Reimagining the Wood Duck

Returning to her roots, illustrator Melinda Beck gives new life to the waterfowl’s stunning plumage.

The Wood Duck’s flashy feathers reminded illustrator Melinda Beck of designs by Emilio Pucci, the Italian fashionista known for kaleidoscopic patterns. Her bird, she decided, would showcase evolutionary couture. Dressed-up humans can dazzle, “but nature can really do it,” Beck says.

First she drew the image with pencil on paper, then scanned it into Adobe Illustrator and added color. In stylizing the duck, she took a cue from John James Audubon’s avian oeuvre. “It’s beautiful to look at,” Beck says, and also scientifically detailed. “There are always little clues about what the bird eats, what kind of habitat it lives in.” Because Wood Ducks frequent sheltered ponds and swamps, Beck posed hers in rippling water that echoes its plumage. The fruit in its bill hints that this species nests in tree cavities, as Audubon’s painting shows.

Beck’s appreciation for Audubon and birds traces back to her childhood in Manhattan. A framed print of the artist’s Snowy Egret hung in the living room, and her family fostered a Blue-fronted Amazon Parrot and other abandoned pet birds. Today Beck’s work often entails human figures, so this assignment delighted her. Once again in her life, “the centerpiece can be a bird.”

This story originally ran in the Summer 2019 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.