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Environment

Of feathers, beaks and paint

When he painted his first bird five years ago, Berlin artist, Hendrik Jonas, had no idea that these little creatures would play such a major role in his work. He tells DW his story.

What got you started on painting birds?

I painted a keyring for a friend of mine as a birthday present and I liked it so much that I painted another one straight afterwards. Since then, I've just stuck with the theme.

What is it that you particularly like about the process of painting birds?

I have come to like the bird as an object - the feathers, and its physical form. When I look at the first birds I painted, they look like fat chickens, like comic birds. I've definitiely honed my skill. It's not just that the quality of the painting has improved, but I am now more familiar with my subject. The fluffiness of the feathers and the watchful eye are things I couldn't do so well to begin with.

The other thing is that there are so many different kinds of bird that fascinate me. Colorful ones like the robin or the kingfisher, or black and white ones like the marsh tit or the colorless chiffchaff. I find them all appealing.

How do you choose which ones you want to paint?

First up, I paint from photos, not directly from nature. I couldn't do that, because birds don't stay still for long enough and they're too far away, and my eyes aren't good enough. So I use photos, which I source online. Sometimes I might find a picture of a specific bird, but it's too small, so I have to blow it up to be able to see the feathers.

Artist Hendrik Jonas in front of a picture of his birds

Hendrik Jonas has developed a different feeling for birds as a result of painting them

Would you describe yourself as a bird-lover?

(laughs) No, I wouldn't say that. I don't have any particular affinity to birds as such. I like to look at them, and when I see them in nature, I have the impulse to paint them. But I don't find them particularly cute or any more fascinating than dogs or cats - both of which I have also painted.

Yet over the past five years you have returned to them over and over again?

I think what I particularly like about them is that you can depict them without a background. With cats or dogs, they are connected to the ground, but a bird just sits on its little twig and is surrounded by air. I think that is a mark of my pictures, that they don't need a background.

That seems to appeal to other as well, from what I understand your bird paintings sell well?

Yes, they do. I'm an illustrator and I often get jobs that have nothing to do with birds, but if I feel like painting between two jobs, and I decide to paint a bird, it is never in my studio for long. People like them and they do sell well, both at galleries, or just to friends who come to visit me. They're always gone quickly.

A brown bird on an orange background

Hendrik Jonas has been painting birds for the past five years

Do you see birds differently as a result of painting them?

I'd say I do. Firstly because I paint them so often and spend so much time with their form, but I am amazed at how rarely you actually see them. Here in the city, you hear them all day, but actually finding them is more difficult. When I do see them, I like to look at them.

You used to work as an anatomical illustrator, did that train you for this work in which you have to paint in such fine detail?

Definitely. It was my first ever illustration job. It was like something from the last century, or even the one before that. I wouuld sit there with my water colors and paint very naturalistic anatomical illustrations of bones and muscles. I had to work in a very very precise way, and I learned more about painting as a result than I did during my entire studies. And I'm sure my birds benefit from that.

How long do you need for one bird?

At least two or three days, and for the big ones, I might need as long as ten days. Sometimes that's just because I'm not happy with the result. I have good days and others where nothing goes right. When I painted the black redstart, I was annoyed by it for days. The form was wrong, the coloring was wrong, it was very frustrating. But I have learned that if I keep going, I'll eventually get it right. And that is very satisfying.

A brown bird on a gray background

Getting the eye right is what makes the bird come to life

The last touch I give the paintings is the light I put in their eyes. That's what makes them come alive. Before that, they are just pictures in front of me. Then when I add the light to its eye and it comes to life, which is fascinating. Sometimes, if I've done a good job, I almost have the feeling the bird is looking at me. It's a beautiful moment.

Hendrik Jonas is a Berlin-based painter and illustrator. You can find more of his work on his website.

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