“Mr. Audubon’s Account of his Method of Drawing Birds”, Edinburgh Journal of Science, Vol VIII, No. I, January 1828

Art. IX. – Account of the Method of Drawing Brids employed by J.J. Audubon, Esq. F.R.S.E. In a Letter to a FRIEND.

At a very early period of my life I arrived in the United States of America, where, prompted by an innate desire to acquire a thorough knowledge of the birds of this happy country, I formed the resolution, immediately on my landing, to spend, if not all my time in that study, at least all that portion generally called leisure, and to draw each individual of its natural size and colouring.

Having studied drawing for a short while in my youth under good masters, I felt a great desire to make choice of a style more particularly adapted to the imitation of feathers than the drawings in water colours that I had been in the habit of seeing, and, moreover, to complete a collection not only valuable to the scientific class, but pleasing to every person, by adopting a different course of representation from the mere profile-like cut figures, given usually in works of that kind.

The first part of my undertaking proved for a long time truly irksome. I saw my attempt flat, and without that life that I have always thought absolutely necessary to render them distinguishable from all those priorly made; and had I not been impelled by the constant inviting sight of new and beautiful specimens which I longed to possess, I would probably have abandoned the task that I had set myself, very shortly after its commencement.

Discoveries, however, succeeded each other sufficiently rapidly to give me transient hopes, and regularity of application at length made me possessor of a style that I have continued to follow to this day.

Immediately after the establishment of this style, I destroyed and disposed of nearly all the drawings I had accumulated, (upwards of 200,) and with fresh vigor began again, having all my improvements about me.

The woods that I continually trod contained not only birds of richest feathering, but each tree, each shrub, each flower, attracted equally my curiosity and attention, and my anxiety to have all those in my portfolios introduced the thought of joining as much as possible nature as it existed.

I formed a plan of proceeding, with a view never to alter it very materially. I had remarked that few works contained the females or young of the different species; that in many cases, indeed, those latter had frequently been represented as different, and that such mistakes must prove extremely injurious to the advancement of science. My plan was then to form sketches in my mind’s eye, each representing, if possible, each family as if employed in their most constant and natural avocations, and to complete those family pictures as chance might bring perfect specimens.

The knowledge I had already acquired of the habits of most of them enabled me to arrange my individuals in rough outlines, finishing probably at the time only one of the number intended to complete it, and putting the drawing thus begun aside, sometimes for months, and sometimes for years.

I knew well that closet naturalists would expect drawings exhibiting, in the old way, all those parts that are called by them necessary characteristics; and to content these gentlemen I have put in all my representations of groups always either parts of entire specimens, showing fully all that may be defined of those particulars.

My drawings have all been made after individuals fresh killed, mostly by myself, and put up before me by means of wires, &c. in the precise attitude represented, and copied with a closeness of measurement that I hope will always correspond with nature when brought into contact.

The many foreshortenings unavoidable in groups like these have been rendered attainable by means of squares of equal dimensions affixed both on my paper and immediately behind the subjects before me. I may thus date the real beginning of my present collection, and observations of the habits of some of these birds, as far back as 1805, not, however, continued always with the same advantages that attended me during the first ten years that I spent in America, for since then, I have often been forced to put aside for a while even the thoughts of birds, or the pleasures I have felt in watching their movements, and likewise to their sweet melodies, to attend more closely to the peremptory calls of other necessary business.

The long journeys that I have performed through different parts of the country have been attended with many difficulties and perplexing disappointments, some of which have several times made my mind waver whether I should or should not abandon them all for ever.

Being quite unknown amongst naturalists, I have had to depend on my own exertions alone, without either correspondents or friends. I have followed slowly to be sure, but constantly my object. I have often listened to the different observations of men who accidentally had made remarks on different species of birds, but seldom, except when with the rough hunters and squatters of the frontiers, have I discovered naked facts in such relations. This has dissuaded me from ever taking any account given me for granted, until corroborated either by my own ocular opportunities or accumulated repetitions. The astonishing tendency that men have to improve nature in their way, by embellishing each of their descriptions of habits without any farther object in view than that of entertaining the better their hearers, has frequently deterred me from listening at all to such accounts, and has brought my physical system to a solitary state of habits and manners so different from those that usually accompany men, that frequently I feel uneasy, as well as awkward, if more than one or two companions are about me. To the improvement of my observations I have found this no detriment. On the contrary, I am persuaded that alone in the woods, or at my work, I can make better use of the whole of myself than in any other situation, and that thereby I have lost nothing in exchanging the pleasure of studying men for that of admiring the feathered race.

Pursuers pf natural curiosities are extremely abundant in our age. New, quite unknown subjects re those the most sought for. The dried skin of an exotic specimen, of which the colour has not been described minutely, draws all attention, whilst the habits of that same specimen are scarcely inquired after, and those of individuals more interesting, being nearer and more easily obtained, are abandoned, and the pleasure, as well as the profit that might be derived from a complete study of their manners, and faculties, and worth, are set aside. I must acknowledge to you that that kind of curiosity has not animated me half so much as the desire of first knowing well all those commonly about me, - a task that in itself I discovered to be extremely difficult, but through which I found the means of at least drawing valuable deductions.

I have never drawn from a stuffed specimen. My reason for this has been, that I discovered when in museums, where large collections of that kind are to be met with, that the persons generally employed for the purpose of mounting them possessed no further talents than that of filling the skins, until plumply formed, and adorning them with eyes and legs generally from their own fancy. Those person, on inquiry, knew nothing of the anatomy of the subject before them; seldom the true length of the whole, or the junction either of the wings and legs with the body; nothing of their gaits and allurements; and not once in a hundred times was the bird in a natural position.

I would not from this have you conclude that museums and collections of stuffed specimens are entirely useless. On the contrary, I think them extremely well fitted to enhance (in youths particularly) the desire of examining afterwards the same subjects at large in all their beauty, the only means of detecting errors. But in forming works entirely with a view to distinguish the true from the false, nature must be seen first alive, and well studied, before attempts are made at representing it. Takes such advantages away from the naturalist, who ought to be artist also, and he fails as completely as Raphael himself must have done, had he not fed his pencil with all belonging to a mind perfectly imbued with a knowledge of real forms, muscles, bones, movements, and, lastly, that spiritual expression of feelings that paintings like his exhibit so beautifully.

Among the naturalists of the time, several who are distinguished have said that representations of subjects ought to be entirely devoid of shades in all their parts; that the colouring of the figure, that must be precisely profile, cannot be understood by the student if differently represented. Why then should the best artists of the same age give us pictures with powerful breadth of lights and shades? And why, still more strange, should every individual who looks on such paintings feel not only pleased, but elevated at the grand conception of the painter, and at the nobleness of the subjects being so much like through their effect? My opinion is, that he who cannot conceive and determine the natural colouring of a shaded part, need not study either natural history or any thing else connected with it.

If I have joined to many of my drawings plants, insects, reptiles, or views, it has been with the hope to render them all more attractive to the generality of observers; and as I can assure you that all these were copied with the same exactness with which all the birds are represented, you will not doubt view them with as much pleasure.

Do not be surprised at finding that I have trampled upon many deeply-rooted prejudices and opinions attached to the habits of several individuals by men who had only heard and not seen. My wish to impart truths has been my guide in every instance; -all the observations respecting them are my own.

All the authors who have formed works of natural history have attached to the representation of each species a minute description of all their parts. This was done probably because the subjects were never or very seldom offered to view of their natural size; or perhaps, indeed, because these very authors were well aware of the want of accuracy in those figures, seldom drawn by themselves. In my work I wish to curtail these extremely tiresome descriptions; more anxious that those who study ornithology should compare at once my figures with the living specimen, than with a description so easily made to correspond with the drawings by any person who merely knows the technical appellations of each part and feathers, with the name of the colours chosen by authors for that purpose.

I shall neither describe the eggs of the species that I have procured nor the number. A glance at the drawings will answer the more readily, as you will see classed under each the date of the season, and the average number deposited by each bird when ready for incubation. Not so with the nests. I would wish to see these so well described en masse, that the young naturalists, when in the woods, would be able to know the artist by his work. This is often a difficult task, the more with those species who will oftentimes form their nests differently, and of different materials, according to localities and climate, and those that oftentimes take possession of that of quite another species.

If the greater number of figures given in a work are received as perfectly correct in all their parts, by comparing them with good specimens, and though such an examination the author is greeted with public confidence, why should the reader be tormented with descriptions? Where is the amateur of paintings who could bear the reading of a description of the structure, muscles, and expression of the face of such a man as Rembrandt, after gazing at the portrait of that eminent artist by himself? The study of ornithology must be a journey of pleasure. Each step must present to the traveller’s view objects that are eminently interesting, varied in their appearance, and attracting to such a degree, as to excite in each individual thus happily employed the desire of knowing all respecting all he sees.

I would have liked to raise an everlasting monument, commemorating with a grand effect the history and portraits of the birds of America, by adding to each drawing of a single species a vignette exhibiting corresponding parts of the country where the specimen is most plentifully found; but having no taste for landscape-painting, and unable to employ a competent assistant for such a purpose, I with deep regret have relinquished the idea. I mention this to you, my dear friend, with hopes that at some future period some one better seconded by pecuniary means or talents may still engage in the undertaking. Sorry, notwithstanding, that as time flies Nature loses its primitiveness, and that pictures drawn in ten, or twenty, or more years, will no longer illustrate our delightful America pure from the hands of its Creator!