Goatsuckers Redux


Chuckwill’s widow, drawing and reference skin

Oklahoma’s been officially declared a Disaster, so I think we’re back to normal. Here at the Motmot Ranch we have power and water again, and I’ve been working on a couple of paintings: one new commission and one I just brought home from the gallery, looked at with a fresh eye (I’ve never been happy with it, to tell you the truth) and attacked it with gusto and much more pigment. It’s an all-new painting, and when it’s a little farther along I might even post it.

In the meantime, I’d like to return to the Goatsucker Plate Project. Last post, I was fine-tuning the rough sketches. This meant face time with museum skins, and the advice of a team of experts in the field of bird art- Jim Coe, Mike DiGiorgio, Barry Van Dusen and Cindy House.

First step was putting a sheet of tracing paper over each rough sketch. With the skin in front of me, I could examine the feathers closely. With study skins, however, the feather tracts do not lay out as they do in a live bird- they get smoothed together. Working from reference photos and field studies are helpful here.

Whippoorwill, skin and first drawing

Whippoorwill, first draft

The first Whippoorwill drawing needed a lot of refining in the wing and head. My expert team weighed in with detailed notes on the wing, the head, the bill, the eye. A lot of stuff was unresolved, perspective-wise. Some of these things you don’t see until you start painting. I wanted to get everything fixed well before then- watercolor can grant some reprieves, but nothing beats getting it right at the outset.
Whippoorwill, second drawing- note the changes to the wing and head

Common Poorwill, drawing on tracing paper over original rough sketch, and museum skin for reference
When the drawings were at the point where we were all reasonably satisfied, I collected a little habitat material (read: I went outside and picked up rocks and leaves) to add some visual context for the birds. I played with page layout as well. I could have painted each bird as a separate piece and had the graphic artists at Bird Watcher’s Digest place them onto the plate, but in the end I decided to do all three birds and the tail detail studies on one sheet. After all, it’s the traditional way.

7 thoughts on “Goatsuckers Redux

  1. Felicity says:

    I’ll have to visit often, I just love your pencil work! This might be a silly question but I wonder where do you find these birds to work from and I’m curious as to how they are preserved?

  2. zeladoniac says:

    A good question. The birds used here are “study skins”, not taxidermist’s mounts. They are are prepared simply with wings tight shut and legs crossed under the tail, stored breast-up in rows in museum drawers. The older skins are preserved with arsenic, so the museum provides a box of latex gloves for the user’s safety. I’ve been permitted access to the bird skin collection in the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, for which I’m really grateful-it’s a wonderful collection and really useful for scientists AND artists alike.

  3. Amiria Gale (@AmiriaGale) says:

    Hi Debby,
    I am an artist and art teacher in New Zealand. I have just featured one of your beautiful bird drawings in an article I have written about creative use of media on a blog I write to help A Level Art students. I hope you don’t mind! I have linked to your blog (if you click on your drawing it takes you to this page). Please let me know if this is okay – I am happy to remove the image if you would like.
    Thank you 🙂

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