Reimagining the California Condor

Joseph Ciardiello gives North America's largest vulture the royal treatment.

The California Condor became a celebrity after its brush with extinction in the 1980s, and it has continued to make headlines as populations have recovered since then. So Joe Ciardiello’s regal portrait of North America's largest bird is a natural fit with his life’s work: caricature-like portraits of the world’s most famous figures, from Charles Darwin to Yogi Berra. Ciardiello, 63, rarely uses pencil in creating his portraits. He prefers to warm up with several ink sketches until he’s distilled an organic likeness, and then adds watercolors sparsely to capture the essence of his subject.

When depicting the California Condor, neither Ciardiello nor John James Audubon worked from a live bird: Audubon sketched from a specimen in London in 1838, while Ciardiello drew inspiration from photos of the condor, as well as watching its close cousins, Turkey Vultures, from the window over his drafting table in his Hunterdon County, New Jersey, studio. With the condor’s wrinkles and adornment of spiky black feathers, Ciardiello sees it as having almost human characteristics. “Even though it’s this scavenger, there’s something noble about its appearance,” he says. “I thought of it as just doing another portrait.”