Bird at Window.. keeping it (sur)real.

“History repeats itself, but the special call of an art which has passed away is never reproduced. It is as utterly gone out of the world as the song of a destroyed wild bird” – Joseph Conrad.

I’ve always loved surrealism. Not so much in the René Magritte sense where he pushes it to such a degree, but being able to put a spin on composition.. enough to both interest my own quirky sensibilities but also something that might engage or challenge the viewer into enquiry. To hold their attention.

Sometimes it works and sometimes not.


My submission piece entitled “Bird at Window” for the $25000 Whyalla Art Prize and subsequent success in recently being named a finalist, captures much of that intent. Let me explain..

It has taken me some years to realise, but the ideas or inspiration for painting and drawing really don’t fall from the sky. I’m not foolishly waiting for inspiration as I have mistakingly alluded to in the past.

Ideas present themselves all the time and I like to pay attention. If my burgeoning interest in photography has taught me anything it is that you have to recognise the moment and even better, be in the moment as often as you can. In a sense looking at the world through a viewfinder even though you have no camera with you. It can become automatic but one needs to work at it, be open to it.

My painting “Bird at Window” came about in such a way, simply sitting gazing out of a window in my lounge room one cold  winters afternoon.

I had noticed a small bird scampering about a pot plant outside the window. It seemed interested in the reflection of itself in the glass and was most likely unaware I was studiously watching it. This remarkable little creature, so close.

My initial reaction was to photograph it but like many of you would know, by the time I reached for my camera the bird would be gone.


My instinct then was to grab my nearby camera phone and take some pictures. It was what happened next that inspired me to create a working drawing of what would eventually develop into a large oil on canvas painting.

I mentioned my interest in photography right? (ok make that addiction).. like many mobile phone users, there is that urge to put an effect on the photo, to tamper with it.. and with so many interesting options why not right? I got the photo I wanted.

So there I am sitting browsing the many effects on my image whilst the bird at the window quietly pecks at its reflected image. Me tapping, the bird pecking. I eventually settled on something I was happy with, a sepia toned photo with these wonderful overlaid 35mm film spool holes along the top and bottom of the image.

It looked ready for posting to Tumblr, Facebook, Flickr or Instagram and that’s when I realised. This may be the way into something I had been trying to do for months.. create a piece of art that mixes both digital and photographic aesthetics with illustration or painting if that makes any sense.

Furthermore, I thought such a piece could further represent todays growing “culture of effect” where so many people (including myself) post edit their photographs often to a degree that they lose some of the reality, hence my surreal reference earlier.


“The bird” I decided on went through several stages.

It started life as a drawing on my digital tablet and was then transferred to my main studio computer from which I rescaled and reworked the image via a Wacom tablet and Photoshop. The original was a coloured version but I decided on grayscale eventually, along with re-working the already large cartoon-like eye into something closer to human.

So at this stage there had been no presence of natural media. No charcoal pencil, no brush no paper.. although looking at the digital image, one could easily be mistaken for thinking it was a sketchbook painting. I was also happy with the resulting A3 print and used this as a guide for the canvas version which was scaled up to approx 1.8 x 1 metre, mapped out using charcoal sticks.

I utilised a combination of thick spatula swipes and wide brush strokes of paint throughout the background of the drawing, being mindful of it being as close as possible to the original print.


Eventually the painting got to a stage where the subtle colouring or glazing began where oil colour is roughed in on top of the surface of dried underpainting and then wiped around the canvas with a clean rag. This takes a few hours as there is a measured combination of adding and subtracting the paint. In essence it is “staining” the canvas.


It was an interesting journey and whatever becomes of a painting if sold, one sometimes never knows.. but there is one personally satisfying thing about creating this piece. Late last year I set myself a task to try and work out a way to mix both my love of illustration or painting with my love of photography.


I talked about this very thing in a New Years resolution piece that New York magazine “Stated” published late last year when they asked various creative individuals what their hopes or ambitions were for 2013. In retrospect with the paintings reference to photography in a fairly literal sense, right from capture to composition, I have come some way in realising that goal.

It’s satisfying moments like this that mean so much more than whether your art sells or not, whether it is even liked or whether it is what the judges of any Art Prize are looking for.


The irony or metaphor may be lost on many looking at the bird, but for me it is a watershed moment, a work which may be the beginning of an interesting path where I can continue investigating both natural and digital media whether it be on computer, canvas or both.

Ok, gotta fly..