“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead Late last year, at the same time the Presidential election results shook the nation, the majestic Laysan albatross started returning to Kaua‘i. They dropped their spatula-like feet and touched […]
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
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!