Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pelican, my favorite bird

61x46cm, oil on board

Finished my Pelican. It was hard to make up the pose..... the stuffed bird had a weird pose I couldn't use for the painting. I tried to make the pose as realistic as possible and payed attention to the bird's anatomy - there happened to be a pelican skeleton, where I could much better see how the wings work. Wings are kind of weird because they are arms and hands, although you don't see that because of the feathers. So a bird has a shoulder blade - kind of like us - and an elbow - which I think bends backwards in comparison to use - and a hand with fingers, or more like just fingers and no real hand, as in a palm. The "fingers" are the tips of the wings and birds use them much like we would point with a long stick attached to our finger. You can actually see this "pointing" action in pictures of eagles or hawks in flight. The tip feathers look like fingers, because the bird can point them like fingers, but really the feathers are just feathers and the pointing finger is the "leading edge" part of the wing.

Anyways something bad is happening in the background of my Pelican picture. Where he is standing things don't look so bad. There is a coin at the Pelican's feet, and in the context of the Pelican it is just another thing, like a rock or shell, but to us it has meaning ($$$$) and often leads to the bad things in the background.

Why is the Pelican my favorite bird? Back in California when I went surfing I would often see these guys flying about. They are amazingly graceful in the air. They like to skim the water really low maybe 10 inches above the surface. And they just glide, across the water, between the swell lines, hardly a wing flapped - beautiful, astonishing!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Walton Ford

Here in Vienna, there was a Walton Ford exhibit at the Albertina museum last year. He paints animals in an Auduban style, so watercolor, but really big! Some are more than 8 feet across. I got my kids to see the exhibit, and although there are some gruesome details in his paintings, my kids learned to really enjoy Walton Ford's paintings. He starts his paintings, he says, by reading something written down by a 19th century naturalist. So each painting has a story of sorts: a polar bear sifting about the human detrius (cards, candlestick, glass and pot) of a polar ship wreak, shown in distant background.

Or a panther escaped from a zoo and roaming the swiss alps, or a "domesticated" monkey, choking to death a pet parrot, while looking over his shoulder (at you the viewer) with a guilty, "who me?" look on his face.

The panther painting was exhibited in the royal palace rooms of the Albertina. It fit in perfectly as the story almost comes from the same era as the room (18th century). You could imaging the stuffy nobility milling about the room taking in the highly idealized pictures of a cavalry charge, or a nude nymph at a pool, and then coming across this lurking panther!

There is a really good story about the eagle painting above: a friend of James Auduban gave him an eagle, which Mr. Auduban painted from life for a couple of days. Then he needed to kill the bird and have it stuffed. He tried to suffocate the bird by putting it's cage in a closet and set a smoking fire below. A day later the bird was still alive, and just stared at Mr. Auduban. Mr. Auduban then put sulphur in the fire to make the smoke more noxious, he closed the closet door, but the sulphur smell filled the whole house, a tortuous day later he checked the cage again, and there was the eagle, still alive, staring out of the smoky, devilish fumes, as if to accuse Mr. Auduban. He then took a thin, stiff wire and poked it through the eagle's heart. It died. Mr. Ford choose to rewrite the story by showing the eagle flying free with broken shackles still on his claws, and smoke billowing from his nostrils. It's a super great image and a super great re-invention (or revenge) of the original story.

Sometimes Walton Ford's paintings verge into the extreme and bizarre, like: a huge writhing mountain of tasmanian tigers attacking sheep (the tasmanian tiger is more like a dog or wolf then a tiger). This painting has a local twist as the tasmanian tiger was long since hunted to extinction, but at the Naturhistorischemuseum they have a stuffed "tiger". Walton Ford came to the museum to make sketches from the figure. Cool, eh!

Saturday, February 12, 2011


61x46cm, oil on board

Finished my paradise bird. Not completely what I wanted, but it never is.... I learned a lot with this painting and it's my first kind of "old masterish" painting, using thin layers of paint to slowly build up the shapes, shades and colors, and careful pencil studies done in preparation of the painting. Next painting I'm going to use oil in the underlayers to add some more depth to the painting. I like my composition, the bird's pose which was made (I hope convincingly) from a couple different drawings of the real stuffed bird, and the landscape which I made up completely. I'm a little unsatisfied with the coloring of the sandstone or whatever it is. I do however like the darker cliff like part to the sandstone at the bottom of the picture. I think my bird is pretty enough, and proudly posed, and I like my pile of rocks. I especially like the rock with the squiggly white stripe which reminds me of a snake adding a little biblical quality to the picture, i.e. beautiful assumes ugly, good assumes evil, paradise assumes the imperfection of right now. The snake-in-rock wasn't planned but was a happy accident, which accidents always happen in a painting if you keep going for a certain feeling. I think the desert landscape also fits the sense of the picture, as its harsh plain beauty contrasts well with the rich luxuriant beauty of the paradise bird. Above is the full painting and closeup photographs, because although a painting is always it's whole self it is also, when you are looking at it, a collection of details (at least that is the way I look at paintings).

BTW that's a pearl next to the rock pile. I though I'd put something beautiful AND valuable in there to highlight the disconnection between beauty in it's non-tradable form (a sunset, a wild animal, a cool rock) and beauty that we can put a price on like a pearl, or a diamond, etc.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

New Years Eve (a little late)

A little late o.k. We had a wonderful new years night, all five of us walked down to Marie Theresa Platz outside the Kunsthistorische museum and viewed the fireworks. A pretty good view actually, and not at all crowded. We decorated masks and wore them for our walk. Felt a little like Halloween. We almost didn't go because the kids were whining about the cold, etc. But everyone was glad they went in the end!! That's the five of us in the lower right hand corner with our signatures below. Happy new year!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Stuffed Animals (paradisevogel)

various views of the stuffed bird

painting almost finished

side view of the bird, later flipped around for the painting

early stage of the painting

I made some detailed pencil studies of the stuffed animals in the Natural History Museum in Vienna (a wonderful museum in full on 19th century style). Somehow the birds attracted me, maybe because there is such a range or birds really - there must be almost one thousand different birds in the museum. I picked the paradise vogel, because it is really a most remarkable bird. I knew about the bird because I read to my children the Dr. Suess book about the vain bird who wants to have the longest, most pretty tail. She gets one, but then she can no longer fly. Well.... Dr. Suess apparently knew something about birds, because when you see the range of paradise birds out there, the length, elaboration, and raw ornamental quality of their feathers it makes you pause to think. As in... aren't birds meant to fly, and with this amount of superfluous feathering certainly not meant for getting into the air, is it anymore possible to fly? Isn't the point of the bird to fly? And that brought my thoughts to another point.... does everything really have to have a functional purpose? Can't a bird have elaborate feathers just to be beautiful? Doesn't beauty have a value, or does everything always come down to function, utility, survival? And then, what if we suppose beauty has a value, in and of itself, with no relation to function, just in itself, alone - beauty is beautiful because it is beautiful (not because it serves some other biological function). Well that is how I think about the paradise vogel! And she/he should be a standard to which we could aspire, no?

The painting mixes my interest in early renaissance paintings, specifically the way they depict a landscape, which is hardly visually accurate, but a kind of mixture between observation and idealization. My pretty paradise vogel is perched on a collection of real stones I've collected and for some reason unknown to me keep holding my interest. The painting technique is more old fashioned, done with thin layers of paint built up slowly (I am beginning to really like this technique!)

The pictures show a pencil sketch of the stuffed paradise vogel drawn in the museum, and an early stage, and a near finished stage of the painting. The finished painting will be posted soon.