Looking at Birds Through an Artist’s Eye 

Looking at Birds Through an Artist’s Eye 

Gaynell Lawson

Story and artwork by Gaynell Lawson 

With a fascination and enjoyment of birds, how do I go from studying a bird to painting a fanciful image of the bird? For that matter, why paint a fanciful bird instead of a true likeness?

Carolina Wren
Carolina Wren by Gaynell Lawson

As I determine the bird’s habits and attributes, an initial image emerges. I think about the bird in flight, perched in a tree, or building the all-important nest. I consider the songs, the details that are most significant to the bird, and the choice of environment for nests. After several sketches and palette choices, the “conversation” begins between myself and the painting. 

After the sketch, a base coat of light value paints brings life to the white paper. Although I have a plan for the painting, the painting has a voice also. As paint is applied, I frequently step back to assess the results and to consider my feelings about the emerging image. My decisions for the colors, background, level of details, and fantasy ebb and flow during the process. My initial choices will change as the painting “speaks” to me. The “conversation” and the results are best when I “listen,” allowing intuition to lead the marks I make. Sometimes that means leaving the painting for a few days until I can see what is needed next.

Lady Cardinal
Lady Cardinal by Gaynell Lawson

I choose to use fanciful colors and details to allow me to express more personality for the bird than a true “likeness.” I don’t think of painting as producing a photograph, but as provoking feelings instead. If my fanciful birds invoke smiles or curiosity, I’ve succeeded in my goal. Maybe the viewer will listen for the call of a bird or watch its habits because of the painting. My hope is that a viewer smiles and develops a curiosity about the personality of these dignified creatures.

Carolina Wren is a small and stocky bird that has wonderful golden brown stripes. With his tail feathers held upright, he looks quite jaunty. The wren’s musical calls are described as sounding like “tea kettle, tea kettle”! When I learned that these wrens will build nest in boots, boxes, and buckets, I knew my fanciful bird could build a nest in a whistling tea kettle!

In reality, the female Northern Cardinal is mostly buff but has lovely hints of coral, pink and gold, which I emphasize in Lady Cardinal. Vividly-colored cardinal pairs are frequent visitors to feeders. I like to believe she knows she’s really the queen; gold details and strings of pearls are how I highlight her station and her beauty. I’ve also depicted her with fierce black feathers, as she is quite capable of protecting her nest.

Gaynell Lawson and her husband Dan have spent many years volunteering for Great Smoky Mountains National Park in various roles. She currently serves on GSMA’s Board of Directors. You can contact her at Gaynell.artz@gmail.com.

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