Birds, Birds, Birds!

Dinosaurs in drag.

That’s effectively what birds are. The scaly-legged, scaled-down and more decorative great-great-great-great grandchildren of the dinosaurs. Whether you believe that birds are descended from dinosaurs or not (but you really, really should), it’s hard not to be fascinated by these animals. Whilst some people are terrified of birds to the point of hysterics (see, it;s the dinosaur connection again!), most find them truly mesmerizing.

From the lonesome, lustful traveller to the birdwatcher to the ornithologist, birds hold a special place in our imagination. Whether it is their beautiful song, elaborate plumes, architectural prowess that rivals the best interior designer, or simply the quirky hopping, head-bobbing that they do so wonderfully. It’s really no small wonder that birds have been depicted in art for centuries. They have symbolised everything from purity to wrath, witchcraft and everything in between. As an artist I find that the bird makes for a truly unique and evocative subject, with a versatility that is difficult to recreate with mammals or other subjects. Birds have their own wonderful colour palettes and their own ready-made canvases, ready for us artists to pounce on.

Below, I’d like to share some of my favourite modern and traditional examples of the beauty of the bird in art and why they appeal to me in the way that they do.

Birds, 1914, Franz Marc

Birds in Art Blog

Hardly surprising that Franz Marc is on this list, but this  particular painting is here for a few reasons. This painting to me is not about a particular bird, or a particular species, but it captures the essence of what it is to be a bird: the pointed beak, the flap of the wings, their vocalisations. This painting evokes that startled feeling that you get when a flock of pigeons suddenly springs up into the air from just under your nose.

Illustrations in Ornithology, published in 1599


Whilst wildly inaccurate, these very early illustrations of Birds of Paradise from Papua New Guinea were not the work of over-imaginative artists, but the restrictions of working from dead specimens collected and traded half way around the world. The trade in paradise birds was booming, but the specimens were dried and traded without any legs or wings, so their beautiful plumes could be shown off in even more exquisite detail. But for early illustrators and ornithologists, this proved something of a puzzle. The theory was that these birds lived in heaven – Paradise, so didn’t need wings or feet at all. A truly beautiful story about a remarkable group of birds, and one I think any bird lover should take the time to read about. More beautiful than any designer dress!
Dodo, F. Hart

This 19th Century painting is sad reminder of the unfortunate story of the Dodo, a bird much loved by artists, writers, and much mocked and exaggerated too. This over-sized, flightless Mauritian pigeon has fascinated me from a very young age, ever since reading Dodos are Forever by Dick King Smith. Again, we don’t know how accurate this painting is as there are very few specimens around today, but this stunning piece of art and others like it are sobering reminders of humanity’s impact on the environment, and the vulnerability of specialised and isolated island species.

Modern artists too can’t help but fall in love with birds. Below are a few contemporary examples that I simply love, and yes, there’s one of mine in the list too!

For Me? You Shouldn’t Have!, Kimberly Kelly Santini

This absolutely charming little painting projects the little diva that seems to shine through in even the tiniest of birds. From singing with gusto to flashing their dazzling plumes, the smallest birds are often the boldest, the most brazen, and some of the most beautiful. If you can’t get out to see them in the wild; go to a sanctuary, an aviary, a pet shop, anywhere you can, and just take a look. Whilst searching the length and breadth of this island for guinea pigs a few weeks ago I got lost in the dazzling array of canaries, finches, quails, sparrows….I was astounded at their little variations, the unique qualities of each tiny little bird; perhaps that is how Darwin felt!

Carmines, Emily Lamb

The beauty and simplicity of this painting does all the work it needs to. The rest is up to the imagination of the viewer.

Wall of Birds Project, Ink Dwell Studio



This massive-scale, stunning work comprises  270 species of birds from all over the globe. This unique piece of art includes many extinct and living bird species from the Dromornis to the Kakapo to the Wandering Albatross, and many other species that have a special place in my heart. Another unique aspect of this piece is that every bird is painted life size and in stunning accuracy and detail, for a magical, bird-map view of the world.
Laysan Waltz, by Me!

Albatross Painting for Conservation
The albatross is my love-affair, my chocolate, my drug of choice. The albatross is a bird that is like no other; mating for life, performing perfectly-synchronised and often comical dances, boasting nature’s most magnificent wings. This seabird is a one of a kind, but unfortunately, it is also under threat in many of its key nesting sites, from Midway Island to Macquarie Island,  so it is a bird that we need to pay close attention to. The more I learn, the more I fall in love with them. You can read more about the making of this painting here.  (This painting is available for €500 to the first person asking kindly. A percentage of the sale will go towards The Foundation for Antarctic Research. I urge you to go and support such a worthy cause!)

Is there a particular species that moves you as an artist? Be it a painter, a writer, musician etc, is their a subject that captures your imagination like no other?

The Story Behind the Painting: Life at Last Light

Life at Last Light represents the resilience and adaptability of the raven to an urban environment.

IMG_2646
If you’re visiting New York, you might just catch sight of a raven. Just goes to show that if you can make it here, you really can make it anywhere. Oils on Canvas, 2017, available for €350 for the first asking nicely

Ravens are highly intelligent, sociable, and highly adaptable, but even with their skills, life in an urban environment is tough, from winging your way through glass disorienting skyscrapers to traffic, pollution and an unhealthy and unnatural diet. But the raven is one of nature’s hardy immigrants, and has embraced life in the concrete jungle. This article of Crows and Ravens Making a Comeback in New York was part of the inspiration for this painting, as I was searching for a suitable species to represent my feelings of home, as an immigrant myself (born in the UK, now living on the island of Malta).

This painting is the first of two in which I am reflecting on home, perhaps with homesickness, perhaps with admiration, and more than a little humility for the millions of refugees that have been forced out of their homes due to famine, conflict, political uprising, or all three. I talk about this in two previous blog posts here and here.

A Journey with a Kakapo

This week, I thought I’d delve into some detail about the painting that took up my easel for the last five months; for me, a marathon of a painting. I’m always fascinated to learn how other artists work, what inspires them, the materials and techniques that they use, so I thought I’d share some of mine.

Starting with the initial watercolour sketch:

Kakapo Watercolour Painting

A lot of you have heard about that kakapo; its unique evolution, its quirky behaviour, mating habits, and of course, the threats currently facing it. There are few paintings of kakapo, and the majority of them are fairly traditional. I wanted to capture a different side to this remarkable bird that is something between an owl and a parrot, both in habit and appearance. Colour was going to be the primary motivation for these piece, using rich, bold hues and blocks of colour to set the scene, much as I did in my previous ‘Solutrean’ paintings.

Oh, and it had to be big.

(I apologise as some photos were taken in natural light so there’s some glare from the wet paint etc)

Kakapo Painting

 

When it comes to transferring a drawing from paper onto canvas, there are several methods I use; whether it’s tracing onto the canvas from an inked drawing, or creating a scaled-up sketch using the grid method. This time, I was feeling confident. No pencil in sight, I grabbed a watery acrylic mix and sketched the basic outline of the bird, some feather details and a few wisps of background.

Kakapo Painting

The underpainting; a thin mix of cadmium yellow light oil paint, and a touch of orange, I knew would be crucial to holding it all together later on.

Kakapo Painting

Next I started from the outside, in, getting in the darks of the background which will help bring the bird forward, and give the feeling that he is trudging through the dark undergrowth. I love that burnt orange. I experimented with a few hints of feathers too.

Kakapo Painting
After a month, I’ve darkened up the darks and increased the tones, but haven’t made much progress on the kakapo himself. It was important to have a solid framework behind it, before I started fussing over the bird too much.

Kakapo Painting

There comes a point in a painting which I call the hurdle; the critical point where perhaps you might have got lost from your initial sketch, and perhaps started throwing paint down in an over-eager anticipation of the finished piece. The photo above is where I reached this critical point. I wasn’t happy with the green; even though it is a fair representation of the light kakapo green, but it somehow, didn’t fit. Lots of standing, staring, taking photographs, and generally, taking a step back from the painting helped me through this tricky transition stage.

Kakapo Painting

You learn a lot about painting whilst you’re painting, and I’ve learned that mistakes can be a good thing. As you can see from the previous photo to this one, the kakapo has transformed. The white line running through the birds centre was originally a dark brown branch, but it was too dead centre, and taking up too much of a focus. But I wasn’t concerned at this stage. I started thinking of the kakapo more in terms of shapes, and bringing it back in harmony with the background.

Kakapo Painting

Almost three months since I started, here is the latest in progress shot. As you can see, that heavy branch in the middle has gone and the kakapo has started to gain some feathering in the tail. Now to work on the branch at his feet, refine the body, and bring in some darks back into the background.

You can have the best plan in the world, but sometimes, paintings just evolve all by themselves. I made sketches, notes, colour maps and had a clear idea in my head, but it turned out a little different. However, I am thrilled with the transformation. The kakapo has a special place in my heart, and now, so does its painting.

Five months in the making and featuring New Zealand’s endangered kakapo, this is much more than just a painting to me. This is what I strive for, why I paint for what I love, and why you should love the natural world too.

A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of this piece and Kakapo Prints will be donated to the Kakapo Recovery.

Forest and Bird, Finished Oils on Canvas, 90 x 60cm and up for sale. Enquiries to cjwaterfield@gmail.com

Cheating

Over 12 million people in the UK tuned in to watch the opening episode of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II – and if you are anything like me, you were watching and you were moved by the male buller’s albatross, waiting patiently on his nest for his mate to return to him after many months of fishing far across the ocean. The music, the beautiful lighting and of course, our ability to empathise made us all feel for the male, and we sat, hopeful, eager, along side him until his mate finally arrived.

Then, they embraced in a unique albatross manner; coy, flirtatious, playing hard to get. There definitely is some bonding going on there, but how much it extends to true monogamy is a debate that scientists cannot seem to shake off.

Albatross Painting Work in Progress
‘Laysan Waltz’ In Progress

Birds are one of the few monogamous groups of animals, and albatross and their waltzing are some of the most famous, but recent genetic studies have shown secret affairs, illicit encountered and cheating chaps. The male albatross waits patiently for his female, calls to her, dances his heart out to her, whilst she could already be carrying another’s chick – and who’s to say he hasn’t been out for some extra-marital copulation whilst he’s been alone?

Recent studies and genetic testing have shown that as many as 24% of albatross chicks are the result of these affairs. A quarter of illegitimate chicks, in a species that is the cornerstone of  ‘mating for life’. It just goes to show that what we think we know, is only ever the half of it.

Albatross Painting Work in Progress
‘Laysan Waltz’ In Progress, Oils on Canvas – they’ll have feet soon!

And it’s also another example of where anthropomorphising can lead us into error; we’re projecting our own emotions and ideas of courtship onto the scenes that we witness, and draw our own wild conclusions. What to us appears as a beautiful rekindling of a lifelong bond, could be simply re-affirming who’s boss, or simply acknowledging a member of their own species.

I am guilty of this too. Half of the reason that I paint animals is to try to feel a little of what they feel, and for us to be able to connect with them also. Just as Franz Marc wanted to uncover the spiritual in the animal, I want to explore why nature is such a fixation in my life, and how (how on earth) it isn’t for others. Nature connects us to nature, and to ourselves.

For me, there is something truly magical in nature’s ability to inspire, whether it’s because of how we choose to see it or not.

Laysan Albatross Painting
This painting is available for €400 to the first person asking kindly. A percentage of the sale will go towards The Foundation for Antarctic Research. I urge you to go and support such a worthy cause!

Finding Harmony in Art Through Nature

The process of formulating a painting is fraut with difficulties.

What may seem to be a very simple relationship between colour, subject and form to an outsider, is often a complex web of decisions that you made, un-made, and didn’t make at all.

735546_428583447208589_1777453126_o
Songs in Miniature, Oils on Board

The above painting is at first glance a fairly straightforward piece, in composition and chromatically. There are only really two tones here, and the piece holds itself together thanks to this quiet harmony.

10665090_10152760526475610_5020250357859027876_n
A beautiful location, painting in a 16th Century Palace…and I love the shot of this painting, but somehow, the harmony just wasn’t there. (I will paint this piece again one day!)

Nature works in harmony with itself; even though it doesn’t always seem to be the case. Raging savanna fires restore the balance of populations and fertilize the grass, the weak die so that the strong can survive. There is a delicate, complex web that unites all species, all habitats and all natural phenomena.

The harmony of nature is the theme I approach in painting. And New Zealand’s sparky, fat parrot the Kakapo is a perfect example of this. This unfortunate flightless parrot had evolved in perfect harmony with its natural forest habitat that was free of ground based, furry predators. But times change, and we, like the Kakapo, have to evolve with them or find a new harmony.

The purpose of this blog is for me to lay down some ideas for my next painting; figuring out what harmonies I need to figure out before I put paintbrush to canvas. It’s important for a painting to appear unified and effortless, whilst at the same time evoking a sense of a deeper meaning behind it (and I’m not talking the meaning behind a black square, either, I’m talking something real). How do I transform a subject, a topic that moves me, into a canvas that moves others?

Kakapo Watercolour Painting
Watercolour study for the upcoming Big painting!

Instead of looking at the finished painting as the goal, look at the whole process. An evolution in itself.

What Black Robins Can Teach Us About Conservation

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? “
– Douglas Adams

A 15cm high songbird that struggles to fly more than a few yards might not seem like conservation’s great success story, and in a way, it’s not, but the story of the black robin of New Zealand can teach us a lot about how and why small changes can make such a big difference.

In 1980 Old Blue was the only breeding female of a group of just five, the only five representatives of her species, which had been in rapid decline since the introduction of weasels and other foreign predators to their island home. With the dedication of a small team of conservationists, and the help of some unwitting tomtits, Old Blue became the sole progenitor for her entire species, and helped bring them back from the brink of extinction.

Though today, there are still only enough black robins to fill a few handfuls (around 200), this small success story speaks volumes for the small societal and political changes that we need to make, in order to make much bigger changes.

If one bird can inadvertently save her own species, the small changes that we can do as the human species, can help save the planet in big ways. It all starts with awareness. What might seem as something inconsequential can have a profound effect on an ecosystem. It’s not just about the big, eye-catching species that we see splashed all over the Vatican or the media; it’s about habitats, it’s about mentalities, and it’s about desire to change.

Read. Watch. Learn. Get to know about these little stories; get involved.

You too can join the Conservation Conversation. Click here to find out more.

Below are some more inspiring stories about conservation:

http://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/change-the-way-you-think

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/06/cecil-african-lion-anniversary-death-trophy-hunting-zimbabwe/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/10/sea-otters-global-warming-trophic-cascades-food-chain-kelp

 

All paintings featured in this blog post are for sale unless otherwise specified. Enquiries may come to cjwaterfield@gmail.com

View Website
Follow my Facebook Page

Why I Will Vote No

“Hunting, including trapping (or the catching of wild birds by means of traditional clap-nets for the purpose of keeping the any caught birds alive in captivity), is allowed on about 160 Sq. Km. Of the Maltese islands and, with about 12,000 shooters and 4,000 trappers, the resulting density (some 80 sportsmen per square kilometer of huntable land) is considerable, but then Malta is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

Maltese hunters and trappers thus form an important part of the economic, social, cultural and political life of the islands, and any hunter/trapper thus expects to exercise his legal right to practice hunting and trapping in the traditional manner, so long as he is fully aware that his harvesting does not constitute any threat to any particular species.”

The above quote, taken from the website of the FKNK, Malta’s Federation for Hunting and Conservation, is a fair and valid point, and I can agree with much of the above, until that is, we reach the last line.

The federation itself admits that the hunting and trapping of birds is a right, but not if that right goes against the protection of any particular vulnerable migratory bird species, or any species that may become vulnerable in the future if such practices are allowed to continue.

Hunting on the Maltese Islands is a deeply-rooted tradition. Buskett woodland was created by the Knights specifically for hunting, but they also revered their aptitude for breeding falcons, so one cannot deny that hunters and trappers are not so very different than bird-keepers, pigeon-fanciers and bird-watchers.  All are great lovers of the outdoors and of nature (both groups of people probably get out into the countryside more than the rest of us) and what they love has doubtless been passed down from grandfather to grandson, experiences shared many a time during a family or social gathering.

But the world has many barbaric traditions, many of which have thankfully been eradicated, at least in most parts of the world (if only the persecution of gays and the bullfight were next, to name two examples). And whilst hunting may have benefits in curbing population growth in certain species, the hunting of any rare, endangered or vulnerable species should be banned. In the same way that the world fights to protect the rhino, the elephant, and the tiger, these birds should be at least given a fighting chance. Malta should be a safe haven for these birds on their migration; a place relatively free from predators and competing species where they can raise and fledge their chicks before heading North or South.

One argument against saying ‘no’ is: why should Malta ban its hunting when Europe does not? The UK has succeeded in banning much of its fox hunting, and though game birds and deer may be hunted, there are of course restrictions in place. I believe that Malta should show its stance as an independent and progressive country that is able to stand up for its own rights and to make its own decisions, without needing Europe or the rest of the world to tell it what to do.

Regardless of how deeply any tradition runs in society, there should be limits. If the crafts of glass-blowing or lace-making were to be abolished, Malta would certainly lose a wonderful piece of its heritage. These are harmless traditions. But what is not harmless is the blemished reputation it has acquired due to to the sight of beautiful pallid harriers, egrets, flamingos and more falling from the sky in cold blood. In our society today, is it just to kill of any living thing, be it a pigeon or a bird of prey? We do not hunt for the economy or gastronomy, and this blood sport is even harming Malta’s prospects as an eco-tourism destination.

Why would you destroy the the life of any living species; in abundance or otherwise, merely to decorate a glass cabinet?

Killing is not a hobby. And that is why I will vote ‘No’ to spring hunting.