A strutting peacock. A waddling duck. A swooping hawk. Those are some of the “poses” that my model partner Andrea and I tried to create for Wednesday night’s drawing session at Spring Studio. Minerva Durham, art instructor and director of Spring Studio, had the idea to explore bird anatomy, compare and contrast with human anatomy, and encourage the artists in attendance to produce interesting drawings of model-as-bird. Fun theme! When I first walked into Spring and Minerva told me that Andrea and I were to do bird poses, I was enthusiastic but knew it would also be challenging.
When asked to assume roles, artist’s models have to really be creative, as we have no benefit of costumes, props, sound effects, etc. We have, at our disposal, only our nude bodies, our movements and gestures, and our theatrical talents, and can hopefully convey an imaginary creature or action to good effect. I enjoyed it!
During her first lecture of the night, Minerva distributed printouts of a bird skeletal structure and then made her own sketch using charcoal and colored pastels:
Some distinguishing traits of avian anatomy are commonly known, namely the thin, hollow, lightweight bones adpated for flying. (It should be noted that flightless birds, such as penguins and ostriches, have solid bones.) Another distinguishing feature is the bird’s collarbone. Unlike in other vertebrates, it is fused together. The fused collarbone of the bird constitutes what we call the “wishbone”. A bird’s sternum (breastbone) must be solidly constructed to handle the attached muscles and bones of the wings and stressful, repetitive flapping action. In fact, the entire bird skeleton is full of ossified fused bones that are not found in other vertebrates, hence birds have fewer bones overall. If I remember Minerva’s lecture correctly, I think she said that the tibia and tarsal and metatarsal bones in the bird’s three-part leg structure are all fused pieces. Also, in the pelvic girdle region, bird skeletons have even more fused bones, functionally to handle the impact of takeoff and landing. So birds’ bodies are not particularly pliant and flexible. They can’t rotate, twist, and extend the way, say, cats and humans can. The only part of a bird’s anatomy that allows for some flexibility is the neck. Birds have more neck vertebrae than most other animals. Watch a bird move its head around to preen its feathers and notice how it is able to reach some difficult spots with ease.
Leonardo da Vinci sketch of a bird in flight:
So no matter how adept and imaginative an art model may be, anatomy cannot be altered, assumed, or emulated in any realistic way. Not that Minerva or the artists at Spring Studio were expecting “realism” from me and Andrea. In all living creatures, anatomy is fixed, and that anatomy lends itself to unique postures, shapes, and movements, singular to those creatures. Visualize for a moment the amazing variety of shapes, skeletons, and musculature of different beasts: elephant, shark, bear, iguana, falcon. But we humans – whether in drama class, children’s game, or life drawing session – can always pretend. We can impersonate. We can engage in make-believe. And that’s exactly what Andrea and I did Wednesday night.
A gorgeous illustration of Audubon Birds:
As I was doing my duck, my pigeon, my soaring eagle, my balancing-on-one-leg flamingo, I kept wondering if the artists, with only my naked body and gestures to work from, were seeing exactly what I wanted them to see. Part of me wished I could make an announcement before each pose, describing what I was about to do, but that would have ruined all the fun. Then, when I looked at the drawings on breaks it was clear that they did see it. Artists always see it. They always get it. One of them, Liza, even said to me, “I liked your duck!”. That made me so happy. I had used my hand to make tush feathers and shook it around the way ducks do when they come out of the water. I love that Liza totally got it 🙂
When Minerva asked for a ten minute bird pose, I actually stole from her bird sketch, the one I posted above. She had left it right at the base of the modeling platform. So I took a quick glance and copied it as best I could. Now check this out. Here is what comic book artist Carl Sciacchitano created. I am bird lady. Awesome!
And here is Carl’s bird Andrea:
Many thanks to Carl for letting me post his drawings here. To conclude, I’ll post this John William Waterhouse work from 1891, Ulysses and the Sirens. Now if only Andrea and I could have recreated this! We’d need bird suits, feathers, and harnesses. And a big boat.