Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to Florida where my daughter and I used to have our studio. We saw this pair in a nature preservation area. They appeared to be very relaxed, engaging in personal hygiene like preening. They didn’t seem to show any of the skittish behavior often displayed by ground birds who must remain alert to predators. One reason for their laid-back style may have been their location, on a little island in the middle of a pond. A ground predator would have to swim over to reach them. They were also protected from aerial predators by several huge black mangrove trees overhead. I painted the so-called “knees” of the black mangrove trees popping up all over the island.
I enjoyed painting the background, intentionally rendering the reeds in a rough style to provide contrast with the birds’ velvety, smooth feathers. Painting knives are the perfect tools for producing this kind of texture. Kiry was fascinated with the subtle blending of colors and forms of each of the different types of feathers. She depicted the texture of the fine body feathers by cutting hundreds of fine, long, parallel streaks into the paint with the edge of her knife blade. The result is a velvety appearance, contrasting with the rough background. These birds nest in tree cavities, when possible. As the abundance of old, hollow trees becomes more scarce, they are increasingly nesting in human made next boxes, according to the Audubon website. Let’s give a shout-out to those who construct these nesting boxes so that we can enjoy such beauty.
This painting was a father-daughter collaboration. Kiry painted the Bison while I painted the background. Kiry was interested in capturing the protective posture of the mother Bison. She did so in two ways. First, the mother appears to be looking at the photographer with an expression that says “That’s close enough. One step closer and I will show you what I can do with these horns.”
And the mother Bison could do a good
job of it too. According to the information in the visitor’s center, female
Bison can weigh up to 1000 pounds (454 Kg) and they can turn 180 degrees in a
flash. That iconic hump on their back is not filled with water. Apparently, it
is solid muscle attached to the neck. Whatever gets hooked by one of her horns could
end up tossed like a rag doll.
Another thing that Kiry did was to place
the calf in a protected position right behind the mother’s massive head. The
mother’s head shades the calf’s, symbolic of her protective posture.
My task was to paint the background so that the viewer would appreciate the vastness of the Yellowstone landscape. To create the perception of distance I toned down the yellow and increased the blue and violet with each successive hill. The grasses on the distant hills would appear just as bright yellow as those in the foreground if you were to hike over to those distant hills, but colors desaturate (they become grayer) and often bluer as the distance to the viewer increases.
We enjoyed our family vacation
on North Captiva Island in Florida. Some of us collected shells on the beaches while
others went kayaking. Kiry and I went hiking to the other end of the island, where
there was a nature preserve. We had hoped to take photos of wading birds for
painting subjects, but there wasn’t much open beach left after the last
hurricane. In most places the shore was covered with an impenetrable tangle of driftwood.
We had to settle for walking along parallel to the water, peeking through windows
in the new growth and driftwood.
One of these windows offered a clear view of the water, the usual pile of driftwood, and three Ibis hanging out on the driftwood! They were no more than a few yards from us. I’m sure they were as shocked to see us as we were to see them because they wasted no time taking flight. You can see, by its crouching posture and ruffled feathers, the Ibis on the left was preparing to fly. And it did. The other two followed within seconds. Fortunately, I was able to fire off several shots with my camera during those few seconds. It’s a good thing I did take more than one photo. My pictures suffered from the classical problem of photographers—each photo had at least one ibis whose head was tilted at a weird angle when the shutter snapped. Fortunately, for painters this is not a problem. We simply chose to paint each bird in its most favorable angle.
It was a collaborative work. I painted the water, clouds and drift wood in a rough style while Kiry painted the birds in precise detail. The softness of the birds’ feathers was enhanced by contrast with the rough background. In addition, their blinding white feathers were complemented by the foam of the crashing wave and the clouds on the horizon.
By the end of the day, we had taken so many pictures of white ibises that I had to laugh at how digital cameras have freed us from needing to conserve film. The wonderful thing about having “too many” pictures, is that somewhere in the bunch there might just be one that makes a good composition with very few changes needed. This Ibis composition was almost one photograph, but I still ended up using a second in order to get the true range of colour for the eye and bill.
I had fun with the juxtaposition of textures in this painting. The background and the body of the bird are very smooth, while the shells that the bird stands on are rough and thickly layered. I almost couldn’t believe how much white paint went into making that pile of shells. Now that it’s dry, the foreground is quite sharp to the touch.
For me, this composition seems to express some of the peacefulness that I always find when visiting the islands of Sanibel and Captiva. Almost the whole painting is made up of soft colours. The few points of intense colour are the eye, the beak, and the small pieces of seaweed in the foreground, which add refreshing contrast.
This painting, at 40 inches wide and 30 inches tall, is one of the largest I have done to date. Choosing the size of panel for a specific composition requires careful consideration. For my work, the size must emphasize the aspect of a subject that I want the viewer to appreciate.
This great blue heron had to be done on a grand scale, in order to give the viewer a feel for how bright and open the water’s edge was. The great blue heron is a large and stately bird, the long neck moves with a fluid grace that echoes the smooth shifting of the waves.
All that being said, this particular bird has a story that is a little less noble. Apparently, the locals of the area call this bird “Steve.” He is often seen close by the people fishing along the beach in North Captiva, Florida. Steve doesn’t just hope for a fishy handout; he will try to steal the fish that the humans have caught. Hey, he was there first!
Whether viewed as elegant or crafty, the charm of the great blue heron is undeniable.
The tri-colored heron is one of the most colorful of herons. Its chest and belly are white, neck is a rusty red, and the rest of the body and head are a slate blue. To complete this parade of colors we should add the yellow legs, which turn pink in the breeding season, and the yellow-orange bill, which turns blue in the breeding season.
All those colors make you wonder how they help the bird hide from its prey. But a fish looking up would see—or more to the point would fail to see—its white belly against the bright sky. And predators could easily lose sight of it against the rusty colors of the dead leaves and slate blue of the water. We painted it in the context of the aroids that typically grow in the swamps where Tri-colored herons forage. The Aroids are probably Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia). If there had been some white 3-petaled flowers we would have been surer but there weren’t any. In any case, the dark shadows of these plants provided a perfect frame for the heron.
The little umbrellas shining in the sun that range along the base of the aroids are Pennyworts (Hydrocotyle umbellata), sometimes called Dollarweeds. It is an edible weed in the carrot family that can be used in salads. But our heron is not interested in salad. He or she (male and female look alike) is focused on the meat dish.
One of my favourite things to do when I’m hiking, or in a garden, is to sit close enough to a flower so that the features of the flower become a landscape of colour and texture—a magical world unto itself. In this painting, I invite the viewer to see the purple columbine in such a way. I chose to use an unusually small panel to encourage intimacy between viewer and flower.
The purple columbine (Aquilegia coerulea) is a hardy little flower, despite its delicate appearance. It can live through cold temperatures, at high altitudes, and even wedged in the cracks of very rocky terrain as it is here. There are so are many species of columbine that it sometimes becomes difficult to determine the name of one particular plant. This flower gives itself away by its deep violet, almost indigo and white petals.
When my grandmother first saw this painting she told me a story about the columbine in her garden. The columbine is a perennial, so they should return every spring. But the little sprouts that popped up in the spring looked a lot like weeds to my grandfather, who pulled them out. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that my grandmother was especially excited about this painting. The painting now hangs in her bedroom, where she can see it every morning as she awakens, all through the year.
When I was a kid, I was familiar with the usual animals like cows and ducklings from my children’s books but I had never heard of a pika. It wasn’t until I grew up and went hiking in the mountains that I met one. I saw the pika in this painting while hiking in the mountains of Yellowstone National Park.
Pikas are not rodents like mice or hamsters. They are related to the rabbit, which is not actually a rodent. The pika is an elusive little mammal that lives in the spaces formed between the rocks of boulder piles (called talus fields), which collect at the base of mountain cliffs. It’s about 15-23 cm long (5.9-9.1 in) without the tail because it doesn’t have a tail. It eats all kinds of leafy plants during the summer. But in winter, because it doesn’t hibernate when these plants are not available, it eats dried plants that it has collected all summer in little haystacks and dried in the sun. Once dry, they are dragged into the burrow for the winter.
In North America you will hear two different pronunciations for the word “pika”, pai-ka and pee-ka. Only in the UK is it pronounced consistently as pai-ka, as you will hear if you watch David Attenborough’s delightful video. Personally, I like pee-ka because it sounds like the adorable squeak that the pika makes as a warning cry. The name pika may bring to mind the animated character called Pikachu. The most common explanation of the character’s name is that it is comprised of two sounds that are onomatopoeic representations in Japanese of crackling electricity (pika) and mouse sounds (chu.) But it is possible that the character was originally based on a pika not a mouse, despite being labeled as a mouse-type pokemon. The marketing folks might have labeled it as a mouse to be more recognizable while at the same time being aware of its double meaning—crackling electricty in Japanese and the little mammal in English.
I was very excited to use the knife technique to create three-dimensional fur. Little cuts in the paint make the hairs stand out when light hits the surface of the painting, which creates a soft furry look. In additional to looking three-dimensional, the whiskers had to be perfectly curved and very fine. I came up with a strategy that worked quite well. Using the edge of the knife I painted a thin line of pale grey over my drawing, and then closed in on that line from either side with the darker color of the background. By squeezing the pale grey paint thinner and thinner, I was able to maintain the curve while achieving a much thinner line than any I could create with the edge of the knife.
Lichen is not a plant. Rather, it is an organism made up of algae or cyanobacteria (sometimes both) living in symbiosis within a fungus. Together, these components allow for amazing variations in shape and colour. There are branch-like forms, leaf-like flat forms and, perhaps my favourite, a flakey form that looks like someone splashed paint on the rocks. The colours of the lichen colonies can be quite vivid. Among the large range of pastel colours were brilliant yellow and orange patches. I chose to paint an area of the rocks that had mostly smaller patches of these colours because I thought that viewers might have a difficult time believing large areas of such vivid colours were natural. The lichen was fun to paint. I made the various forms using heavily textured clumps of paint, which create a very rough and realistic feel to the rocks.
We were walking on a boardwalk in a wetland conservation area, taking pictures of wading birds, when a Red-winged Blackbird popped out of the marsh grasses onto a Pond Apple twig. We snapped a picture before he flew away. Meanwhile, on the other side of the boardwalk, a smaller bird, with very modest coloring was clinging onto one of the grasses. We thought it might be some kind of sparrow although it appeared large for a sparrow. We took a picture of it as well.
The next step was to send the picture of the unknown bird to cousin Paul, our family’s bird expert. To our surprise he said it was the female Red-winged Blackbird. We never imagined that it might be the mate, but we were delighted with the news because the pair made a better composition. Now all that remained was to put them together in the same composition.
When we viewed this painting in dim light one evening we could barely discern the female from her background. She blended in with the leaves and grasses so she might go unnoticed on her nest, which is precisely what Nature intended by providing her with a speckled, subdued coat. The male, in contrast, stood out dramatically against the pastel background, the better to impress females and intimidate rivals.
Pond Apples (Annona glabra) are tropical trees that grow in the water. Their name derives from their apple-like fruit, which are not very tasty. The important feature of this tree for our composition is not the fruit but the leaves, which encircle the birds with a colorful, complementary frame.
24 x 30 in | 61 x 76.2 cm – oil on panel, painted with knives
My daughter, Kiry Tiberius, has been painting all her life but not with painting knives. In the last ten years she has become increasingly interested in using painting knives and wanted me to teach her the techniques. I was, of course, delighted, especially since I had more time after retiring from the university.
The thought had occurred to us that it would be great fun to collaborate on a painting. An occasion arose when a couple, who had bought a painting of a Great Blue Heron from me a few years before, requested a painting of a pelican as a companion piece.
Kiry offered to paint the pelican if I would do the trees. She loves painting birds. So do I but trees are my favorite subject. I left a space for the bird. The space looked weird, like a ghost of the bird, until Kiry painted in the pelican. The result looked seamless. She even captured the reflections of the water under the wing and the slight violet tint to the upper side. – Richard
Sitting in a kayak, looking at faraway cormorants through binoculars, the waves quietly lapped at our sides, and the soft rustling of the red mangrove leaves whispered around us. In this peaceful moment, we didn’t expect to be startled by the majestic grandeur of a brown pelican. These unexpected glimpses of wild beauty swell the heart with joy. The sense of awe is overpowering.
This painting my father and I created together captures the experience we shared. The open edges of the composition give the viewer a sense of the endless expanse of the water and bright sky. The mangroves in the distance seemed to be organically connected to the silhouettes of those cormorants we were watching. The powerful bird dominates the view, an inescapable focus point. The broad wings are lifted in flight, a fitting symbol of our soaring spirits on that beautiful day. — Kiry
40 x 24 in | 101.6 x 61 cm – oil on panel, painted with knives
My daughter Kiry and I painted this scene together. It was fun painting with my daughter and discussing the composition. I’m guessing that the grass is Prairie Cord Grass (Spartina pectinata) because this species is so common throughout the Great Lakes and Midwestern States, where we found this marshland, but it may be different species of Spartina.
The geese no doubt had a different perspective on the grasses. For them the wetland grasses were either a cafeteria or refueling station half way through their migration. They frequently winter in Canada and migrate to the US South for the summer, but in the mid States, just south of the Great Lakes, where this scene is located, they can stay all year. So these might be permanent residents rather than refueling migrants. Whatever their status, they were all over the place. In this one bank we counted more than 50. Thirty-four made it into the final composition. I have read that geese eat the leaves as well as the underground stems (rhizomes) of cord grasses in winter although I can’t imagine how they get at the underground stems.
There are two kinds of geese in this scene—Canada geese (Branta Canadensis) and Cackling geese (Branta hutchinsii). The Cackling geese are about half the size of the Canada geese but otherwise are very similar in color and markings. This posed a problem of perspective for us. If viewers assume that they are all Canada geese, they might conclude that we goofed on the perspective, painting some of the geese in front smaller than those more distant. We didn’t. The smaller Cackling geese just happen to be in the front and we painted them as we saw them.
In painting both the grasses and the geese we used the edge and tip of our knives. In contrast we used the broad flat part of our knives for the water and sky.
The icy look of the water was a perfect complement to the warm colors of the grasses. For the water we used a combination of Blues, Cobalt Stannate and Phthalocyanine Blue, which gave the water the icy look that we saw on this clear fall day.
18 inches (45.7 cm.) wide by 14 inches (35.6 cm.) high
When walking through the woods, if you happen to look up and see a bird, like this one, pausing for a moment on a nearby branch, the experience can really take your breath away. It might be the rich colours like the cherry-hued chest of this rose-breasted grosbeak, or the visibly soft texture of the bird’s feathers, that can rivet one’s feet to the spot. Or, perhaps it is the ephemeral quality of the bird’s presence. The thrill that many bird enthusiasts seek cannot be found viewing a bird in a zoo or a cage. It is the untamed freedom of a wild animal that captures the heart. Every moment becomes precious when our lives are touched by these fleeting glimpses of natural beauty.
In this painting, I chose to magnify the bird to larger than life-size proportions, and placed him in a very spare composition, in order to capture the startling effect produced by the sudden appearance of one these birds. Everything else disappears for a moment, and all that is left is this glorious, winged creature, and an overpowering sense of childlike wonder at the beauty of the natural world.