Birds have been around in art since man first picked up a twig, a brush and a plume. Captivating the imagination of early man, they began to appear on the vases of the Egyptians, copper reliefs of the Sumerians and in caves in southern France. Throughout the centuries man has studied birds, their migration patterns and has depicted them in their natural element on every surface from clay to canvas.
Impressionists such as Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall and Edouard Manet immortalized pigeons, sparrows and parrots very much like the taxidermists of Victorian London did. And taxidermy often provided a great source of wealth for naturalists and bird illustrators who needed to capture precise detail when elaborating their lithographic plates.
“When artists start doing birds, they get obsessed with them,” claims Roberta Olson, the art curator of a recent exhibit in New York of John James Audubon’s watercolors.
Miles McMullan doesn’t consider himself to be the obsessive bird type, but he understands why people travel to great lengths to see certain species. As a young boy growing up in 70s Belfast, Miles would lock himself in the family greenhouse to feel the rising heat and imagine he was combing through some Amazonian rainforest, exploring exotic lands and coming in contact with Indian tribes.
What might have stayed a childhood fantasy materialized for Miles when, after graduating from the Art College at the University of Ulster, he headed south to Venezuela where he had a job waiting for him teaching art at the University of Merida.
In the late 80s and throughout much of the 90s, Venezuela had a longstanding history with bird watching. Foreigners from all over the world would fly there to climb the tepuis of the Gran Sabana, or head down the Orinoco. During the 10 years Miles lived in Merida, he started illustrating his first series of birds, yet when his tenure ended at the University, he decided that Ecuador was a more livable place and for many foreigners, keen on exploring the surrounding countryside, safer.
Although Colombia is the country with the greatest variety of birds in the world – some 1,871 species and counting – and one of the richest in terms of biodiversity, during much of the mid 90s the internal conflict and rash of kidnappings kept tourists and especially birders away. “Birders tend to be attracted to areas that are unexplored,” says Miles, reflecting how the security issue for ornithologists and birders in Colombia has improved dramatically since 1998 when four American birdwatchers looking for a rare antpitta were snared by the FARC.
While avid birders avoided traveling to Colombia and coming face to face with the FARC, Ecuador and the Galapagos islands provided Miles the opportunity to undertake a series of illustrations in watercolor which were commissioned by publishers and ecolodge operators eager to explain to their international guests what kind of avian life existed around them.
From the Amazonian basin to the mountains of Peru, Miles McMullan embarked on many expeditions and soon became a prolific illustrator of birds and mammals. As a guide of birders through much of Ecuador, the artist began making a living with his books. “I had to consult with biologists and naturalists,” says the artist. “Nobody knows even half of what’s out there. In Colombia, there is so much still unexplored.”