Drawn to the Wild: Paintings of New Zealand Birds by Nicolas Dillon
A white heron elegantly graces the cover of this book of sketchings, drawings and paintings by New Zealand wildlife painter, Nicolas Dillon. Dillon has drawn over fifty birds in all, from albatross to tern, from spoonbill to bellbird, from chaffinch to kea.
All are native or naturalised New Zealand birds, ones that you might spot on the river or along the coastline. Some will likely be familiar, while others a surprise, but all the drawings inspire you to keep an eye out for them! There’s a sense of life to the drawings of the birds. I particularly like the drawing of the wackliy distinctive spoonbills, birds I’d never heard of, with a long beak with a bulge at the bottom. The artistically rendered pictures convey movement and emotion, but are still true to their subjects to allow amateur birdwatchers to identify the real thing. On a recent beach trip, I consulted the artworks to find that I had seen an oyster-catcher, a California quail, and a dotteral all in one day. The descriptions accompanying the birds focus on Dillon’s view of the birds, their colours, and his experience of them.
The ‘facts’ are not the focus of this book, rather the impressions. I found myself wanting to know where I might find some of them, as the book didn’t give information such as their region. However, there is Google for this! This is a book of art, and a book about seeing the natural world through the artist’s eyes.
The book begins with an introduction that traces the origins of Dillon’s call to wildlife painting. He asks the question ‘why birds?’ He traces his fascination to an incident in his childhood when a shining cuckoo crashed into the window. For him, the urge to observe and draw birds is also rooted in his love of nature. The introduction describes in poetic terms the artist’s practice of making his way down to the river to watch birds in the evening, the water like ‘aluminium, steely grey and subtle turquoise, shot through with pink’. Dillon reflects on nature, the environment, and his place within it. Dillon’s connection with his models is emotional: ‘it was birds that coloured my world and quietly worked their way into the fibre of my soul.’ His parents were a strong influence in shaping his relationship with the world around him from childhood, and he also describes the influence of New Zealand painter Raymond Ching, who in a letter to Dillon as a teenager, advised him to travel and explore, which Dillon did.
Despite these interesting and enlightening notes by the artist, the birds are the focus of this book. They are the stand out characters: standing on one leg, preening their feathers, flying, and my favourite, the spoonbill, looking unintentionally goofy. Dillon makes them seem as though they might waddle or fly off the page. I flicked through it, admired the pictures, and went back to read it in detail. A beautiful book, and made especially precious because its subjects are birds you can look outside and see for yourself.
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley
Potton and Burton, RRP $59.99