Part 1: Iris Series
My name is Marissa Gibson and I am from Springfield, Oregon. I am majoring in 2D art and biology. My artwork is inspired by my observations of nature, and I paint primarily with watercolors. My plans following undergrad are to work on conservation research projects involving migratory birds and to earn my certificate in science illustration from Cal State Monterey Bay, which has been a dream of mine for many years.
The iris series is ongoing, beginning with a large piece done in 2016. It is an exercise in expression and control of the medium. Iris are unique flowers with interesting textural variation between the parts of the flower, and they come in luminous, velvety colors that are enjoyable to paint. The flowers themselves are stately, elegant, and eye-catching which lends nicely to a well-composed, interesting painting. Painting each iris is meditative and methodical. My goal is to capture the effect of light on the flowers, which is unique to each variety as they can have more translucent petals, a velvety sheen, or tule-like ruffles. I work from my own photo references taken at a local farm, Schreiner’s Iris Farm. The secondary titles are the name of the iris cultivar upon which the painting is based. This series has helped me understand color interactions and how to avoid overworking a piece, which has in turn helped me to improve my natural history illustrations.
If you are interested in purchasing my work, please contact me through my website. A link can be found at the bottom of this post.
Part 2: Lifelist Series
Birdwatching started as a hobby for me that has evolved into a passion for conservation and naturalism. Observing birds in their natural habitats to understand their behaviors helps me to more accurately paint their characters. My lifelist, or list of birds I have seen in my lifetime (at least since I started caring about keeping track of that kind of thing) has reached 383 species between the United States and Costa Rica.
The song sparrow is a small brown bird with a big voice. I frequently hear them singing at local parks and in my neighborhood. While some migrate to the southern US in the winter, many stay in the northwest where food is abundant. They are active and sprightly little birds, full of energy and fun to watch kick up leaves searching for insects and seeds. I have painted one as I observed it foraging in frost-edged walnut leaves on an early November morning. The light was low and warm, filtering through the hedges and lending a golden glow to the leaf litter. The goal of this series is to emphasize the bird, while including a small bit of its habitat for context and compositional completion.
Say’s phoebes spend their summers in the sage scrublands of the inland west. Characteristic of flycatchers, they are active and territorial. I have painted a juvenile from the high desert of Wyoming. Adults have whiteish wing-bars, but the soft peachy color juveniles have instead paired perfectly with the muted gray-green of sagebrush leaves. The afternoon light on this individual diffused nicely across its gray feathers and reflecting on its buffy belly feathers. This piece in particular was inspired by the work of Alex Warnick, a modern master of ornithological illustration that uses watercolor washes on rough paper to make soft gradients incorporating subject and environment. This style contrasts somewhat with my favored crisp white background but was perfect for this subject.
Male ruddy ducks are funny, dashing little creatures to watch as they attempt to woo females by puffing up their chests and splashing the water with their bills to make bubbles. The displaying male captured here was glowing in the first light of morning in southern Idaho. The light made his rusty body shine like copper and deepened the velvety black of his head which was set off by the bright white cheeks and blue bill. His reflection is as important as he is, broken up by the pale purple ripples. I spent a long time observing this individual and his competitors to paint him as true to life as possible. I emphasized his clever little eye to add to his comical character and enthusiastic display.
Part 3: Lifelist Series Continued
Many North American birds migrate from their winter feeding grounds in subtropical and tropical climates near the equator to their summer breeding grounds as far north as the arctic tundra. On their way, they make stops along four distinct paths– the Pacific, Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic flyways. The Pacific flyway involves coastal and inland wetlands, forests, and plains which are all vital for the survival of these migratory species. Unfortunately, those ecosystems are the most threatened by human development. Studying how bird populations change in response to pressures from habitat destruction is not limited to just their homes in the summer or winter, the flyways are just as important. Recent research that quantifies the massive population declines across all families of birds in North America in the last half century is frightening, but through conservation and research efforts, can be remediated before more species go extinct. My goal is to be a part of that effort, to restore habitats utilized by birds across their entire range. Because birds are an indicator species that responds quickly to negative and positive events, helping them means helping the entire ecosystem they inhabit.
Warblers are an iconic group of migratory birds in North America. Wilson’s warblers are a favorite of mine because of their brilliant yellow plumage and sweet song. I have observed them in the forests of Oregon’s coast range, Olympic National Park, suburban yards in Spokane, and in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Individuals may travel over 5,000 miles from Central America to the Northwest Territories of Canada. Here, the male is painted perched on a sprig of coastal willow.
A family of spotted sandpipers breeds at a high-mountain lake in the Cascades that I visit every summer. I love watching the adults totter nervously along the shore, and fly across the water calling to each other, then the fuzzy, spindly-legged hatchlings racing between the driftwood. In Costa Rica, I observed them in their drab gray and white winter plumage, foraging along the banks of the Río Grande de Tárcoles near the delta into the Gulf of Nicoya. Such differences in appearance make identification much harder, but the characteristic nervous see-saw bobbing gave them away to me. I have painted an adult in breeding plumage stalking insects just beneath the lake’s surface on a tranquil July evening in the mountains. The dark concentric ripples contrast the softness of the bird’s colors and complement his dotted breast.
Part 4: Lifelist Series Continued
Costa Rica’s high-elevation cloud forests are rich with diversity. Birds found there are often found nowhere else or are restricted to a narrow range of habitat in the highlands of central America. The birds are colorful but easy to miss in the high canopy. Ecotourism helps bring people closer to the amazing species found in the cloud forest, which in turn helps conserve the delicate ecosystem. The opportunity to observe these birds in Costa Rica is one I will not forget and will continue to explore in my lifelist series by illustrating the diversity I saw there.
The resplendent quetzal is a stunning iridescent green bird. Adult males have long tail streamers and bright red bellies. Quetzals rely on wild avocado trees, colloquially known as aguacatillo, for food. They carefully select the ripest fruits, swallow it whole, and regurgitate the seed. When they drop the seed it can germinate and grow into a new tree, helping to regenerate the forest and provide food for other birds and animals that eat them. Quetzals are frequently found in indigenous central American culture because of their unique appearance.
Collared redstarts are a part of the large group of New World warblers of the Parulidae family. They are curious and energetic, flashing their lemon-yellow belly and rusty crest amongst the lower story of the cloud forest.
Blue-gray tanagers have a habit of gleaning for insects by looking underneath leaves and branches. Their plumage is a soft gray, tinted with many shades of blue that are especially prominent in their wings. Their large dark eye gives them a sweet, inquisitive expression that is a joy to paint. This one is depicted on the flower stalk of a Billia hippocastanum tree. The bright sunset pink of the flower contrasted nicely with the muted blues of the bird.
Brilliant hummingbirds are one of Costa Rica’s specialties, and the lesser violetear is no exception. Compared to the tiny Anna’s and Rufous hummingbirds I’m used to seeing in the northwestern US, these blue-green hummingbirds seemed huge. I was fascinated by the way they fanned their banded tail in territorial display at feeders or prime flower spots. Their namesake violet “ears” added to their display. Learning to differentiate between the green hummingbirds as they raced between the trees was challenging but these were one of my favorite species.