By Bob Bahr
One morning at the TexArt workshop SKB organized in Kerrville, Texas last May, James Coe led a birding tour through the Kerr Wildlife Management Area. Not surprisingly, the group of artists that joined him spread out far and wide. Most were wildlife artists familiar with birding. But in part because of the wonderfully uncontrollable nature of artists, the group was unwieldy and generally unsuccessful.
Most of the artists gave up and returned to the campus of Schreiner University after an hour or so. The remaining birders stuck close to Coe, followed his lead, and saw the two extremely rare birds that the Kerr WMA is known for: the black-capped vireo and the golden-cheeked warbler.
Some of the artists who left early saw some interesting birds, including a painted bunting and a zone-tailed hawk, but watching the dynamics change when the first group left had me wondering, how do artists go birding differently than birders?
I asked two people who love birds: Coe, the SAA artist and SKBer who wrote and illustrated a field guide for Golden Books, and Kim Diment, an accomplished painter of birds (and other animals) who ironically spent much of the birding morning sketching the birders in action.
Diment, the observer of the observers, is prepared to talk about how artists approach birding. “The artist is going to have a camera, because you are hoping to capture an image of that particular animal,” she notes. “Artists also get excited about the location. A birder is excited to see the bird, put it on the list, maybe document what it was doing.”
It’s impossible to say whether Coe is first and foremost a birder or an artist. He’s watched birds since he was a boy, so maybe he is at heart a birder. Coe acknowledges as much. “If there are birds I haven’t seen before in a location, that overrides everything because I come from that hardcore bird listing background,” he says. “But it can be difficult. When I was in Israel I had a constant conflict. I was seeing new birds, but the whole reason I was there was to collect information for paintings. I was constantly photographing in that case because I was looking for photo reference. When birding, I don’t use the cameras as much. With the camera I was thinking, ‘This is the background for a bird painting.'”
Diment concurs. “The artist will record information around the bird,” she says. “I know the vegetation will be in my painting later. These aesthetics make it more interesting, so people will enjoy seeing the painting. When I’m doing a painting, I am always concerned about lighting and color, so I try to get photos of a bird in great light. I am going to sit and wait and wait until I see the gorget on the hummingbird to make it more exciting in the painting.”
The birder is interested in a bird’s behavior, but the artist needs to learn the bird’s behavior in order to accurately depict it.
“Each bird is a unique life form,” Coe says. “Its behavior is unique, or it’s similar to its relatives, and you pay attention to that. I am always thinking about things like how it tilts its head. I’m trying to get to know the bird.
“Ultimately if I end up painting that bird, that is the information I have to recall,” he continues. “If you don’t know the birds and you only work from photographs it can really throw you off. The camera can catch something that is not typical. You could pick a photo you like and it would not be a typical pose for that bird. It would not express the character of that bird, and is not a piece of reference that could help you. I see that a lot, when artists use their photographs to do a bird painting and they are trying to figure out how to position the legs. If you haven’t watched a bird for a while to see its central balance and how it pivots on its foot, it will not look natural. That only comes from watching over time. You have to look at lots of references to get a feel for a bird. The best scenario is when you have one individual bird from one session seen from several angles or in several poses.”
What’s Coe’s pro tip on doing this field work? “Put out a friggin feeder and watch how the birds move, how they stand, how they lean over. That’s how you get to know birds, by watching them in a crash course.”
Both Coe and Diment say that the way to be a better birder and a better bird artist is to put in the time and effort and watch them. “I have a history and know most birds,” says Diment, “but when I see something for the first time, I follow it and follow it and learn a lot—just by following the bird around. Then I research it; I find out all I can know about it. Then I will be able to show the behavior of this particular bird and also its habitat. That is the more scientific part of a good wildlife artist. The setting should be flattering to the bird, and you should also show some interesting behavior by the bird.”
For Diment, the art isn’t just for art’s sake. It’s also for the bird’s sake. “If I can get sketches of this beautiful bird and then develop a painting of it, other people may see the bird in a show, a magazine, etc.,” she says. “That will publicize it more than a birder can do. Also, if it is an endangered species, it may put that animal in the public’s mind and it may help the animal. Maybe make other people intrigued about its beauty, and what it does. Maybe it is an unusual behavior that gets them, like the woodcock’s mating ritual, or how it cares for its babies. It’s about bringing the outdoor world into exhibitions and museums—indoors–and exposing it to more people.” Ω