I started actively studying nature through birding at the age of twelve. That’s when my eldest brother came home from college after taking an ornithology class. His interest passed to his three brothers and we initially drove the country roads outside Elburn, Illinois with a set of 10 X 50 Sears binoculars and a Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.
Earlier in life, I’d been given one of those bird guides by my mother’s older sister. So the seeds for an interest in birds were planted well before I ever came of age. This 20-minute video explains that journey and how my interest in bird identification and art ultimately merged into one hobby of wildlife painting.
From the age of twelve on, I drew and painted birds all the time. Initially, my efforts weren’t that impressive. Back then, resources to copy weren’t that available and I didn’t own a camera. So I drew what I’d call “impressions” of birds from bird guides and the creatures I’d seen in the wild.
Over the years, as I learned more about birds and got a camera, my paintings somewhat improved. Yet one of the key learning tactics was copying the work of other artists such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes, as I did with this watercolor of a great horned owl.
The progression of an artist from copying the work of others to producing definitive work of their own is in some ways a lifelong endeavor. Yet once I graduated from high school and entered college, I started that process in earnest. I took an internship trip to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology and studied the works of dozens of famous wildlife painters. While there, I drew birds from life in the raptor center at Sapsucker Woods.
Once the process of creating my own work as in full swing, I took on the project of creating a set of life-sized murals for the Lake Calmar Nature Center. That involved painting four 4′ X 8′ panels in a month-long January Term project. The photo in the newspaper shows the relative scale of these paintings.
An article appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette that winter. It stated my life’s hobby in pretty succinct fashion.
I’ve gone on to sell hundreds of paintings in my lifetime. All along, it’s been my goal to teach others to enjoy wildlife and appreciate the diversity around us. I do that by leading field trips, citizen science projects and sharing work in shows, exhibitions and classrooms.
Now, I’m going to launch a new venture called a Patreon site. It will be a combination of my two deep interests, nature and art. Here’s a quick sample of the content that will appear on that site, a demonstration of how I draw and paint a kestrel while explaining some facts about the bird.
The site will be launching on the 15th of January but I’m giving readers of this blog a “sneak preview” of what is to come. I’ve always felt it’s important to share and give back, and this site will be a great way to interact with people who appreciate and support my work. I’ll send out an invitation on the 15th when the site is officially open. We’ll be doing live painting sessions through Zoom with Covid-safe, remote “painting parties” and more.
Thanks for reading The Right Kind of Pride. Now let’s create some things to be proud of together!
Last Friday night I sat down to check email one more time before relaxing for the evening. There was a message from a website called FineArtAmerica. A woman named Delinda was writing to inquire about a painting that she owns. This is what she wrote:
Good day, I am inquiring about this magnificent print of yours, titled on back in handwritten notecard, reads: Great Horned Own with Red Phase Ruffed Grouse. 3/5 life size. Curious, it says ’78 perhaps as a date? I can send pics if you need to see it, hoping to get more info about who it may have been commissioned for, or if its just a random print? I love it so much, its so lifelike it scares my cat lol. Thanks in advance, Delinda
The painting was a labor of love a long time ago. It bears similarities to a watercolor by an artist that I admired and emulated. His name was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the greatest bird artists that ever lived. I’d gone to Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology to study the work of Fuertes and other great bird artists. I did my best to absorb what I could from studying their work close up.
My aspirations were to become as great a bird artist as I could. This particular portrait was a refinement of an earlier study I had done. I also executed an ink drawing of the same pose. But the pose originated from a painting I produced as a freshman in college from a stuffed great horned owl borrowed from the biology lab. That painting copied the mussed up feathers verbatim, a condition that a live owl would never likely allow to happen.
When I showed the 1975 painting to Dr. Lancaster, the Director of Laboratory of Ornithology, he blurted, “That’s some of the finest featherwork I’ve seen.” I took that as a kind compliment. Clearly he saw my potential, but also noted that much further study of birds was in order to become a fully accomplished bird painter.
That I continued to do. But the challenge was finding suitable resources. I’d learned taxidermy in college, but it was illegal to collect and own dead birds of any kind. Still, I collected specimens and kept them in our second freezer for reference. I owned a camera with a 300mm lens but never seemed to get good quality photos to copy. Plus it takes years or genius to absorb and render the “true” lines and forms of birds in the wild.
The years passed and I produced hundreds of paintings of varying quality for patrons public and private. Almost all of those are in the possession of people whose whereabouts I do not know. Occasionally I’ll be contacted by someone who wants to know if I’m still painting. We have a good chat and they send me a picture of the painting they own. That makes me feel good. Someone prizes a bit of my work.
I’ve even gotten calls from strangers who came into possession of one of my paintings. One of them started our phone conversation with a question, “Are you famous?” They’d picked up one of my watercolors at a garage sale of a couple getting a divorce (I remember the couple) and wanted to know if the painting they’d purchased for $25 was worth a bunch of money. “I hate to disappoint you,” I related. “But I’m not famous.”
Last year a friend found one of my paintings at an antique shop in Michigan. They were browsing the store and saw a painting of an eagle that I’d painted long ago. I’d done the work on commission for Robert Van Kampen, a patron who went on to sell his investment company to Xerox for $400 million. He hired me to do a series of hawk paintings when I was 18 years old. Somehow it escaped his estate and has been kicking around antique shops the last forty years.
Last Friday night, I wrote back to my new friend Delinda thanking her for getting in touch with me about the owl painting from ’78. She explained how she came to own it.
“So happy to hear from you! I live in San Diego, ocean beach, and people leave things in alleys all the time. The owl I’m guessing was from someone older who may have passed away. I’ve had it for about 5 years now. It was in an alley for about ten seconds before I grabbed it, others really wanted it too but I won lol. I knew it was special, and would be happy to return to you if you’d like it, or donate to the school or elsewhere that might appreciate it. Otherwise, I will cherish it forever, as I love owls and birds! XO”
I told her that I wanted her to keep it for as long as she wanted it. We agreed that if I get out to visit my son in Venice, California, we’d get together as friends and share a drink by the ocean.
That’s the most an artist can hope for in some ways. That the work builds connections. I’ll not pretend that I became one of the world’s greatest bird artists as I once believed was possible. But I also haven’t quit. These days, with the camera and lens I now own, and ability to collect good reference material, my work has improved and continues to do so.
I may never be a Louis Agassiz Fuertes. No one ever will. But I can be the best Christopher Cudworth that I can be. That’s the art of not being famous. And that’s the right kind of pride.
I arrived with $750 in my pocket and no place to stay. How my parents allowed me to take off on my own without talking about a place to live for three weeks in the snowy environs of Upstate
New York I don’t really know. They’d both grown up near Ithaca. They knew what the winters were like. My father attended Cornell and my mother went to college in Potsdam, even further north. I guess they figured I’d asked the question and found somewhere to live. All they knew was that I was enthused about studying bird art during my sophomore year in college and had visited the Lab one time before with an aunt that understood my love for the work of Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
So I took off for New York in my father’s big, white Buick LeSabre and arrived, all naive and eager, on the doorstep of the Lab with little else in mind than to do everything I’d dreamed about.
Fortunately, the director had mercy on my idiocy and found me a place to stay about a mile down the road from the main building. It was a house in the middle of rehab work. so it offered no running hot water, but it did have heat. I was only too glad to take it and I genuinely relished the time alone.
Once that pragmatic issue was solved, I dove right away into the work of curating the Lab’s prodigious bird art collection. Some of it remained stored in cluttered chests of drawings and paintings donated by the estate of artists such as Richard Bishop. I carefully handled each of these works of art and copied some of the drawings in my own hand. For me, this was the Holy Grail of bird art, a look behind the scenes at some of the finest bird artists in the world.
In the morning I’d hide away in the closets out of sight from the occasional visitor staring at feeder birds outside the Lab windows. Feeling no compunction for human contact, and obsessed with the work before me, I went days without talking much to anyone.
And then I wandered over to the Hawk Barn where rare peregrine and gyrfalcons sat in cold pens, part of the breeding program set up at Cornell to revive the populations of those endangered birds in the wake of the pesticide devastation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. One day I stood peering through a tiny porthole doing drawings of a gyrfalcon and a set of peregrine inches away from my face. I felt no need to talk.
This went on for a week. I’d hike the mile to the Lab, curate or draw all day, eat a small sandwich along the way, and hike back after dark. It snowed at least an inch every day, so the world always looked fresh and inviting. The cold barely affected me.
Yet one night I finally felt the need to bathe and wash my thick head of hair. So I heated up some water on the stove, broke out a washcloth to take care of the vitals and then washed my hair under the sink. But it still required some heavy rinsing, so I took another deep pan of lukewarm water outside to stand in the snow and pour the water over my head. It was four degrees below zero outside.
Instantly my hair froze, but I wasn’t that worried about it. Yet when I’d stopped dripping and tipped my head up to look around, I felt something watching me. To be sure, it was one of the wolves from the Wolf Range peering at me through the darkness. It stood back from the fence a ways. I tipped my head back down and went inside. To this day it still feels like a dream. Perhaps it was.
For weeks I filled an art book with sketches and observations about my studies of bird art and works by masters such as George Miksch Sutton, Don Richard Eckleberry and Guy Coheleach. These were my heroes, and their work spoke to me in language as clear as an actual conversation. So I seldom needed to talk.
I only broke the relative vow of silence toward the end of the internship. I’d learned that a well-known artist lived near the Lab, so I fired up the LeSabre and was glad that it started at all, for it had a testy carburetor that tended to freeze over.
That afternoon I poured out questions to the artist, who kindly tolerated my aggressive curiosity, enthusiasm, and obsession with my own studies. He warned me that a career in bird art would likely never be lucrative, that one had to be lucky as well as good, but if you worked hard enough sometimes the two would combine.
That gave me pause of course. Perhaps I’d imagined that immersing myself in all that world-class art would somehow punch a ticket to the stardom I somewhat imagined for myself. So that interior dialog took up the rest of my time. It swirled inside my head as if my mind were an inside-out snowglobe matched by the daily batch of thick flurries falling from gray New York skies.
But I was happy. The last day of my internship the Laboratory director took a look at my collection of paintings and was complimentary of some of the feather work. “But you need to look at the whole bird to be convincing in your work,” he quietly instructed me.
That would honestly be a lesson learned over a lifetime. I never became famous for my bird art but have sold more than a thousand paintings over the years. Some of them pop back into my life now and then, and I calmly critique those early works with the inner dialogue of a painter unafraid to be alone with his thoughts, or his endeavors.
That is the social distance that all of us consumed with the arts or writing tend to keep. It is the space between the praise and production that drives us to be our own best and worst critics. It involves quite a bit of interior dialogue and even time apart from all of humanity to find the truth. But nature is never the enemy. It is the type of social distancing that works for me. It always has. And it always will.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com