Audubon’s Herons are alive

Audubon's Herons are alive

Whenever I see Audubon’s paintings I am impressed by the vibrancy, the use of colour and the way he managed to capture these large birds on the paper. His herons actually seem to be alive, and I would like to share with you some of my observation.

Life size images on Double Elephant Folio

Audubon painted eight Herons. The Heron is a large bird with long legs and a sturdy long beak. The bird can reach one meter (40 inches) from head to toe and has a wingspan of nearly one and a half meters (57 inches) when flying.
Audubon 211 Great Blue Heron Birds of America Museum quality giclée print
Audubon's Blue Heron, Plate 211

Audubon always wanted to depict his birds life-sized. This was no problem for the smaller birds, but with this large bird, the paper size was a major limitation for him that he had to find a solution for.

The largest paper size available to Audubon was the so-called Double Elephant Folio. This paper was approximately 96 x 66 cm (38 x 26 inches) and was clearly not large enough. Audubon solved this by depicting the larger birds, such as the heron, with the neck angled. 

For example, he portrayed The Great Blue Heron with wings that are slightly spread, and the head bent downwards towards the water.

The Herons are pictured in their natural environment

John James Audubon Birds of America Plate 236 Night Heron or Qua Bird Giclée Print
Night Heron or Qua Bird. Plate 236

Another feature that Audubon considered important was to depict the birds in their natural environment. He would observe the birds he wanted to draw for hours, days and sometimes even years in their natural habitat. Herons live by water and eat frogs and fish, as you can see this in the Night Heron image.

Audubon recorded all his observations in a diary. He knew that herons made their nests in trees, where they also hatched the eggs, and he depicted the Yellow Crowned Heron in the branches of a tree. You will note that when the male and female birds had markedly different plumage, he included both in his drawing.

John James Audubon Birds of America Plate 336 Yellow Crowned Heron Giclée Print
Yellow Crowned Heron. Plate 336
Audubon was fascinated by every aspect of birds: their appearance, habit, mating behaviour, and their migration and nesting habits. He put all this knowledge into his paintings and drawings.

Expressive composition

Audubon Purple Heron Plate 256. Audubon's Herons are alive. Facsimile Giclee Print
Purple Heron and Reddish Egret. Plate 256
All art lovers agree that Audubon not only knew a lot about birds, but also knew a lot about image composition, despite being self-taught. For example, if you look at the composition of his paintings, you will often see that he uses a diagonal composition creating movement, dynamics, depth and perspective.
Audubon 281 Great White Heron Birds of America Museum quality giclée print
Audubon's Great White Heron. Plate 281

In addition, Audubon used something called ‘motion composition’ which uses rotation and S-shaped lines to create dynamic images and represent movement. 

These diagonal and S-shaped lines are hidden everywhere – in the background, in the branches, in the reeds and the grass, in the horizon and in the birds themselves. The heron with its long legs, body and beak is a perfect example of the way he combines these techniques.

Audubon's technical skills were far ahead of his time

Audubon's White Heron. Detail of Audubon's technical skills using soft pastel. Facsimile Giclee Print. Heritage Prints
Detail of the White Heron. Plate 386
Finally, a note about the different materials and the various techniques used by Audubon.

Research into his working method has revealed that he often started his work in graphite. This is called an underpainting and he then applied the watercolours in several thin layers on the paper. He also used other materials and his technical skills increased enormously over the years. He used oil paint, gouache, chalk, ink and sometimes even made use of collage technique. In this example of the White Heron, he used pastel to express the fine and fluffy character of the beautiful plumage.

Audubon as a true artist

Audubon’s mission was to paint all the birds of North America and his series of herons are an integral part of this immense undertaking.

He was a talented artist and far ahead of his time. Instead of drawing the birds flat, from the side, as most ornithologists did, he turned his images into beautiful works of art. 

His water-colour paintings are a feast for the eyes and never get boring. His drawings of the heron are truly beautiful and are a real asset to any interior. It is our mission to let fellow art lovers from around the world share in the joy of owning beautiful artwork. 

Interior view of Audubon's Louisiana Heron in Art Frame and Passe Partout

Choose one of Audubon's Heron giclee prints

You can place an order by clicking on the Heron you like best. 
The paper size is Double Elephant Folio.  

If you have any questions, please contact us. 

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