Ray Ching: New Zealand Bird Paintings is a stunning new book by one of the world’s greatest living bird painters.
Ray Ching was born in 1939 in Wellington. At the beginning of his book he owns up to how a naughty deed he committed while on a Primary School class visit to Te Papa, first fuelled his fascination with birds. Ray Ching lived in New Zealand until moving to England in the 1960’s where he continued to grow his highly successful career. He created all the ornithological illustrations for the Reader's Digest Book of British Birds (published in 1969), the world’s most successful and biggest selling bird book. And in 2012 David Attenborough commissioned him to paint the cover for his book Drawn from Paradise.
Throughout his life Ray Ching has retained his passion for our native birds. Ray Ching: New Zealand Bird Paintings is a compilation of many of the artworks of New Zealand birds he has created over the last 60 years. In the accompanying text, he shares his wide ornithological knowledge. Woven throughout are fascinating exerpts from the writings of early NZ naturalists, such as Guthrie-Smith, Buller and Reischek, providing us with a broader historical perspective.
In his preparatory drawings Ray Ching captures the birds’ feathery textures and their forms superbly. His paintings of birds, the earlier ones done mostly in watercolours, the later ones in oils, are very detailed with great attention to the correct proportions and colours. He has built these up slowly, layer upon layer, sometimes leaving the under-drawing peeking through the transparent paint. His backgrounds,which show the birds in the landscape they inhabit, are often painted nmore quickly and freely .
Unlike bird images in field guides, whose sole purpose is for identification, Ray Ching sees his birds through both an ornithologist’s and a painter’s lens and has endeavoured to capture their personality and movement. Southern black-backed gulls sweep through the sky, a group of whiteheads flit though the forest, grey teal perch on rocks above a cascading mountain stream, royal spoonbills wade through shallow water.
Not every native NZ bird is included while some are represented mutiple times. As befits our iconic national symbol, kiwi feature in eight paintings.
Our extinct birds have not been forgotten. Ray Ching has recreated for us the beautiful huia and the Haast’s eagle, the largest bird of prey ever to fill our skies, which had claws as big as a tiger’s.
A number of the paintings in this book first appeared in Dawn Chorus, Ray Ching’s Antipodean Fantasy which was about an imaginary voyage to New Zealand by Aesop, the fabled teller of tales. In these his creative imagination comes into play. In one he shows a group of kokako gathered around a songsheet practising Pokarekare Ana for a concert in Aesop’s honour.
With a disarming frankness this world-renowned artist writes about the challenges some birds posed for him. He has never made a painting of a ruru that completely satisfied him. And the kererū’s curiously small head and large ‘shoulders’ caused him about as much trouble as any bird he could think of. But it was worth it as he thought it the most splendid of all the world’s pigeons. The tīeke (saddleback) too proved troublesome.
‘If only the tīeke would sit still for just long enough its splendid chestnut and black colouring and to the artist’s eye, quite perfect proportions, I would have it my first to paint of all our birds. As it is, I am frustrated , nearly mad , by its never ending zip-zipping about the forest floor.’
Those of us who have tried chasing a tīeke with a camera ,in one of our bird sanctuaries, will be be able to identify with that ! But Ray Ching did not take photographs, he would draw and paint his birds later from his exceptional memory and used bird skins and mounted taxidermied birds to ensure their accuracy.
At the beginning of this book there is a fulll page photograph of whitehaired octogenarian Ray Ching working in his own habitat, a large light-filled studio,
accompanied by mounted taxidermied birds and piles of ornithological books. Here he continues to work tirelessly, from morning until night, painting his beloved birds, leaving a wonderful visual legacy for bird and art lovers..
Reviewer: Lyn Potter
Potton & Burton. RRP $79.99