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From Bird to Painting to Print

Excerpted from Audubon Art Prints: A Collector's Guide to Every Edition by Bill Steiner. Used with permission of the University of South Carolina Press, Columbia.

This excerpt treats various subjects having to do with the creation of Audubon's Double Elephant Folio prints from the original art to the finished Havell Edition print.  All appendices and a complete listing of the references cited here can be found in Steiner's book.  The excerpt covers

Audubon's Original Paintings

Audubon never really mastered oil painting, and he much preferred his own self-invented method that employed watercolor and pastel crayons. While in England, he contracted with young Joseph Bartholomew Kidd to copy The Birds of America paintings in oil for a traveling exhibition that would help raise money for the project (9:220). Many of Kidd's oil copies still exist; his Ivory-billed Woodpecker hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Audubon had initially intended to include paintings of American bird eggs in the Double Elephant Folio, but he simply ran out of time and space (see appendix D for a description).

Audubon's wife, Lucy, sold nearly all of the original bird paintings for the Double Elephant Folio to the New-York Historical Society in 1863 for $4,000. The others were acquired later through donation. All 431 that are known to exist are still there today (see chapter 4). Audubon also produced many other bird paintings, many of which are reproduced, in color, in reference 2. He often gave original sketches and small watercolor and oil paintings to wealthy patrons as consideration for lodging, friendship, and patronage. He was an accomplished portrait artist, and from 1820 to 1826 he made part of his living this way (17:24). The surviving portraits, bird and animal paintings, and sketches are in private collections and museums across the world (see reference 9, 1964 ed.). Occasionally one of these will be sold at auction, where they tend to bring hammer prices in the six-figure range with final prices dictated by the quality of the image and its historical importance.
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Painting Technique

Audubon often killed dozens of birds until he found an individual specimen that was nearly perfect. In 1807, while he was still living at the Mill Grove Farm in Pennsylvania, he devised a system of using wires to prop up and display a bird in a lifelike pose. To portray size and proportions accurately, he would place a wire grid in front of the best specimens and then rule his drawing paper in a similar grid. He worked obsessively until a painting was completed. Audubon was his own worst critic; he would draw and paint and re-draw and re-paint until the results pleased him. In all his paintings, his guiding desire was accuracy (see appendix E). It was Audubon's use of paper and watercolor that caused many art critics and others initially to disdain his work -- they just could not accept anything as a true work of art unless it was oil paint on canvas (2:24).

When it came to selecting his art materials, Audubon was not bound by convention. He used everything from pencil for the outlines and shading, to charcoal, watercolor, pastel chalk, gouache, pen and ink, gold leaf, and occasionally oil paint for coloring the images. He often used egg white to produce a shiny surface. There may even be some red clay on some of the paintings (25:252). Audubon himself usually referred to the creative act as "drawing" rather than "painting," perhaps because most of the images were made up of pencil and pastel crayon rather than watercolor paint. Nearly all his birds were drawn on heavy paper similar to the Whatman paper used for the prints.

In the early 1820s, when Audubon had not yet secured financial backing, he made sure that all his paintings were independent, finished works of art so that they could be exhibited. After he had sold a sufficient number of subscriptions and the success of the project was assured, he began to leave out backgrounds and he trusted Havell and others to create them for him (4:2). Audubon's final aim was to produce prints, and he was not overly concerned about the appearance of the paintings themselves (2:13), especially the later ones. Viewed in the light of the artist's intentions, then, the true work of art here is actually the Havell print, and not the Audubon painting from which it was created.

Those early paintings, such as Golden Eagle, #181, Ferruginous Thrush (Brown Thrasher), #116, and Carolina Parrot, #26, that were created to be stand-alone works of art, are finished, beautiful, artistic compositions by themselves. However, on other early paintings, Audubon would cut and paste birds, plants, bugs, and backgrounds from one painting onto another. Examples are Wood Duck, #206, and Republican Cliff Swallow, #68. Many of these also bear penciled instructions like the following that I recently saw on the original Wood Duck displayed at the New-York Historical Society: "The circle around the eye, and the upper Mandible as in the Male above." Some of Audubon's later paintings are little more than a carefully painted bird on an otherwise blank sheet of paper with messages to Havell scribbled all over. These 'birds only' paintings are little more than guides that Havell used to make a print.

For more information, see Audubon's own description of his technique in Bannon and Clark (3:18). Excellent essays by Theodore Stebbins and Reba Fishman Snyder in The Watercolors for The Birds of America by John James Audubon (reference 2) treat the subject as well. Annette Blaugrund'sThe Essential John James Audubon (reference 17) is another great source. In addition to providing a basic biography, Blaugrund includes a wealth of quotes, anecdotes, and generally interesting descriptions of Audubon's painting technique.
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Audubon's Assistants

Robert Havell, Joseph Mason, George Lehman, Maria Martin, and both of Audubonís sons painted many of the backgrounds for The Birds of America (3:22). The use of assistants was fairly common in the early nineteenth century, and even though the talented people named above made real contributions, nearly all of the actual finished paintings were designed by Audubon (23:22), and he himself painted nearly every one of the bird images. No matter who actually made them, almost all of the plants, flowers, and even insects and other prey animals are accurately drawn and all appear to be appropriate for the various birds. Those added for the later octavo edition seem equally suitable and accurate.

Robert Havell's contribution to the artistry of the prints cannot be overemphasized. He painted about fifty of the backgrounds himself and altered about a hundred more. Some of Havell's alterations were minor, such as those made to Eared Grebe, #404, and Little (Least) Sandpiper, #320. Other changes were far more significant, such as those done to Noddy Tern, #275, and Long-legged Avocet (Black-necked Stilt), #328. In Yellow-­breasted Chat, #137, Havell actually left out one of Audubon's birds that he thought looked awkward, but the omission occurred with Audubon's permission.

In American Water Ouzel (Dipper), #370, he redrew most of the background; for the
Red-eyed Vireo, #150, on the other hand, he added only an extra twig and more spider webbing. Havell was much more than a hired printer; he was a true partner and artistic collaborator. I think that many of his finished prints are much better esthetically than the paintings that they copied. Finally, Havell himself engraved 425 of the 435 copper plates. He not only helped to create the paintings, he also transferred them to paper.

None of the assistant artists -- Mason, Lehman, Martin, John Woodhouse Audubon, Victor Audubon, Robert Havell -- were ever given any real credit for their considerable contributions. Maria Martin alone painted flowers, foliage, and insects for approximately thirty-five of the prints (26:55). Joseph Mason did more than fifty, George Lehman at least forty; Victor Audubon may have done as many as twenty. Altogether the assistants contributed at least 190 of the 435 backgrounds, and John Woodhouse actually painted a handful of the bird images (11:65, 3:99, 21:6, 27:33). While none of the attributions on the prints acknowledge these artists, Audubon did at least mention their names in the Ornithological Biography (10:xvi):

White-crowned Pigeon, #177. 'Both trees were private property, and grew in a yard opposite to that of Dr. Stroebel, through whose influence I procured a large bough, from which the drawing was made, with the assistance of Mr. Lehman. I was informed that they continue in flower nearly the whole summer.' (vol. II, p. 448. This is theCordia tree which had been transplanted to Key West by Captain Geiger.)

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, #168. 'The bird has been placed on a plant which grows in Georgia, and which was drawn by my friend Bachman's sister.' (vol. II, p. 387. This is the Loblolly-bay, Gordonia lasianthus, a magnolia relative that once grew in lowland swamps of the Southeast. It is also called the Franklinia. The word 'sister,' which in Audubon's time could mean either sister or sister-in-law, refers to Bachman's sister-in-law Maria Martin -- whom he later married, after the death of his first wife, Harriet.)

All of the assistants were mentioned except Joseph Mason, who publicly complained when Audubon refused to give him an artist's attribution on the actual prints. Mason claimed that Audubon had promised to give him credit when Audubon took him on as an apprentice. Audubon, who could be a bit petty, retaliated by not mentioning Mason at all.

At least one background was 'borrowed' from a 1784 published engraving by John Webber (see appendix E). Audubon did not mention this posthumous and involuntary contribution either.

By today's standards, it appears that Audubon was a bit of a user, but in the early nineteenth century it was just normal practice for the master artist to take all the credit
for work done by assistants (23:135). Audubon, by employing these background artists and copyists like Joseph Kidd, conducted his business as a true studio enterprise, a time-honored tradition in Europe (26:47). It is worth noting that to modern print collectors, the fact that the background or the flowers were painted by any one of the assistants does not directly affect a print's value. Prints with Martin backgrounds are not generally worth more than those with Mason or Lehman backgrounds -- or Audubon backgrounds for that matter.
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Audubon and His Printers

Within four months of arriving in England in 1826, Audubon engaged William H. Lizars of Edinburgh to be his printer. Lizars had engraved and printed only the first ten prints, however, when his colorists went on strike in June 1827. At the time Lizars was also engraving two other major sets of bird prints -- one for Prideaux John Selby and another for William Jardine -- and Audubon had cause to doubt his commitment to The Birds of America. He terminated the agreement with Lizars, retrieved the engraved copper plates, and in September 1827 contracted with the London firm of Robert Havell and Son to complete the project (12/1:384). Initially, the senior Havell oversaw the watercolorists while his son Robert handled the actual engraving and printing. The elder Havell retired from the business in 1830, by which time Robert Havell, Jr., had assumed responsibility for the entire Audubon project. Havell, Sr., died in 1832, and his son saw the Double Elephant Folio through to its completion in 1839.

In the early days of the project, it was basically a one-man show. Audubon painted the pictures. He watched as the Havells printed and colored them. He traveled around Britain giving lectures, holding exhibitions, and selling subscriptions. He collected payments from the subscribers, either by mailing out bills or through personal visits, and then he paid Havell with the proceeds (20:xxviii). Until 1829, when Audubon first returned to America, almost all the subscribers were British. They initially received their prints in groups of five called parts. Some subscribers paid on time, but many were late and a few did not pay at all. Consequently Audubon was often short on funds, and he resorted to painting oils of birds and mammals so that he could pay both Havell and his landlord (12/1:388, 405, 413; 8:15). Many of these oil paintings had dramatic themes as in Two Cats Fighting and Fox Catching a Goose. Audubon, with self-deprecating irony, referred to them as 'pot-boilers.'

Later on, Audubon hired sales agents with varying degrees of success. In America, he frequently called on friends like John Bachman to receive and distribute prints and complete sets for him. As the thirteen-year project wore on, he depended more and more on his two sons, especially Victor, to collect from subscribers and to oversee Havell. The finances were often haphazard at best. The mails in the early 1800s were often unreliable, and Audubon's letters and journals often mention missing deliveries, lost letters, and late payments.

Havell provided each subscriber with four 28 x 39 title sheets, one each for the four volumes. Each sheet bore a volume number and the numbers of the prints that were to go in that volume. Volume I included prints 1-100; volume II included 101-200; volume III included 201-300; volume IV included 301-435. Most subscribers had their 435 prints bound in the format suggested by the title sheets and in the numerical order in which they were delivered. The individual volumes were beyond huge, and when bound in leather, the entire four-volume set could weigh as much as two hundred pounds! Because many of the subscribers saw to their own binding, some sets have much more lavish and ornate covers than others. Audubon and Havell sold many of the sets as bound volumes, however, especially toward the end of the project. The only binding company mentioned in Audubon's letters and journals was the Hering firm of Newman Street, London (4:15). The Hering name is found in several complete sets today.

Almost as soon as the first prints were delivered in 1826, some owners broke up their sets and sold the single prints from them (3:79). Because the combined value of all the single Havell prints was usually higher than the value of a complete set, the practice of breaking the complete, four-volume sets continued for a century and a half, up to 1989. By then only 120 complete, intact, four-volume sets remained, and this rarity raised the value of a complete set above that of the sum total of the single prints. It is thus unlikely that any of the extant complete sets will be broken up in the future.

Two intact copies were auctioned in 1990 and a third in 1993. All three went to private individuals, and none are believed to have been broken up. The 'rediscovered' set that was auctioned by Christie's in March 2000 went to a modern natural history museum in the nation of Qatar, and it also will not be broken up (see appendix A). That set sold for $8,805,000 -- which averages out to $20,241 per print. While some individual prints like Roseate Spoonbill, #321, and American Flamingo, #431, sell for more than $100,000 each, most of the prints sell in the $2,500 to $7,000 range. In late 2002, their combined value as loose prints might add up to as much as $7 million, significantly less than the price tag for a complete set. The $7 million figure also ignores the costs of marketing a large number of loose prints, which can be considerable. Again, all this means that it is extremely unlikely that any of the 120 existing complete sets will ever be broken up and sold as individual prints.

The original 1826 price: $870 or 175 British guineas for 435 loose prints, $1,070 for an elegantly bound set. By 1890, a complete, bound, four-volume set would sell for about $2,400. By 1972, the price had appreciated to $200,000; by 1989, to $4 million. The $8,805,000 price paid in 2000 represents a ten thousand-fold increase over the original cost.
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Havell's Printing Process

An understanding of how these prints were made makes it much easier to authenticate them, and to appreciate the subtleties of their artistry. Although Havell's printmaking process was fairly simple, it is a bit difficult to describe. Several readings of the following narrative might be required before the reader grasps all the nuances. (Excellent descriptions of copperplate printing may be found in references 4, 6, and 12).

Engraving and color printing in the early nineteenth century was a four-step process: first, the outlines of the finished painting were carefully traced onto thin paper. Second, the traced image wastransferred onto (and into) the surface of a copper plate by the intaglio processes of engraving, etching, and aquatint. Third, the incised design on the copper plate was printed in black ink on heavy paper by using a press with tremendous pressure. And fourth, the black-and-white image was carefully colored in by hand by trained watercolorists using the finest paints available.


Today, no one knows exactly how Audubon's paintings were traced and then transferred onto the varnished copper plates. We do know, however, that they were, indeed, traced. In March 1834 Victor was in London supervising the printing and coloring. He wrote to John James and Lucy to describe the progress made to date: 'No. 40 is under way and No. 41 will be traced next week or thereabouts' (32:22). (The numbers 40 and 41 refer to the five-print parts described on pages 41-44.) The paintings were probably traced with a sharp soft pencil onto a sheet of transfer paper. Then the paper with the traced image would be placed face down on a varnished copper plate and both paper and plate would be run through a press. Heavy pressure from the press would transfer the penciled image onto, and into, the varnish on the surface of the copper plate.

The Intaglio Process

The process of intaglio printing could also be called incised copper printing. The image to be printed (including the captions, numbers, and legends) is cut into the copper surface by using engraving, etching, and aquatint techniques. Then the grooves and depressions are filled with a greasy printer's ink. The copper plate is carefully wiped, first with stiff cheesecloth, and then with the printer's hand, so that the surface is clean and the ink remains only in the grooves of the incised design. The paper sheet to be printed is thoroughly wetted; then the copper plate is applied using heavy pressure from the press.  The wetted paper extrudes slightly up into the grooves of the incised design and picks up the ink. The water in the paper prevents the ink from spreading out. The ink adheres to the paper as both slowly dry, and the finished design 'sits' on top of the paper. The resulting printed design is incredibly fine and sharp. Havell used three methods for incising the designs into the copper plates.

Engraving. The design is cut directly into a copper plate -- in mirror-image orientation to the finished print -- using a sharp steel awl called a burin. Any gouged-out metal filings are carefully removed. Although the credits, numbers, and legends were all engraved (4:13), only a very few of Audubon's actual images exhibit the small tapered lines characteristic of true burin engraving (6A:13).

Etching or acid etching. The surface of the copper plate is covered with a uniformly thin coat of acid-resistant varnish or wax. The onionskin paper with the traced image is placed face down on the varnished plate, and both are run through the press to transfer the penciled image onto the varnish. One of the engraver's commercial artists then draws the traced design into the varnish coat with special, finely-sharp needles, to expose lines of bare copper. The copper plate is then treated with strong nitric acid. The entire surface can be treated by immersion, or isolated areas can be treated by using a paintbrush. The acid bites into the copper in the lines where the layer of protective varnish has been removed by the needles, but the varnish itself and the copper beneath it are not affected. A turpentine solvent is then used to remove the protective varnish coat, and the plate is ready to print. Specific areas of the plate can be exposed to acid for longer periods of time, to yield deeper incisions that will produce darker printed lines. Almost all of the printed lines on Audubon prints were etched.

Aquatint or acid shading. The term for this technique might be misleading -- but it has nothing to do with water, or with color-tinting an image. The word probably comes from Aqua forties or aquafortis('strong water'), Latin names that alchemists used for nitric acid. Using an acid-resist process similar to etching, the artist exposes whole areas of the copper to be lightly pitted rather than etched with fine lines. Rosin (dried, powdered pine sap -- the same rosin that baseball pitchers use to get a better grip and violinists use on their bows) is used instead of varnish for the protective coat.

Havell would dust finely powdered rosin lightly on isolated areas of the copper plate. Then the area was heated from below, melting the rosin and causing it to crackle and bubble. When the plate cooled, the tiny bubbles left very tiny holes in the melted rosin coat that allowed the nitric acid to etch tiny holes into the copper. Tiny is a good and appropriate word: the final effect is a micro-stippled image that appears as various shades of gray on the print. The more tiny holes, the darker the shade -- all the way to near-black.

Havell would complete the etching and aquatinting steps and then make a test print. If a line or a gray area was too faint, it would be re-treated. After several tries at re-etching and re-aquatinting, the copper plate would finally produce a finely detailed black-and-white image that was ready for coloring.

The copper used for the plates was unalloyed and very soft. After a hundred or so prints were made from a plate, the pressure would mash down the copper a little. This would flatten out the copper surface a bit and the aquatint would start to fade. Havell would then re-treat the affected area with rosin and acid to restore the pattern. If today's experts were to micro-examine all of the existing prints of any one image, they might find two or three different patterns of aquatint stippling, indicating the times the plate was re-aquatinted. However, all the prints from the same 'run' will show nearly exactly the same pattern of micro-stippled dots when viewed under 103 magnification.

No counterfeits. Etching patterns are planned and drawn very carefully; aquatint patterns are random. This combination of characteristics makes it impossible to make an exact copy of a copper plate, and likewise impossible to counterfeit an original Havell print. No one has ever deliberately attempted to make a fake Havell and then pass it off as an original. The finely etched and aquatinted pattern from any suspect print could easily be compared to the same patterns on a print of known provenance for verification.  I should point out, however, that many dishonest people have tried to sell honestly made, modern facsimile prints as the real thing  -- almost always unsuccessfully.

Havell was a master of etching and aquatinting. He used these processes almost exclusively to create the images on the copper printing plates for The Birds of America. However, the word 'engraved,' as used in Audubon's time, included any process that would cut a design into a copper plate. Therefore, the bottom-right printer's credits read 'Engraved, Printed and Coloured by R. Havell, London. 1834,' even though nearly all of the work on the images was accomplished by using etching and aquatint techniques (4:13).

Plate marks. Havell's press generated tremendous pressure, and the copper plates left visible, tangible, rectangular plate marks in the paper that are still present today. The plate mark, and especially its exact size, are useful criteria for authenticating a Havell print (see pages 46ñ47).


After the ink had dried, the prints were given to a small army of watercolorists (Havell employed fifty). In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, hundreds of books with color prints were produced using hand-coloring methods, and many major cities had watercolorist guilds with apprentices, journeymen, and masters. No one today knows exactly how Havell's watercolorists divided up the labor. Most likely, each was responsible for a small area on each sheet, but it is also possible that each may have done an entire print alone. In general, the birds themselves appear to be much more carefully painted than the backgrounds, which probably indicates that the more experienced painters did the birds and the apprentices colored the branches, leaves, and landscapes. Some of the watercolorists were better than others, but even the best ones made small mistakes. Nearly every print exhibits some places where the paint goes over the lines a little; these variations can be easily seen with the naked eye. When careless coloring got out of hand, Mr. Audubon objected strenuously, to put it mildly (10:231).

Many of the early prints, especially the first ten done by Lizars, show wide variation in color, a flaw that Audubon did not much appreciate. Havell addressed the problem by using pattern prints. Howard C. Rice's entry from the catalog for a 1959 Audubon exhibit at Princeton University is instructional:

68. 'Tufted Duck.'. . . Pattern Print initialed by Robert Havell.

This is one of the so-called 'Pattern Prints' used by the workers in Havell's studio to guide them in the coloring. Since two hundred or more impressions of each plate had to be hand-colored, it was necessary to establish a standard pattern for the workers to follow in order to maintain uniformity in the coloring. Havell's initials, added in ink, presumably indicate his approval. It is said that the margins of such pattern prints were often trimmed irregularly or otherwise mutilated, as a security measure, to prevent them from being stolen from the studio or surreptitiously sold. (21:47)

The subject is treated in even greater detail in Joseph Goddu's gallery catalog for an exhibition and sale of sixty pattern prints at New York's Hirschl and Adler Galleries (32). The catalog presents a scholarly and detailed history of how the prints for The Birds of America were actually made. Henry Augustus Havell, Robert's younger brother, made a significant contribution: 'Robert Havell, Jr.'s, brother, Henry Havell, worked up many of these master color guides, or "patterns" and was often called upon to supervise the staff of colorists' (32:25). Henry Havell also traced many of the paintings.

Audubon, and later his son Victor, monitored the coloring process closely, and they never hesitated to send back inferior work. 'One of the colorers employed brought a number so shamefully done that I would not think of forwarding it. It has gone to be washed, hot pressed and done over again,' reads Audubon's journal entry of November 17, 1828 (33/1:340). Even though the Audubons closely oversaw the final product, some few prints left Havell's shop with obvious coloring mistakes. An Alabama collector has a print of Red-breasted Snipe (Knot), #335, in which the winter-plumage bird at left has one leg that is correctly colored a brownish yellow, but the other leg is a loud green.

The last copper plate was engraved in 1838, and printing and coloring were completed in 1839 (5:111). The finished prints are stunning. Audubon and Havell attempted to portray the birds with total accuracy and consistency, and they succeeded. The size of the birds, their colors, their shape, and all the background details are close to perfect. An interesting exercise is to view an unframed print from a distance through binoculars. It really takes very little effort for the viewer to convince himself that he is looking at real birds in real natural settings. The entire effect is most pleasing and convincing.

Although a few books with etched and aquatinted landscapes were produced in the 1840s, The Birds of America was the last major natural history art project to be published using the copperplate intaglio process. Soon after, lithography, which was much cheaper and faster, came into vogue (8:45, 50). Audubon's Imperial Folio Quadrupeds, the Octavo Quadrupeds (chapter 6), and the Octavo Birds editions (chapter 3) are all hand-colored, black-ink lithographs. All of John Gould's 2,999 images (chapter 8) were hand-colored lithographs as well. Havell and the other copperplate engravers guarded the exact details of their processes as trade secrets. Now, many of the exact steps of intaglio printing -- especially the preparation of the copper plates -- are lost forever.

Ernest Hemphill, in his unpublished lecture notes, gives an interesting assessment of printing techniques during Audubon's time:

John Audubon and his peers lived at the climax of a period in which the distinction between scientist and artist was not firm, and illustration was essential for the dissemination of knowledge about the natural world. Following the invention of moveable type in the fifteenth century, written descriptions of plants and animals accompanied by incised wood block or engraved copper plate images began to be published as biological references. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, 'collecting' and 'cataloging' was in full swing. Explorers and expeditions such as that of H.M.S. Beagle with the young Charles Darwin, searched the world collecting geographical information and associated flora and fauna. Throughout this period, however, the only means for providing multiple copies of visual images remained engraving, etching, and by Audubon's time, lithography. Of course the quality of what could be done improved over time, and the availability of guilds of colorists made the production of beautiful prints a sizable industry in the 19th century.

Audubon collectors are happy to know that the best, largest, and most beautiful prints that were produced by this 'sizable industry' are the double elephant folio prints from Audubon's The Birds of America.
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