Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I had an opportunity to visit the LA Natural History Museum the other day with a birding friend of mine who volunteers there skinning bird specimens. Now before you get freaked out, let me explain. In the old days of birding, birds were shot and taken as specimens because photography was either not available or not practical and they felt specimens needed to be taken for study and to confirm species. Although I don't entirely agree with that practice, the specimens from over 100 years ago are nonetheless still tucked away in many museum drawers, and it is quite a boon for an artist. Shooting birds is against the law now, and today the birds are brought in by people who find them dead or they die in zoos. They are then frozen until they can be skinned and preserved.

While my friend skinned the Royal Tern we found injured last week that later died, I had access to the collection of skeletons and bird skins to sketch. It is a amazingly large collection and kind of bittersweet to see the birds reduced to small boxes filled with their tiny bones. But what a wonderful opportunity to be able to look at them and really see what's inside a bird!

The above bird, A Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus), was one of the birds I wanted to take a closer look at as I was intrigued by the structure of the bill. I did some sketches of it from all angles to get a better sense of it in three dimensions. I was surprised to find a definite ridge on the top of the bill (maxilla). It was a great exercise drawing it and I will be able to use what I learned when I do a painting of one of these birds.

As can be seen by the Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) skin above, I have a way to go to get this bill right. I orignally did this sketch from a photo, but I missed the bill shape. It's a real challenge to draw it and not get it too upturned, but that slight upturn is what distinguishes the nuthatch bill. Boy, this specimen was old, too--from 1887! The colors were real faded but it was amazing to see how well preserved it still was.

This Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) was a study in pure research. We ran out of time and I didn't get a chance to look at any skins at the museum, but I went to the Cornell website to read its natural history. Then I looked at a lot of different photos to study bill shape and to see how the feathers lay in patters over the bird. And the irises were a surprise--dark brown, rather than black, which ultimately really made this image come alive when I painted it. (The actual size of the painting is 3 1/2" x 2 1/2" and I used a #000 brush for some of the detail.)

I used to rush through a drawing or painting and not really consider much what I was doing; I only knew I wanted to paint a particular bird. Sometimes they turned out okay, but mostly they didn't. And I think it was because I was careless and lazy, and didn't take the time to know the subject. I think getting older has made me a bit more patient and willing to slow down!

By taking the time to study bird anatomy and their natural history prior to drawing and painting, it enhances the work and makes it more interesting rather than a rote experience. Along the way I am learning more facts about each species, which adds to my enjoyment when I see them in the field.

[I listened to Green Isac and the soundtrack to The Last Samurai while painting the jay photo last night]


Tabor said...

I have had no professional training in the arts, but for a few years sketched sea shells as I was fascinated with both their architecture and their patterns.

You are very successful because you do have a good eye and have learned the patience.

I remember visiting the Bishop Museum in Hawaii(behind the public area) and was fascinated with the drawers of specimens!

Linda Navroth said...

I have the eye, but the patience has really helped guide my hand. My drawing has improved a lot lately. I've also found that drawing has made me notice even more things on birds than I used to see, like the coloring on the lores, eye ring, the bill, etc. These little areas are often the key to a postive ID on some of the more difficult birds, such as sparrows. And wow, was it ever cool seeing all that stuff in the museum!