Painting birds often involves long periods outside, in all kinds of weather and at all times of year, but it's a job I feel privileged to have. One of the difficulties in capturing an accurate sketch or painting of a bird is their sheer dynamism. Granted, herons, swans and many of the larger birds are generally slow-moving, and offer extended opportunities for the wildlife artist to capture a portrait on paper, but the smaller songbirds tend to be fast-moving. Many are skulking and some, like the Goldcrest and Wren, are so tiny and quick that a glimpse is all that may be obtained. Nevertheless, a few pencil lines here, then a few more from another brief glimpse, and the image can be pieced together and gradually built on.
I am often asked if I use photographs, but I find that paintings done from photos can be stiff and lifeless. I've seen photos of friends or family, where the frozen instant, that photographic split second, has made their facial features seem so odd that it is difficult to recognize them. With bird portraits it's the same. The few sparse pencil lines, if done well, can portray the bird well. The fruit of long experience of the species and its postures movements and looks, a good painting will capture the character and vitality of a bird
Photographs do provide a useful reference for the minutiae of bird plumage and structure. How long a particular feather is in relation to other ones etc? What colour are the claws? Just how much white fringing was there on the wing feathers? This additional accuracy in the detail can add the final stamp of realism if the image demands it, but only if the character of the bird has already been imposed on the painting.
Spring is a great time to paint birds. Not only are the birds in pristine plumage, but the males, in particular, are at their showiest and will often sing from exposed perches for a considerable time. Many of my best views of Wrens, for example, have been in Spring, when they emerge from dense cover into the open and start proclaiming their territories. With so much bird activity in Spring, the source of artistic activity is endless. A Chaffinch on a flowering hawthorn; a Skylark singing constantly, hovering high over sand dunes, a Blackbird singing from an apple tree. The dynamism and energy of Irish birds in Spring is inspirational in every sense.
Who is not captivated by the sheer exuberance of a dawn chorus and the energy of birds defending territories and raising their young. As a wildlife artist, I can only hope to capture a tiny part of this frantic activity, but the inspiration and energy required to paint is as vibrant at this time of the year as the dawn chorus itself. Go, hear and see it for yourself! You too will be inspired!
Michael O'Clery graduated from NCAD in Dublin. He illustrated The Complete Guide to Ireland's Birds, which was a bestseller. Michael's work features in journals, books, magazines and in private collections around the world. He lives on the Dingle Peninsula.