Audubon’s Method and Technique

Audubon started to develop a special technique for drawing birds in 1806 at Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. He perfected it during the long river trip from Cincinnati to New Orleans and in New Orleans, 1821.

John J Audubon's study of the Roseate Spoonbill for lithographer Robert Havell
Study of Roseate Spoonbill, from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
  1. The freshly killed specimen was mounted in front of a background that was marked off into squares, and was held in place by wires. 
  2. Drawing paper 30 x 40 inches in size was used, since it was the largest size available. Every drawing was made life size. 
  3. A rapid outline sketch was made to ensure correctness of proportions; then the outline was transferred, by tracing or otherwise, to the permanent drawing paper. Details were then added, minute structures of feathers being shown. Sometimes one bird from an early drawing would be cut out and pasted onto a later drawing. The composite would be engraved and published. Certain of Audubon’s bird backgrounds were done by Joseph Robert Mason, George Lehman, and John Woodhouse Audubon. Some details, notably insects, were drawn by Maria Martin Bachman, and at least one bird was drawn by John Woodhouse Audubon. 
  4. Pencils, chalks, pastels and watercolors were the media used. 
  5. Audubon would try to complete a drawing while the bird was as fresh as possible. Sometimes, the work on a large bird took two or three days. 

While he was in Louisiana, Audubon evolved a general plan for his proposed publication. 

  1. The sheets were of the so-called “double elephant folio” size, almost 40 by 30 inches 
  2. Since each bird was drawn life size, several of the tall birds had to be shown bending down to pick up food. (The Whooping Crane was spearing young alligators.) 
  3. The plates were issued in groups of five called fascicles, the finished set consisting of 87 groups totaling 435 plates. In each fascicle he tried to include a variety of size and type of bird. 
  4. The price in Great Britain was £182/14s (about $845); in America tariff raised it to $1000.
  5. About 190 or 200 sets were made, of which three were sold in Louisiana, as follows:  One set to the Legislature of Louisiana, through Governor Andre Bienvenu Roman. (It is now in the Presbytere.); One set to Mr. James F. Grimshaw, cotton broker, who was also an agent for Audubon; One set to Mr. Gustavus Schmidt, Attorney at Law. 
  6. Publication begun in 1826 was finished in 1838, having been at press for 12 years 

William Home Lizars, of Edinburgh, contracted to engrave “The Birds of America,” and he completed the first ten plates. But labor trouble developed in his shop, and he gave up the job. Robert Havell, Jr., of London, then took over. He touched up (or re-engraved) the ten original plates and carried the work to completion. His work was superior to Lizars’, and also much cheaper. Prints showing all the structures were made from copper plates; the colors were applied by hand to every print. The colorists used Audubon’s original drawing as their guide and he often added many handwritten instructions and specifications to the drawings. 

After the great project was completed, the copper plates were shipped to New York. Mrs. Audubon sold the plates to a firm in New York which stored them in a warehouse until 1865. Around 1873, a few were given away, and the rest were sold as scrap metal. A fourteen-year old boy watched the priceless plates being thrown into a furnace. After much difficulty, he prevented the melting of about thirty-seven of the plates. Some of these were sent to the American Museum of Natural History, The Smithsonian Institution, Princeton University, and Wesleyan University. Others were distributed to private individuals.

The Audubon prints in “The Birds of America’ were all made from copper plates utilizing four of the so called “intaglio” processes, engraving, etching, aquatint, and drypoint. Intaglio processes are those by which the design to be printed is cut down into the surface of the plate, and will yield an impression in relief. 

The design is rendered upon the plate either with a tool or by the action of an acid eating into the copper plate through an acid resistant coating called a “ground.”

The design consists of incised lines, mottled areas used to create “half tones”, and combinations of the two. After the incised lines or mottled areas have been created, they are filled with a stiff ink and the surface of the plate is wiped clean. A sheet of damp paper is laid over the plate, and upon being subjected to a great amount of pressure by a press, the paper is forced into the lines and mottled areas, attracting the ink and resulting in a print. The embossed ridge on the paper which is made by the roller as it passes over the edges of the plate distinguishes hand printed works from other large scale commercial processes. This ridge is called the platemark.

Each of the four intaglio processes presents its own characteristics: 

  1. Engraving is that process where a crisp, sharp line is “slivered” out of the plate by hand with the use of a special tool called the burin. The burin has an exceedingly sharp triangular tip that will dig into the copper and sliver out a line when pushed by the hand. The resistance of the copper to the tool handicaps extreme flexibility of design. 
  2. In etching, the copper plate is cleaned and polished and the surface coated with a wax, while the sides and back of the plate are protected with an acid resistant varnish. With the use of a steel needle the design is created on the plate by cutting through the wax surface, and the plate is then immersed in a bath of acid and the exposed copper is eaten away, thus leaving an incised line on the plate. 
  3. Aquatint, like etching, employs acid to eat the design into the metal. It differs from etching in that it yields fine shadings in the degree of darkness in the nonlined areas. In the aquatint process the design is produced by sprinkling the plate with fine dust of a resinous substance (the ground) and affixing the dust particles to the plate with heat. In this process the depth of the design in the plate is controlled by the extent to which the acid is allowed to bite during a series of acid baths. The deeper the acid eats, the darker is the resulting area in the print. Areas that are to print black are given full exposure to the acid, which eats a pit around each of the original dust particles. Areas that are to print gray are covered to protect them from the acid after one or two immersions. Areas that are to be white in the print are kept permanently covered with an acid-resistant varnish.
  4. A drypoint is that linear design on copper that has been obtained by the strength of the artist’s stroke with a steel or a diamond needle. Just as in engraving, the line is controlled by hand.  The softness of the drypoint lines is of particular note. Just as a plow throws up a ridge of earth beside the furrow, the drypoint instrument leaves a ridge of motal called the “burr” which softens the incised line. 

Robert Havell, engraver of “The Birds of America,” employed all these techniques, with utilization of engraving and aquatint being predominant. Havell’s great control over the burin and his economical use of aquatint producing half tones, to obtain the effects of dark and light (chiaroscuro) are his trademarks of success. The manner of flowing water color washes over the aquatint on the final print adds to the illusion of graduated tones. 

Another technique that Havell uses is that of “feathering”, a process by which he allowed the acid to bite a granular surface upon the bare copper plate without using any acid-resistant material (ground). This results in soft gradations. 

Some of the small plates are etchings combined with some aquatint; and the larger plates, several with an area of over five square feet, are mostly engravings combined with aquatint and heightened with the use of drypoint and etchings in many cases.

The engraved line that is remarkably pure, the aquatint which is expertly merged with line, and the use of etching and drypoint to create richness and depth are all proof of the skill Havell possessed.

Audubon had several assistants when he painted the original studies for “The Birds of America.” Painting only the birds without botanical studies and landscapes was a tremendous project to complete in a lifetime. Since Audubon wanted to depict the birds in their natural habitat, he hired botanical and landscape artists to create a number of the proper backgrounds. 

Audubon’s first assistant was Joseph Mason, a thirteen-vear-old pupil who markably gifted at painting flowers. He began working with Audubon in 1820 WIEN Audubon first traveled down the Mississippi River. They separated in 1822; and when they met again in Philadelphia three years later, Mason had attained artistic fame in his field and was employed at Barton’s Botanical Gardens. Audubon wanted Mason to work with him again, but Mason declined because he felt he had not been given sufficient credit for his earlier drawings which numbered about two hundred. The only paintings on which Audubon inscribed credit to Mason were the Parula Warbler with the iris (Plate XV) and the Pine credit to Mason were the Parula Warbler with the iris (Plate XV) and Warbler on a loblolly pine (Plate CXL) both painted in Louisiana. However Audubon credited other habitat studies to Mason in his “Ornithological Biography”. and because of style and the fact that Mason and Audubon were together at the time others were painted, a total of forty-nine habitats are attributed to Mason.

Thirty of Joseph Mason’s habitat’s were painted in Louisiana and nine, whose exact locations are unknown, were painted in either Louisiana or Mississippi. Excluding the inscribed paintings noted above, the following plants and trees were drawn by Mason when he was in Louisiana. The Roman numerals refer to Havell’s plate numbers: Il pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba), III cane-vine (Smilax laurifolia), V magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), IX pheasant’s-eye (Adonis annua), XII tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera, XIII cotton-gum Nyssa aquatica), XIV sedge (Cyperus strigosus), XIX Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), XX hibiscus (Hibiscus lasiocarpus), XXII snowdrop-tree (Halesia diptera) and withe-rod (Viburnum cassinoides) or sheepberry (Viburnum lentago), XXIV water oak (Quercus nigra), XXVIII cane (Arundinaria gigantea), XXXII magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), XXXV coffee-wood (Cassia occidentalis), XL ironwood (Ostrya virginiana), XLII honey-locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos, XLIV muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia), XLIX French-mulberry plant (Callicarpa americana), L white oak (Quercus michauxii), LIIl chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia), LVIII bearberry (llex decidua), LXIII chinaberry tree (Melia azedarach), LXXIV wild-sarsaparilla (Schisandra glabra), LXXXV chinquapin tree (Castanea pumila), CIX verbena (Verbena canadensis) and wormgrass (Spigelia marilandica), CX plant not identified, CXIX swamp snowball (Hydrangea quercifolia), CLIV dahoon holly (llex cassine).

The following plants and trees were drawn by Mason in either Louisiana or Mississippi: XXXVIII umbrella-tree (Magnolia fraseri), XXXIX white pine (Pinus strobus), XLVIII dahoon holly (Ilex cassine), LXXVIII dwarf horse chestnut or scarlet buckeye (Aesculus pavia), Ciy black locust (Robinia pseudo-acacia), CXII trumpet flower (Anisostichus capreolata), CXXVIII blackberry (Rubus argutus), CL honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos), CLIX mock orange (Prunus caroliniana). Although Mason was the only one of Audubon’s principal assistants who worked with him in Louisiana, several other artists provided backgrounds that include plants native to the state. 

George Lehman, a Swiss-German artist from Pennsylvania, became Audubon’s assistant in 1828. He painted habitats, mainly landscapes, in 1829 and in 1831-32 during Audubon’s Florida trip. At this time Lehman also assisted in completing the painting of birds. None of the thirty-six habitats attributed to Lehman were painted in Louisiana. However, many of the Florida birds for which he painted backgrounds are also found in Louisiana, the most obvious being the Louisiana Heron (Plate CCXVII). 

In 1832, Audubon relied on the talents of Miss Maria Martin who supplied him with excellent watercolors of flowers and insects. Miss Martin was the sister-in-law and later the wife of Audubon’s friend and colleague, the Reverend John Bachman of Charleston, South Carolina. Audubon, in his “Ornithological Biography.” credited Miss Martin with the habitats for six paintings. Others who have studied Maria Martin’s work have attributed a total of eighteen backgrounds to her. The only one she painted for a bird that Audubon noted as a Louisiana bird is the Golden-winged Warbler (Plate CCCCXIV) perched on branches of a water oak (Quercus nigra). 

Audubon’s two sons were invaluable assistants. He credited John Woodhouse with five bird drawings, and three others have been attributed to him. One is the American Bittern (Plate CCCXXXVII) which Audubon noted could be found in the marshes of Louisiana from October until May. His other son, Victor, went to England where he helped to supervise the engravings and sell subscriptions for “The Birds of America.” 

The engravers, on Audubon’s instructions, changed and completed the drawings in some of the engraved plates. Audubon wrote that his wife, Lucy, sometimes assisted him and that she drew a study for one complete bird. However, the principal assistant artists for the original water-color paintings that were used to produce the engravings were Mason, Lehman, Martin, and Audubon’s two sons.

from “Audubon in Louisiana,” Louisiana State Museum