About Audubon’s Watercolors

Watercolor Snowy owl

"My drawings were first made entirely in watercolors."

Not watercolors in the sense we are accustomed to, as Audubon's watercolors used mixed-media, such as papers, adhesives, glazes, pastels, graphite, oil paint, egg white, gouache, chalk and more.

These were preparatory studies to the subsequent producing of the Birds of America.  These watercolors were often painted by Audubon 'on the spot' in the field. The collection of 433* watercolors that Audubon supplied for his paramount work, the Birds of America, stands as the world's preeminent natural history document of the 19th century, and one of arts finest achievements.  The freshness, eloquence, and grace of his watercolors reveal a meticulous observation of the natural world.

Audubon's watercolors depicted for the first time, life-size, all known species of North American birds in characteristic poses.  Each painting presented a drama in the life of the subject, and Audubon succeeded in surpassing what he viewed as the stilted and constrained efforts of previous naturalists.  Their works were, in his words, 'stiff.' Audubon's images live to this very day..

"As I wandered, mostly bent on the study of birds, and with a wish to represent all of those found in our woods, to the best of my powers, I gradually became acquainted with their forms and habits, and the use of my wires was improved by constant practice."  John James Audubon

After acquiring specimens, Audubon inserted wires in freshly killed birds to simulate lifelike postures.  These models were then positioned in front of a grid background, so as to draw them accurately to scale.

Not easily satisfied with his drawings, Audubon often wrote notes on the drawing itself so that the engravers and colorists who were to follow would enhance his work.

Doubtless, considering the working conditions in the field, lack of modern optical equipment, and his being self-taught, the producing of these watercolors represents a monumental achievement.

The watercolors were never reproduced by Audubon, as they were a means to the end, a preparatory step to the final goal of producing and publishing prints from engravings based on the watercolors.

It is truly amazing that  the vast majority of the original watercolors, are still in existence.  Audubon's widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, sold them in 1863 to the New-York Historical Society.  We suggest you take the time to see these priceless works of America's most famous artist/naturalist.

*  Although there are 435 etchings in the completed Birds of America, these were produced from 433 watercolors.  Two of the 433 were each the basis for two etchings.  Two are also missing, thus the collection of original watercolors in the New-York Historical Society today totals 431.

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