Reimagining the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Artist John Paul Brammer finds inspiration in Oklahoma’s expansive skies and Native American regalia.
A bird is depicted with wings and tail outstretched, its head pointing straight up. The wings feature a splash of vibrant orange extending from its shoulders that fades to a soft blue-purple, and the tips of the wings and tail feathers are an inky black.
Illustration: John Paul Brammer

Artist John Paul Brammer jumped at the opportunity to depict a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a species he knew from his Oklahoma childhood. He has fond memories of growing up near the Wichita Mountains, where he delighted in spotting the songbirds, with their dramatically long, forked tails. “If you happen to see them, it feels like such a nice flourish to your day,” says Brammer, who now lives in Brooklyn. “They’re associated with a lot of happiness for me.”

Brammer describes his avian rendition as a negotiation between John James Audubon’s scientific accuracy and his own “abstract, romantic” inclinations. He first experimented with composition in a sketchbook, relying on instinct to ease shapes into coherence. “It has to make sense in your mind’s eye. It has to feel pleasing, but it can’t be too predictable,” he explains.

Once satisfied, he created a digital version of his line drawing on an iPad with an Apple Pencil. Using virtual paintbrush strokes, he blended colors to create gradients that suggest the airiness of feathers. “The harsher your lines are in a bird like this, the heavier it gets,” he says.

Wings open, tail splayed, his flycatcher stretches across a depthless backdrop suggestive of Oklahoma’s expansive sky. Its dance-like pose evokes the vivacity of Native American powwows hosted by Comanche and Kiowa tribes, which Brammer relished attending as a kid. “You can’t help but be transfixed by all the regalia, all the colors, the way they move,” he says. “It’s hugely inspirational if you’re an artist.”

Though Brammer enjoyed drawing in high school, he focused on writing and journalism for several years until fairly recently. Rekindling his passion has brought a sense of relief. “It’s really hard, I think, when you have ideas in your head, and yet you have no way to actually get them out. And for me, just as much as I think about writing, I think about shapes, I think about colors, I think about things I want to express that can really only be expressed visually. And to have not had that in my life, for several years, was very frustrating,” he says. 

Among his many creative influences, Brammer cites early modernist artist Marc Chagall, whom his mother admired, too; she kept books about Chagall’s work in their house. “He has a very childlike style with a heavy emphasis on color relationships,” Brammer says.

He also finds charm in folk art, particularly Mexican creations. “I love the idea of art having this heavy utilitarian purpose,” whether it’s to ward off evil spirits or to serve another useful function, says Brammer, who is Mexican-American. 

Realistic nature illustrations, like Audubon’s, impress him because of their service to science. Birds are a muse as well. “I love them as animals. I love the diversity in them. But they’re also a very forgiving thing to draw, because birds come in all sorts of weird shapes,” he says. “I really do think that birds have everything you need when it comes to art.”

This story originally ran in the Winter 2021 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.