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I've been wanting to do a bluebird piece for a long time, but I was only recently able to finally gather all the reference material I needed to create a strong painting design.
I was raised on a farm in eastern Iowa between the town of Swisher and the eastern-most colony of the Amana Colonies appropriately called, East Amana. The farm included some rich Iowa River bottom ground and nearby hills and valleys with a mosaic of timber and pasture. The timber included a number of ancient trees including old white oaks dating back to pre-settlement days. A creek ran through the farm. There were lots of places to explorer and learn about mother nature and I took full advantage of it.
I've never outgrown that passion, the excitement of exploring new country and learning about the natural world. Though I was raised on a farm I never really wanted to be a farmer. It always seemed more interesting to me to study the natural world. At a young age I realized I wanted to live and work on a farm, not to make a living but to work with the habitat and wildlife. Of course that usually doesn't pay very well so the dream stayed a dream for many years. So owning a piece of land in Iowa and managing it for habitat and wildlife has been a dream of mine for most of my life.
While teaching and raising a family, funds accumulated slowly, so I was almost 50 by the time I joined friends to purchase some ground in northern Missouri. I bought my current farm, a rather run down piece of ground in 1997. It showed a lot of use. The CRP was all brome and the timber long neglected and choked with multiflora rose. But it was what I was looking for. Not much of a farm for traditional farming, but it was a great candidate for a wildlife farm.
The following 11 years have been a labor of love. Lots of tree planting, timber stand improvement, putting in food plots, ponds and a wetland, re-establishing native grass and prairie. The property is managed for a lot of diversity of habitat with the goal of appealing to a wide range of wildlife. Along with nest boxes for Canada geese, kestrels, wood ducks, wrens, and tree swallows, we have number of bluebird houses and the bluebirds take full advantage of them.
I was sitting in a blind near one of these bluebird houses one morning as the rising sun cut through the morning fog. I'd carefully placed the blind to get the angle of light I wanted and for once everything went right. A pair of bluebirds came by house hunting. The male looked it over from a number of different angles. Then the female did her inspection. Meanwhile, a very excited wildlife artist (that's me) was enjoying the whole show and capturing it through a 200 mm lens for up-close results. That is how I captured the bluebird reference I subsequently used to paint Bluebirds and Purple Coneflower.
Along with building bird habitats, we've been working on re-establishing several prairie plots on the farm by seeding dozens of species of native grasses, forbs, and sedges. Much of the seed used I had collected myself during my wanderings. I also included a bag of seed I bought from Carl Kurtz, who is an exceptional photographer and sells native seed raised on his farm. (We first met in the 1960s while studying Fish and Wildlife Biology at Iowa State University.) The seed bag was composed of up to 80 different plants, so each year I walk the prairies and see if I can spot any new members of the community emerging. There are the plants that show up only after a number of years. Then there are the old reliables that show up every year. One that is very showy in the summer is purple coneflower. I like to head out at dawn each morning with my camera and take photos while the light is prime. It was on several of these forays that I collected the purple coneflower reference.
Though I've taken out many of the interior fences on the property, I often leave old fence posts in place when they are not in the way. In southeastern Iowa, most of these were cut from hedge apple (Osage-orange) decades ago. Hedge posts are extremely rot resistant and therefore last a very long time. The older they get, the more character they develop. This particular post sits along a lane which cuts through a little patch of prairie. Though I didn't see the pair of bluebirds in that particular spot, it seems like a natural setting for them. It also provided the reference post for this painting. Once I had the components I needed, I created the conceptual design, and then finally the original painting. I had plenty of reference material, so I experimented with various elements and compositions until I found the arrangement I liked best. It was fun to work the various colors up and down to find the right balance. Developing the atmosphere of the scene enhanced the sense of depth.
These paintings, even though they may seem simple in composition at first glance, seem to always take longer than I anticipate to finish. It's worth the work, though, because it's final result that counts. I hope you like the result of my work this time: Bluebirds and Purple Coneflower.
- Larry Zach