Dress to impress: Sexual selection and birds of paradise

There are an estimated 42 species of bird of paradise in New Guinea, and they all look completely different.

Females choose mates based on the condition and colour of the males’ plumage, so males puff their feathers, vibrate and buzz to attract their attention. Some even transform their bodies into strange, geometrical abstractions. If successful, these aesthetically pleasing features will be passed down to the next generation, process known as sexual selection.

On an island with very few predators, you don’t compete for resources. You compete for mates.

The majority of birds of paradise are sexual dimorphic and polygamous (males with the spectacular plumage that has come to typify the Paradisaeidae family, and females with a more conservative look of lackluster grays and browns). But not all of them look as surprisingly different, and those that don’t tend to be monogamous. Apparently, their diets are not as rich as those of the colourful species, so male and female must both help finding food. This leaves no time for complex courtships.

The dances the male birds of paradise perform evolve over time according to the tastes of the females. Unfortunately, there are trends as well: If a dance routine becomes too commonplace, females lose interest.

Some quick facts about birds of paradise:

  • Carola’s Parotia bird of paradise performs some of the most complex courtship dances in the animal kingdom.
  • The Greater bird of paradise was named Paradisaea apoda (“footless bird-of-paradise”) because feet had been removed from the first specimens that arrived in 16th-century Europe.
  • There are a number of hybrid birds of paradise due to crossbreeding between distinct species.
  • A male Raggiana bird of paradise is featured on the New Guinean national flag.

Photograph by Tim Laman, from National Geographic’s Paradise Found collection (more photos and videos here):

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Colour guide anno 1692

A dutch artist – known only as A. Boogert – created a book of colours in 1692. Describing the use of colour in painting, s/he created an 800-page book with instructions on how to create hues and tones. It blows my mind, actually. The work, the meticulousness, the systematics, and not least: a book like that would not really be possible to reproduce back then. So this tremendous amount of work… for a prototype. I doff my hat to you, A. Boogert. (You can see the entire book here.).

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Illuminating letter D

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gilders cushion

As mentioned in a previous post, I have dragged out some old tools and materials and started gilding again. In my previous life as a bookbinder, I bought a very old gilders cushion that actually sits on top of a drawer. I have not seen this anywhere else; it seems a well spent USD30. Supposedly, a bookbinder needed one, and made it himself.

I ordered some gesso and a burnisher from an online calligraphy shop, but had everything else. It is a good thing, that gold will keep for decades :) (not so with silver leaf or other metals, obviously. You get some amazing cool metal foils and leaves. Problem is that you need to seal them to prevent corrosion.).

So. I sketched out a Romanesque D, outlined it with a Faber Castell pitt dark sepia, as Indian black gets a little too harsh. I am just posting images of the process without comments on how. If you have questions, feel free to use the comment field. Questions like “are you insane?” are also entirely valid.

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Of Jokers, Fools and Margins

“A joker is a little fool who is different from everyone else. He’s not a club, diamond, heart, or spade. He’s not an eight or a nine, a king or a jack. He is an outsider. He is placed in the same pack as the other cards, but he doesn’t belong there. Therefore, he can be removed without anybody missing him.” ― Jostein Gaarder, The Solitaire Mystery

Jokers. Living in apparent harmony with the rest of the cards, yet utterly different, and always surrounded by mystery. I have collected them for years, and I probably always will.

Nobody knows for sure how jokers came to be, they are actually not that old -the first one registered is from around 1860 and it was used as the highest trump. They might come from the tarot Fool, sometimes depicted as a beggar, or a vagabond. Experts say he might also be a wild man, or Woodwose, due to his unruly beard and feathers.

There are many fascinating details about this little character. In the Rider-Waite Tarot deck (used for cartomancy), the Fool is shown as a young man walking unknowingly toward the brink of a precipice.  The tarot Fool is almost always unnumbered, and when it has a number, it’s a zero. He is believed to represent holy madness or ‘crazy wisdom’, a lover of beauty represented by the flower in his hand, and a free spirit, like the dog that sometimes accompanies him. 

The joker is both the beginning and the end, an insider and an outsider. He inhabits the margins, and winks at us holding a secret we always fail to grasp.

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Words of gold

This stack-exchange question inspired me to dig out old skills and tools. Untouched for years, I got out my bookbinders gilding cushion and related paraphernalia. Getting back into the fiddlyness of handling gold leaf, I have squandered a few sheets. But it is fun. One thing: you cannot be impatient handling it, breathing is forbidden, and sighing spells catastrophe.

It is impossible for a photograph to capture the glittery shinyness of polished gold. What I really want to get done well is raised gilding, so I am waiting for some tools and mysterious chemicals to give it a proper go. As of now, I am using PVA glue (wood glue, childrens glue) for gesso,  and a jade goldfish for polishing. Not the best solution. Updates later.

PVA as gesso - real hassle to get it to flow and shape well.

PVA as gesso – real hassle to get it to flow and shape well.

Attempting to combine raised and flat gilding

Attempting to combine raised and flat gilding

 

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In memoriam: Quinton Hoover

I can’t talk about inspirational art for very long until I brush the subject of Magic: the Gathering. I’ve been playing this geekery-heavy card game for almost twenty years now. In that period, a humonguous amount of fantasy art has been produced by a myriad of artists.

It was this art that drew me to the game. Especially the early sets’ art quality is hit, miss, or something squarely in between, but when it’s good, it’s amazing. Names like Mark Tedin, Anson Maddocks and Melissa Benson still give me shivers of recognition.

This post is to one of those early artists, shaping the game in its infancy: Quinton Hoover. Originally a comic artist, Hoover’s style is markedly distinct from the other artists’. He was able to marry fantasy with Art Nouveau in a way that was as beautiful as it was organic. His work reminiscent of Alphonse Mucha’s, Hoover used colored pencils and ballpoints besides his inks and watercolours. Strong, flowing lines, soft but rich colours and some daring compositions made him stand out in the crowd.

Doppelgänger (redubbed ‘Vesuvan Doppelganger‘ for the game’s release) was long my favourite piece of fantasy art ever, and finally acquiring a copy of the actual card was a kid’s dream come true. Other favourites from his Magic work include ‘Elkin Bottle‘ (those ribbons!), ‘Tragic Poet‘ and ‘Whispers of the Muse‘, of which a print adorns one of my walls.

Magic begot other card games, and Hoover made a lot of art in the next few years. The quality of his art soared, especially off-card, with larger formats and truly Mucha-esque compositions. I’d post some, but it’s hard to choose. All I can say is that it’s worth the while of checking his game art gallery (and more) on facebook.

On April 20, 2013, Quinton Hoover died unexpectedly at the age of 49. This post is to remember him and his amazing art.