Looking at Birds Through an Artist’s Eye

Looking at Birds Through an Artist’s Eye

Story and artwork by Gaynell Lawson

Painting by Gaynell Lawson entitled Heron in Search of Fish
Heron in Search of Fish by Gaynell Lawson

Birds fascinate me. They always have. I enjoy watching them wherever I’m fortunate enough to spot them—in our streams, in the Great Smoky Mountains, or even in my own backyard. I’ve found that if I provide the right feeder, the right shelter, and enough water, I can lure them close enough to our home to see what colorful, humorous, and enchanting creatures they are. 

My greatest enjoyment comes from noticing the specific personalities of various species, as evidenced by their movements, actions, and attitudes. Each breed—and sometimes each individual bird—exudes traits I love to observe. Some are territorial songsters like the mockingbird or dramatic feeders like the beautiful blue jay. Then there are the tentative black-capped chickadees, which constantly flit from perch to perch.

It should come as no surprise that bird art is so popular among artists and that it is rendered through a wide variety of media and techniques. On one end of the spectrum is realism, the goal of which is to depict birds accurately in every detail. Some of these works are so perfect as to trick the eye into seeing a photograph rather than a painting. On the other end is abstract bird art, which might incorporate geometric shapes or humorous caricatures.

Great Horned Owl by Gaynell Lawson
Great Horned Owl by Gaynell Lawson

My artistic efforts lie in the middle of that spectrum, somewhere between realism and abstract. I’d describe my work as fanciful. I study birds directly, if possible, as well as various guides, photos, and antique Audubon prints. This allows me to synthesize my vision and then use mixed media to paint. My goal is to paint birds in realistic proportions, with their features generally true to life in size and shape. However, I use specific colors and markings that depict my feelings about each bird’s personality.

Heron in Search of Fish, my painting of the Great Blue Heron, was done in honor of a lovely “fisher-bird” we frequently see out on our local rivers and streams. My feelings about this very tall bird are expressed in atypical colors and in the details that decorate her. Wading in shallow water, she awaits a fishing opportunity. Just as the heron looks away, nest and egg carefully balanced on her crown, the abundant fish caper right by her!

I see owls as wise and solemn. The Great Horned Owl is particularly dignified, so I used purple and gold markings in my painting to convey his regal bearing. He’s always on guard, silently watching and ruling his kingdom with elegance. The paisley markings on his breast are the details of a gentleman in full regalia.

Gaynell Lawson has spent many years volunteering alongside her husband Dan for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She currently serves on GSMA’s Board of Directors.

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