Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Painting the Ideal Robin

Roger Tory Peterson wrote and illustrated one of the definitive bird identification books called Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

The goal of the pictures in a field handbook is to present the essential type, the Platonic ideal of the species in question. His son Lee Allen Peterson says that his father's rendering of a robin:
"was not  just any old robin, but the perfect robin. Somehow, he was able to convey a bird not at a specific moment in time, awkwardly posed with feathers in disarray, but rather, as the mind saw it, the robin idealized, with feathers neatly patterned and plump." 

American Robin by Roger Tory Peterson from
Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America
In order for the art to include the characteristic and diagnostic features, the artist must be more than a convincing realist painter. He or she must possess a large body of knowledge and experience, accessible from memory, from which to screen out any accidental or non-essential detail.
American Robin, photo courtesy Wikipedia
Lee Allen Peterson continues:
"His results were all the more remarkable when one watched how they were achieved. He worked mostly from memory, using only a dry, beat-up specimen of the bird for details of anatomy and occasionally a photograph or two. And he was able to piece together an image of the bird as it should have been. Not just any robin, but all robins."
Book: Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America


Lee Leslie said...

This approach works well for the easily identifiable birds like Robins, Cardinals or Jays, but I often find the alternative approach wherein several morphs in a range are represented to be most helpful in identifying birds with more subtle variation.

That said, one could make an interesting comparison to naturalist's "ideal type" illustration with the works of most pin-up artists. Seems like a similar Frankenstein approach is undertaken.

Rich said...

Another interesting post!
Somehow reminds me of your 7th February post about the "great formula" cars:

There as well, "Ideal Type" illustrations beyond life;

there you showed us that Old(s)mobile photograph, the "real car", against the outstanding photorealistic "ideal" achievements of the illustration-team:
Art Fitzpatrick & Van Kaufmann; the Dream-team.

Laura G. Young said...

"Platonic ideal" -- great way to put it! It's amazing how many noticeable variations there are, even in one localized species. I'm guessing that dinosaur depictions attempt to do the same; perhaps even more so since so much of what we know has been pieced together from multiple individuals.

Terry said...

Wow, that brought in a wave of nostalgia for my old Peterson Field Guides (which I still have, and take when I go bird watching, which is rare, these days). There really was no one like him. I find the newer ones using photos not so satisfying to use. Just as accurate, I suppose, but not as satisfying. (Here's me being old again.)

David Webb said...

A brilliant field guide... which I bought in the 70's. Still a great book. Terry's right. The photo books are not as good. Another good one is the Birds of Europe, by Swedish artist Lars Jonsson.

Anna Glinsmann said...

wow you semm to have a very different kind of robins overseas ...? Here, I know them as small, round, fat and cute. Not at all this long.

My Pen Name said...

Anna - American Robins were named 'robins' by English settlers because of their superficial similarities to English robins but they are different species.