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Why I Paint Birds (Or How I Feel about Portraiture)

December 14, 2018
Guinea Fowl pen and watercolor sketch on 300 lb. Fabriano Artistico 8 x 10 inch journal card. Drawn from life at the Minnesota State Fair 2018. (I am always happy when I can exercise a little restraint and not go too fussy!)



People have all sorts of involved, ecological, and philosophical reasons for drawing and painting birds. Years ago, participating in a group show of nature art I was faced with writing an artist’s statement about why I paint birds. I thought long and hard. I was an outlier at the show because all my bird paintings depicted what ecologists call invasive species. I wrote something about being an urban girl, being an observer, being interested in nature in unlikely places. But that doesn’t quite cover it.

Basically I simply love birds. I find birds beautiful. I find that even stationary, even leg bound, they float because of the nature of, and the promise enclosed in, feathers.

Ultimately I paint birds because wherever I have traveled there have been birds as subjects for me to sketch. My favorites have always been the scruffy urban birds, the pigeons and the gulls —the chancers, the immigrants, the survivors, the individuals.

It’s why my bird paintings are portraits and not full taxonomic renderings. In most instances I’m not interested in the body, the feet, the environment—I’m interested in the individual, and you know an individual by looking him in the eye.

What we desire, whether it is connection with other, relation through the examination of shape and value, the visceral understanding of form in space, or absorption in beauty, as artists our predilections come out in our art. The viewer might not understand what it is they are seeing in exactly the way we intend it, we can but try.

As I type this in my studio I look up and see eleven of my bird paintings hanging around me. One is sleeping, eyes shut. Let’s leave him undisturbed, he needs his rest.

But the other ten birds regard me, with unembarrassed, unrelenting, steady, and unwavering gaze—a gaze which follows me wherever I go in the room. (A little something I call alternately “the eye of god” or  “the gaze of Christ.” Something I learned from all those childhood visits to museums where along with all the secular art hung centuries of western Christian art—it didn’t matter where you dodged in the halls, the gaze of Christ was always on you.)

The act of seeing and acknowledging is one of the most profound activities humans get to engage in. It’s what helps us achieve connection. It’s what holds us to our humanity because in acknowledging the gaze of another we are forced to look at ourselves in relation to that other. From there it’s just a step towards the issues of ethics which bind and form us, creating the basis for an examined life, and the politics of life demanding a decision on how we want to “be” in the world. A gaze which ultimately has the power to call us to action.

Yep, just some birds I met upon the way.

Detail of this post’s image.
    • Barbara Obergfell
    • December 14, 2018

    Thank you for this post. It does seem to me that in this “seeing” birds there is a opening to the “soulfulness” of this other equally unique to our own as well as a glimpse of something we humans are not but in the act of “seeing” can recognize as lovely; this is both humbling and expansive.

    1. Reply

      Yes Barbara, it is always humbling and it’s a good thing to be humbled every day in the face of such beauty and being. It does grow us, just as drawing grows us.

    • Joe Domeier
    • December 14, 2018


    I started my bird watching when I was about 11 or 12. You and I should compile our lists. I don’t only mean seeing a bird and checking it off the list. I mean watching them. I raised pigeons and chickens. Hours of entertainment watching them interact and communicate with each other.

    Love the Pea Fowl!


    1. Reply

      Joe, I didn’t know you raised pigeons and chickens!!!! And that you watch birds. I started early too, and moving to Australia at 10 just solidified it because Australia was (I hope still is) a wonderland of birds. My dad used to play golf very early in the a.m. before going into work and he would take me and later drop me off before school started. While he golfed I would go to the hole where there was a huge bend in the Yarra river and sit and sketch 10 different types of ibises in one sitting. So wonderful! And of course a ton of birds who were used to golfers and others, just hanging about and around me. (Parts of my childhood were exceedingly great!)

    • Julana
    • December 14, 2018

    Interesting post, Roz. I have become interested in Orthodox iconography over the past few years, and have read a related response to icons, especially to the Christ of Sinai. So much of Orthodox is “come and see.” I guess the unspoken corollary is “and be seen.”
    (For me, the implications of being regarded are religious, rather than political. The Christ of Sinai is often seen as having an eye of mercy and an eye of judgment. Still, as you say, it can be an impetus to moral action.)

    1. Reply

      Julana, I’m not a religious person so the relationship to the religious paintings only has significance for me in a historical context and in an art-technique context—I use that “eye of god” in most of my bird portraits and there is quite a dance at the end of the painting session when a painting on the easel is being tested and I’m dodging back and forth checking the gaze. But historically the importance of the religious paintings I viewed as a child have always spoken to me as vehicles for the artist to get the congregation to come into some sort of connection with the subject. And how that is used and how it inspires the viewer has always been interesting to me. Whether it inspires religious connection or political action (my early childhood religious training was always closely aligned with political and social action as the responsibility of the faithful—Church of England, Usefulness in Ministry was the school motto, translated here from Latin). The wider evolution of portraiture and its draw on or movement from the trappings of religious art, to impart some sense of the divine into the portraits of Kings and also the move of the gaze from religious to political to personal through time in portraiture is also something that I’m very interested in. But perhaps we can never escape those early days when the boundaries of religion are first set up for us and for me it was already inextricably linked to the political and social, what action are you going to take today? How are you going to be a force of good in the world? How are you going to welcome “other” into your life and world? These questions all have religious, political and social ramifications and I think it’s important that art makes us think about them. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

    • Hanson-Bergstrom Nancy
    • December 14, 2018

    WHOA girl! that was SUBLIME! what a nudge for all of us to take in what is already there, just waiting to surprise and delight us …….if we allow…

    I will set my intention today on SEEING and deepen into it…. MANY thanks for the reminder my dear!

    1. Reply

      Thank you Nancy, for letting me know that this was helpful to you. I hope you had a good day “seeing.”

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