Audubon’s Art Method and Techniques

Wild Turkeys – John James Audubon

Audubon started to develop a special technique for drawing birds in 1806 a Miill Grove, Pennsylvania. He perfected it during the long river trip from Cincinnati to New Orleans and in New Orleans, 1821.

  1. The freshly killed specimen was mounted in front of a background that was marked off into squares, and was held in place by wires.
  2. Drawing paper 30 x 40 inches in size was used, since it was the largest size available.  Every drawing was made life size.
  3. A rapid outline sketch was made to ensure correctness of proportions; then the outline was transferred, by tracing or otherwise, to the permanent drawing paper.  Details were then added, minute structures of feathers being shown.  Sometimes one bird from an early drawing would be cut out and pasted onto a later drawing.  The composite would be engraved and published.  Certain of Audubon’s bird backgrounds were done by Joseph Rober Mason, George Lehman, and John Woodhouse Audubon.  Some details, notably insects were drawn by Maria Martin Bachman, and at least one bird was drawn by John Woodhouse Audubon.
  4. Pencils, chalks, pastels and water colors were the media used.
  5. Audubon would try to complete a drawing whle the bird was as fresh as possible.  Sometimes, the work on a large bird took two or three days.

While he was in Louisiana, Audubon evolved a general plan for his proposed publication.

  1. The sheets were of the so-called “double elephant folio” size, almost 40 x 30 inches.
  2. Since each bird was drawn life size, several of the tall birds had to be shown bending down to pick up food. (The Whooping Crane was spearing young alligators.)
  3. The plates were issued in groups of five called fascicles, the finished set consisting of 87 groups totaling 435 plates.  In each fascicle he tried to include a variety of size and type of bird.
  4. The price in Great Britain was £182/14s (about $845); in America tariff raised it to $1000.
  5. About 190 of 200 sets were made, of which three were sold in Louisiana, as follows: One set to the Legislature of Louisiana, through Governor Andre Bienvenu Roman. (It is now in the Presbytere.) One set to Mr. James F. Grimshaw, cotton broker, who was also an agent for Audubon.  One set to Mr. Gustavus Schmidt, Attorney at Law.
  6. Publication begun in 1826 was finished in 1838, having been at press for 12 years

Willilam Home Lizars, of Edinburgh, contracted to engrave “The Bird of America,” and he completed the first tenplates.  But labor trouble developed in his shop, and he gave up the job.  Robert Havell, Jr., of London, then took over.  He touched up (or re-engraved) the ten original plates and carried the work to completion.  His work was superior to Lizars’, and also much cheaper.  Prints showing all the structures were made from copper plate; the colors were applied by hand to every print.  The colorists used Audubon’s original drawing as their guide and he often added many handwritten instructions and specifications to the drawing.

After the great project was completed, the copper plates were shipped to New York.  Mrs. Audubon sold the plates to a firm in New York which stored them in a warehouse until 1865.  Around 1873, a few were given away, and the rest were sold as scrap metal.  A fourteen-year old boy watched the priceless plates being thrown into a furnace.  After much difficulty, he prevented the melting of about thirty-seven of the plates.   Some of these were sent to the American Museum of Natural History.  The Smithsonian Institution, Princeton University, and Wesleyan University.  Others were distributed to private individuals.  —Edward S. Hathaway1 – 1966 as published in a soft-cover print book produced by the Louisiana State Museum and Friends of the Cabildo entitled Audubon in Louisiana. 

1.Edward S. Hathaway was a retired professor of Zoology at the time of this publication.  He is mentioned quite prominently in Gordon Patterson’s The Mosquito Crusades: A History of the American Anti-Mosquito Movement from the Reed Commission to the First Earth Day.  According to Patterson, Hathaway was born in 1886 and earned his doctorate in ichthyology and herpetology at the University of Wisconsin after World War I.  He served as professor of zoology at Tulane from 1925 to 1952.  

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