Art of the Familiar

So I walked into an art gallery this morning and walked out with a painting.

I wasn’t planning to buy a painting. I glanced in mostly out of civic support-your-local-small-business duty. And then I saw a very small little painting on the wall and said “I MUST OWN THAT.”

It is 6 x 6, oil on panel, and it is nothing more than a study of Euonymus americanus, hearts-a-burstin’ plant, in the stage when the seed pods have burst open and are pink and purple and glossy orange.


This stuff. Only, y’know, art. I don’t have permission to post the painting, of course.

I am no stranger to this plant. My back garden is full of it. I see it frequently. So why did I need a painting of it?

Good question.

I’m an illustrator by trade and I paint mostly animals. I have painted all sorts of strange beasts over the years, some real, some not. Tigers, dragons, unicorns, water buffalo, squid, wrens, badgers, chickens…I’ve painted a lot of critters.

The ones that sell are rats, hamsters, hedgehogs, guinea pigs, foxes, rabbits, and some birds. (Also squid, but we’ll call that an outlier.) Mostly they’re things that people keep as pets or see in their backyard.

Not squirrels, though. I think people just dislike squirrels. Chickens also do well, but there’s other factors involved there, I think.

I recall reading an interview with a great wildlife painter. He specialized in birds. He painted glorious tropical birds—sulphur-crested cockatoos and cock-of-the-rock with their funky orange heads and brilliant hyacinth macaws. He also painted little portraits of garden birds.

“Sure,” he said (I’m paraphrasing here) “everybody oohs and ahhs over the tropical bird paintings. But what they buy are the robins and the wrens and the chaffinches and the little birds from their back garden.”

Now, anecdotes are not data. (Fine, hand-crafted, artisanal data!) But I think of all the bird art I see, and it’s all bluebirds and robins and chickadees, here in North America. Just try to find a greeting card with a cock-of-the-rock on it. (You might get a harpy eagle or something particularly gloriously absurd looking, like a king vulture, but again, outlier.) One of the only paintings of mine ever reproduced widely as a greeting card was of a magnolia warbler. (Thankfully the company did not notice that, in one corner in very small print, I had written “Birder? I hardly know ‘er!” Look, I didn’t KNOW it was going to be a greeting card!)

The things I hear, when people buy art, are things like “Oh! This used to grow by the back fence where I grew up!” and “These come to my mom’s feeder!”

So why do we want art of things that we could see by looking out the window? Heck, we’re wildlife gardeners–we’re up to our eyeballs in garden birds. I can’t run the wheelbarrow back and forth without making a bunch of Carolina chickadees reasonably furious at me. There is a golden-crowned kinglet bopping back and forth in the trees right now outside my window. (My mind goes back immediately to the Robert Bateman museum in British Columbia, featuring the art of one of the greatest wildlife painters to ever live. He had a beautiful little painting of a golden-crowned kinglet.)

My theory–which is worth exactly what you are paying for it!–is that we like art that gives us back the familiar in a new way. Something that’s about something we love, but that shows us another way to look at it.

Maybe just something that proves that an artist looked at something you loved–a tufted titmouse, say, or a dark-eyed junco–and loved it too.


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  1. says

    Ursula, I’m a photographer, and find your post to be oh, so true! I can create the most beautiful pict, but if it is something that is “foreign” to the viewer, it has no appeal whatsoever! The best appeal is “close to home!” Thanks bunches for all your posts!

  2. j.J. says

    There also might be some nostalgia factor going on. Birds seen on Mom’s feeder, might have been different than the ones they see now.

    I just moved and the only birds I am seeing is a tufted titmouse and some crows. I blame the outdoor cats next door. But gone are the glorious flocks of juncos and goldfinches and cardinals, not to mention the various grumpy woodpeckers. I find myself wanting to repopulate with art, since they haven’t come to my feeders, despite the thick blanket of snow….

  3. Marilyn says

    “…we like art that gives us back the familiar in a new way.” Thoughtful post, and what an interesting theory. Another might be that the reason we have those plants and feeders in our yards in the first place is the way they make us feel. Seeing a beautiful bird transports me to a different mental place of peace and tranquility. I would hope that having pictures of the birds that make me feel that way would bring some of that feeling inside.

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