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Interview with Michael DiGiorgio | Inspiring Illustratrators

Inspiring IllustratorsCara Ord

Following on from last weeks animal conservation theme we have the gorgeous work of nature illustrator Michael DiGiorgio. Michaels work depicts birds in all their beauty straight from our world. He searches for his subject matter and paints them in place using their real appearance, habits and movements to get a in depth idea of his subject matter. 

 illustration of birds in brush by Michael DiGiorgio

illustration of birds in brush by Michael DiGiorgio

Hello Michael, Thank you so much for offering to share some of your wisdom with us today. Your work has such fine detail and really demonstrates the beauty of the natural environment around us.

You capture all your nature imagery from life. How did you learn to observe such detail in a moving subject?

When I was a young artist learning to paint birds, I went to see Don Eckelberry, one of the greats bird painters of all time. He saw my work and immediately sensed that I was copying photos. He suggested that I go outdoors and sketch birds directly from life in quick gestural sketches. At first, I was puzzled on how to capture fast moving subjects like warblers, but then as I persisted, I learned how to create simple gestural drawing with observation notes that became a sort of shorthand for me. I know teach my method to interested parties at my courses

What drew you to birds as your main subject matter?

Don’t know? I was born with a fascination of birds, and it’s carried over throughout my life. I guess the combination of color, song, and flight is the main attraction for me. Everything I do in life eventually comes back to my love of birds.

Can you talk us through your field kit? What is your preferred tools of choice when creating your illustrations?

I have a small half pan watercolor kit, a small water container, a soda bottle with water, a stool, and an Arches watercolor pad. Most of the time when I’m sketching in pencil, just a small sketchbook and a pencil. When I’m stationary and painting, I use my angled spotting scope.

How long does it take you to produce a piece such as your ‘Scarlet Macaws’?

Observation and sketches is the first and most important step. Second is photos I take of backgrounds and habitat. Last is the accuracy of the drawing, noting else matters if the drawing is off. Next choosing a style that reflects the subject, and then getting a light source to work with. I use skin I get from Yale Peabody for plumage and photos for the rest of the reference.

Working from life how do you decide what details to keep and which to omit, such as background busy elements or textures?

There are two type of marks you can make on a piece of art: one adds to it and one takes away from it. It is harder to leave the unnecessary out than it is to put the unnecessary in. It takes many years of doing this to know when to stop and how much to put in to bring your subject to life. Unnecessary detail communicates a lack of knowledge of the subject to me. 

Do you go out hunting for a specific subject or do your subjects find you? talk us through the process of your illustrations from idea to finished piece?

When I go out, I’m usually on the hunt for a specific subject. Sometimes on my way I find an unintended subject that is more interesting, and I paint it. But most of the time, I’m after a specific habitat and bird that speaks to me at the moment. If I can’t finish it in the field, I usually bring it home and then try to capture the experience in my studio and finish it. It’s often so much harder to get that feeling of immediacy of the direct observation and the freshness in the studio. It just sort of flows out of you when you’re in front of the original subject.

Have you had formal training in your craft? if so can you tell us a bit about your experiences?

Yes, I have a Bachelors of Fine Art and a Graduate Degree in Art. But most of my education came from Don Eckelberry and going out and learning on my own.
Learning how to paint outdoors with the challenging light, foliage, etc. is the best teacher. Don was very critical when critiquing my work. As he often said, if you want compliments,
ask your Mother.

He taught me how to place the bird in a convincing pose with enough background to suggest it’s habitat, but not too much as to take away from the subject.

does working professionally in illustration diminish some of your passion for the work you do?

No, it augments it. Having to work with world class ornithologist like Bob Ridgely, and working with world class artist like Guy Tudor has only made me better as a bird painter. But there is a huge difference between painting an illustration, and painting my own pieces. An illustration is solely for the audience, and their ability to compare my painting to the real bird. When I work on my own paintings, I’m recalling a personal experience with a bird, and I’m only trying to please myself.

How does your cultural background and environment impact your work?

I guess growing up in a somewhat poor Italian American family, I learned how to keep myself occupied by seeking out solitude in nearby wood lots, etc. My tight family life only encouraged my talent, and I fed off that.

Being a nature illustrator often featuring your pieces is nature journals and books how does your professional life work? Are you commissioned to capture specific specimens and then paid to travel in search or do you create your works and then auction them to publishers?

It takes many years to establish yourself as a capable bird painter. Only by honing your craft and proving that you can interpret your subjects in a convincing way and follow through a project in a timely way do you start getting noticed. It took me many, many years of doing small jobs, free work for nature organizations, and contacting publishers to get a major job as a field guide artist.
The initial contact is not from a publisher, but from the team creating the book; editor and the main artist. He is the one usually responsible for contacting other artists for the project.
Meeting Guy Tudor and Bob Ridgely was my biggest break, and that only came about after seeking such work, and being suggested as a capable artist. Once you get the job, you are usually assigned a group of birds group the editor, and then you work with them to make sure each bird is exactly correct.

Out of your published works which is your favourite and why?

Probably my recent work on the Birds of Brazil by Wildlife Conservation Society. I think they are some of the best bird plates I’ve ever done, thanks to the direction of Guy Tudor.

 Part of series 'Birds of Brazil Vol.2' by Michael DiGiorgio

Part of series 'Birds of Brazil Vol.2' by Michael DiGiorgio

When you began as an illustrator how did you get your voice heard among the crowd?

Just ignoring everything and trying to become the best you can be. Being a professional bird painter is a profession next to impossible to make a living, so the ones who succeed are those who don’t give up and do it because they can’t help but to do it. Just find your own voice and learn to become your harshest critic. Once you learn to please yourself, then your ready to have your work out into the publishing world. 

Finally, what is your dream project?

Traveling and painting nocturnal birds like nightjars. They are among my favorite family of birds, and I’d love to travel to Africa and see them in the flesh.
After that it’s to have the time to paint my own work. I never seem to be able to break away from my illustration work long enough to do my own paintings.