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ABA Bird of the Year, Part Four

Thursday, March 29, 2012


We're still working on the Birding cover for ABA's Bird of the Year issue. Evening grosbeaks! This one, female. 

I lay in the basic washes on the female bird first. I’ve been waiting for this moment, to see how her colors bounce off the colors in the road.

She looks flat here  because I haven’t modeled her shape or shaded the underside. I just want to get her colors laid in first.

With a little shading, she looks much rounder. I’ll work on her more, but for now I decide to work on the landscape a bit more, now that I have her to tie it into the painting.  I darken those stripey violet shadows coming across the road and the grass. They’ll give the sense of dappled sunlight, which I think is already coming across pretty well. The darker the shadows, the brighter the apparent light source. And violet shadows evoke reflected skylight and mix wonderfully with greens, which is more than you can say for a lot of colors. Cobalt Violet and Cobalt Blue are my two main shadow colors.

What I can say at the end of the third day of working on this is that all the planning and masking were worth it. The painting part is sheer joy.  I love the way the female works with the dirt road in the landscape. Best part is yet to come: Painting the boys!!

ABA Bird of the Year: Part Three

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

We're continuing to work on the cover for Birding Magazine, of the American Birding Association's Bird of the Year, the evening grosbeak.

You’ll notice the light regime changes in my progress photos. Normally I trot outside to shoot them, but sometimes I reach a key passage in a painting when it’s dark outside. So for some photos, I had to use incandescent light rather than the clean north light that usually floods my studio. This is a work-in-progress, and progress isn’t always as well-lit as we’d like.

The apple tree leaning over the road is a bit of a stretch, I know. I wanted to give the viewer the experience of pretending they are birding and seeing such a wonderful sight, so it was important to me to have a road in the painting, a place for the viewer to stand. A road stretching away gives the viewer a distance to walk into, so I stretched the truth a bit. Let’s just say it’s an apple tree that’s leaning so far over the fence it’s probably about to fall into the road and not worry about it, OK? It’s an imaginary apple tree, anyway. It won’t even break the fence when it falls.


This photo was taken by daylight—what a difference in color temperature!  I like the way the sky turned out, especially near the lower left horizon. It feels springy to me. I’ve rubbed away the Incredible White masking compound with my finger and  peeled off the masking film to reveal clean paper. I’ve had lots of fun with this painting until now, and it’ll only get better.

What fun I had laying in the brilliant spring greens of the landscape! I went ahead and painted right over the fenceposts because they would be so much darker than the grass. I could paint them over it without a problem. My secret plan for the road was to tie its color into the colors in the plumage of the female grosbeak. She being nearest to the ground, I think it’ll work well.

I start by painting the branches, and then I paint the birds’ feet and flower petioles all in one go, since they’re almost the same color. I like the way the foreground is starting to work with the background. The little buildings ground the whole composition, as do the fenceposts; they define the plane of the road and give the eye somewhere to go. I’m SO excited to paint the flowers and birds, and especially to lay in the sharp blacks of the wings, and the brilliant yellows in the birds’ plumage.

I paint those glow-in-the-dark green bills next, and for efficiency’s sake, I do them all at once. Once I’ve mixed the color, why recreate it for each bird?

ABA Bird of the Year, Painting Part Two

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Here’s what I use for masking out areas I don’t yet want to paint. Frisket Film is a transparent plastic film with low-tack adhesive on back that sticks to the watercolor paper. The artist cuts it in the desired shape with a small X-acto knife, then places it over the area to be masked. Masking the birds was a bit of an adventure. I cut one big piece of masking film by Frisket, and applied it to the paper. Frisket doesn’t much like to stick to the irregular surface of cold press watercolor paper, and that’s a big problem, because it’ll let paint creep under and ruin your nice white space for the birds and flowers. So I engineered the leaves and buds so they intersected the birds fairly smoothly and made one nice big area, and cut the shape a little smaller than needed. Then I ran around the outside of the big, irregular shape with liquid masking compound (I use Incredible White Mask) which has the consistency of thick whipping cream, but dries to a clear, rubber-cement like finish. This effectively seals the edges of the Frisket film and prevents the wash from creeping under it.

The masking compound, after it dries, can be rolled off with the finger or an eraser when you’re ready to remove it. In this case, it did a lovely job of sealing the edges. My results vary widely, and sometimes paint creeps under my mask no matter what I do. This time, I lucked out and got to skip the step where I peel off the masking film and spend a half-hour scrubbing out all the places where the wash seeped under it.

Time to paint the sky!

ABA President Jeff Gordon had requested a spring scene, something other than the typical snow scene most people are used to seeing. I wanted an active sky, a spring sky, a sky that could change and get overcast in a few minutes, so I used lively brushwork on paper that had been dampened by a fine mist from my trusty spray bottle.  I didn’t worry about getting it all perfectly even. The sky outside the day I painted this was similar, so I just looked at the random cloud shapes and didn’t worry about where they were as I painted; I just laid them in as it felt right. I did a little scrubbing and lifting of the blue wash to better define the clouds, but I really didn’t want them to compete with the birds, so I kept them pretty filmy. Once a wash like this dries you can’t go back into it and work on it much, so when it was done it was done.


 One thing I remember about EVGR is that they always seemed to stay so late in the spring that you started to hope they were going to breed. I remember seeing them in flowering trees in W. MA and even hearing them singing! So I decided to put them in a full-on early May scene, with the trees all leafing out and the grass already getting high along the fencerow. It could be anywhere where EVGR breed—Vermont or Maine, but it’s a scene from not far from where I live in SE Ohio, on Tick Ridge. Painting as I was in late January, I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to waller around in springtime for the time it took to paint this. I could feel the tall grass and the warm breeze and smell the unfolding leaves, that green smell when the sun hits everything.

ABA's Bird of the Year, as Rendered by Zick.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


It’s an honor to be asked to paint The American Birding Association’s Bird of the Year. It’s a special thrill when the B.O.Y. turns out to be a bird I adore, a bird that’s part of my personal history, dating back to my childhood in Virginia, an unprecendented and never again repeated invasion of the birds in the mid 1970’s, and the first and most fabulous feeder my father ever built for me.

The Bird of the Year is chosen carefully. Most of all, it’s spotlighted for conservation reasons. Evening grosbeaks are declining overall, and we’re not really sure why. Research is needed. Many yearn to see this bird, but fewer and fewer do. In southeast Ohio, it’s been almost twenty years since an evening grosbeak has so much as lit at our feeding station. If any species deserves the limelight right now, the evening grosbeak does. See ABA’s special page devoted to the program, which we hope will result in greater attention to its decline and research as to its causes and, we hope, eventual arrest.

Part of the push is the sticker/badge you see above, and part is a cover for Birding that features the chosen species. I was asked to do both.

My first, and most grandiose idea for this magazine cover was a flock of evening grosbeaks in flight. Color, motion, forward movement for the ABA…it was all so appealing. I was soon to bump up against the hard reality that a flock of birds doesn’t work very well on a vertical magazine cover. To make a flock, it takes more than three or four birds; it takes a village of birds. After a couple of days of drawing, I just couldn’t get around the reality that each bird would have to be less than an inch long to get a decent number of them all on the page. I am too old to paint inch-long birds. Just getting all their eyes in the right place would be an enormous challenge at that scale, not to mention all those tiny flight feathers.

The magazine cover’s vertical format means that in order to get more than one or two on the page, you have to stack the birds one atop the other. I considered asking editor Ted Floyd to print just this one issue of Birding sideways, so I’d have more space to play with. Shouldn’t be that big a deal to reformat the whole magazine and staple the short side, right? The proposal died aborning. I kept struggling with the vertical flock.

I worked on that for two and a half days and threw in the towel. Then I tried just a few birds. But still they were small, small, small, and I didn’t want to paint small. I wanted big fat juicy birds that you could caress with your eyes. Birds with structure, birds with volume. Grosbeaks are neat chunks of mustard and butter, hearty well-built streamlined units. I decided to perch them and heaved a sigh of relief as I put my flying grosbeak drawings in a drawer for later.
I went into my old sketchbooks from the last time we had evening grosbeaks at the feeders in the early 1990’s. I was so glad to find some lively sketches, which brought the living birds right back for me.

I knew I wanted a nice male to be the “totem” Bird of the Year, just for color and graphic appeal. And I decided to be a little bold with the pose—looking head on at you over his shoulder, which would show the nice white wing patches, the bright yellow rump and coronet, and the massive bill. I hoped it would work. I didn’t want it to be boring, and the best way I know to avoid boring is to go right to the living bird.


Here’s the final drawing, transferred to tracing paper, then to be transferred onto watercolor paper. I do this by taping the drawing made on tracing paper to the back of the watercolor paper and putting the whole affair on a light box. You can also tape it to a window—the poor artist’s lightbox. It’ll give you the same effect, which is a strongly backlit setup so you can see to trace, but it’s a bit harder to draw vertically!

I’ve now traced the drawing onto the watercolor paper. You can see the watermark on the Winsor-Newton paper in the upper left corner. Everything’s on the paper now; all that remains is to take a deep breath and start masking the birds so I can paint a sky behind them.

Rhubarb, Full Circle

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


When we last left the Horticulture Chimp, she was grubbing out two baby rhubarb plants from an abandoned farmstead in North Dakota. Ann Hoffert had just seen and heard her life veery, and everyone was happy. Except perhaps the rhubarb plants, which rode to their new home in Ohio in the Chimp's boot, got potted up, yellowed and dropped a couple of leaves and then shrugged and made more. It was mid-June 2011.

The rhubarb went into the Heirloom Bed, where only the most special vegetables and flowers live. It's full of sandy loam and manure, memories and dreams.

The rhubarb liked it there with the asparagus and the spearmint and the old birdbath my dad made out of a disc. Disc, like a disc from a tractor implement. I'd be using it as a birdbath yet but it rusted through, iron being iron. I took it to a welder to fix it but it rusted through again so now it is an odd and not very pretty lawn ornament, unless you knew my dad, and then you'd think it was beautiful.

The rhubarb grew and grew, spreading great flat leaves to the sun, making lovely red stems full of tart flavor.

September rolled around and Ann Hoffert came to visit and attend the Midwest Birding Symposium with her lifelong friend Terry. Who is wearing my binoculars in this photo but don't be confused. I'm a little taller.

I took them for a walk down Dean's Fork (a must-see for Ohio guests)

and Ann Hoffert was so happy to see my habitat, as I am always so happy to see hers

that she hugged us both as we took in the old houses and barns of my favorite dirt road.

I shook her down a pawpaw and showed her tall ironweed

and great lobelia

and an adorable young guy who was checking the oil rigs in a homemade truck made out of plywood, Plexiglas and an ATV

and we went home and I made Ann and Terry the perfect avocado and homegrown lettuce and tomato BLT (I am drooling just looking at this)

and we ate and talked and for dessert

I had finally harvested the rhubarb

and mixed it with fresh September local apples

and covered it with cobbler crumbs cut with almonds and coconut

and butter and vanilla

and baked it (this is before baking; we were too busy eating to take a post-baking picture)

and served it, this rhubarb that had grown beneath the singing veery, Ann's life veery;

rhubarb that had come home in a boot from North Dakota and was now growing happily in Ohio, donating stems to a dessert I'd made that was now on a plate in front of our dearest North Dakota friend.

 It's for full-circle moments like that that I live. 

Veeries and Rhubarb

Sunday, March 18, 2012

One of our new favorite destinations in North Dakota is the area up near Devil's Lake. Devil's Lake itself has a refuge where you can drive through and see bison lolling in the grass.

The babeh bison are a nice color of orange.

and very sweet.

We saw a light pole in someone's farmyard. They must do a bit of hunting...those are all whitetail antlers. Yow.

and we walked up our favorite road, which is our favorite because it is heavily wooded and you can see things like redstarts and vireos and thrushes and tanagers there. Those are hard birds to get on the prairie!

It was like walking out of North Dakota and into Pennsylvania. So we've learned over the past two years that if we want a nice fat Big Day list, we must hit this one magic road near Devil's Lake.

And on that road there is an abandoned farmstead

with a not-so-very-old house, which is unusual in itself

and just across the road from there is an overgrown place where once upon a time there might have been a garden

and growing in that garden was a beautiful plant in full bloom that looked to me to belong to the dock family (Polygonaceae) and it hit me that this must be rhubarb abloom.

And at the same time we heard a veery sing deep in the woods and Ann Hoffert had never seen a veery so Bill whipped out his iPhone and called that bird right in.

So not only did we have its breezy song sending shivers up our spines; we had the Real Bird Right There for Ann to See.

Which was wonderful. But the Horticulture Chimp was beginning to hyperventilate, because that blooming rhubarb had obviously done it before and dropped a few seeds. There were baby plants at its base. And though the stems were not yet red, there was something very familiar about their leaves. The Horticulture Chimp dropped to her knees. "Ann, is this rhubarb??" She bent over, looked. "Yes, I believe it is."

Well, it wasn't long before the Chimp had a pointed stick and had begun digging doggedly around the root of the giant rhubarb plant, and it became clear that the babies were actually root propagules, which made digging them out that much more interesting and effortful, a little dirtier.

But the HortChimp always gets her plant.

                                                                                        photo by Bill Thompson III

Two, in fact, which she dampened down with water from a bottle, wrapped in plastic bags, and stuffed in her boots for the long flight home to Ohio. Because she had always, always wanted rhubarb in the garden, and North Dakota rhubarb from right under a singing veery would be ever so much more special.

But it gets better...

Beautiful North Dakota

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Every time I go to the prairie, I remember that my Australopithecine ancestors evolved on the open savannah. I feel at peace here. Not much on closed-in landscapes. The open ones, more better.

I watch the open spaces, the sun and wind, make their mark on my fellow birders as we collapse one by one in the grass. The Lizard Effect, brought about by early mornings grading into warm noons. It helps people relax when their guides flop down in the grass at the least opportunity. That's the Potholes and Prairies Birding Festival in a nutshell.

How can you stay tense and uptight with vistas like these?

 Even the barns are lying down.

and on this warm June day the cattle are taking their bafs.

A coyote prowls, hoping to start up a jackrabbit, as the wind makes whitecaps on a flooded valley. (Those are pelicans behind him).

We visit our favorite farmstead with a grand old barn who is not yet ready to lie down. Nitrophilous lichen paints its roof a delicious cinnabar.

Overhead the odd, insectivorous little Franklin's gulls, a vanishing specialty of the prairie, wheel and cry.

We look through the empty eye of a small house

and climb to a rocky outcrop that's never seen a plow

where the locoweed blooms in rose and purple

and the little white daisy with no name nods 

and the rocks are so old and weathered you know they've been here since well before there were hide tipis studding the place

but the same flowers bloom that the Sioux saw

  and we are thankful to be here to see them, too.

Can you hear the prairie calling you?

Potholes and Prairies 2012. June 14-18. Be there.

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