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Monday, August 26, 2019

Owl Art

Three Owls, Michael Dumas
More than forty years ago now, back when my wife and I were still doing local arts and crafts shows, among the exhibitors was a taxidermist displaying his craft. He expressed a desire to have one of my paintings but, as is so often the case, the income from his craft did not afford him the luxury of collecting art. He did suggest, however trading two or three of his mounted pieces for the painting. At the time (and probably still today), bartering among various artists and artisans was much more common than many might guess. To cut to the chase I acquired a mounted mallard, a squirrel, and a barn owl. Although I've painted virtually every animal on God's green earth, that trade resulted in my one and only venture into the ancient art of painting owls (below, right). I also used the mounted wildlife I acquired as models in a junior high drawing unit. Later, as it sat high on a shelf in my studio, our cat thought the bird looked so realistic he attacked it, ripping off one or more wings.
A Snow Owl of paper and wood by Zack Mclaughlin
Copyright, Jim Lane
How Now Brown Owl, 1978, Jim Lane
In my research into owl art I encountered hundreds of painters with far more skill and experience than I. Michael Dumas' Three Owls (top) for example. My own painting of an owl depicts one of two families of owls. Mine is a Barn Owl while most other owls belong to the Strigidae family. Owls are the oldest living birds, their origin having been traced back to 60 million years ago. They have been featured in almost all ancient mythologies. The oldest specimens found show that the bird has not changed much, perhaps due to the fitness of its features as a successful bird of prey. Its capability of night vision, silent flight, acute hearing, strong claws, and excellent plumage con-tributes to its survival skills. Only a few cave drawings have been found relating to birds, and the owl is one of them.

The owls of John Pusater. The third image (just above) illustrates one of the owl's strangest attributes, the ability to swivel its heads up to 270 degrees
Owls invite the art of artists from young school children up through that of rank amateurs and finally the professionals such as the watercolor work of John Pusater (below). In all likelihood, the reason the owl is so popular at all levels of the art world comes down to the fact that the frontal view is a broad face with two circles (the eyes) and a triangle (the beak). Add some highly prominent eyebrows and you have an essence much like the uppermost image above. Switching to a profile view challenges the artists' drawing skills to a greater degree and is less commonly seen. In choosing examples here I've tried to avoid the tiresome, highly symmetrical frontal view. The video below provides insight and instruction as to the drawing of an owl.

What a cat is to the mouse in cities, an owl is to them in a rural environment. Owls keep the population of mice, rats, and rabbits under control. Over past centuries down through to the present, owls are the most-sought-after birds by sorcerers, tribal medicine men, bird watchers, artists, environmentalists, and those who write mythologies. All of these people know about owls, but no one (other than Harry Potter) wishes to keep them as pets. Owls are found all over the world, but they like to keep themselves aloof and out of the sight of human beings in that they are nocturnal birds with an inherent liking for deserted places. The fifteenth century Netherlandish painter, Hieronymus Bosch, was probably the first painter in the history of European art to gravitate to this wise old bird of prey as seen in two details from his famous 1504 painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The upper image (below) depicts a pygmy owl while the lower image is that of a giant Barn owl. Why all the owls? They seem like very nearly frivolous afterthoughts, working as they do in the dark places, windows, tree branches, and margins of his paintings. Despite their marginalized presence in many of Bosch's works, they still manage to convey a touch of sensitivity, intimacy, and humor--as though their tiny presence somehow supervised the goings-on in the paintings.

One could say the owl is Bosch's signature motif, its absence in a
Bosch painting is far more notable than its presence.
Barn Owl Chick, painted bronze, Nick Bibby
In the realm of modern day iconography the owl is often used to denote love as in "Owl Always Love You." In addition to its more common attribute of wisdom. This type of sent-imental work such as that of Dann-e, Owl Love (below) has a tendency toward being over-ly sweet or "cutesy." Likewise the same is true of artists' love of baby animals, in this case fuzzy little owlets. Although it would seem not to be an ob-vious choice as subject mat-ter for sculptors, Nick Bibby's life-size Barn Owl Chick, cast in painted bronze (right) dem-onstrates otherwise.

Owl Love, Dann-e

Watercolor seems to be quite adept in rendering the delicate
qualities of owl chicks.
Other sculptors have taken to painting rounded "pebbles" of various sizes to depict owls such as those of Cindy Thomas (left). (I wonder how they ever learned to fly.) And finally, what would a discourse on owl art be without mention of the abstractionists' contributions? Just below we see the wildly colorful flat design owl images in contrast with the near-colorless, and somewhat cubistic interpretation of this nocturnal bird titled Owls with Black and White Abstract by Donald Wood?

Cindy Thomas 'heavyweight owls

Lower image: Owls with Black and White Abstract by Donald Woods
Just what we need, a sexy Barn Owl.


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