I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of an artist to capture the essence of a bird in a simple illustration. How can they possibly convey so much detail about the life of an individual bird in a two-dimensional sketch or a watercolor? I’ve been in the field many times with John Schmitt, who writes (and illustrates) the Naturalist’s Notebook column in Living Bird, and have peeked over his shoulder as he created yet another instant masterpiece in his field notebook. I could only shake my head and frown at the cartoonish representation of a bird I’d drawn in my own notebook.
I had a chance to spend a few hours with John as I was working on my new book, Imperial Dreams, about the Imperial Woodpecker of Mexico. I was visiting several museums and bird collections to examine and photograph specimens of these spectacular birds, and we arranged to meet at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California.
John is no stranger to the place. He’s been using the Western Foundation’s specimens for years (long before it moved to its current location) to ensure the accuracy of his artwork as he works on field guide illustrations and other projects. As he went to fetch a couple mounted Imperial Woodpecker specimens for me, I thumbed through his sketchbook. I was stunned to see a pencil sketch he’d done of a male Imperial Woodpecker in the collection. The bird had been collected more than a century ago in the Sierra Madre Occidental of northwestern Mexico.
John’s sketch is a lot more lifelike than the withered old bird skin that lay before him as he drew it. And the specimen did not have a spread wing. John meticulously measured the length and the amount of white on each feather to recreate the wing accurately. Looking at the sketch now, it looks like it’s ready to fly off the page.
John uses his study sketches as reference material later when he creates watercolors, often adding other birds and habitat details. To view a completed illustration of a group of Imperial Woodpeckers by John Schmitt, see my blog post, “Imperial Woodpeckers of the Sierra Madre.”
To me, John’s illustrations of birds like the Imperial Woodpecker—which he has never seen and indeed may be extinct—are far more remarkable than those he’s done of the living birds he’s observed in nature. It takes a lifetime of bird observations, close-up study of specimens, and a giant leap of imagination.
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