This Artist’s Paint-Swatch Portraits Reveal the Beauty of Bird Plumage

With time on his hands, Christopher Reiger found a colorful way to depict a rich variety of birds.
Four columns made of various colors that represent the plumages of four bird species.
Reiger’s “Field Guide” series now includes more than 75 birds and counting. Illustrations: Christopher Reiger

Christopher Reiger’s two children, one a toddler and one school-age, were fast asleep in bed. It was the early days of lockdown, and Reiger was sapped from stay-at-home childcare. “The days were long and taxing for all involved,” says Reiger, a freelance designer. 

But in the quiet evening hours he began playing with a half-baked idea from before the pandemic: What would a bird look like as a stack of paint chips? As his household slept, he toyed with how to capture a bird’s aesthetic essence without wings, beaks, or legs. The result is his Field Guide series, a collection of bird species whose palettes Reiger has distilled into color-blocked columns. “It’s punchy,” he says. “It’s simple.”

Taken as a whole, the series functions as a whimsical and disarticulated bird classification system, with cyan clusters of jays and bluebirds and a yellow-gold spray of finches and warblers. The two-dimensional flock also represents the fickle endeavor of trying to simplify an untamable natural world, says Reiger, a self-described taxonomy nerd. “The way we classify and reclassify,” he says, “it’s such a mess in this really exciting and lovely way.”

For each poster, Reiger compiles 15 to 30 photographs of the featured bird in the warm bath of dusk, under the chilly blue of winter’s light, and other varied lights. At first, he grappled with how to account for shimmers of iridescence and struggled to collect enough photos of waterfowl that contain their legs and feet, since they are often pictured swimming (Reiger got around the latter by using photos of taxidermy and natural history museum specimens.)

“It is so incredibly reductive, and yet there’s something incredibly satisfying about that flattening.”

To determine each bird’s most accurate universal palette, including its bill and eyes, Reiger visually compares the photos he’s gathered, pixel-to-pixel in Adobe Photoshop. It’s a careful but intuitive art: He’s looking for “what is truest to our eye” of each color, he says. Then he builds a map of the bird, delineating each color region in bold saturated hues. This enables the software to differentiate similar but distinct tinges—say, between a Turkey Vulture’s chocolate brown wings and dark espresso chest—and calculate what percent of body area each hue makes up. Finally, Reiger designs his Field Guide columns around those ratios, placing the most widespread color at the top.

A handful of species boast palettes with a dozen-plus colors. The Mourning Dove tops the list with 19; the Common Raven and Black-necked Stilt each have the fewest, with five bands each. “It manages to sum up that bird in a beautiful way,” Reiger says. “It is so incredibly reductive, and yet there’s something incredibly satisfying about that flattening.”

Reiger makes one new species poster every week. Simple ones can take just a couple hours, and the more complex up to 10. He’s shared the collection locally at a San Francisco Bay Area pigeon-themed art show and another gallery where he curated a selection of species native to a protected area. The collection has resonated, with some people reaching out with ideas for other site-specific collections. He’s already up to more than 75 species and envisions potentially hundreds.  “It’s definitely open-ended,” he says. “I have no plans of stopping anytime soon.”

This story originally ran in the Winter 2022 issue as “Paint by Plumages.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.