Passenger Pigeons and New Zealand Bush Wrens
I have followed the work of Ghosts of Gone Birds with interest for some time so I was delighted to have the opportunity to get involved with the Brighton show, despite living so far away! It was only when I was sent the list of extinct birds to choose from that I suddenly wondered how I was going to go about the task of depicting them.
For me, the starting point for any piece of work is usually making drawings in the field. I tend to draw from life and a day out with my sketchbook, binoculars, waterproof trousers and a hot flask of coffee is the normal way in which I would begin a project featuring a particular bird or birds.
So, the first task was to find birds on the list that might bear some resemblance to British species that I knew well and had already drawn – if I wasn’t going to be able to draw them from life I wanted to at least have some familiarity with their general form. Pigeons and wrens began to look likely. A bit of further research and I discovered that the National Museum of Scotland – a stone’s throw from my flat in Edinburgh – had a number of important extinct bird specimens.
My plan was to focus on the North American Passenger Pigeon. Part of the reason for this is that one of my favourite British birds is the wood pigeon. I love to see flocks of Wood Pigeons in the British countryside and I had read about the amazing flocks of Passenger Pigeons before they became extinct. The colourings of the male Passenger Pigeon was similar to our Wood Pigeon – the breast a bit redder. The tail was much longer on Passenger Pigeons – I couldn’t find any distinct images of them in flight so in my print the flock of birds in the distance are shown as simplified shapes.
I managed to find a male and female on display in the museum and promptly made a number of drawings of them. I chose to depict two males in my print, for no other reason I’m afraid than I preferred the colouring of the male! I was fascinated to read about the behaviours of these sociable birds, Audubon wrote an evocative passage in his write up of the Passenger Pigeon about a flock of them arriving in a forest – he compares the noise they made upon arrival to the sound of a gale and then describes branches collapsing all around under the weight of hundreds of birds. Elsewhere I found a description of the sky going black as a vast flock of these birds flew over.
I hope my print does some justice to the memory of this fascinating bird and reminds people to look again at the flocks of Wood Pigeons we see in this country now.
With no intention of doing more than the Passenger Pigeons, my eye was caught by the fantastic New Zealand Bush Wren specimen on display in the adjacent cabinet at the museum. I have never been able to resist wrens – they are such compact birds. I love their shape, with their square tails pointing upwards and trembling rhythmically when they sing. So, some drawings were made and I was happy to translate these into the print which depicts these ground-nesting, almost flightless birds crouching under some fern-like forms. I was captivated by their lime-green colouring and of course that familiar shape.
Notes on Monotypes: Monotypes are unique prints. They are made by inking up a perspex sheet. My prints are usually made up of two or three layers. The first layer is the bright colours, rolled out broadly and abstractly on the surface. The second layer is usually one dark colour which I make my drawing into – rubbing away areas to reveal the colours of the print underneath. Sometimes a third layer is required to complete the image. Working in layers allows colours to come through from underneath and unexpected colour relationships to occur – it adds a richness to the image.