The Artistry Studio
An Introduction to the Fine Art of Wildfowl Sculpture
By: Laurie J. McNeil
While fine art collectors vie to collect the two dimensional works of the early and modern masters, there are those collectors who have found a new source of masterpieces being created by the master wildfowl sculptors throughout the world.
This art form requires the mastering of a combination of abilities, of which most would be fortunate, in mastering just one. The masters of old created beautiful depictions of everything the eye could see, the heart could feel, or the mind could imagine. Some of these masters created beautiful two-dimensional paintings on canvas which looked alive with depth, color and form. There were masters who created three-dimensional sculptures in stone and wood, and even some of these masters crossed over and did both painting and sculpture.
It was these old masters who paved the road for a new kind of master; the wildfowl sculptors. Modern day wildfowl sculpture; the sculpting of birds from wood, grew out of decoy making in the United States, beginning in the late 1960's. Decoys had been made by hunters of wildfowl and used in the field for centuries. The making of decoys is largely considered a “craft”. Then there were a few of these hunters who found their own art, in their decoys. They began to focus their abilities toward replicating the birds as they are in life, as sculptures in wood, right down to every feather quill and barb. The “craft” had evolved into true art form.
Decorative wildfowl sculpture became so popular, it began to be included at the hunting decoy competitions across the USA and Canada. As its popularity grew, a new breed of master artist began to evolve. However, not all wildfowl carvers are masters at their art form. This title is reserved for those who have earned it through competitive events such as the Ward World Championships of Wildfowl Art held each year in the USA, and through exclusive exhibitions at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, MD, and the annual Birds in Art Exhibit held since 1976, at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum of Art in Wausau, WI, as well as the Easton Waterfowl Festival held annually in November since the early 1970’s, when the entire city of Easton, Maryland converts into an art exhibit for a long weekend of waterfowl art of all kinds, showcasing wildfowl sculpture, exclusively inviting only master wildfowl sculptors to exhibit.
Having all of the skills required to be a master at wildfowl sculpture is not as common as one might think. The wildfowl sculptor must master several specialty skills to elevate themselves to the stature of a master and champion wildfowl sculptor. These skills include research, sketching and drawing, pattern making, sculpting, engineering, and painting.
Reference & Research
Before an artist can create a wildfowl sculpture, materials must be gathered to be used as reference for the creation of the clay model and pattern development. These include, photographs and videos of the live bird, study skins, study castings of actual specimen bills or beak, and feet, and actual measurements of the species to be carved. The artist must also study the specie's lifestyle, life cycle and the different life stages, as well as its habitat in which it lives, and its behavior during the different stages of life.
General knowledge of bird anatomy is a must to accurately sculpt wildfowl. The artist also must study in great detail, the anatomy and unique differences in the individual species they will be depicting in their sculpture. Accurate and detailed knowledge of wildfowl, such as the different feather groups, structure of individual feathers, and behaviors unique to the species, are attained only by the artist gaining intimate knowledge of the subject, through in-depth study of the chosen species.
Sculptural & Design Concept
Once the artist has selected the species of bird to be sculpted, a clay model of the bird or birds is created using the measurements and other reference materials. Creating a clay model allows the artist to view the sculpture from all sides, insuring a pleasing view from all angles. The clay model also will serve as the reference model and is key in developing a pattern to be used for band sawing the excess wood away from the rough block of wood. Throughout the sculpting process, the artist refers to the clay model as a visual aide, and will take measurements from the clay model and transfer them to the wood the sculpture is being sculpted from. The artist also must plan the depiction of the wildfowl and how it will be displayed; perched on a tree branch, sitting on nest, defending against a predator, or as the predator of another creature, there are endless scenarios to be depicted. All of these aspects must be considered and decided upon prior to creating a pattern for the sculpture.
Using the clay model the artist must develop their pattern by transferring their measurements from the three-dimensional model to a two-dimensional piece of paper. A pattern of the bird as viewed from above (top) must be created and then a side view correlating with the top view is created. The outermost dimensions of the clay model are used to create the templates, which will be traced around, onto the squared up block of wood, as guides for the band sawing process which removes the excess wood, prior to the artist sculpting it into the round.
The excess wood from the rough block being used for the sculpture is most often removed using a band saw. Having a band saw is a fortunate advantage to wildfowl sculptors. Having a large band saw is even better and allows for the largest of sculptures to be created, especially one-piece sculptures which often require larger pieces of wood. The skill of band sawing is an art in itself and requires accuracy and finesse in the artist’s ability to use a band saw, as well as a well maintained and true band saw, insuring an accurate cut.
Wood for Sculpting
Wildfowl Sculptors use a variety of different wood types to create wildfowl sculptures. Clear wood, free of knots and hard grain lines is used by the masters to create their wildfowl sculptures. Basswood, Jelutong, and Tupelo wood are popular in the USA, and Lime wood is used in the UK. Premium wood is very costly everywhere in the world, especially the large pieces a wildfowl sculptor needs to create one-piece life-size wildfowl sculptures. When premium wood is used, the sculptor can freely create without being interrupted by the issues (knots, punky soft spots, and grain lines) found in less than premium wood.
There are also master sculptors who choose to create their sculptures from a single piece of wood, eliminating the need for glues and wood fillers. These purist master sculptors create sculptures meant to withstand the test of time.
Sculpting in Wood
Modern day wildfowl sculptors are creating their sculptures using traditional methods of knives and gouges, and more modern methods employing the use of high speed rotary bits and power tools. Both methods are respected and in the end, the result is the same. The form of the species is sculpted to match the form of the life size clay model created as reference. When the basic form has been achieved, the wildfowl sculptor begins to carve and shape the individual feather groups and in full-out decorative sculptures, the sculptor creates feathers from head to tail, replicates the bill or beak to that of the live bird, and inserts the highest quality glass eyes, creating the life of the bird.
Detailing the Sculpture
The decorative aspects of wildfowl sculpture are defined by the amount of detail the sculptor achieves in their sculptures. There are Decorative Smoothies, where paint is used to define the details of individual feathers. With full decorative sculptures the detail is taken a step further, and the individual feathers are carved, then a wood burner is used to burn in and define every quill and feather barb, replicating the structure of the feathers found on the live bird.
Creation of Habitat
Decorative wildfowl sculptures most often require a base for their display, reflecting the habitat the bird or birds would be found in the wild. The habitat is hand formed by the artist and must be just as accurate to nature, as the depicted wildfowl is sculpted after the live bird. To create the fauna and flora of the wildfowl sculpture, the artist hand forms branches, leaves, lichen, bark, flower buds, petals and blooms from various metal rods, sheet brass, solder, epoxy and urethane resins, various hardwoods and more. Often, the creation of the habitat for a wildfowl sculpture is just as detailed and often more time consuming than the bird sculpture, in its creation.
Painting the Sculpture
Once the details of the sculpture have been achieved in both the wildfowl and its habitat, the artist has a fully textured, three dimensional canvas for painting. Colors and the subtle shading and highlighting found in nature, are painted onto the 3D canvas, according to the bird and the habitat depicted in the sculpture. The artist may use oil paints with various mediums, or acrylic based paint. The same color theory and methods used by the old masters are used to paint wildfowl sculpture. Artists use a variety of techniques to achieve the look of the live bird amongst a convincingly realistic appearance to the habitat it is interacting with.
Master Wildfowl Sculptors exist all over the world. However, not all master sculptors have official titles gained through the competitions held throughout the US, Canada, Europe. Many masters choose not to compete for titles and awards, with their titles being earned through their masterpieces and the impact their wildfowl sculptures have on the viewers, collectors, and connoisseurs of this fine collectible art form.
Laurie J. McNeil
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