Kieth Hansen joined us April 29th, 2015 at Green Apple Books. The first of our series’ “wandering era.”
Kieth Hansen has been hooked on birds since he was a kid, when his brother ran into to grab him, and showed him a Cedar Waxwing in the woods of Maryland. Not long after, his family moved to Fresno, where the Sierra Nevada became his backyard, and he went deep into birding, and on to do a 3 week stint on the Farallones with PRBO in 1974 as the youngest person to be allowed on the islands. Since then his birding has taken him all over the world.
He also came from an artistic family, and those two interests were have been tied together since his senior year of high school. His first book was a coloring book about birds of the Sierra, followed by a 4 year project to produce illustrations for “Discovering Sierra Birds” co-authored by my Ted Beedy and Steve Granholm.
His most recent project has been one 14 years in the making — 1400 paintings of 320 species each with their different plumages based on sex, age, seasonality — called “Birds of the Sierra Nevada: Their Natural History, Status and Distribution” with co-authors Ted Beedy and Ed Pandolfino.”
Originally it was planned as one book, but the field guide + life history became too much. The life history book has been published first with example images from the field guide illustrations.
To paint one illustration takes about 2 months from a blank canvas, a slow process of building up the picture of the bird, starting with pencil, measuring out and couting the feathers; wetting the bird and starting with a neutral tint for shadow, then adding color, sheer washes over each other, drawing more while the paint drys, then back to paint; paying attention to the translucency of feathers as they overlap; the full colored bird building up slowly but surely; the final touches in place with colored pencil.
A lot of these images are made up, not directly from a photo or illustration, but trying to get the bird in the perfect pose: pulling from his own years of observation, videos he has taken, specimens, other books, and photos. Consulting with his many birding friends and experts in the birding world to make sure he has gotten it right. This is his 13th book, and for the most part he can block birds out without too much work, it’s the details that take the time and effort. Although he enjoys it, he does not draw as much as he would like in the field.
His love of birds is clear from the beauty of his final exquisite images, and he takes inspiration from his trips out in the field (he showed a great video of birds in the Sierra’s) and also in his backyard in Bolinas. His studio has proved itself an excellent little observatory as well.
His images are fairly small — but this is mostly a factor that he has had to draw so many, and that they will actually be even smaller in the book. He has been pleased to see how well they can be blown up though. One of the most important factors in getting the birds right is their weight and center of gravity — how they carry themselves, and their relation of their legs to the body.
We still illustrate bird guides he says, because they can be drawn in a neutral space, the same generic conditions and lighting to make them easier to compare, and it is easier to highlight and show features. A photo guide has the disadvantage of having a background and the varied lighting, and varied conditions. With an illustration it is easier to show the details and variations that matter.
I hope that he keeps illustrating birds for many years to come. His studio in downtown Bolinas is well worth a visit (he related a funny story about why he has so many hummingbird feeders). He also leads tours through a company called Sacred Monkey. More information can be found on his website at http://keithhansen.com/
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