Written by Detlef Tibax
All images and paintings are credited to Lars Jonsson
Sources: https://www.biotope.cloud/2015/03/gullfest-2015-arctic-art-architecture.html?m=0 http://www.larsjonsson.se/, http://www.namke.se/Reseminnen/Reseminnen_1.asp, 'Lars Jonsson's Birds', 'Birds and Light - The Art of Lars Jonsson'
Few artist's work have mesmerised me as much as Lars Jonsson's. Lars is a Swedish painter, author and ornithologist that is often referred to as the best bird painter in the world. His works are primarily made in oils and watercolours. He has been active since the sixties having his first solo exhibition at the age of 15, is the author of over 12 books and even has his own museum on Gotland in the Baltic Sea. I'm going to discuss two of his paintings to underline his skills.
One of Lars' best known watercolour paintings called 'Winter Patterns' (2008) of a Gyrfalcon in the snow -
57 x 76 cm
While Lars's knowledge on bird anatomy is stunningly accurate and greatly differentiating him from other bird artists (he created the field guide 'Birds of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East' and has countless contributions to other bird guides and magazines), I am especially struck by his knowledge of the watercolour medium. In this article, I will quickly analyse two of his paintings and try to explain some of the details that make me admire his craft so much.
Eye for detail
Lars has several styles. He has both very stylistic and very loose, free flowing works from the studio and the field. No matter how loose it is, it's always accurate. I think that years of observation and capturing shape, movement and light in countless sketches must have perfected his knowledge about bird anatomy. His work perfectly illustrates that once you know anatomy, you will produce a good representation of your art subject regardless of your style or medium.
But how did he learn to master the watercolour medium, and more interestingly, the dramatic lights and darks that fill his works? Perhaps it has naturally evolved with him during all his fieldwork, where he exposed himself to several weather & light conditions in beautiful seascapes. There is a brilliant, almost effortless play between water and colour in his paintings. It's watercolours in its purest form and spontaneity.
Quote from the book 'Bird and Light':
"When watercolour painting is at its best, there is no friction between hand and eye, it feels as if I disappear into the act itself. It is largely about orchestrating what happens by chance. Working wet on wet means assessing exactly what stage the surface is at, applying the next colour when the underlying colour is exactly as moist as required to get the desired effect. the combination of the amount of water, the structure of the paper and the brushstrokes is often more important than getting an exact colour tone. These stages come to me almost instinctively, there is no time to think, and then the moment has already gone. It is like playing a piece of music: once you have started there is only one way to go - onwards."
A quick analysis
Let's have a look. Note that Lars has produced thousands and thousands of paintings and sketches over the last decades, so choosing a favorite work is next to impossible. However, for the sake of this analysis, I need to pick one that has left me speechless for a long time.
Unfortunately, one of my favorites of his is also one of the most difficult ones to find an image of. The only picture I found of it is the one below, from when he was giving a slide show:
It's a Black Browed Albatross with a chick on the nest. This to me is a painting that illustrates Lars's perfect knowledge of the watercolour medium's behaviour. Everyone who has worked with watercolours knows it can be very tough and frustrating. It is probably the hardest, least forgiving medium out there. It can take years before you actually understand the exact actions you need to take to achieve a painting like the one above.
Damp paper and wet in wet techniques
Please note that what I describe are my thoughts and assumptions based on my own knowledge of the medium.
Let's have a look at the part highlighted by the black circle. It is hard to derive if gouache was used (an opaque watercolor paint) so I will assume only pure watercolours were used. The area is potentially a result of wetting the paper and wait until it has the exact right dampness, then applying a damp, pigment saturated paint brush to gently outline the shape of the bird's head, and at the same time keeping the head area white with a tissue to prevent any pigment from flowing inwards. When the area is dry, it could be that additional rubbing away of the hard edges was applied to achieve the silky transition between the white and the beige. But that's just an educated guess.
What strikes me so much here is the consistency of the silky effect across the whole head contour, in combination with the knowledge that he must have had to work quickly to create the light and dark beige background with all the interesting effects within. There is also no pencil sketch visible.
Then looking at the breast area, there is an incredible play between value and medium behaviour displayed. A slow, pigmented brushstroke of beige next to white paper could have created a situation on the paper where the beige was bleeding into a non-pigmented area, slightly creating a cauliflower effect. Then applying the cool blue and grey into a still damp area, created a wonderful value and tone.
It looks effortless and insignificant at first, but behind these areas runs a deep knowledge of watercolours and value and colour theory.
If we look at the lower back area (below), we can see a beautiful transition between the bird and the background. The darker feather pigment is hitting into the beige of the background but just the right amount. The paint must have been creamy or consistent enough to not flow further. If this would have happened, the shape of the bird would be inaccurate.
Here however, the soft edge created a wholeness between the bird and the background, interlinking the two, melting into one.
Going more down into the painting, some interesting areas attract the eye of the spectator. Note the smallest circle area where light and dark are played out next to each other to create a sense of depth and contrast. The biggest circled area on the right shows an almost feather soft, voluminous texture contrasting with the darker grey that contains cauliflower areas. A wonderful example to play out cauliflower effects as an enhancing effect rather than a distraction.
The lower circled area illustrates bold drops saturated with darker paint to create texture and detail, but just enough to not be distracting. The white areas across the whole nest are done with dry brushstrokes, preserving the white of the paper and using it to create more interesting textures.
Looking at the overall painting leaves me intrigued. The background has so much interesting areas. it doesn't have any perspective, yet it works perfectly because of the shifts in value and warmth. A true marvel!
Another of his watercolour paintings that completely blew me away is this detailed study of a Woodcock on a wet forest floor. When I first saw this painting, I didn't even look at the incredible detail of the plumage of the bird, let alone think about how this feather detail can be achieved with watercolours. I was primarily fascinated by the depth and level of texture present in the rest of the painting. I always find that separating leafs and branches in watercolour paintings is very hard. I usually end up with one blur and try to save the work by inserting some random brushwork to achieve abstraction. But this work lays down each detail perfectly, even the blurry reflections of the branches and the feathers in the water. A sublime composition and craftsmanship!
If you haven't picked up one of this books, please do. It's a joyful, almost poetic experience to read through them. And if you ever get a chance to visit his museum, I'm sure it will be an unforgettable experience, whether you are an artist yourself or not. I had the honour of meeting the guy years ago when he was giving a lecture on the Belgian National Bird Day at the University of Antwerp. A real treat for anyone who is passionate about birds!
Catch you in the next one folks!
Lars in his studio - Source: Wikipedia