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Birdwatching Part 2: Art

Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 in Art, Nature Study

After Christmas I had three ideas running about my head: poetry, art, and birds.  We’ve enjoyed all three of them together this spring.

You can read more about our bird study and see our list of resources in this post.

Here are the artists we studied and the projects we explored.

John James Audubon


  • Audubon’s Birds of America-This is a wonderfully small book filled with Audubon’s Illustrations. It’s about 5×5 and I was lucky to find it at a used bookstore.  Audubon’s Book of Birds was not originally published in America due to it’s size.  He painted the birds life size and he wanted the book printed that way as well.  I haven’t seen the full-sized book yet.  Check with your library to see if they have a copy.
  • The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies-A beautifully illustrated picture book.  A great introduction to the artist.
  • A Nest For Celeste by Henry Cole: We follow the kind-hearted mouse, Celeste, as she befriends John James Audubon’s assistant.  She has many adventures with the birds that are captured for Audubon’s drawings and in the surrounding fields.  As wonderful as the characters are in this book, the black and white detailed sketches really bring the story to life.  We kept our bird book on hand so that we could look up pictures of the birds as they entered the story.  A great companion to study the of birds, mice, and/or John James Audubon’s art.
  • On the Frontier with Mr. Audubon by Barbara Brenner-I just came across this book at the thrift store this week.  It’s a fictional diary of Joseph, Audubon’s assistant(who is the same Joseph in A Nest For Celeste mentioned above), and it follows his journey with Audubon from Cincinatti down to New Orleans.  We’ve enjoyed the chapters we’ve read so far.
  • Audubon’s Birds of America Coloring Books(Dover)-This came with a science program we didn’t finish last year.  I’m not a big coloring book fan so we didn’t use it a lot.  Your family might really enjoy it though.

Art Projects

I didn’t plan Audubon specific projects, as far as imitating his exact style.  But we did focus on realistic bird depiction first.  So we did a lot of sketching from real birds and photographs of birds in our bird guide once the bird flew away.

Great Blue Heron, 10 year old

Red-Bellied Woodpecker in Bird Sketchbook, 8 year old

Black Ink with Watercolor

  • Collect some books from your own collection and the library with good-quality, close-up photography of birds.
  • Choose a bird to sketch.
  • First sketch your bird along with a part of his/her habitat in pencil.
  • Trace all lines with a fine sharpie.  A thicker sharpie will work as well if the details are not too small. We like to have both sizes on hand. (Make sure your pen is a permanent marker so that it does not bleed with the next step).
  • Using watercolors, fill-in your picture.  You can also use watercolor pencils and then smooth out the color with water and brush.
  • Black ink outline and watercolor make for a quickly rewarding piece of art.

Black-Capped Chickadee, 8 year old

Goldfinches on Branch, 10 year old-Don’t you just love the repetition of color and pattern?

Oil Pastel Outline with Chalk Pastel Color

This project produces such vibrant colors!  Chalk pastels can be messy but they work really well in this project so don’t skimp on them and only use oil.  I went ahead and bought a pastel fixative to prevent further spreading of the chalk, I’ve read that you can use hair spray as well.

  • Collect your books with great bird photography.  You can also do a google image search and find photographs if you don’t have books on hand.
  • Sketch the outline of your bird and habitat with a black oil pastel.  That’s right skip the pencil.  Go boldly with your pastel.  (If your child is frustrated that she can’t erase and fix something in her outline, you can decide if she can switch to pencil.  You might give her the chance first to transform her oops into something she likes.)
  • Fill in your bird, habitat, and background with chalk pastels.
  • Trace all lines again with the black oil pastel.

Hummingbird, Mama

Bluejay, 10 year old

Red-winged Blackbird, 8 year old

Charley Harper

I found this artist by accident while looking through the clearance at Barnes and Noble.  I found a coloring calender and fell in love with his work.  Like I mentioned, I’m not a coloring book fan, but I had to bring the calender home.  Harper is a great contrast to Audubon.  He calls his work minimal realism. “I don’t try to put everything in-I try to leave everything out. Wildlife art without the fuss and feathers.”

His titles include a play on words followed by a tongue and cheek description of the subject. “Beguiled By the Wild” includes an interview that I read aloud to the kids.  He speaks of how he first learned to draw realistically down to the very hair and how everyone should learn to draw that way first before taking things out.  A good principle to reinforce with the kids.

Charley Harper-Ish Art

Today we tried a Charley Harper Inspired Art Project-I decided to try collage with shapes in order to preserve the defined lines present in his work.  I’d also like to try a printing project, I haven’t decided how yet.

  • I cut out basic shapes(I flipped through his prints to see what shapes he used most often) from cardstock.  Different sized circles, thin crescents, triangles, teardrops, and leaf shapes.
  • I told the kids to pick their bird and the color of their background.  Using acrylic paint we painted our background.
  • Then they looked at photographs of their bird and decided what shapes they needed.  (We didn’t look at Charley Harper’s version of their bird, I wanted them to decide on their shapes based the actual bird, just like Harper.)
  • They used the pre-cut templates and traced them onto various papers.  I have a lot of scrapbook papers collected, you could use construction paper or cardstock. I encouraged them to cut a new shape if they needed it for their bird but  if it wasn’t already cut for them.
  • They pasted their bird to the dry background.  One child took a ruler and added lines to the wings in the style of Harper.
  • Finally, if your child is old enough they can try their hand at creating a clever title and/or paragragh.

Barn Owl, 6 year old (He chose the shapes from the template, I helped him trace and cut them, he painted and glued)

Sky Dive-Not from a plane and not with a parachute and especially not for fun. This falcon is diving for his lunch!”
Age 8

The King Who Fished with His Crown On, Age 10

Part 3 of my Birdwatching posts will be on poetry.

Bring on the comments

  1. I love Charley Harper’s art! (Far prefer it to Audubon.) And what a fun way to let your children try this style. I’ve already had many art ideas percolating for next year with B. A has only done them under duress this year, but B will be a whole other story. I think we’re going to start by making clay seals in ancient Sumerian style… I’ve been thinking on how to make it work.

  2. Jimmie says:

    Very thorough post! Thanks for giving me the heads up on my lens. I will certainly link up. (I would’ve seen it eventually, though. I subscribe to your blog. Love your ideas.)

  3. aimee says:

    Hey Jimmie. I added your bird quiz lens to my post. And I’ll go add the Audubon lens as well!

  4. aimee says:

    You should get some Charley Harper from the library Shannon, he’s a great find. A handful of his stuff is too geometrical and line driven for me, but the rest is so fun and inspiring.

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