George, the stuffed Passenger Pigeon has gone home to his drawer at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It was great getting to know him as he stared at me day after day while I painted his portrait. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end (literally in his case as an extinct species of 100 years). The process of creating this homage was well documented and gives me an opportunity to share how it works. Step one is covering the canvas with a solid color in acrylic paint, followed by a flat pattern. There’s no room for error with anything that’s added from this point forward because the next layer of painting is done in oils – if I did make a mistake, I couldn’t paint over it with the background color because you can’t paint acrylic (water-based) over oil. So I’ve developed a way to eliminate or at least minimize mistakes – before I continue painting, I draw the bird(s) that will go in the foreground of the painting on craft paper exactly posed and sized as I want them on the canvas. Then I carefully cut them out and lightly tape them in place. Now I use a color of oil paint similar to the background to trace the silhouette of the bird so I know exactly where everything goes. And then I paint it in with oils. I usually freehand the foliage and insects because a stray brush stroke of a flower petal is far easier to “fix” than any part of a bird. Sometimes I add a design in gold leaf, but I don’t think this one needs it. So there you have it – a finished “Passenger Pigeon on Mint.” Painting is still only one part of what I do. I’m also a textile designer and seamstress/maker. Just this week, Ben Saks of Float Pictures finished a video documenting my process from start to finish. So I will stop typing and let you watch. Enjoy!
My latest work-in-progress is highly atypical for me – not for any aesthetic reason, but because I loathe pigeons. This bitterness blossomed during my stint in London, where all pedestrians compete with these aggressive and plentiful nuisances for scarce sidewalk space. However, I’m challenging myself to get up close and personal with the urban winged pest in honor of the 100th anniversary of the extinction of a specific variety of the bird, the Passenger Pigeon.
The painting has taken me to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for visual reference material. Typically, I have access to their extensive ornithology collection. This time, I learned that there are limits when it comes to extinct species. Yet, I lucked out and was allowed to borrow a “crappy” specimen missing a tail and a patch of feathers on the breast. The mangled bird is temporarily sitting on my desk, staring at me as if to say, “it’s a good thing I’m stuffed lady, or I would peck your eyes out.”
Today, I drew the bird on paper at exactly the scale and position I want it on the board, which is already prepped with an intricately painted design. I’ll carefully cut the bird out of the paper and trace its outline onto the board before painting it in. In the end, it will loosely resemble the photo above (plus some variety of orange foliage and Darkling Beetles).
While I’m cohabitating with this creepy bird, it feels appropriate to name it. The very last Passenger Pigeon died on September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. The bird went by Martha, named after Martha Washington, American’s first First Lady. So, I will call my pigeon George, of course.
My personal bucket list includes “make a painting for the label of a bourbon bottle.” It may seem obscure, but I hail from Louisville, Kentucky, and bourbon is to Louisville what ketchup is to Pittsburgh.
Several years ago, I pursued this dream and tried getting my foot in the door with the big wine and spirits producer in my home town. No bourbon label came of it, although some fantastic alternatives unfolded. I dropped the ball, moved first to London, then to Pittsburgh, and, well, just forgot about it.
Then last year, the Brown-Forman Corporation contacted me to gauge my interest in contending for the commission to create a painting for the label of the 2014 Early Times Mint Julep bottle. Keep in mind, this is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby; over 120,000 mint juleps will be served the week of Derby at Churchill Downs alone. When I got the phone call informing me that I was selected for the commission, I started to look around the room for hidden cameras, thinking it must be a really mean prank that was being caught on tape.
It turns out it wasn’t a prank, and I did create the painting last fall (progress shots are below for your viewing pleasure). It has been very difficult not to talk about it until now, but thank goodness the word is out! Just yesterday (within one day of the press release), the bottle was featured on WDRB and Louisville Business First, and it got a quick blurb on Shaken News Daily.
This is just the beginning. I’ll be in Louisville the week prior to the big race, promoting the product at Dawn at the Downs and bottle signing events. I also hear talk of billboards and taxi ads. Pinch me, and cheers to checking things off the bucket list!
At the start of this year, I promised myself that I would stop going to such painstaking lengths to get the first layer of my paintings down, which is the pattern design. My rationale was that the end product would look just as nice if I freehanded the patterns, versus spending hours meticulously laying them out in advance. Yet, after four hours in my studio today, I once again found my workspace covered with a ruler, triangle, drawing compass, painter’s tape, grids, calculator and a handmade stencil. So much for my new year resolution. Old habits die hard.
Eventually, these two canvases will be a pair, each with two Blue Jays and a decorative band of 22k gold around the white design. In the spirit of my new series of birds with creepy crawly bugs and such, I would love suggestions on what insect to add. No spectacular ideas on the matter have struck me yet.
Kind of creepy, isn’t it? Wait until I add the Banded Garden Spider.
Don’t get excited. This isn’t a finished painting. It’s a Photoshop sketch I pieced together with one of my paintings-in-progress (the background of the purple, black and white textile design is my actual painting thus far) and images of three birds, one spider and the circular design. The latter will be in 22k gold leaf, just like the painting I posted last week, while the birds and spider will be painted in oil. All the critters will be rendered at their actual size, which for the Eurasian Eagle Owl means a whopping 23-30 inches. After staring at it for a while, I feel like I’ve set the bar a little high for myself. But I like a challenge!
My early attempts of applying gold leaf to my latest paintings is off to a great start. Even though, as you can see in this video, the gold is incredibly fragile. A mere sigh sends it flying into the air. It can’t really be picked up, moved or manipulated directly by hand. Instead, a fine brush loaded with static cling (called a gliders tip) gently attaches itself to the gold so the latter can be moved to the desired spot. It feels good to have a new process to master. This is certainly not like pushing paint around on a canvas.
My studio is beginning to look like the inside of a wallpaper sample book. Thumbnail photos of print designs are accumulating on the walls to inspire a new series of paintings I’m experimenting with. The next layer on this canvas will be realistic oil painting of birds and insects. I’ve posted a glimpse of another such painting that’s nearly completed. I think for this one I will be adding Anna’s humming birds, bees and wasps. Then, the final layer will be a little accent in gold leaf of a lace design. That will all make sense when I have a finished product to post.
I’m trying something new: gold leaf. After anxiously waiting for the glue that sticks the gold to the canvas to set, I successfully managed to apply a delicate design over this painting. I have to give credit to French Master Gilder, Joseph Youss Kadri, who has adorned wall and sculptures with gold in places as prestigious and the Louvre. He graciously gave me some tips in advance of today’s attempt. Thank goodness. I’m not sure I would have figured it out on my own on the first try without creating a messy disaster. The finished product will be up soon.
I’m feeling pretty good about the progress I’ve made in two days in my new studio. My latest move to Pittsburgh, PA has inspired me to do a series of paintings of bridges in the three cities my husband and I have lived in together (Cincinnati to London to Pittsburgh). It feels liberating to be painting in an enormous room versus a London-sized sardine can. I think I can get used to this.
Leave it to me to be inspired by coffee, eggs and pancakes. With a scene like this, I have legitimate reason to be at Square Cafe for “visual research.”