The Creative Process

Pine Siskin - Carduelis pinus
This composite of two “cut-out” images is a result of the process described here.

The Concept

What I call ‘cutout’ images is the pulling of the subject out of a photograph. Compared to the investment in time given to create a painting, it pales. Yet there is a four to six hour investment in chiseling out the subject from the stone of the original image. A single image of a given bird falls far short of capturing its essence. Sometimes a series will come closer. I feel the message benefits if many cutouts of a particular subject are available. Better its ability to present, if several images are available. Not every image I produce is as satisfying as others are, but we cannot let fear of failure be a guiding principle. It’s better to keep working the subject. Separating the wheat from the chaff can follow.

My goal with the cutouts is to present, lovingly, the bird to the viewer, hopefully I can inspire the viewer to love nature as I do. The images can be combined in ways that give me an opportunity to present a more complete presentation of each subject. This is not unlike combining words to convey ideas as sentences, combining sentences to make paragraphs, paragraphs to chapters, and so on.

The Capture

For the last 15 years photographing birds has become an all-consuming pursuit, and I have found great satisfaction in capturing images of these subjects. I used to enjoy the process of developing my own film, but the advent of high-quality digital cameras has rendered film obsolete. In today’s world the digital process has opened up many possibilities for the image collecting aspect of this art.

The entire process begins with the photograph and is also the most fun I have, by letting me immerse myself in the natural world. In all her sights, sounds and smells, I am able to be both spectator and participant. The cutout begins with a photo; the better the photo, the better chance for a *satisfactory* presentation.

My favorite approach for capturing bird images is more similar more to an ambush predator than an active hunter. In bird terms, more like a Great Blue Heron than to a Snowy Egret. The Snowy Egret moves about shallow water shuffling its bright yellow feet to scare prey out of hiding, while the Great Blue Heron stands motionless in some likely spot and waits for prey to pass by. Finding the likely spot to capture birds often means long quiet moments in the boondocks, waiting for something good to come along and being prepared to execute when it does. It might mean sitting in some hidden spot, hovering over a tripod with a camera and monster lens for hours on end. I might setup at a water source in an otherwise arid backcountry setting, waiting for migrant or resident birds to become thirsty. Sometimes such efforts are fruitful. Sometimes not so much.

For me, being a part of a natural scene, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells, is its own reward. Good birds are a bonus. These are times when I observe the interplay of birds in their elements; how they forage, socialize, drink, bathe and groom. They seem to express emotion in the lifting their feathers into high crowns or into balls of fluff, only to lower an instant later into slick streamlined profiles. They appear to choreograph their dances as they glean morsels from the twigs, leaves, and flowers or the stones beneath them. I am constantly amazed by their industry. How hard they work! How busy they must stay in order to keep themselves or their progeny alive! How perfectly suited all their adaptations are for them to perform life’s daily duties!

The Sculpture

While the ‘cutout’ concept is not a new or unique one, I found no instruction available to accomplish my vision. I had to fumble my way through the process. As I worked through more and more subjects, I became increasingly comfortable with the process. Gradually the results improved and I became reasonably capable of meeting the goal.

The intimacy required with a given image for achieving a successful cutout calls for a near meditative state. It’s somewhat akin to working a scalpel under a powerful magnifying glass. All features tend to melt together and require me to shift my vision to see what is ‘bird’ and what is not. Then I must choose what knife, brush, chisel, or other tool or tool combination to apply, and how vigorously to apply these tools. While focusing under such extreme magnification, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, and it is beneficial for me to step back, so to speak, and feel the results as I proceed.  I often find it helpful to have a self-interview or dialog with myself: Should the edge under review be hard or soft? Does this feather element at the edge add to the image? Does it detract? Is the ‘warts-and-all’ story better than the idealized one? How much of the background should I leave in for environmental context?

While immersed in the edit phase, I often find myself imagining the ancient artist at work and how my process compares. The sculpturer mining the quarry for suitable stones to carve compares to selecting which image candidates are suitable for editing. Unlike traditional sculpture, my tools allow me to re-apply or add back to the image, much like a clay artisan might do. Due to the lighting that might be influencing the color of the subject, at times it is necessary to act as a painter, shifting a color here, diminishing a shadow or highlight there. Perhaps a fine detail was insufficiently captured in the original image, and a decision must be made as to if it is important to the presentation. A trip to the digital toolbox might be in order to reintroduce that detail to the image.

Bird images, with their fine feather details require many such decisions. These details might make a genuine difference between an “OK” image and one that causes the viewer to take a closer look. Some of the finest feather elements have a way of bending the light of a strong background into the feathers themselves, requiring further manipulations to give back the truest light to the feather.

One of the last steps to the presentation is the backdrop. With this, my goal is to soften the image presentation. It may reduce or enhance the contrast of the image against the bright paper. Perhaps the context of where the image will be displayed might influence these choices. In producing this element, the digital tools that are available can be very useful, and invites me to much experimentation. Just because the result may look good while viewing the computer monitor, does not guarantee I will like it on paper. This process may require several trips to the printer, examining the print in varying lights before a choice can be trusted.