From the time I was old enough to understand what a paint brush was for, I loved the work of Glen Loates. This famous Canadian wildlife painter has a talent for creating animals that are so lifelike you can almost touch them, and yet, his work still manages to retain that “painted” feel.
My favourite pieces were always the ones devoid of backgrounds. There’s something so striking about a beautifully rendered bird, moose or beaver depicted with just enough flora to ground the painting — without burying it in a shallow, two-dimensional grave.
As a kid pouring over my Glen Loates books, I thought, “I wish I could paint like that.”
So when I was commissioned to paint a cardinal in 2009, the first thing that came to mind while pondering an interesting composition were those wonderful Loates pieces I had spent years admiring.
It only took one of these to get me hooked. It’s not even a very good one, if I’m being honest. But after I saw that cardinal painted, framed and matted, I knew I had to do more. I quickly envisioned having a whole series of birds eventually.
The following year, I painted my favourite feathery creature: The chickadee.
Titling my painting series “Feathered Fauna”, I had hoped to find the time to paint a new bird every year. That, sadly, didn’t happen. What I did do in 2010 after the chickadee was completed, was make a short list of the birds I most wanted to do next.
So last year after I finally put the finishing touches on my Bride of Frankenstein painting, I decided it was the perfect time to dig out my birdie wish list and get installment #3 of my Feathered Fauna series on the go.
The next bird on my list was the beautiful Baltimore Oriole.
Pretty hard to ignore these little guys! They’re such an explosion of colour. We don’t have Orioles this far north, so I’ve never seen a real one. But the old illustrated Orioles I was used to seeing in bird books sometimes seemed so unnecessarily drab-looking that I’m not surprised I ranked it next on my list to be painted by colour-loving me.
In North America, there are at least 9 species of Oriole: In the East are the Baltimore (or Northern) Oriole and the Orchard Oriole. The Scott’s Oriole and Bullock’s Oriole can be found in the west. Central Florida has its own unique breed — the Spot-breasted Oriole. And in the southern states and Mexico are the Hooded, Altamira, Audubon, and Streak-backed Oriole.
While the Baltimore Oriole isn’t quite as brilliantly plumed as the Altamira Oriole (whose head is orange, not black), to me, he is the most handsome variety.
After some research (which included looking at hundreds of photos of Orioles, studying their range of colours and shapes), I was ready to design my painting. Composition is so important. It’s not just what you put into a painting, it’s how you arrange everything. You want something that’s visually appealing, but it still has to make sense.
I decided to pair my Oriole with apple blossoms. It made sense for the bird, but I also knew the soft white/pink flowers were going to complement him — if I deepened the pink, they could stand on their own beside the Oriole, but not compete with him for attention.
This painting, which I began in July 2016, took a little longer than expected to complete. Summers for me involve a lot of outside work, including cutting all the winter wood, so I don’t get as many opportunities to paint as I’d like.
Here’s how the painting progressed over a 5-month period. The blossoms were first.
I always say that when painting, if you want to save yourself some time, you should work from back to front. That is, paint objects in the background first and objects in the foreground last. This eliminates the frustration that comes from having to paint around an area that’s already been completed. It allows a certain level of messiness, which ironically gives your final layers of paint a smoother, less lumpy appearance.
This meant that before putting the final touches on the leaves of the lower blossoms, I painted the Oriole’s legs and feet, as they are partially obscured. Had there been any messy over-paint from the feet, it would have easily been covered by the paint on the leaves. Had there been something more complex and detailed than leaves in front of the bird, I would have started with the feet before ever putting a drop of paint on the leaves. But this is what I love about the method of back-to-front painting: It ensures that all your lines and edges are sharp, clean, and seamless, with minimal work to get them that way.
With the flora completed, I could now focus all my attention on the bird itself. This involved many, many thin washes of colour to build up that brilliance in the orange of the feathers. (Sorry, not many progress photos — the sections of this painting actually came together very quickly, as you can tell from the dated gallery above.)
It’s worth pointing out that once again, I employed the back-to-front painting technique. Bird feathers themselves are layered, with some lying on top of others. It was important to paint the bottom feathers first and paint the top layer of feathers last.
This Baltimore Oriole painting was completed on January 2, 2017. I wish that technology was better able to capture the colours more true to life, but such is the plight of the artist! The above image is an actual scan used for prints, so it’s… well, close enough.
I gave the Oriole the same framing treatment as the other two Feathered Fauna paintings, and I think he turned out wonderfully!
I did hit a slight snag during the framing process that I hadn’t expected. Back when I bought the frames for my chickadee and cardinal (the cardinal I have is a print of the original commission), I bought extras, knowing I wanted to continue the series.
Once the painting was completed, I found the frame okay and an appropriate matte, but when I went to put the matte in the frame….. it was too big for it! What’s going on? Turns out the frame was identical to the others but it was a slightly smaller size. I swore up and down that I had another of the correct size frame, but it was nowhere to be found. So I cut down the matte to fit this smaller frame (hissing and spitting to myself the entire time) and all was right with the world again.
Annnd let me note that a few days later, I walked into my bedroom and for no reason at all, I suddenly became instantly aware of a picture that’s been hanging right next to my bed for years now. It’s a print of Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas”. I look at the picture every day. What I didn’t notice until that very moment was that it was hanging in the frame that I had bought for my Feathered Fauna series. -_- *sighs* So, at least it turns out I wasn’t wrong after all about having the correct size frame somewhere! ;P
I did paint quite a few birds in 2015, though none of them were for my Feathered Fauna series. I was commissioned to paint some northern birds on a paddle, and this was the result.
I have a few other paintings in the works right now, but I do hope to return to the Feathered Fauna line sooner rather than later. Painting the Grosbeak, Blue Jay and Partridge on the paddle has made me think that each of those birds deserves its own painting at some point too.
Years ago, after viewing some of my wildlife paintings, someone paid me the highest compliment, saying that I was better than Glen Loates. While I fervently deny that statement is true (though I certainly wish it was!), Loates’s work has had a tremendous influence on my work as an artist. And I will definitely keep striving to be the talented painter he made me dream of being as a child.