Bird Abstractions

The Importance of Time

When it comes to my art practice, I can take years to carry out an idea. Time, I’ve learned, is key to my process. The years that pass between the initial sketch and the final project are as vital as the actual paint or paper I use. Sure, I never follow through on many of my ideas, but just as often, I’ll return to a sketch or drawing years after I made it and have an idea for finishing it.

Way back in 2013, for instance, I sketched a well-known grain silo in Roswell with every intention of making a print. I didn’t create that print until 2018, but the intervening years deeply informed what I eventually made. Since moving to Virginia, I’ve sketched magnolias every spring for five years. Yet only now have I started working on ideas for a larger painting or series of paintings.

This nuthatch took three years to paint, if you count the years spent between the original sketch and the finished canvas.

But sometimes it doesn’t take me quite so long to fulfill an idea. Case in point: a group of paintings inspired by bird plumage. Let’s take a look!

Birds and Me

My interest in birds began with my grandparents. During visits to their house, my grandmother would point out the different birds that came to her feeder. She’d also have me clean out the birdbath using an old toothbrush. On car rides to the grocery store, I’d pore over a field guide of birds they kept in the back seat pocket. Over time, I started recognizing the different species I saw illustrated on its pages.

That interest has persisted into the present. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve made a point of learning about the different birds in that region. Brandon got me my own birdfeeder after he noticed how much I enjoyed watching the birds at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. He’s also started recognizing them, pointing out wrens, titmice, and other visitors to our patio.

In short, birds have long been of interest to me. I’m no hard-core birder, but I enjoy them.

Bird Abstractions: The Initial Idea

While I’ve long drawn birds intermittently, I started sketching them more frequently after Brandon got the feeder. I began with representational drawings, some done quickly, others rendered in more detail. Many of these would be used for my ongoing project of painting birds around the house.

My first abstractions of birds. Initially, I focused on painting color blocks.

Around the same time I started making these representational sketches, I began experimenting with abstractions based on their plumage. Taking inspiration from my year-long color block experiment, I created small, rectangular abstractions distilling the plumage of various birds to what I considered their most essential characteristics. Initially, I worked only with color blocks, but soon I began adding grisaille versions of the birds back into the compositions, combining my interest in both detailed, naturalistic representation and distilled abstraction.

Bird abstractions with renderings of the actual birds in them. The nuthatch came up fairly early.

I thought I was onto something with these latter sketches and started making plans for paintings. Unfortunately, this was 2020, and the pandemic would soon sap most of my zeal for making any kind of art.

Bird Abstractions Revisited

While I did eventually resume sketching, my interests had moved to other things. In the second half of 2020, I drew facemasks. The following year, I focused on my actual sketching technique, increasingly removing linework in favor of painting and brushwork. For 2022, most of the painting I did was on our walls. This year, however, I made a renewed commitment to carrying out some of my sketching ideas, including the bird abstractions.

I started by going through the original sketches, which I made while we were living at our old apartment. While many of the birds I saw there also visit our house, we also have new visitors, including northern flickers, blue grosbeaks, and ruby-throated hummingbirds. As a result, I decided to make new abstractions representing the birds that visit our house now. From there, I picked four to render on canvas: red-breasted nuthatch, Northern Flicker, cardinal, and hummingbird.

Carrying Out the Idea

I completed these paintings over two weeks. Spending three or four evenings on each piece, I painted them on four 8″ x 10″ canvases, which I had bought for another project but never used. The first bird I painted was the nuthatch. While I started out painting the bird in grisaille, I repeated the red coloring of its underside to establish a visual connection with the orange of the abstraction.

As I kept working, my compositions became more ambitious. For the cardinal, which I divided in half to show the plumage of both the male and female, I showed a bird in mid-flight. With the hummingbird abstraction, I channeled Piet Mondrian, and showed two birds instead of one, a male and female.

Future Possibilities

Overall I’m pleased with how these came out. While there are some inaccuracies in the details, overall I’m glad to have finally carried out an idea beyond the sketchbook.

What excites me most about these abstractions, however, is the possibility for future work. The paintings I did are on the small side, mostly because that was what I already had but also because I wanted to reflect the actual scale of the birds. I could easily scale these up into something larger though.

Beyond scale, there are multiple thematic possibilities I could take. I could easily do a whole series representing just the birds that visit our feeder alone. I’ve also considered doing a series focusing on the females of each species and exploring the beauty of their understated, subtle plumage. Highlighting birds during periods of transition, such as when male cardinals molt in the summer, or wood ducks enter their eclipse phase, is another possibility. I’ve also considered doing a series that juxtaposes threatened or endangered species with either invasive species or ones that have expanded or thrived in the era of climate change. I could go in multiple directions.

Now to convince some gallery to take these so I can make more of them.

Categorized as Art

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