Michael O'Brien (Part 2)

How would you describe your preferred style of art and what is your favorite medium?

Most artwork that I do is portraits of birds, partly because that’s what most illustration jobs call for. I don’t get much practice at doing backgrounds, so I’m not very good at them. Having said that, the bird art that I find most appealing is either a whole scene with a small bird, preferably in a loose style, or a simple field sketch. The tight portraits are a bit more boring, I think. A good pose or strong lighting is what makes portraits more interesting. And a good field sketch often conveys a bit of action, and that appeals to me.

My favorite medium is gouache, which is like watercolor but more opaque. It handles easily (most of the time!), is more forgiving than watercolor, and is easy to clean up afterwards. It is the medium used by most field guide artists. I also enjoy pen and ink and scratchboard, though I don’t do as much of that as I used to. When I do field sketches, I like to use a plain old ballpoint pen. I like the permanence of it. Any mistakes I make stay there, which removes any subconscious idea that I’m working on a finished piece of art. A field sketch is strictly an exercise in observation, so it doesn’t matter what the finished product looks like.

How does drawing birds make you a better observer?

It’s simple, really. When you draw something, you look at it much more closely than you would have otherwise. And by drawing regularly, you train yourself to take in more detail with a quick view, especially details of shape and proportion. That’s one of the best reasons to do field sketches. Even if they are terrible and you throw them away when you’re done, the process of sketching will have honed your observation skills.

 How did you become an expert with identifying shorebirds in all plumages? 

I think of shorebirds the same way I think about other birds. The common denominators that unify all plumages are size, structure, behavior, and voice. With that approach in mind, learning a bird with varied plumages is not much different than learning one that’s less variable. It’s the platform from which you can learn the minutia of plumage variations, molt patterns, and other interesting aspects of each species.

 Has any shorebird ever stumped you? 

I get stumped by birds all the time, but usually because I don’t see or hear them well enough. I can’t say that I remember any particular shorebird that I saw well that still stumped me. But then maybe I’ve just blocked it out!

 If you have ever seen a hybrid shorebird how did you I.D. it? 

There was a juvenile Pluvialis plover that several of us studied closely in Cape May several years ago, and we agreed that it was most likely a hybrid American x Pacific Golden-Plover. A long list of structural and plumage traits were intermediate between the two species. And, perhaps the most compelling of all, it gave perfect calls of both species. It’s difficult to ever be 100% certain of a hybrid between such similar species as these two, but I feel pretty confident about this one.