For six months, Bob Petty, National Audubon Society’s western director of field support, spent nights and evenings with paintbrush in hand, creating works of art that would become the 20th anniversary International Migratory Bird Day poster (above). His background in graphic design, illustration and painting, and his passion for conservation—not to mention his five-year stint as a scientific illustrator—made him the perfect candidate for the job. We spoke with this artist-turned-conservationist-turned-artist about his eye for detail, his favorite bird paintings, and more.
How did you get the illustrator job for this year’s annual poster?
Most of my academic background is in fine arts. And I have an undergraduate degree in graphic design and illustration, and a master’s in painting. But my career after grad school sort of veered toward conservation. I haven’t really been a practicing artist, though I still do illustrations now and then.
Sue Bonfield, who directs International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD), she’s a friend of mine and she was aware of my artistic background. Because of that connection, she asked me over a year ago to submit samples of my art for consideration.
You obviously impressed the IMBD committee. What happened next?
I did some sketches, some different poster concepts, and we settled on this idea of a quilt-like arrangement. There are two themes here: [The first is] partnership in conservation, so we wanted to select species of birds that represent conservation partnership efforts. Each species on the poster has a story behind it.
Also, because this is the 20th anniversary, we decided to focus on 20 species. In addition to each representing some sort of partnership, the collection is symbolic of 20 years of bird conservation under the umbrella of Partners in Flight. (Editor’s note: Partners in Flight is a consortium of conservation agencies and individuals working together to protect birds and their habitat. It is one of five IMBD main sponsors. National Audubon Society is one of six program sponsors.)
You started with 170 species possibilities for the poster. How did you narrow the list to 20?
The process involved a number of different filters. We wanted each one to represent a partnership effort. Also we were interested in geographic diversity, because Partners in Flight is an international effort.
Then I was interested in diversity of birds. Although Partners in Flight has historically been focused on song birds, we wanted this to include orders of bird species beyond just song birds. In addition to that, I was simply interested in applying some filter that was almost purely aesthetic, looking at the array of colors, looking at the array of bill shapes and body forms. I started to think in terms of colors and patterns and plumage.
Why did you paint only the birds’ faces?
I look at this assemblage of birds as little portraits. They’re almost like those elementary school snapshots kids get. When they’re assembled in class pictures, they’re all these little faces assembled in a grid. I sort of thought of this as a class shot of little bird faces.
Do you have a favorite of the paintings you made?
The burrowing owl and probably the whooping crane.
I’ve always been fascinated by owls. Because they have such direct binocular vision, in some ways, they’re almost more human-like, the way they can look straight at you. I like the fact that this particular rendering is looking straight at you, whereas all the others are looking out in different directions.
I tried with each of these to capture something of the personality of the bird. Owls have that sort of riveting stare.
Small silhouettes of people appear at the poster’s bottom. What was the thought behind including those?
Because the theme of this year was ‘Power of partnerships,’ there was an interest in showcasing people as well as birds. The silhouettes are fairly subtle. We did that because we wanted the emphasis to be on the birds. The little portrait silhouette in the bottom right-hand corner is actually my son.
You seem pleased with how the project turned out. Would you do it again?
The species, in order of their appearance on the poster from top left, include: Northern bobwhite, peregrine falcon, tufted jay, rufous hummingbird, Atlantic puffin, ‘I’iwi, long-billed curlew, yellow-bellied sapsucker, wood thrush, white-crowned pigeon, burrowing owl, golden-winged warbler, Swainson’s hawk, cerulean warbler, chestnut-collared longspur, American oystercatcher, bobolink, whooping crane, wood duck, and American redstart.