By Bob Bahr
For years, New York State artist James Coe accurately rendered birds of all kinds for publications and guides. Then, in 1998, he went cold turkey.
“For about three years, I only did plein air paintings,” Coe says. “Then I tried to put the two together.”
You can guess the first obstacle Coe encountered. He remembered painting landscapes on location from his days at art school, but those plein air pieces begged for an impressionistic approach. How could he reconcile that style with his technical skills at painting birds? Coe says that is indeed a challenge he had to confront—how to find “a consistent way of handling paint when putting a bird into the landscape.”
“It was a struggle at first, finding some way to integrate the birds into the landscapes,” he says. “Plein air landscapes are impressionistic, they seek to portray a sense of light. And I was used to making the surface of the bird look like feather, not paint. So when I started introducing birds into oil paintings, the challenge was not over-rendering the bird in relation to the landscape around it. It was a constant issue 10 years ago, and it still is a little bit today.”
Luckily, he has children. And children speak their mind. “My son would say, ‘Dad, it looks like it was pasted on.’ He would call them ‘pasties.’ This is in part because he saw me draw the bird on a piece of paper and put it on the composition in various places to see where it would belong.”
So Coe, the author of a Golden Field Guide (St. Martin’s Press) for Eastern Birds, transitioned into a new era of art for himself. Early on, he scored a significant show in Canton, Mass., at the Museum of Modern Bird Art. His tight illustrations of birds were upstairs, and his more impressionistic scenes of birds in their natural settings were downstairs. “It’s a wonderful venue with really fine work, so I was very pleased to get a solo show there in 2002,” says the artist. Now, Coe is intent on painting the places where birds appear, and convincing other animal artists of the importance of setting.
“That will be the underlying principle or premise of my presentation at TexArt,” says Coe. “There is so much emphasis on the animal. Some animal artists get a good reference or drawing of an animal, and the setting becomes somewhat secondary when they are painting the piece. My approach has evolved to the opposite. I find a scene that interests me, and I paint it on location. If it is strong enough, I see it as a larger painting. In the larger painting, I ask myself what bird would be appropriate to give some life to that scene. My wildlife painting has become landscapes with birds in them.”
“Ultimately what I’m trying to get is a painting that evokes the kind of experience I have when I am out birdwatching,” Coe continues. “The bird is important, it may be the focal point for me, but that’s not what it looks like out there. Instead, I see the landscape. I hear every bird and see the landscape. Sometimes I’m not sure what bird to put in. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right spot for the bird.”
“Part of the issue that I have confronted is the issue of scale,” says the artist. “You occasionally see this in unsuccessful paintings: a big landscape behind a little songbird on a branch. I integrate birds into paintings in a way that limits the assortment of birds I can put in. Because I’m working on a landscape scale, I have to use birds that show up in that larger landscape. That means herons, ducks. Only a more intimate painting can use songbirds.”
The play of light in the natural world means that birds are often silhouetted. Or, distinctive colors are poorly lit, and birds don’t pose perfectly. “A lot of times you have to subdue the colors,” Coe agrees. “One painting I’ve been working on for a year is a long eared owl in a snow scene. It is silhouetted against the bright snow all around it. Even for the earthy rust and rich browns in the bird, the chroma is too much for the snow scene around it, with all the cool and warm greys, so I have to keep knocking down the color on the bird. You have to let go of what you know about the local color of the bird and see it as it looks in the landscape. You just can’t paint the bird as you know it to be. You must let go of that. But if you see it as shapes of color, it just paints itself. You treat the bird the same way you would paint any element of the landscape. It’s a matter of subduing their color to get them integrated into the landscape.”
Coe assures us that some things will never change in his paintings. “They are always ornithologically correct. But one can’t be too focused on the wildlife and become good at rendering feather and fur, but not have the confidence to paint the surroundings. You need more than the subject matter. A successful painting must work from edge to edge. You really need experience painting landscapes. That would give you the confidence to render the rest of the scene around the focus: the animal subject.”
The switch toward an emphasis on the setting has had some surprising effects, including a reevaluation of certain birds. “One of my least favorite birds to render were ducks,” Coe said. “I really did not like painting ducks. But I just finished a painting of mallards… and am going to start another painting of mallards! They are very appropriate for what I want to paint: wetlands.” Ω