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How Do We Pick The Subjects For Our Art?

June 5, 2017
Mixed media sketch (8.5 x 11 approx. on Nostalgie) using brush pen and green Uni Posca marker, followed by acrylic paint markers, watercolor, and color pencil. There’s a little bit of pink gel pen in some areas, but it wasn’t showing up so I went in search of other tools; oh, and a bit of red-china marker.


My childhood was spent in many places, amidst many cultures. Something I always found, wherever I was—birds.

It didn’t matter if we were in Switzerland and it was pigeons on the city window sill, in a Fijian village where chickens were scratching for survival, or an animal sanctuary where Emus had perfected the ninja stealth necessary to reach over your shoulder from behind and nab some nuts before you noticed—there were always birds.

When I was a preteen I learned a cousin was raising budgies. When I was a teenager a friend’s dad raised homing pigeons. My own father, who doesn’t care for birds let me have my own budgie while we were in Australia.

I do not think you can live in Australia for more than two weeks without becoming a fanatical bird lover. The variety of species—especially midsize waterfowl and larger (always easiest to sketch from a distance) confuses the young mind into believing sightings will always be bountiful. But perhaps I was simply too far gone by the time I reached Australia.

I associate my “careless boyhood” with all that lies on the banks of the Stour. Those scenes made me a painter and I am grateful—that is, I had often thought of pictures, of them before ever I touched a pencil. 
—John Constable
(English painter 1776–1837)

Detail from the above painting, in which you can see some of the various media.

I know that from the first window-kill bird I found at age 6 I was already imagining pictures of birds. I know the time spent beside the Yarra River and in the open, undeveloped land that stretched away from North Balwyn turned an interest into a yearning.

Even today, when I roll into the driveway I will almost always stay in the car and look out at the birds in the hedge in front of my parking spot. Small birds—chickadees and sparrows. Sometimes a flash of red as a male cardinal chases down his mate. I’ll pull out my journal and a pen and start to sketch.

What is it you are always moved to paint?

    • Paul
    • June 5, 2017

    What a spectacular multimedia extravaganza, one of my favorites of your poultry portraits!!! I have been drawn to nature, from the microscopic to the landscape since my childhood wanderings on the Atlantic coast to the boreal forest in northern Ontario, Canada.

    1. Reply

      Paul, you’re funny. I have to start getting ready for the Fair, what will I take…
      What a great childhood memory. I’m so glad you’re following through on that with your study of landscape in photography and painting!

    • Lynne Bennett
    • June 5, 2017

    Roz, I live in the beautiful bird-filled Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne but grew up in Mont Albert probably around the same time as you lived in North Balwyn. The urban sprawl has taken over but here in our area, known as The Patch we enjoy the antics of a huge variety of native birds visiting our garden and taking advantage of our bird baths. I love trying to sketch them.

    1. Reply

      You live in one of the most beautiful spots ever!!!! I’m sorry to hear about the urban sprawl where I lived, but hey, I knew it would happen. I’m so glad that you are taking advantage of the bounty by sketching!!!!!!

    • Frank Bettendorf
    • June 5, 2017

    We have lots and lots of interesting birds here in the Northwest of Washington State everything from the disliked Starlings to the gorgeous Yellow Finches that seem to love hanging out in our willow trees, but the parading Crows are my favorites. Some walk like a sailor trying to get rid of sea-legs while others walk with an eye to the ground in search of food. Just makes me laugh!

    1. Reply

      Crows are a favorite of mine too Frank. I can watch them for hours. In the evening thousands fly back to the tall trees on the sides of the Mississippi River Gorge just a couple blocks away. I work over and watch them settle in for the night. They PLAY!!!!!

    • bilby
    • June 5, 2017

    Ever get transfixed by one bird or one scene to the point of the exclusion of every other, for awhile? Like Cezanne’s mountain or Georgio Morandi with his “19 little objects.” I know watercolorists that stick closely to self portraits and one who has a beautiful mountain of their own, that they explore in tremendous depth. I find myself working on a “landscape scene” over and over sometimes. Not sure if it’s my OCD, or just desire to get it perfect. But I do see a good bit of “series works” that demonstrate a tremendous level of imaginative exploration.

    1. Reply

      All the time. I have picked special “friends” at every zoo and aviary I’ve ever been to on a regular basis (which is a lot). I try to prepare myself for their passing but it’s always a shock. For me series work is always about looking again, and I hope, more deeply. A way of saying hello. Scenes, not so much. I love going to certain places but I’m not really a landscape person, though I have more to write about this in a few weeks.

    • Tina
    • June 5, 2017

    Just last winter we got a bird feeder to hang in a tree near our kitchen window. I don’t know why we never thought of it before! I have so much fun sketching (or trying to) the chickadees, finches and juncos that regularly feed there. We’re about to take it down for the summer, but I’m looking forward to putting it up again in the fall.

    And this is a fantastic portrait! What an amazing bird!

    – Tina

    1. Reply

      Tina, I toy with getting a bird feeder but we have a lot of loose cats in the neighborhood and a hawk that nests in a tree adjacent to our property. I feel it’s sort of like a salt lick for pulling in deer for hunters in this situation. But the big reason I’ve resisted is that I don’t know if I would be dependable filling the feeders and that concerns me.

      But I’m always fascinated when I go to my friends’ houses where they have feeders—suet for the woodpeckers, sugar water for the hummingbirds. Seeds, it’s always amazing to see what comes and visits. I’m so glad that you do this for the birds.

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