Whistling Ducks | Richard Tiberius & Kiry Tiberius

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.

Whistling Ducks detail
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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.

Brown’s Creek, Late Summer | Richard Tiberius

24 x 17 in. | 61 x 43.2 cm

Trees in the Northeast of Canada and the US present a dramatic show of leaf colors in the fall. This show is so spectacular because the various species of trees turn color at roughly the same time. But if trees are stressed, for example by growing too close to the water, they may begin to turn color early. I made this painting based on a canoe trip down Brown’s Creek in late summer when only a few of the trees close to the water, mostly red maples (Acer rubrum), had turned to their fall colors.

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Although red maples are very tolerant of wet soil—they can even survive having their roots submerged for short periods of time—too much water stresses them. This ability to tolerate flooding gives the red maple an advantage. It can colonize swampy areas ahead of other species. One of the common names for the red maple is “swamp maple.” But too much water exacts a price. When trees are stressed, they can shut down food production and lose their green chlorophyll, which usually masks the other pigments. The result is this unusual landscape, a soft green backdrop studded with brilliant red color of the maples, a composition that drew my attention.

My wife Joyce and I have navigated a canoe down this winding creek many times. It’s a tricky run because there are lots of rocks and water logged stumps to steer around. But It is always beautiful and full of surprises. Once we startled a deer who lifted her head from the bank where she had been drinking. We have seen ducks, songbirds, great blue herons and even a beaver. Wildlife are unaccustomed to seeing people on this creek because most of the year it is not navigable.

All along the length of the creek were semi-aquatic shrubs like swamp roses (Rosa palustris), high bush cranberries (Viburnum trilobum), Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale) and Button Bushes (Cephalanthus). The tall pine trees (Pinus strobus) on the left and the boulders in shadow framed the composition urging the viewers to imagine themselves paddling quietly through into the sunlight.

Little Island on the Jacques Cartier River | Richard G. Tiberius

24 x 30 in.  | 61 x 154.9 cm

This is a third painting based on my early spring trip to the Jacques Cartier River. I described this place before, in connection with my second painting of the River, entitled “Jacques Cartier River, Morning Mist”. This painting is based on a part of the river that embraces a little island. The location of some yellow birches (Betula alleghaniensis) near the water provided an opportunity to show their structure.

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I was fortunate to catch this very short period, when the scales of the leaf buds have opened but before the leaves have opened. In another few days leaves would pop out but, on that day only the redish, coppery colored leaf buds were visible. Multiplied by tens of thousands, they clothed the mountains with a soft reddish glow. The Bebb’s willows (Salix bebbiana) and alder trees (Alder rugosa) in the foreground are also decorated with with reddish catkins, the downey flower spikes that look like caterpillars hanging from the twigs.

The balsam firs and red spruce trees (Abies balsamea and Picea rubens) helped define the distances of the mountains. As the distance from the viewer increases, the trees appear smaller, increasingly bluer, and more faded.

Jacques Cartier River, Morning Mist | Richard Tiberius

21.8 x 30 in.  | 55.2 x 154.9 cm – oil on panel, painted with knives

This is my second painting of the Jacques Cartier River based on the early spring trip I took to the Jacques Cartier National Park in Quebec. The combination of golden bark of the Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) with the dark greens of Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) and Red Spruce (Picea rubens) was irresistible. The low contrast lighting gave the colors a softness that is not present in direct sunlight.

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This phase in a tree’s life lasts no more than a few days each year. Despite the weather—cold, wet and overcast—I was fortunate to be there at that time. Perhaps if I had called the ranger station before booking my flight I would have missed this exceptional period. Besides, my spouse, Joyce, was born and raised in Quebec City and she loved being back home.

The Jacques Cartier river flows through the Jacques Cartier National Park, in Quebec, Canada. I have been to this park before, at roughly the same time, early in May, but at that time the trees were already bursting with new leaves. This time the winter held on longer than usual. Most of the trails were “fermé” (closed).

Bison in Yellowstone National Park

36 x 24 inches | 91.4 x 61 cm

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.”

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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.

Three Ibises on Driftwood (sold) | Kiry Tiberius & Richard Tiberius

34 x 24 inches | 91.4 x 61 cm

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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.

Rocky Mountain Juniper | Richard G. Tiberius

48 x 30 in.  | 121.92 x 76.2 cm

Rocky Mountain Junipers (Juniperus scopulorum) are readily available from nurseries in the Western states, but they don’t look like this one. Nursery trees are usually cultivars, selected and pruned to a single trunk and compact form like Christmas trees. Most of the naturally growing specimens in the semi-arid Southwest, where I found this tree while hiking, were much messier but also shrub-like. Their small size is not surprising considering their slow growth rate. An average 80-year-old tree is only 18 feet (5.5 m) tall. This one was closer to their maximum height at 30 feet. I could easily walk under its lower branches. It could have been over 300 years old. Only a tree of its great age could have the twisting and arching form of the branches and trunks that I found so enjoyable to paint.

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The other feature I found attractive about this tree was its complexity. It had not been tidied up. The small dead branches that curved through the canopy in bright arcs and the grey stumps of fallen branches would surely have been pruned off if it had been in a garden. One of our dinner guests, after looking at this painting for a long time, made this single comment, “It looks very dry.” His comment was very gratifying. It confirmed the impression I was trying to create. The shrubs and other plants in the foreground are typical of the region, growing at a distance from one another out of competition for water. And the pines peeking out over the hillside are pinyon pines, another drought tolerant group. Although Rocky Mountain Juniper grows in moist environments in its northern range, along the west coast of N. America from British Columbia, its super power is its ability to survive in the semi-arid regions of Arizona and New Mexico where it receives only about 10 inches (254 mm) of annual precipitation.

Three Trees with Pale Bark | Richard G. Tiberius

24 x 30 in.  | 61 x 76.2 cm

As a painter of trees, I’ve earned a reputation among friends as someone who can help identify them. One of the common confusions is between trees that have pale bark. Distinguishing aspen (Populus tremuloides) from white birch (Betula papyrifera) is particularly difficult because they both have smooth, light-colored bark. North American beeches (Fagus grandifolia) are less often confused with the other two but it does happen, especially when the normal grey bark of the beech takes on blue reflections from the snow, as in this painting. Aspens exist in a range of colors from yellowish and greenish shades to almost white. The bark of the aspen in this painting is one of the greener tones. White Birch also show a range of colors, although their variation is more restricted. Some are chalk white, but most are off-white, with shades of ochre and pink.

Close-up of Three Trees with Pale Bark to show detail
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I smiled when I ran across this group of trees on a hike through a northern forest. There they were, all three of the species that have pale bark, providing a perfect opportunity for me to contrast the differences in paint. It was a lucky sighting because mature beech trees do not usually grow in close proximity to birches and aspen. Birch and aspen are the first to rapidly colonize newly opened land that has been burned or clear-cut. Usually beech arrive much later, growing slowly in the dappled light that filters through the loose canopies of the birch and aspen. Conversely, in a mature beech forest, you rarely see birch or aspen, which are too intolerant of shade to grow under the tight canopy of the beeches. I did not have to exaggerate the colors to make the point but tried to render the colors faithfully as they appeared in the several photographs I had taken. The differences in the colors of the bark even surprised me when I saw them beside one another in the painting.

Spruce Forest in Acadia National Park | Richard G. Tiberius

40 x 24 in | 101.6 x 61cm

The Spruces are tough trees. Their superpower is surviving harsh conditions like extreme cold, wet, snow, and wind. Such conditions exist at high elevations or regions close to the poles. Elevation divides plants into what Botanists call “belts,” each belt consisting of types of plants suited to conditions at that elevation. Spruce trees can thrive at the very highest belt in which full sized trees can grow, from about 9,500 feet (2900 m) to 11,500 feet (3500 m) in the Rocky Mountains and 4,500 feet (1372 m) in the Alleghenies of Tennessee and North Carolina. Latitude separates trees in a similar manner. And spruce trees thrive at lower altitudes in far northern regions.

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Acadia National Park is in Maine, at the 44th parallel, a latitude at which there are many broad-leaved trees. And the highest point in Acadia National Park is Cadillac Mountain is only 1530 feet (466 m) high. I was therefore surprised to find a spruce forest there. However, it is a rocky peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic where it is slammed with storms. And in such conditions, spruces have an advantage.

In this scene that I have painted, the extreme wet conditions are obvious from the heavy encrustation of lichen on the trees and the pillows of moss covering everything. The lichen and blue-green mosses provide a striking contrast to the yellow streaks of sunlight, creating the artistic theme of the composition.

It was particularly satisfying to make the bark on the trees and the mosses with a painting knife. I skipped the knife over the panel to make the bark stick out like shingles. And, using the edge of the knife, I cut thousands of grooves into the paint to make the moss look soft.

As for the species of spruce, the needles were too short for red (Picea rubens) or white spruce (Picea glauca). They were more likely black spruce (Picea mariana).

Great Blue Heron | Kiry Tiberius

40 x 30 in | 101.6 x 76.2 cm

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.

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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.

Tri-colored Heron | Kiry Tiberius & Richard Tiberius

40 x 30 in / 101.6 x 76.2 cm

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.

Click for detail.
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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.

Showy Primrose | Kiry Tiberius

48 x 30 in / 121.9 x 76.2 cm

The blossoms of the showy primrose (Oenothera speciosa) are about the size of a golf ball, roughly 1.5-2 inches (3.8-5.1 cm.) Here I have painted them much larger than life—more like the size of dinner plates. By enlarging them, I hoped to provide the viewer with the impact these bright and delicate flowers have when you lie down among them. The petals are soft and silky. They start out white in colour, and grow pinker as they mature.

Click for detail
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From this close up perspective the viewer can appreciate details that are often missed. For example, in the left-hand corner of the painting, you can see big chunks of yellow pollen that have fallen from the stamens onto one of the center flowers and the bud. I imagine this is the perspective taken by Alice in Wonderland when she talked to the flowers.

These showy primrose flowers were growing wild by the side of a road in Ennis, Texas, but you can see them almost anywhere in the States since they are native to 28 of the lower 48 States. The grasses that are growing up between the flowers are a sure sign that these flowers were not in a garden, at least not one that is tended by a gardener. I kept all of the grasses in the composition just as they were by the roadside, except for one, which was growing in a particularly bad place for the composition. A photographer might have pulled it out. I just didn’t paint it in.