Q: Who were your major artistic influences?
A: This is not the question I’m asked most often, but it is the one of the ones I most like to answer. But I also have to acknowledge some non-artist mentors and friends, some artists, some not, who are now gone, but were very important to me during my developing years. I would name the late Dr. J. Murray Speirs his ebullient wife, the late Doris Huestis Speirs. They showed great faith in me during my awkward youth. Murray was a professor at the University of Toronto, and when illness forced me from both school and my dreams of an ornithology degree he nevertheless invited me to join some of his students, most especially Dr. Ronald Orenstein, who remains my close friend to this day, to join him on field work. Murray was a complete ecologist who instilled in me a respect for accuracy in making estimates in numbers of organisms seen, and to look for the interrelatedness of all that was part of the environmental whole. Doris taught moral virtue, not always learned, by outstanding example. As an artist and art patron she was the first collector and patron to show faith in my own burgeoning abilities. Unlike so many art experts, she had no bias against birds and other wildlife as subject matter, nor against realism. The late John A. Livingston, as he evolved his own attitudes toward the environment, was, and remains, a great influence on my own thinking. I now wonder at how James L. Baillie and Lester L. Snyder, both of the department of ornithology at the Royal Ontario Museum, put up with me as I combed the bird collection and spent endless hours in the library, pursuing my fascination for birds and natural history. I was a museum brat. But most of all I have to acknowledge the support of my mother, Phyllis E. MacKay and, later in life, my great aunt, Ruth E. Freeman, both gone now, but they made it possible for me to live a life dedicated to my burning interests in art, the environment and animal welfare.
As a kid, and through my teens, I thought of bird artists and illustrators the way most youngsters think of sport or entertainment heroes. But I felt isolated from most, either because they were before my time, or lived elsewhere. I briefly met George M. Sutton and Guy Tudor, but otherwise I only personally knew two. Most influential was T. M. Shortt. He worked at the Royal Ontario Museum and he never failed to inspire me with his talent. The other bird artist who I came to know and who kindly gave me endless hours of kind advice was Roger Tory Peterson. He gave generously of his time to provide me with a sense of security and encouragement in what I was trying to do while also giving me a better sense of the problems and issues facing those who illustrate birds.
But I was most inspired in my actual painting by certain artists who, in distinctive ways, seemed able to illustrate birds and other animals with biological accuracy while still displaying a strong artistic bent. Later I hope to write an essay on the general influence on the artists who first most influenced me, Allan Brooks and Louis Agassiz Fuertes. They, along with D.M. Reid-Henry, G.M. Henry, Sir Peter Scott, Don Eckleberry, Francis Lee Jaques, Walter A. Weber, George M. Sutton, George Lodge and a handful of others all producers of art that often held me transfixed. They were unto me as entertainment stars and sports champions are to other kids, my heroes. To their ranks were added others, some my peers, some younger than I, who still inspire me in my own work.
Finally, while my inspiration come from those and other artists, including artists who never painted a single bird or wildlife species, I always sought to make my own path, following the advice Terry Shortt gave me to not worry about style and it would take care of itself.
Q: How long does it take to do a painting?
A: The late Canadian bird artist J. Fenwick Lansdowne was once asked this and gave the only possible answer, which was that the time it took amounted to the actual drawing and painting time plus all the years of practice and study that preceded the actual time spent on the final drawing. I started drawing when I was three, and, unlike Lansdowne I was no child prodigy, just blessed, or cursed, with an intense desire to draw everything, but especially birds. All the decades of practice I have had are behind each finished work, which is why my work continues to improve, or I believe it does. It’s been suggested that apart from a few geniuses such as Mozart, to do anything well in the arts requires ten thousand hours of preliminary training, and that is a due I’ve long since paid, whatever the results. A final painting often is preceded by lots of research, a lifetime’s gathering of pictorial and other reference material, perhaps the obtaining of models or field trips and some false starts. I don’t keep track of the actual time spent drawing or painting any given work, and often get up and walk around during a session of painting. Some paintings are quick, and can be done within a few days, even a few hours, others I work on for weeks, and some I come back to many times over a period of months, or even years.
Many paintings require a lot of preparation of the ground painted on, and often, when using acrylics or oils, I have painted over a painting more than once, the first often in just one or two colours, and then later filling in more colour. It all takes time and the last thing I worry about, or think about, is how much time? I tend to go into a near trance during many parts of a painting, and discover I’ve worked several hours longer than intended, but I also try to pace myself, and not paint for more than four or five consecutive hours.
Q: Did you really start at age three?
A: My late parents said so, and I do remember watching birds out the window of my maternal grandparents’ home in Agincourt, and scribbling on paper, when I lived there, and that was up to age three, at which time my grandparents moved. I supposedly did an identifiable Belted Kingfisher on the back of a bedtable at that age, and I still own a painting of a Golden Pheasant done when I was five, and signed later, when I knew how to sign my name, so my mother could put it in a frame.
Q: Why birds?
A: I literally don’t know. Certainly for no reason I know I find birds to be inherently beautiful in form and structure, colour and balance. I paint other things, and enjoy doing so, but there is something especially pleasing to me about the way birds look, about the nature of light and shadow on plumage, the arrangement of colour and pattern and the contoured form of them that I find immensely pleasing to look at, and therefore feel compelled to pay tribute to through the application of art. I wish I had a thousand lifetimes, and so could paint all the birds in many different ways and also feel I had the luxury of time to paint mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, landscapes, architecture, people and all the other wonderful images that fill each day that I would love to examine through the mechanism of my art. But I prioritize for the most part, although the time spent painting non-bird subjects is also rewarding.
Q: Why don’t you do more prints, like other artists?
A: Well, chances are by “prints” you mean mechanical reproductions. These have been successfully mass produced by some artists whose subject matter is more or less similar to my own, and if they do paintings that find favour, the costs are more than compensated by sales.
Many of these reproductions are signed and numbered limited editions, meaning other reproductions will be made, but not signed and numbered individually by the artist. The practice mimics the art, or craft, of print-making, which is quite a different thing, whereby each print is individually produced by hand, by the artist, and the signature is supposed to signify the artist’s approval of each print. The numbering signifies that after the series is done, the blocks made to create the prints are destroyed, leaving nothing else…there is no original that can again be copied in any way.
I have done a few signed and numbered limited edition reproductions (I don’t like to call them “prints”) mostly for charities, and I do recognize that they make the image derived from the original painting widely available to people who cannot afford the original (while, if successful, driving up the value of the original painting, itself, beyond what most people can afford), and I have no quarrel with the artists who choose this method.
But I don’t have to or wish to go that route and I simply feel more comfortable with the fact that my art is mostly only available once, as a single original, and yet highly affordable. My needs are such that I can live comfortably without receiving huge amounts of money for each original.
I also fear that by investing in reproductions (as I admittedly have done in a very limited way, but mostly for charities) I will be driven to recoup that investment through sales, meaning I have to paint not necessarily what I want to paint, but what is most likely to be bought by the general public. Many of my paintings of are little known species of birds and other wildlife not native to North America, and thus the originals are often unlikely to sell. Also, I like to experiment and sometimes to paint quickly, with rather casual backgrounds, not always trying to create a “blockbuster” that will have wide appeal, but something that I do because I enjoy doing it, or trying it. A lot of my paintings don’t turn out all that well in terms of their appeal, and yet doing them was part of the endless process of development.
Q: Do you copy photographs, or what?
A: I get asked variations of this question a lot. It is a hard one to answer succinctly. There are “wildlife” artists who literally copy photos, indeed, they will even pose an animal in the background they want, and take a picture of it, and then slavishly copy the picture. This is not “cheating”; it’s not that easy to do, and it is really only an extension of what many people, myself included, think was done by many of the Old Masters…artists who lived well before the invention of the camera, and yet painted with amazing fidelity. The theory I and others hold is that they, many at least, used a camera lucida, an early device that greatly predates the camera and that allows the user to project an image in front of it onto a surface, such as a canvas, although the image is reversed as it passes through lenses. This, the theory goes, explains why so many figures are left handed in the painting…the image, being reversed, makes a right handed person look left handed. It also explains how artists were able to blur objects receding into the background in the way optical devices do, but unlike what the human eye perceives.
But to me it, and modern versions taking advantage of cameras, takes much of the fun out of the process of producing the final product.
And yet I do use photos…thousands of them…for references. Nowadays the internet is a great source of pictorial information. I rarely actually copy a photo directly, and then only parts of one that I, myself, have taken, and because a sufficient amount of other visual references don’t exist for me to use. And even in those rare instances, probably well less than one percent of what I produce, I draw from the photo; not copy or trace it directly. But I also use preserved specimens. These are stuffed skins kept in museums for scientific study and are not the least bit life-like, but they also serve the artist by providing direct measurements of actual parts, such as the beaks and feathers, and small details of colour and pattern on the plumage, so long as the artists understands their limitations. My sketches, notes and memories further aid me, of course.
Q: But aren’t you an animal protectionist?
A: Yes. But in a way my need for specimens explains why. When I was a child my hero and mentor was the late T.M. Shortt, in my opinion the finest bird artist and illustrator Canada has ever produced. He worked at the museum and when my mother first took me to meet him I was so young that my feet didn’t touch the floor when I sat on a chair in his office. But I had been shocked earlier when I had seen him portrayed in a film, shooting a bird to be preserved as a specimen. Oh, I ate meat and wore leather and all that, things I would later give up, but at age eight or nine I really didn’t want to be directly responsible for killing animals. Shortt showed me the museum’s collection of preserved bird specimens and it turned my life around. I realized that I couldn’t fulfill my ambitions to accurately portray birds without becoming fully familiar with them, and that included dissecting them and using specimens for my art. I read about the great artists I so admired…Fuertes, Brooks, Sutton, Weber, Peterson…all used study specimens and many were collectors, as well.
I taught myself to prepare specimens in the museum style, and at 16 learned to shoot, and obtained a federal permit to allow me to shoot birds to be preserved as specimens.
But I quickly ran into a problem. My mother was a pioneer in wildlife rehabilitation, saving birds, and our home was filled with birds. I found that at first I couldn’t bring myself to shoot a species that I was familiar with through her work, a species I had come to know individually. From there it didn’t take long to realize that all birds, all organisms, had a self interest in survival. And yet I needed specimens, and so I became adept at finding dead birds. “Stop the car!” became a familiar shout as my mom or dad were driving when I was a kid because I had seen a bird on the edge of the road. If it was alive and could be saved, we would do so, if dead, or so badly hurt that it could not survive and had to be euthanized, I would use it for sketches and preserve it. My mother obtained a bird banding license and this increased the number of birds that I actually handled, but there was a mortality rate connected to bird banding that didn’t justify the returns, in terms of information acquired, in our opinion, and my mother stopped banding and I never got a banding license, again not standing in judgement of those who do band birds.
I started actively searching for dead birds, and that search brought me to realize the horrific problems birds and other wildlife faced. And most of those problems were anthropogenic…caused by humans. That applied not only to the wonderful wildlife I was coming to know on such a personal level, but domestic animals, too, including livestock and laboratory animals. I saw, and indeed, took part in, the enormous effort could go into trying to save individual animals, one at a time, in comparison to the huge injustices done to vast numbers of animals on a daily basis, most of it legal and sanctioned socially, but not, in my opinion, morally defensible, especially when alternatives existed. I still use specimens, some collected over a hundred years ago, and I won’t stand in judgement of others and other times, but for me there is no need to kill and no discrepancy between the value of those specimens in much of my artwork and the work I do to protect animals.
Q: So are you an animal protectionist, an environmentalist, or an artist?
A: All three. I wouldn’t want to live without being able to do the art, but neither could I live with myself if I could help animals and failed to do so. Ultimately however, the environment is everything, the basis of life and commerce and survival. Passions drive me and these are my passions