Reimagining the Great Horned Owl

Animator Christoph Niemann brings new life to his tool in a mixed-media rendition of a raptor.

From the outset, Berlin-based artist Christoph Niemann knew that his depiction of a Great Horned Owl wouldn’t be naturalistic like John James Audubon’s. “That owl that he drew is absolutely perfect,” he says. “There’s nothing to add.” Mulling at his desk, he noticed a pair of gently used paintbrushes. What sold him weren’t their bristles, evocative of the bird’s signature earlike tufts. “They’re almost too obvious,” Niemann says. Rather, he fancied the effect of crossing the tools. “There’s something interesting that justifies looking at it for a little bit longer.”

Just below the nexus, for instance, the semblance of a beak emerges from a wee triangular shadow. Using a highly pigmented, fade-resistant ink (he prefers the Rohrer & Klingner brand), Niemann drew several renditions of the common North American species before its posture felt right. He then enlivened the piece with artful desk-lamp lighting. The final collage finds the sweet spot where, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once observed, “nothing is trivial or superfluous.” “The whole idea is for a viewer to look at this and to feel, ‘This makes total sense,’ ” Niemann says. Add or subtract one element, “and the whole thing comes toppling down.”

This story originally ran in the Fall 2018 issue of Audubon. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.