Thursday 31 October 2013

Tale of an ugly duck

I find it difficult to predict which of the artworks I create will be most successful when they leave my studio for the big, wide world. Sometimes I slave over a piece that ends up lacking the special something that turns heads, while a piece that came together with relative ease receives unexpected acclaim. The most beautiful subject can result in a "flop" while an every-day or even downright homely subject can be the foundation for a captivating piece of art. I created one such piece earlier this year - a peculiar looking bird with a face that, as they say, only a mother (or perhaps an artist) could love. I'm referring to this drawing of a wild Muscovy drake entitled simply Wild Muscovy.

"Wild Muscovy" coloured pencil drawing
I met this handsome (not) fellow a couple of years ago at a bird sanctuary during one of my visits to the southern Caribbean island of Trinidad. I was not unfamiliar with these birds - we had a small flock of them on our family farm in Aldergrove, BC, when I was growing up. In fact, I had one that was rather a pet who I named Matilda. But this wild breed of Muscovy was a far cry from the slow, plump, somewhat comical farmyard birds I had previously known. There is an edge to these wild cousins that's present only in a creature who has to live by its wits and, unlike well-fed domestic birds, needs to be lively and athletic. I was captivated by the drake's wildly wattled face and jet black feathers of varying shapes and textures, not to mention the way he watched me. Although safe in the sanctuary where he allowed me to approach at quite close quarters, he didn't take his eyes off me for even a second.

Then last year, as regular readers of my blog will recall, I had the good fortune to spend a week in the tropical rainforest of Guyana. It was there I saw these wild birds again - elusive creatures swimming in ponds infested with caiman, snakes and who-knows-what, in territory teeming with jaguars and other major predators. These birds were hyper-vigilant, only too aware of the excellent meal they would make if they let their guard drop for even a moment. It was the sighting of these birds that sealed the deal for me: I wanted to create a piece of art about them, and I had a vision of what that piece of art would look like.

I knew that depicting a wild Muscovy would be, for me, an exercise in rendering textures - warty wattles, glossy feathers, a glassy eye and burnished beak. I also knew my other challenge would be to capture the bird's wild energy. For the textures, I fell back on my repertoire of coloured pencil techniques but for the energy I relied on the dynamic relationship of complimentary colours (in this case red and green). Composition also played a role. I placed the focal point of the bird's eye using the traditional rule of thirds, but then I intentionally pointed the bird's beak right at the corner of the drawing - a compositional no-no - taking the viewer's eye almost, but not quite, out of the picture. I thought this risk suited the bird's wild nature.

When the drawing was done, I have to say I was pleased. It was just as I had envisioned. Unlikely to be a commercial success, it fulfilled my own artistic vision. And really, isn't that what art making is, or at least should be, all about?

I had no expectations that this drawing had any particular merit, so imagine my surprise when Wild Muscovy was successfully juried into Arts 2013, an annual exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery of works from around the region. When that exhibition concluded, I entered Wild Muscovy into AIRS at the Federation Gallery in Vancouver (AIRS stands for Annual International Representational Show). It's an understatement to say I was absolutely delighted when it was selected for this prestigious exhibition. Wow!

"Wild Muscovy" hanging in excellent company in AIRS 2013

Now I felt like Wild Muscovy might be on a roll. A call for entries for a book called Colored Pencil Treasures - Volume II, to be published later this year, arrived in my in-box and I decided to enter two images: my award winning Solitary Steller's Jay (first place award at the Coloured Pencil Society of Canada's national exhibition in 2012) and, you guessed it, Wild Muscovy. And which one do you think was selected? The elegant Steller's jay or the kooky Muscovy duck? Why, the duck of course!

"Solitary Steller's Jay" coloured pencil drawing

So it just goes to show that when it comes to art, even the ugliest duck can, like in fairy tales, turn out to be something special. And the moral of the story is that artists should always follow their hearts, even when it points them in some unusual directions.

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