Beauty is in the eye of wildlife painter Andrew Pledge, who seeks out unpopular—and let’s face it, often ugly—birds to create beautiful images. It’s a talent that’s won the self-taught wildlife artist the prestigious David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation Wildlife Artist of the Year 2020 award for his painting of an American wood stork.
For 10 years, Pledge created handmade models for a small architectural firm in London, specializing in high-end homes. He learned his trade in-house, eventually becoming their head model maker. In his last year for the firm, he designed architectural models for the company’s exhibition stand at the esteemed Venice Biennale, 2018. Pledge loves architectural model making and is now a freelancer.
“I’m very lucky; I get to do work that is fascinating,” he said by phone.
But in September 2019, he decided to take a leap and become a full-time painter. And, as if affirming his career move, his very first painting after about 10 years away from the art won him the award.
The Difference Is Golden
Currently, wildlife art is mostly confined to specialist galleries, Pledge explained. He sees very little crossover between wildlife art and the mainstream art world. It’s something he’d like to see change, and he hopes his art can bridge that gap.
Pledge’s wildlife paintings are decidedly different. Rather than paint animals in their natural habitat, as he sees many wildlife artists do, he wanted to paint something unique.
That special something is adding gold and silver leaf. He’d used gold leaf to represent the River Thames in one of his architectural models for a building proposal in central London, and he liked the golden effect. And he had also enjoyed working with gold when he assisted a top contemporary artist who uses various ornamental techniques.
In addition, Pledge saw that wildlife artists quite often tend to focus solely on the subject: the animal, as opposed to the overall image. Pledge places utmost importance on the overall image and believes that composition is his strong point, a skill he partly attributes to his architectural background, having worked for many years with different architects and designers.
Of his wood stork painting, he said: “I’ve used very detailed techniques, but at the same time I’ve kept in mind that I want to create a beautiful image as well as just a study of the animal.”
The gold enabled him to transform an almost ugly bird into something beautiful. His intention for using gold is not to change the bird: “It’s enhancing the natural beauty of the bird in a way some people don’t see.”
The Charm of Birds
Birds have always fascinated Pledge. “You have unlimited inspiration with birds. There’s just thousands of different kinds of birds and they’re all different,” he said. At age 8 or 9, or perhaps younger, Pledge remembers drawing swans and eagles but never really being interested in lions, tigers, and elephants.
Birds have what Pledge is looking for: plenty of details and character. “Birds just have an amazing amount of character,” he said. He reflects on his favorite bird, the crow: “They seem to have a story behind them, a character behind them.”
In terms of details, he believes that lions are beautiful, majestic creatures, but they don’t have enough details for his paintings. “They’re just fur and mane. But if you look at a bird, just one feather is incredible. … Each individual feather has individual colors depending on its reflective quality.”
A Cormorant Reveals Its Colors
Pledge particularly loves cormorants. Observing cormorants on the River Thames, he noticed that their “almost pterodactyl physique” appears black, but a closer look revealed the cormorants’ “beautiful blue and brown feathers.”
In his cormorant painting, Pledge captures both the bird’s prehistoric profile and colorful plumage. The bird seems to freeze as if it had just been spotted, and it seems as if the bird puffs out its chest with just a hint of pride in its pose. The textural effect of the bird’s blue, jewel-like chest feathers are reminiscent of the river’s ripples and currents.
Pledge painted the cormorant straight after his winning wood stork painting, but instead of using gold leaf on the bird itself, he used silver leaf as a background.
Just as the cormorant reveals its true colors only on closer inspection, so too does Pledge’s silver-leaf picture. The painting is hanging in his front room, where the white walls reflect onto the painting’s silver-leaf surface, making the painting’s silver background almost invisible.
Portfolio Building and Fundraising
For a little over a year, Pledge has been adding gold and silver leaf to his paintings. It’s a technique that requires endless patience and a mastery that he’s still learning. For instance, in his cormorant painting, he applied squares measuring 3 1/8 inches by 3 1/8 inches one by one over the background, and then painted in oils on the silver-leaf surface. The silver leaf scratches particularly easily and any mistakes cannot be erased, only painted over, which is not always possible. But with each painting—a wood stork, cormorant, hornbill, and guineafowl—he understands the technique more.
As Pledge concentrates on building his portfolio, conservation is at the forefront of his mind. So in addition to his normal painting process, he’s sketching his way through the alphabet—an animal for each letter—with 100 percent of the profits going to the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF), a UK-based charity that funds conservation projects across Asia and Africa.
A lion, a tiger, and an elephant are among those sketches Pledge has drawn, but one thing is certain: He will continue to appreciate and highlight those less-loved birds, so their peculiar beauty shines like gold or silver.
To find out more about Andrew Pledge’s art visit, AndrewPledgeArt.com