New Painting Debut! “Precarious”- Carolina Parakeets

Precarious 16x11" oil on canvasboard

Last November, I wrote a post about a very special commission I’d received to paint the extinct Carolina parakeet, the only¬†psittacine that was native to North America. I’d planned to write more posts about the project as it went along, but decided that I needed to concentrate on the numerous steps it took to get to the finished work you see above.

“Precarious” is for a new book on parrots that has been written by a retired University of California professor. She had found that there were very few images available and wanted a new one. Her brief to me, which informed my concept for the painting and the direction my research took me, was to “show what has been lost”.

The majority of paintings of these wonderful little parrots that I was able to find show them in bald cypress swamps which were, in fact, one their habitats. But what intrigued me was finding out that their range stretched from Florida to southern Ohio and from the east coast to what is now Missouri. So that gave me a large area to choose from.

I also learned that large flocks would come zooming into apple and peach orchards and that they were considered a pest at times.

I decided to place my birds in the Ohio River Valley and to put them in an apple orchard. Further research showed that Rome Beauty apples originated in Ohio before 1851, so that is the apple I chose to portray.

Imagine, then, that you were a farmer’s wife in 1870s Ohio and had a little time between chores to get a cup of coffee, sit at your kitchen table and look out over your apple orchard. Suddenly, a flock of 500 or more rollicking, chattering, colorful Carolina parakeets come wheeling in, landing in your trees. What a sight that would have been. And that’s what’s been lost. Forever.

The finished painting will now be digitally scanned for use in the book. The original will be returned to me. Stay tuned because plans for forming for celebrating the publication of the book that involve “Precarious”. The publication date hasn’t been set yet, but I’ll let you know as soon as I do. At that point, I’ll post the story of the painting step-by-step.

Carolina Parakeet Drawings For A Painting Commission

I spent a day last week at the Ornithology Department of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, doing research for a painting that I have been asked to do. I’ll write more about this project as it goes along, but this was a necessary first step.

Readers of this blog know how uncompromising I am about seeing my subjects in the wild and how much doing fieldwork feeds into an animal artist’s paintings. In this case, however, no matter how much money I was willing to spend or how far I traveled, I wasn’t going to see this species in its native habitat for the simple fact that it has been extinct for almost 100 years.

The Carolina parakeet was the only member of the parrot family native to North America. Although the passenger pigeon is better known, this very colorful bird also originally was seen in enormous flocks in a range that covered most of the eastern United States from the Atlantic to Florida to Ohio and west to Kansas. They were shot for their feathers, meat and because they were considered a pest, as they liked grain fields and orchards.

And now, except for specimens in museums they’re gone, all gone. Forever.

So my only option was to do my fieldwork at one of those museums. I was going to be in New York for a Society of Animal Artists board meeting and was able to secure access to the rare and extinct bird collection at the AMNH. The room is locked and every drawer in it is locked. After all, there won’t be any more specimens collected of any of those species. I spent all day with two drawers of fifty skins, plus a number of mounts, measuring, photographing and sketching them. And marveling at how beautiful they were.

Now back at home, I’ve started to do drawings in graphite to learn what the birds look like. I will have to rely on the understanding, accuracy and competence of the taxidermists of the AMNH who prepared, preserved and mounted them. I hope to get permission at some point to post some of my photos, but for the time being what I can share is the art that I’m creating from them.

Carolina parakeet studies from taxidermy mounts
Carolina parakeet studies from taxidermy mounts

I will be working with a few colleagues who specialize in painting birds to ensure that I get their structure and body positions as correct as possible. I will also be consulting videos of a couple of similar species to see how they move and behave. This is a challenging commission, but one that I know will be very rewarding.