Mockingbirds did not become part of bird legend until the 20th century, likely because of the Harper Lee book and movie, To Kill A Mockingbird. The mockingbird then became a symbol for lost innocence as the story goes. Yesterday when I was thinking about the different birds I had painted, I realized I had never painted a mockingbird for some unknown reason. Maybe its that I never found any inspiration in the mockingbird’s rather drab gray coloring. Sad but true. The bird’s I enjoy painting have bright plumage usually or some other intriguing visual characteristic. Mockingbird’s are just gray. Saturday as I was talking in the nature painting workshop, the subject of the paint color, Payne’s Gray came up. Payne’s gray is not just a mix of black and white. It has a richness that is derived from a myriad of colors. That got me to thinking about gray birds. From there, the mockingbird came up. Immediately, I had to remedy the fact that I had never painted one. My first thought was watercolor but I discarded that in favor of colored pencil. I wanted to see what other colors besides gray, came into play in the feathers of a mockingbird. There are more than gray. Perhaps with oil paint, I may find even more.
From painting a mockingbird, I went looking for intrigue with folklore of the mockingbird. After getting past the whole innocence lost angle, the genus name of the mockingbird brings up a whole new look at these amazing birds. The Audubon Society states that the actual name for this particular mockingbird is the Northern Mockingbird and species name as Mimus Polyglottos which translates to “many-tongued mimic.” An apt name as the mockingbird is known to sing hundreds of different songs. All About Birds says the Northern Mockingbird continues to sing all day and into the night. The Audubon Society says, “John James Audubon was so in awe of this bird’s singing ability, he wrote of the Northern Mockingbird in Birds of America, “There is probably no bird in the world that possesses all the musical qualifications of this king of song, who has derived all from Nature’s self.” All About Birds has recorded some beautiful singing by the Northern Mockingbird. Both sources say Mockingbirds can even mimic the human sounds, as well as machinery.
According to the website, AuntyFlo, mockingbirds are aggressive defenders of their nest and territory. As a symbolic meaning, the message of the mockingbird is, “We must also have confidence to protect our own means and stand up for our rights.” Perhaps that is the reason the Mockingbird Society chose to name their organization after this fearless defender of territory as they seek to protect and defend children of color from racism in the foster care system.
Purely by accident, I had the opportunity to capture a fearless mockingbird in action when I came upon this scene of a Mockingbird fearlessly attacking and harassing a red-tailed hawk that was hanging around his territory. The poor bedraggled hawk was rain-soaked and looked tired and sad. That didn’t effect this mockingbird. He quickly scared the hawk off apparently knowing the rain would stop soon and the hawk would then go into hunting mode.
While working on the colored pencil drawing of a mockingbird, I thought about the different legends of the mockingbird. From the lost innocence of Harper Lee’s book to the more recent MockingJay of the Hunger Games and Game of Thrones Mockingbird, sweetly singing, fierce defender of territory is a much more appealing legend of the mockingbird for me. This photo totally captures that characteristic. The hawk is probably three times the size of the mockingbird but the little guy made short work of scaring off the bigger bird.
Maybe the strength in the face of bigger, stronger adversity is the reason the State of Tennessee chose the mockingbird as the state bird in 1933. But it could also be the fact that the mockingbird is known for its amazing musical ability and vast repertoire of songs it sings on a daily basis. What could symbolize my home state more that strength in adversity, where the name “Volunteer State” came from, and musical ability characteristic of both major cities, Nashville (Music City) and Memphis, (Home of the Blues). Audubon, himself, called the Mockingbird, “the king of song.” And the state where Graceland lives on as the home of Elvis Presley, King of Rock and Roll, B.B. King, King of the Blues and Roy Acuff, King of Country, (among others!) would choose a bird known as the King of Song, as the state bird. Makes sense to me! Now to find more colors hiding in those gray feathers…
Mix cinnamon, ginger and chocolate and you will come up with a color very close to Burnt Sienna, (not to be confused with the rock band, Burnt Sienna). However, you may not want to paint with this mixture. For paint, you will need iron oxide and manganese oxide. Then you will have to set it on fire, unless or course, you are looking for the more yellowish Raw Sienna. In that case, leave off the fire.
Burnt Sienna is an old paint color dating to early cave paintings.. The rose brown of Burnt Sienna was originally called terra rossa or red earth in accounts from the Renaissance period but later came to be known for the Italian city of Siena where the minerals were first mined. Siena is an old, old city in Tuscany with a fascinating history worth reading up on. Today Burnt Sienna is mined on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, in the French Ardennes and American Appalachians.
Rembrandt favored Burnt Sienna as is evident in the warm rosy glow so characteristic of his paintings. Burnt Sienna is favored in most Renaissance paintings as well. Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro was likely achieved with the liberal use of Burnt Sienna in the rich deep shadows that became his signature style. Burnt Sienna was a popular paint of many of the old masters and continues its popularity to this day.
Most makers of Burnt Sienna today give a light fast rating of one as extremely light fast. Golden classifies it as semi-transparent. The Gamblin Company states today’s Burnt Sienna is more opaque than 200 years ago and recommends Van Dyke Brown or Gamblin Earth Tone Colors as better choices if seeking greater transparency. Daniel Smith, speaking of the watercolor, says Burnt Sienna combines well in glazes as a semi-transparent pigment that won’t “sully or stain the other pigments” in your glaze.
Artists seeking to become more earth-friendly in painting can buy natural pigments of Burnt Sienna for home mixing from EarthPigments.com. If you would like to be more “Green” with your browns, try mixing your own earth tones from actual earth pigments. What could be more natural?
Order natural pigments from Earth Pigments here.
Canva.com has more information about exactly what the chemical make up of Burnt Sienna is.
Burnt Sienna, the band, talks about their music on You Tube:
The male American Goldfinch sports beautiful bright yellow plumage in the summer and is not to be confused with the European Goldfinch popularized by the book and movie. Only the males have the sunny yellow color to deflect attention from the more green color of the females. The females are much more difficult to spot as they blend in quite well with the leaves and stems of the flowers. A few years ago, I learned the hard way about how much goldfinches love zinnia seeds. Beside my patio, I planted several varieties of zinnias. The riot of color was wonderful, it was a pleasure to sit out in the mornings checking out the early sun reflecting off the still dew covered petals. Then one day as I came to sit, I noticed the patio was strewn with the multi-colored petals of the zinnias. Checking out the flowers, there were a number of them with the exposed seed cones and none or few petals left. At first I thought the wind was blowing the petals away. But then it was happening on the days when there was no wind. It became a daily occurrence. I set out to solve the mystery!
It took a few days but I finally caught up with the culprits. There was a pair of them, male and female, having a feast off the zinnias. Every time I tried to get a good photo, they were off. A couple of quick evade artists, the two of them were. Eventually, I was able to use my phone to catch them in the act. What a laugh they gave me! Now I try to always plant zinnias for the goldfinches. When I put the photo to the right up on the computer, I noticed his leg position and the zinnia formed a heart. I think he was thanking me for the feast he and his lady were able to enjoy from my garden. When my sweet friend, Christy Tucker, told me about the work she was doing with her organization, Rose Goldfinch, in helping women escape human trafficking, I knew that little goldfinch from the zinnias would be the inspiration for a painting for Christy to help in her work. Maybe that was why the little guy was sending out his heart!
The painting for Rose Goldfinch led me to search out more information on the Goldfinch since he became popularized by the book and movie. I confess that I did not make it through the book and did not see the movie. I am a fool for happy endings and sappy chick books. Moody books and movies just don’t make into my brain. Call me chicken but there it is. And the painting that became the inspiration for the book by Donna Tartt, was by 17th Century Dutch artist, Carel Fabritius. The painting appeared to me, to be horribly depressing and after looking it up, I found out why. Fabritius has depicted the common practice at the time of keeping the birds as pets by tethering them by the leg which is the case in the painting. No wonder it is depressing! Here is a story about the history of the painting: “The Secret history behind the Goldfinch painting.” The book received a Pulitzer and by all accounts it is an amazing work of art.
But why the goldfinch? The beautiful little bird of both the American and European varieties appears in folklore as a happy little guy. Some sources say he is symbolic of happiness and friendship. Religious writings say he is a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. The little bird is also given the significant meaning of indicating a rising from the sick bed. Animals Matter to God gives a detailed description of this important meaning attributed to our little yellow friend. Perhaps the most significant of the Resurrection Symbolism comes from a painting by Raphael called Madonna Del Cardillino or Madonna of the Goldfinch. some sources say a goldfinch flew by Christ at the Crucification.
As a whole the goldfinch is a positive little happy bird who only wants to eat zinnia seeds and sing his little heart out. The beautiful singing the goldfinch is known for became the inspiration for a concerto for flute from the great, Vivaldi. Flute music, to me always reminds of the singing of birds and this concerto is no different. A great way to sit back and relax is to plant some zinnias and turn on Vivaldi and watch the goldfinches feast on the zinnias and sing away. The colorful carpet they created on my patio from the multi colored petals of the flowers were an added source of beauty and enjoyment. It reminds me of the purpose of flower girls in a wedding, spreading carpets of flower petals for the couple to walk on. With zinnias and goldfinches around, colorful carpet and beautiful music will always be present.
The zinnias are over for this year but the goldfinches stay throughout the winter. Their bright yellow feathers turn to a brownish green so they blend with the winter landscape. I have put up the thistle feeder so that the finches can eat all winter too. No petals to spread but at least I can keep watching the happy little guys through the cold months too.
Here is Vivaldi’s concerto: Goldfinch
And here is a comparison of the actual birdsong to Vivaldi’s version. How did he do?
If you would like to make a donation to the work of Rose Goldfinch follow the link to their Facebook page.
One lonely sunflower became two sunflowers. Two was not enough. A third was added using the same process. Who knows? Maybe there will be a fourth and a fifth until there is a whole field of flowers. Or this is enough and a new painting will start with three and become four. The technique previously outlined in Drawing Expansion, makes it so easy to add more flowers without fear of messing up the original. The second flower was added first and completed before the third flower was brought in. Some people would say it should be done altogether in the beginning. It could be. Then again what if you didn’t know you wanted to add more until you saw the first flower. Drawing them in one at a time gave me the ability to choose to add more or see what a difference each would make while I could still change it.
The two sunflowers together looked more fun than the single sunflower. But they just didn’t quite cut it. They needed a third friend. My great aunt, Sade, was a wonderful cook. She used to say, “if one stick of butter would make it good, two would make it better!” In this case, three would make it better! But the third friend wanted to be a bit different so it turned toward the sun in a different direction. One of the many fascinations with sunflowers is that they turn each day to follow the sun as it moves across the sky. This third sunflower decided to get a jump on the other two and start turning before they did. As in the previous painting, I started with an outline drawing to see how the third flower would fit into the overall painting before I committed to add it.
After I settled on the placement, I put the details in with a 7H Musgrave Unigraph pencil. The third drawing went much faster as the structure of sunflowers has become more familiar. Each new flower made the details that much easier. The difference on the the third flower was the depiction of the back of the bloom. That was another reason to turn the flower. The beautiful green on the back needed to show off. In doing the first two face on, the back didn’t get a chance to show. Now it will. Once I decided I liked the three together, I downloaded them to Fine Art America to see how they looked on different products. I don’t know if I like the tote or the pillow the best but I’m definitely getting a sunflower face mask. Maybe a mug too. In these days of everybody wearing a face mask, sunny sunflowers are one way of cheering up a masked face. Someone came to the sunflower painting class at Cheekwood with a different sunflower mask. For the next sunflower painting class, I will have my own sunflower mask!
“There are connoisseurs of blue just as there are connoisseurs of wine.” Colette (fromThe Painter’s Keys)
Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” relied on a newly discovered blue. Picasso could not have managed his “Blue Period,” without this very unique blue paint. Many artists look for ways to save money on supplies without compromising quality. Such was the case with eighteenth century Berlin artist, Diesbach when he stumbled upon the ingredients for making a new blue paint later called Prussian Blue.
Blue was expensive for artists in the early seventeen hundreds. Painters used very little blue in their works, reserving it for the most reverent religious depictions. Diesbach was actually working on a mix for reds when his local chemist sold him iron sulfate and contaminated potash. Oil made from animals was the contaminant. It was this potash that set up the chemical reaction that became Prussian blue. It gained in popularity throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Winsor & Newton began selling Prussian Blue in 1878. The name derives from its use as the color of the uniforms of the Prussian Army in the early eighteenth century on.
Chemistry World gives a detailed description of the actual chemical reaction that creates Prussian Blue. Since I barely muddled through college chemistry, I won’t attempt to describe the process and suggest following the link to Chemistry World for a fascinating account. Their essay also outlines the use of Prussian Blue on patients with certain radioactive poisoning or thallium contamination. Good to know if you are ever in that situation!
Prussian Blue’s name was changed by Crayola to Midnight Blue in the 1950’s because it was felt few would understand the name. Prussian Blue continues to be a popular paint to many painters, myself included, though some complain that its light fastness might be lacking. I exercise care when using Prussian Blue because of its ability to quickly overtake other colors. For some fun reading on Prussian Blue tryJoshua Cohen’s “Thirty-six shades of Prussian Blue” (though not to be confused with a book of a similar title concerning grays!).
And if you would like to imitate those eighteenth century artists and make your own Prussian Blue, here is a YouTube demonstration by Dr. Mark Foreman: