange them in a pleasing composition. Here's the first draft, just a bunch of paper birds taped together, shot on my sidewalk.One of the problems that arises when you're painting birds of widely disparate sizes next to each other is that of scale. If you've got a warbler next to a nighthawk, you've got to make sure the nighthawk isn't too big to paint comfortably, and the warbler isn't too small to paint comfortably. So, to get the warbler big enough so that I can see the detail, I've got to paint it about life size. And the nighthawk gets proportionately bigger. And before you know it, I've got a painting that's 21 x 30", a full sheet of watercolor paper, and that's a BIG watercolor.

Watercolors tend to be small because it's hard to control runny washes. Painting a full-sheet watercolor is like climbing atop an Irish thoroughbred, 17 hands tall, and taking it over a six-foot jump. It's not for the faint of heart.

I had the whole thing laid out before I left for my New England trip in October. I transferred the birds onto the blank paper, and left it to fly to Boston. There, I saw my family and my artist friends, for a whole delightful weekend. And there, I got the courage and inspiration to come home and paint this big old painting.


Don't just leave us hanging! I can't wait to see more! By the way...I (my birds) am totally hooked on your suet recipe and I made a batch X4 today. I added dried mealworms to 1/2 and sunflower chips/raisins to the other half. I'm spoilin' em!

I can't imagine painting that big! Big, for me, is 8x10, LOL!

Hat's off to you...and let's see it!

also don't leave us hanging re: working on your "next book" --- what's that about... do tell!!

As you probably know, Charley Harper (R.I.P) did some wonderful artwork for a migratory bird group many yrs. ago:

(copy entire URL into browser)

of course his style is totally different from yours (or anyone else's!), but certainly delightful.

Wait! Are those clouds paintings?? Simply amazing!

Do you know the paintings of Eric Sloane? He is best known for barns, but also loved and painted skies and clouds. I thought of his work as soon as I saw your cloud images.

OOOOooooooo What a tease. I can't wait to see it.

Dear Mojo,

Eric Sloane has the distinction of being the only artist to whom my father ever wrote a fan letter. It was returned with a nice note saying that Mr. Sloane had been dead for some time. Thanks for the link, though.
Lord, no, those aren't my paintings, just my photos of some fabbo thunderbumpers. You'll see that I ain't near that good!
As for you impatient ones, I'm makin' you wait, because I had to wait to see it too!
Charley Harper was a great artist and such a nice friend. I miss him, Cyberthrush.

Couldn't find any Sloane paintings on his web site, but here are some sweet cloud/landscapes.

You deserve the flattery - "face melting" suits your work. And, will this project lend us a sequential peek at your work? The way you teased us with the Eastern Phoebe? Hope so.

I'm so impressed with your methods in the planning phase. Tedious. Wow.

Ms. Z you are a tease!

More, please!

Oh, good - another "How to paint like Julie" post. Better watch giving away your secrets, girlfriend. Pretty soon, we will ALL be painting like you. (NOT!)

Glad to be back reading your blog. Of course, I loved the "Chet's birthday" and "Chet babysits Oona" posts. Good to hear your plants survived the heating crisis. Are the kids OK now?


Julie I always LOVE to see these glimpses into your work. Understanding your thoughtfulness adds so much to the finished product.

They are not only works of art, they are works of love.

Wow Julie, can't wait to see this lovely creation! Waiting patiently for the drumroll....

Julie Julie Julie you are such a tease..hinting of a new book and a new painting....(VBG).

What a treat to see your design process. I can't wait to see the finished painting!!!!!
Hugs to you!

Really looking forward to what comes next --- I may be the only one here who hopes you do drag it out over a few posts!

Draggin' it out is what I'm best at, m'dear!


Dear Antzilla,
We all know what an incredible bird artist you question is when are you going to try your hand at Boston Terriers? How about a "Chet Baker Goes Birding" book???

I'm looking forward to the finished product... or even some intermediate steps... just something... help... :)

Julie, you are so talented and I'm glad that you've been asked to work on another beautiful project.

As a fellow watercolor artist, I congratulate you on the coup! What a fabulous commission! I can't wait to see what you come up with this!

I'm amazed I haven't yet driven off the side of the road staring at the sky this summer. So many thunderstorms (or threats thereof) in NH make for great skygazing. I often 'wish' I was a painter looking at this kind of sky. Watching how carefully, painstakingly, logically and patiently you trace and arrange and plan reminds me why I am still an amateur photographer and not an amateur painter. All I have to do is happen upon something good to look at and press a few buttons!

I'm glad to follow along and stretch out the experience of your painting coming to life.

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