Painter Is Wild About Waterfowl

Mission Accomplished

December 27, 1992|By TIM WARREN

"You're just in time to help feed the swans," John W. Taylor informs a visitor. He is carrying a large pail of corn along a path to Pennington Pond, which opens behind his home in Mayo, Anne Arundel County. The pond is a frequent setting for Mr. Taylor's acclaimed bird paintings, as is the Chesapeake Bay, which untblds in the distance.

A cluster of about seven tundra swans and perhaps 20 mallards are in the pond, impatiently awaiting lunch. Mr. Taylor points out in the distance a great blue heron and several mergansers, fish-eating birds that aren't interested in the corn he's offering. "My wife [Marilyn] and I have counted about 170 species of birds at this pond since we moved here eight years ago," he says.

Mr. Taylor 61, has been painting birds in earnest since the early 1960s. He is a former editor/artist for Maryland Conservationist magazine, and for many years has been a full-time free-lance artist concentrating on birds and nature paintings. Many of his paintings can be found in "Birds of the Chesapeake Bay," a striking book of illustrations and journal entries that was recently published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

A quiet and plain-spoken man, Mr. Taylor clearly loves what he does. He finds the subjects for his paintings by looking out onto Pennington Pond, or by canoeing along the near-by Patuxent River, or by traveling throughout the Delmarva Peninsula.

Q: You mention in your book that when you started thinking about painting birds for a living, people thought you were crazy. Did you think you were?

A: I don't think it mattered. I was just so unhappy doing anything else.

Q: Is it just the birds here that appeal to you, or the setting?

A: The birds and the setting. The marshes here - most people are surprised to hear they have a great deal of appeal. I don't know what it is - a combination of land and water, and what they mean. That's why of all the birds I paint, I'm most excited by waterfowl. Working with them you have this marshscape - not a land-scape but a marshscape, as I call it -and the skies. Whereas if you're painting a small bird, there's not a whole lot more you can do with it.

Q: Does it take a special knack to paint birds?

A: It does, because what separates one bird from another are very minor points. A bird-watcher would know, but not the average person. And when I started out, I had to learn how to simplify the whole process. I would draw landscapes with way too many non-essential parts. Even in portraits of birds, I'd still put too much in. But for artists, that's a normal progression.

Q: Were Audubon's illustrations a model for you?

A: I was never influenced by them very much. I did have his book, but his paintings never did inspire me. It was more some English painters, such as George Lodge. There was something about the spirit in their paintings that Audubon's didn't have - the feeling of the surroundings as well as the birds.

Q: Were there any birds you felt to be especially difficult to capture on paper?

A: The toughest ones to do are those with varying plumage, such as some of thte game birds -- grouse and so forth.

Q: What are among your favorite settings in Maryland for bird-watching and for drawing?

A: I would pick the Patuxent River, right where it begins to open up near the bay, because - again - of the marshes. There's such a combination of the water, the trees and the birds, and nice, extensive marshes. 4nd, of course, the lower Eastern Shore, around Cambridge. Those are saltwatcr marshes.

Q: In the three decades or so that you "you're been actively watching and drawing birds in the bay area, have there been many changes in the population of the birds or in the types of birds?

A: There's been a serious decrease in the numbers of waterfowl because there's nothing for them to eat. The ones that eat the vegetation the grasses, have disappeared Since the early 70s. It probably was happening gradually but Hurricane Agnes [in 1972] had a lot to do with it as well, as it washed so much silt into the marshlands.

Q: Do you draw birds from other parts of the country as well?

A: My wife is an avid bird-watcher, too, so we take our vacations where different birds are - in Arizona, Washington state, California, Florida. But very rarely do I paint then. I take a lot of pictures during those trips, and do a lot of drawing, but I've got to know an area to feel comfortable with it. Now there are a lot of artists - good artists - who can sit down about anywhere and paint whatever is in front of them, but I need to know the country. That's why I concentrate on the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore and the Patuxent.

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