In full bloom, the works of great artists can be hard to understand—the effect of what they’ve created is so complete that it’s difficult to perceive their technique.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) is still the biggest name in ornithology, and his book, “The Birds of America” (1827-1839) set the standard for how to illustrate birds in their natural habitats. In his mature drawings, Audubon is known for his textured use of watercolors, the deliberate way he posed birds (which he killed with fine shot and molded with wires) to accentuate their anatomical features, and his use of habitat details (flowers, berries, predators) to depict the birds as they lived.


It took Audubon many years to develop this style, though. The Houghton Library at Harvard University has 114 of Audubon’s earliest surviving drawings. They date from 1805, when Audubon was 20, to 1821, when he was just beginning to create the paintings that would appear in “The Birds of America.” A recent article about the collection in the Harvard Gazette explained the evolution of Audubon’s style during this period: “Mechanical representations in 1805 yield to fluid works of colors that are vibrant and soft, details that are strong and intricate.”

When it comes to appreciating Audubon’s later drawings, it’s useful to see how he got there. For anyone laboring at a creative enterprise of her own, it’s also heartening to see he didn’t get there all at once.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.