06 November 2014

Striving for perfection


A wonderful (and unexpected – of course) surprise yesterday afternoon: the bird painter Rex Brasher.

Bald eagle

Known as "Connecticut's 20th-century Audubon", Rex Brasher (1869-1960) was born in Brooklyn, USA. As a youngster he became fascinated with birds. In 1878, at the age of 8, Brasher determined to paint all the birds of North America from life–and better [ahem] than John James Audubon (1785-1851).

Belted kingfisher

Rex Brasher started painting birds seriously around age 16 and produced 875 watercolors depicting 1,200 species and sub-species of North American birds. 

He strove for perfection, attempting to make his paintings as lifelike as possible by portraying birds in their natural habitats, illustrating gender differences and recording their everyday activities. 

Cinnamon teal

Visiting every state, Rex Brasher captured birds that are now extinct, including the Heath hen, Passenger pigeon and Eskimo curlew. 

Eagle and ducks

He often financed these trips by working at odd jobs, including stints on fishing boats (this allowed him to work while also studying seabirds). He also funded his work through more unusual means, such as betting on the horses. 

Great blue heron

Often unsatisfied with his results, he twice destroyed all his paintings, an estimated 700 canvases.
Mangrove cuckoo

In 1911, after having received a $700 commission for illustrating a book, Rex Brasher purchased a farm in Connecticut, calling it Chickadee Valley. 

By 1924 he had completed his series of paintings and attempted to have his work published. But the cost of printing all the plates in color was prohibitive. 

Roseate tern

Rex Brasher came up with a less costly solution: he hired a gravure company to produce black-and-white reproductions. And then he hand-colored the prints himself, using an airbrush and stencil technique that he’d developed. 

Snowy egret

This labor intensive process took four years to complete. The final book, Birds & Trees of North America, was produced in a limited edition of 100 sets of 12 volumes and included almost 90,000 hand-colored reproductions.

Swallow-tailed kite

I had a hard time finding large images without watermarks…