Songbirds migrate long distances, but they’ve never traveled the world like this before. The U.S. Postal Service’s new set of stamps, “Songbirds,” features 10 different species, including the western meadowlark, mountain bluebird, western tanager, and painted bunting. Audubon spoke with songbird stamp artist Robert Giusti, whose work has graced the covers of magazines, albums, and Stephen King novels. The son of a fashion illustrator and a graphic designer, Giusti has previously illustrated other USPS stamps, including a series on tropical birds and birds of prey. “Songbirds,” which will be his largest stamp series to date, goes on sale Saturday, April 5.
What drew you to the stamp project, and are you a birder?
I’m not a birder, although I have a feeder outside and I’m constantly looking at it. I was thrilled when USPS offered me the project. I hadn’t done a stamp for them for maybe a year or two, so it was nice to sort of re-emerge, and I was happy because of the size of the project. I’ve always been a nature lover, since I was a kid. I particularly like depicting animals in their environment, and I just really get into the whole personality of those animals or whatever habitat I’m featuring. I’ve done a lot of jungle habitats, but there’s not a boundary. I try to encompass everything.
How did you choose which songbirds to include?
It’s based on what I find attractive and interesting in a bird. The first thing that comes to my mind is coloration and plumage. Take the painted bunting. I had never seen one in person, though I’d seen pictures of it. As far as coloration it’s hard to beat. It’s got just about every color in the spectrum: red, green, blue, yellow. It’s a very beautiful bird. And some birds are interesting because of their behavior. Nuthatches can actually walk on a branch upside down; they can go up and down trees upside down. I find that intriguing, and for purposes of design it makes the nuthatch different than a bird that just perches.
What’s your process for creating each stamp?
The stamps start as sketches, executed mostly on canvas board. I do research to make sure that if I include vegetation for the birds to perch on, it’s a sensible choice. The sketch stages are more what you’d call drawings. I do them fairly tight so once I color it in, it looks pretty close to what the finished product will be, but it’s a different medium because it’s done mostly in pen or pencil and then followed with color from magic marker-like pens. By the time I present it for the committee to make a decision on what they like and what they don’t, it looks pretty comprehensive.
What’s your favorite stamp from the series?
I like the meadowlark the best. I situated the bird on a morning glory growing wild on a stump, and he’s perched on that, his beak open in a typical meadowlark way. The birds kind of arch their head back and aim for the sky. Design-wise, and because of the behavior of the bird, I think that’s my favorite from the group.
You’ve done a variety of illustration work for clients ranging from ExxonMobil to TIME. How are stamps different?
If I’m doing a piece of artwork for a publication like TIME magazine, or an advertising account, there’s a different purpose and there’s usually a different format. They require larger paintings, more detail, and different proportions if it’s a magazine spread. With stamps, to try and get a very eye-catching, graphically-pleasing subject in such a small space is a great challenge. I have seen stamps where there’s a whole scene, I always thought it’s too small a format to really do that. Doing very little does so much. My philosophy is you don’t have to put the whole world in this item; you just have to make it really noticeable and stand out.