Audubon’s Creative Process

August 28, 2018

The Beinecke Library’s 2018-2019 Birds of America exhibition will feature facsimile prints from The New-York Historical Society Edition of John James Audubon’s Watercolors, the Complete Avian Collection, [Chicago]: Oppenheimer Editions, c2010, alongside completed plates in the Double Elephant Folio. This three-part installation series explores Audubon’s creative process and his collaboration with British engraver and printer Robert Havell.

John James Audubon’s monumental work, The Birds of America, is made up of prints derived from the naturalist’s watercolor paintings, works he created while traveling across the country looking for new bird species. Audubon was a keen observer in the field, to be sure, but most of his drawings were made from recently-killed birds he collected for use as models. Though drawing from specimens was not new, Audubon introduced a profoundly effective innovation: the artist-naturalist used wires and pins to fix his models in life-like positions informed by his knowledge of each bird’s nature and habits. To achieve his aim of representing “nature as it existed,” Audubon’s pencil and ink sketches were colored and textured with various combinations of watercolor, pastel, graphite, oil paint, and chalk. With many paintings completed, Audubon struggled to find a collaborator to undertake the work of engraving and printing reproductions for publication. His eventual partners, Robert Havell and Son of London, prepared more than 400 of Audubon’s paintings for publication. In addition to making copperplate engravings of each painting and printing the images, their work included supervising as many as 150 colorists applying aquatint color to the black and white prints. Colorists worked in assembly-line fashion, each applying a single shade to create the vivid and detailed finished plates.

1/3–August 30: Volume II (Copy 2): Plate CLXXXI (181) Golden Eagle – A Missing Self Portrait

2/3–January 16: Volume II (Copy 2): Plate CLXXI (171) Barn Owl Audubon’s Collaborator

3/3–April 29: Volume 2 (Copy 2): Plate CII (102) Blue Jay – Image and Narrative


Above: detail from Audubon’s watercolor, Summer Red Bird (Summer Tanager) detail; below: Plate 44, Summer Red Bird