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Burning Feathers and Pewter Feet

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from the magazine

Burning Feathers and Pewter Feet

Sleepy Hollow Diarist Summer 2016
Arts and Culture

Eons ago, I sold The New Yorker a few cartoons. They used only the ideas, never the drawings. I was resentful, even when Charles Addams chose my view of hell to illustrate. His rendering showed two entrances: one crowded with miserably overheated newcomers, above them the Dantean sign ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE; another with entrants comfortably gliding through, beneath a legend reading SIX SINS OR LESS. When I saw Addams’s drawing, I muttered inaudibly: I can do that. Not as well, perhaps, but still.

When The New Yorker soon stopped buying captions from outsiders, I abandoned all hope of entering the field of art—until the summer morning I went for a stroll in Sag Harbor. The local paper had run a feature about Bob Hand, a resident wood-carver who specialized in high-end ($500 on up) duck decoys and songbirds.

Hand turned out to be an ex-marine, gruff, weighty, paint-stained, a magnet for sawdust and machine oil. In contrast, his Hand-made flock was delicately hued, not a feather out of place. Species ranging from the ruby-throated hummingbird to the purple martin peered from their perches with neorealistic glass eyes. They appeared to see through the visitor—or at least, into his wallet.

I introduced myself. Gesturing around the workshop, Hand noted, “Self-taught.” He went on to describe the backbreaking work at his family’s Bridgehampton truck farm. One epochal day, a real-estate developer made an offer he couldn’t refuse. With leisure and income to do what he wanted, the free man had an epiphany. “I always liked to draw birds. I decided to give them three dimensions.”

Studying photographs, taxidermy specimens, and living fliers, Hand began shaping objects out of pine, tupelo, bass, and other woods, deftly suggesting avian musculature, posture, and plumage. But one moment always gave him pause. “I dreaded painting the little sculptures. All that work leading up to the time when one wrong tone would ruin the whole project.” His answer: acrylics. These are microscopic bits of color suspended in a quick-drying polymer. “Unlike oils,” Hand pointed out, “they can be thinned down with tap water until the tint is merely a hint, and then you overlay that, and keep going until you get exactly the hue you want. Up close, birds are much more complicated than they seem at a distance.” So I gathered, from the variety of tones and shades displayed by the wood drake decoy with his magenta, yellow, and bone-colored bill, iridescent green-and-violet head, umber sides, and burgundy breast dotted with snowy triangles.

Moving down the shelf, scrutinizing a carmine cardinal and a cerulean blue and burnt-sienna eastern bluebird, I had my own epiphany: I can do that. Not as well, perhaps, but still.

That summer, I acquired books on bird carving and bird painting. The Internet offers a cornucopia of aids for the novice, among them tools for burning feathers into the wood, artificial eyes, and pewter feet. Like all carvers, I began to see birds in a different light. When they landed at the feeder, for example, I noted that mourning doves weren’t simply gray-and-beige. They had undertones of teal around the eye and lavender beneath the ashen neck.

Then came the painting. Only after considerable trial and error did I realize that while oils over acrylics can result in special effects, acrylics over oils can result in abstract expressionism—appealing on canvas, appalling on birds. It took months to reach the crowning insight, which now animates all the avians I produce and promptly give away. (To sell them would turn an avocation into a vocation.)

When a wild animal flies across your path this summer, follow Bob Hand’s counsel and take a second look. Early impressions rarely reveal the truth. Black, for example, is a combination of colors—often ultramarine and dark chocolate, or phthalocyanine blue and Hooker’s green. It’s never the color of charcoal. As for carbon black’s opposite, titanium white is no more lifelike than a piece of chalk. It needs a touch of rose or cerulean to make it seem real. To render a crow or a dove with flat elemental shades is to create nothing more than a . . . magazine cartoon.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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