Dale Dyer on the Art of Illustrating Field Guides

I’ve been drawing and painting birds for books for about 25 years now. It seems like a long time, but it took me a while to get there. When I was a kid, Don Eckelberry was my hero – he was the illustrator for the Audubon Field Guide and the Guide to Birds of the West Indies by James Bond (real, not fictional) – and my dream was to become a bird illustrator. By the time I went to art school, however, I was enthralled by the great painting of the past and was determined to find a way to make great art in the present. Birdwatching and bird drawing were set aside. Perhaps the accompanying studio self-portrait (left) shows the ambition and angst associated with that preoccupation.

I eventually found myself back in the woods, the shore and the mudflats with my binoculars anyway. More than expressing myself, I wanted to express something about the world. I started to teach myself the birds by drawing them.

I’m interested in communicating not only the experience of an encounter with nature, but also a scientific understanding of it. Though I have no formal training in ornithology, I have always had a serious interest in taxonomy and biodiversity. I am currently a Field Associate of the Ornithology Department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and have been working in that collection for fifteen years. That is an education in of itself, and I have had the privilege of meeting and talking with ornithologists from all over the world.

A field guide is a portrait of the biodiversity of a region. When the illustrations are designed well, and combined with accurate range maps, biogeographic patterns emerge with special clarity. Thorough review of bird specimens from across Central America, as well as a review of ornithological literature, is what gives me an understanding of what needs to be said, and inspires me to get to the drawing board.

The only way to study geographic variation in a species is by placing specimens from far apart places side by side. A great collection like that at the AMNH gives one an opportunity to study species and species relationships in a way that watching birds in the field can not. Nevertheless, it necessary to combine field experience with museum experience to create a vivid and accurate image of a species.

Over the ten-year course of working on Birds of Central America, I traveled nearly every year. I wish it could have be more – some of my experience with a species feels like just a little taste, and there are quite a few species in the book that I have never seen. Bird illustration, however, requires not only observation and reproduction skills, but research and re-creation skills. I’d love to see them all, but work which requires a lifetime of preparation never gets done. Painting a book requires a tremendous amount of time just sitting in your chair working.

Leafing through a field guide gives one a sense of what exists, what is fragile, what needs to be preserved, and also fills the traveling birder with an excitement in anticipation of what they may encounter. I like making art for books because books are affordable, accessible to all, and because I know how intently birders look at the pictures. No one painting for gallery exhibitions can depend on the kind of focused attention to their work that I get.

 

Dale Dyer  is an ornithological illustrator who has contributed to many books on birds, including Birds of Peru and All the Birds of North America. Dyer, along with his co-author Andrew C. Vallely, are currently field associates in the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History.