Monthly Archives: May 2015

John James Audubon, Painter of Birds


My husband and I love to visit the Japanese Garden in Fort Worth. Its paths wind around flowering trees that stand out against all the different greens of spring. 20131118_105544A bridge arches over water that gathers in calm pools in some places and in others laps around stepping stones or tumbles over rocks. 20131118_111612All along its path the water reflects overhanging branches, and in the fall paddling wood ducks swirl the colors into ever-changing patterns.

We also look forward to seeing the garden’s resident large heron. We never know where he’ll be–sometimes he stalks along the water’s edge. 20131118_111631One time we almost missed him because he was perched motionless on the lower branch of a tree. Recently he was poised perfectly still at the water’s edge, SAM_2258ready to strike like lightening on any passing morsel of food. We’ve seen him flap into the air, then with his great wings outstretched, glide soundlessly to a new fishing spot.


Portrait of John James Audubon by John Syme, public domain

John James Audubon would have loved to study the ducks and that heron. He was a naturalist and artist who came from France in 1803 at the age of 18 to live in the United States. He loved to explore the countryside and study and sketch animals, especially birds. He spent hours observing their habits, even spending a night inside a huge hollow tree so he could observe and count the thousands of swifts that roosted inside. Before modern-day banding was thought of, Audubon tied threads around bird’s legs to see if they came back to the same nesting spots each year.

Eventually Audubon moved to Kentucky to open a store on what was then the frontier. From Native Americans he learned how to survive in the wilderness, and he continued to spend long periods in the forest, studying, sketching, and gathering specimens. Since European ornithological books didn’t contain many American bird species, Audubon decided to publish his.

No one in this country was willing to publish his work, so he went to England. Finding no publisher there either, he engaged a printer and financed the project by selling subscriptions to the book, which came out in folios of 5 prints at a time. To print color illustrations at that time each of Audubon’s original watercolor paintings had to be incised on a copper plate by an engraver, printed, and then hand-painted. Audubon wanted his birds to be as close to life-size as possible, so they were printed on sheets of paper that were over 2 feet by 4 feet—called an elephant folio.

Wealthy patrons, including the queen of England and the king of France, bought subscriptions. At that time, the whole book of 435 engravings cost about $1,000. In 2000, with only about 100 of the original 176 complete books left, mostly in museums or libraries, one sold at auction for $8.8 million.

The Paintings

Most paintings of birds before this time were very stiff. They were drawn from stuffed specimens, and they looked it. Audubon’s early drawings were also stiff, but gradually as he studied the birds and practiced drawing and painting, he began to paint birds in much more natural poses, with plants from the bird’s habitat. His paintings are very true to nature, but they are also well-designed artistically.

The purpose of an ornithology book is, of course, to portray the birds accurately. Audubon never loses sight of that purpose; yet his arrangement or composition of birds and plants is creative. Take these Mourning doves.

mourning doves, John James Audubon, public domain

As required for a field guide, we can see their beaks, their feet, and their markings from every angle, but notice the outspread wings and tails of the birds stand out against the paper. The next to bottom bird is especially dramatic.. The top two birds form a pleasing pair, and we can  imagine them flitting from branch to branch as they chatter and eat.

These ivory billed woodpeckers audubon 4 ivory-billed woodpeckerare colorful, and Audubon has displayed them artistically so that the white and black on their bodies and their black tails form dramatic patterns against the white page. The red patch on the middle bird is striking and draws you into the scene.

Many of Audubon’s paintings have a lot of drama. For example, in this painting he depicts the ferocious battle as a red-shouldered hawk attacks some northern bobwhites—creating a true and yet very dramatic picture.

northern bobwhite, by John James Audubon, public domain

Some of the birds flee as the hawk with out stretched wings attacks from above. The hawk and the fleeing bobwhites stand out against the plain paper.

Audubon wanted even the largest birds to be shown almost life-size, and fitting them on a page often produced some very modern-looking graphic designs.

American flamingo, by John James Audubon, public domain


When I teach drawing I emphasize that training the eye is as important as training the hand. For this purpose I give my students exercises that artists have long used to help them look more carefully—negative space, breaking down the whole into basic geometric shapes, and contour drawing, etc. Children and adults are often amazed what a difference learning to see makes in their drawing.

But it’s hard to get people to slow down long enough to really look. One of my favorite lessons to help young children do this starts with the verse, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Matt. 6:26

When I ask what birds eat. Hands shoot up, “Seeds! Worms! Insects!”

“Okay,” I say. “And does God just sprinkle these things down for the birds the way we sprinkle food at the top of a fish tank?”

Most say, “No!” So we look at Psalm 111:2 that says, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.” And I tell the children that we are going to use our “artist’s eyes” to “study” how God has designed each bird with just the right beak, feet, body, tail, and wings to be able to gather its food in the environment that He designed for it. We see that all birds have legs but… God gave flamingos long skinny legs to wade in shallow water where their food lives and ducks short legs and webbed feet to paddle in deeper water. All birds have beaks, but… God gave hummingbirds long sharp beaks to reach into flowers to sip nectar and cardinals short thick beaks to pluck and crunch seeds and fruit.

In my blog post on The Country School I compared the flipper-like wings God gave penguins so they can “fly” under the water to the huge wings He gave pelicans so they can skim above the waves.

In Matthew 6:26-34 Jesus used God’s care of the birds to teach that our heavenly Father knows our needs and provides for us as He does the birds, so we can trust Him and seek His kingdom first. And surely part of seeking His kingdom is recognizing the beauty and intricacy of creation and giving glory to the One who made and sustains it all. Too often we are in a hurry and don’t see wildflowers blooming along the side of the road or the birds flying around our yards gobbling up insects and gathering material for nests.

Take time to see the work of the first and best Artist! How many different types of birds share your backyard? Notice the patterns on their wings. Is their beak made for seeds or worms? Take time to look inside a day lily and see how the colors change or at a wild flower and see how often God uses complementary colors—such as blue and orange or lavender and yellow to make these flowers more vibrant and attractive to us and the insects that pollinate them.

Try using basic shapes and curvy or straight lines to draw some of these birds. Most of the birds illustrated above have roundish heads and oval bodies, so you start there, but as you look closer, you see you need to add some straight lines to the top of the woodpecker’s head for those funny tufts. The more you look, the more you see God’s wonderful design and diversity!

In the Middle Ages Francis of Assisi (in Italy) began to spend much time out in the countryside praying and appreciating the beauties of creation. He and his followers began to use illustrations from nature, as Jesus did, to preach and minister God’s love and care to people. Summer is a great time to cultivate yours and your family’s “artist’s eyes” to more fully see and appreciate the creative design and care that God has lavished on all of His creation!

And to see more of Audubon’s work that shows so much of that beauty and diversity, you just need to go online or visit your local library. His beautiful bird illustrations are readily accessible.

On another note, be sure to sign up to receive the next picture lady post so you don’t miss it!