Reference Materials

The saying “one picture is worth a thousand words” is especially true when it comes to woodburning and carving.

I use the burning pen to create feathers on my carved birds and to provide a furry texture to animal carvings. When doing pictorial woodburning, the burning pen can be used to render everything from a clump of grass underfoot to an eagle soaring above the trees. The basic criteria for doing this is that you need to know what something looks like in order to burn it ! And for that you need reference!

You’re going to need THIS:

Owl by Orchid W Davis
A good close-up of a Great Horned Owl that shows his eyes, and feather detail. You can almost tell what he’s thinking.

In order to do THIS …..

Owl by Orchid W. Davis
Owl Woodburning by Orchid W. Davis

Good reference comes in many forms and a live model is not necessarily the best one to work from.  I once wrote that the secret to my success was Ranger Rick and roadkills. “Ranger Rick” is a kids’ magazine published by the National Wildlife Federation which features incredible close ups of wildlife.You don’t even have to subscribe, any library will have a few copies of “Ranger Rick” in the youth section.

Roadkills are a mostly ignored source of information that allows you to take reference photos without climbing tall trees or wiggling through brambles. A roadkill can’t fly away or hide behind a bush just as you’re about to get the details you need of its fur, feathers  or maybe feet.

If opossums are all you can find on your back roads (never stop on an interstate, it’s much too dangerous) there are still many options for getting your own photos. Go to the zoo. You’ll get mostly pictures of beautiful tigers looking bored and sleepy but with a zoom lens you can even capture how the fur changes direction around its eyes and across its face.

If you’re a wildlife artist you’ll find taking your own reference photos is the perfect excuse to explore along a quiet stream or hike a mountain trail but with all the pictures available on the Internet you might wonder why I’m even suggesting you devote any time to doing so.

First of all, for me one of the biggest perks of my career is that I can go rambling around in the wilderness and claim I’m “working”. But seriously, the pictures you’ll find on the Internet are likely to be pretty much like the ones you see in every birder’s field guide…… accurate, but not detailed enough. You need to see more than the fact that there’s a white wing bar there, you need to see individual feathers.

When taking bird photos I’ll take a snapshot of the classical side view showing the usual identifying marks but what I’m really after are the views you don’t find in the bird books.

As a bird carver I know the most sought after shot I can get is a good clear picture of  the bird’s butt. You just can’t find them in Birds & Blooms. Years ago I did a Virginia Rail carving for a competition. I thought it was pretty good but all I got was an honorable mention. When asked for a critique the judge complained that I had done a good job on the rest of the bird but it looked like I got in a hurry and didn’t define the undertail feathers very well. I would have been absolutely delighted to define those feathers but I had  no earthly idea what they looked like. I couldn’t find a single photo of that bird’s bottom.

Another neglected area is the back of the head. You’ve heard the saying “she’s got eyes in the back of her head”? Well sometimes this is true, or at least it appears to be. Both Kestrels and Red Tailed Hawks have a feather pattern that mimics a large eye on the back of their head but you could look through bird books for years without ever finding out about it. A carver needs a lot of information and most of it should be visual. Even if you don’t carve it won’t hurt to know as much as possible about your subject, it allows you to be more creative with your designs.

Taking your own reference photos gives you a chance to get to know the bird or animal you’re portraying. It will also alert you to “misleading” reference. The stripes on a tiger born and bred in a zoo may be accurate but the attitude isn’t. You can dress your mom in a tutu and have her assume a ballet pose but she won’t look like a real ballerina. A picture can be technically correct without being true.

When people buy a home the commute to work is usually a big factor. I work at home so my work as a wildlife artist played a big part in buying my Arizona house. My home is actually a live-in photography blind. The first thing you see when you come to my web is the view of the Chiricahuas from my front porch. It’s the only house I’ve ever had that has squeaky clean windows, in every direction, all the time. You never know who’s going to drop by for refreshments.

Deer by Orchid W Davis

Like the little mule deer that checked out the water I put out for the quail.

Deer checking hummingbird feeder

Or his big sister who wanted a sip from the hummingbird feeder.

Deer posing for Orchid Davis

Finally, one of them took the time to go stand in a patch of sunlight and pose for me!

All three of the deer pictures above were taken from the living room but the roadrunner                                      I had to shoot from the dining room window.

Roadrunner photo by Orchid W Davis

Usually the shy coyotes only come at dawn or dusk and they stay back in the bushes so it’s impossible to get a good photo no matter which window I try. This fellow came sneaking in from the south, luckily I had my camera in the studio with me.

Coyote by Orchid W Davis

But persistence pays off !!! Finally I got the shot I’d been waiting for. Actually I took 18 photos of this guy and as he turned to go he looked back one last time and I knew this was the one.

Coyote by Orchid W Davis

This photo was taken while standing on tiptoe on the edge of the tub so I could shoot through the bathroom window. (The only window in the house that faces north.)

I’m using it as an example of how to make your own pattern in my new book.

Cat and dog image

You can use the same steps with a photo of your pet dog or cat if you wish.

The most common mistake in taking photographs of pets is to just stand there looking down on them. The best view for a portrait is at eye level.

Another hint is to pose your subject (if you have a choice) at an easy to render angle. A profile is the easiest. You only have one eye to deal with so there’s no need to worry about making sure both eyes are gazing in the same direction ~ which is often a problem with my favorite pose,  the 3/4 view. Full face is good, especially if the animal has large soulful eyes like a puppy.

About the only bird that looks good in a head on view is the owl, which has forward facing eyes, all the others look better in profile. Especially long beaked birds like herons !  Trying to do a Great Blue Heron in 3/4 or head on will give you a great big headache.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s