painting and what’s important


Why would 21st century bird-watchers – to say nothing of doctors or architects – still consult watercolors and gouaches for information? It seems odd that painting would have anything to contribute to our accumulated trove of megapixels, much less that it would be a preferred medium among fact-seeking insiders. But painting offers something the mechanical methods don’t – a sophisticated technology of its own for showing us what we really need to see. And although Audubon himself (a fierce innovator) would probably be surprised to find his technique still going strong, his drawings provide an excellent example of just what makes painting so irreplaceable.

Looking at the many handsome examples in the new “Audubon: Early Drawings” – due to be published this fall by Harvard, this is the first book to collect and reproduce the pastel, ink, and watercolor studies from early in his career – it’s not hard to glean the first principle that makes his illustrations so effective: spareness. Although Audubon usually sketches in some contextual clues – a tree stump, some sand, three or four leaves – his pages are remarkably blank. What he is really studying is the bird, so Audubon surrounds the specimen – the osprey, the bullfinch, or the linnet – in white, letting his notes take care of the habitat, migration patterns, and the rest. Audubon preemptively limits the context, isolating and foregrounding the more salient details so we know at a glance what’s important and what isn’t.

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