Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Monday, October 10, 2016

A museum, an artist and an osprey

Last summer,  I was busy thinking up sketches for "Creekfinding", my latest picture book written by Jackie Briggs Martin, due out next spring. Jackie's first words told about a place in time, before written language, that formed her story's location.

How does a creek get lost?
especially a creek that started long ago,
with a spring that burbled out of the ground,

and tumbled itself across a prairie valley.

The words felt "epic" to me, hinting of the quiet geographic and geologic drama that unfolded slowly over millennia. My illustrative thoughts went cinematic; an aerial layout for this opening spread came to mind. I pictured immediately a grand bird's eye-view of this lush land. Maybe the viewer could be above the bird- what a vantage!

What kind of bird would I use? One that would be appropriate habitat-wise for the setting. An eagle, perhaps? Eagles are certainly seen in this kind of area, but perhaps too predictable. An osprey, I had not drawn. They are magnificent. That's what I settled on, although I was not familiar their ways or plumage at all.

I love natural history museums and we have such a good local one in the University of Iowa's Museum of Natural History. I've sung it's praises before, but it truly is the best place to research birds and animals, and that's where I go when I want authenticity on illustration detail. I emailed the collections person and she said they had several stuffed Osprey specimens and some "skins" (feathers and body shape preserved) that I could look at.

I made an appointment at the museum and tucked my sketchbook under my arm. The museum staff was ready in the lab, with several Osprey specimens "flown in" from their archived perches, eager to meet me!

It is a gift to look at a bird up close. Even when that individual is long gone (some of these specimens in the collections are over 100 years old), I still marvel at the privilege. Osprey are lovely, with speckled lighter heads and banks and banks of walnut brown body feathers nestled tightly together in impossible precision. The talons speak of their strength and beauty. Shiny amber eyes once detected the slightest movement from miles below. As I drew a few details and recorded some features, I felt I was adding to this creature's original story by my interpretation of his earthly remains. There would be lift to his wings again, spread to full span, and he would scan above the driftless valley, as he did long ago, in search of a tasty trout lunch.

From the University of Iowa's bird collection

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