The Artistry of Karen Phillipps

phillipps-mackinnon-lu
Renowned animal artist Karen Phillipps (L) stands with team members John MacKinnon (R) and Hefen ‘Monica’ Lu on the wedding day of MacKinnon and Lu, Hong Kong, 1994. Phillipps and MacKinnon co-authored, and Lu translated into Chinese, the pioneering work A Field Guide to the Birds of China (2000), the most influential book ever written about the birds of China. On 6 Feb. 2020, cancer took the life of Phillipps. In this post, written exclusively for shanghaibirding.com, MacKinnon describes the qualities that made Phillipps a great wildlife artist. (John MacKinnon)

by John MacKinnon
for shanghaibirding.com

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

On 6 February we lost to cancer the well-known and much-loved bird and animal artist Karen Phillipps. I was privileged to be her partner in our Field Guide to the Birds of China. Her loss is a huge one, not only for her family and friends, but also for the birding and conservation fraternity of Southeast Asia, East Asia, and especially China.

Karen was born in Sabah, Borneo and spent much of her life in countries she loved among the creatures she loved, and her love is starkly clear in the great legacy of her illustrations.

She had a unique, inimitable style. Her birds and animals are not a photographic likeness nor are they an exactly measured and scientifically accurate rendering. They simply present these creatures through Karen’s eyes. They capture the essentials, omit fussy, irrelevant details, and express the living soul and spirit before her. Her pictures are clean, vibrant, and beautiful.

She carried her sketchbook, a tiny watercolour palette, and bottle of water wherever she went, and she could complete a colour sketch with added notes in a couple of minutes. Later she referred to these field notes when laying out more formal plates for the many books she illustrated. I had the pleasure of working with her not only on the China guide but also on A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali.

Karen had the ability to conceive the layout of entire plates and would paint the birds in composite scenes, sometimes overlapping and always covering as much of the white paper as she could manage. I am now assembling a new field guide, but my new artists paint single birds, and it is up to me to juggle them around across the plate, trying to make sensible arrangements that keep close to taxonomic order but place comparable species close together. Karen did all that in her head before putting brush to paper. It was an enviable talent. Sometimes, I would have preferred to include many of her “done in the field sketches” which captured so much immediate jizz of her subjects. I hope her brother Quentin, who inherits her works, will do just that. Much of her best work lies unseen in old notebooks.

Many of Karen’s paintings will be reproduced in the forthcoming New Bird Field Guide for China (The Commercial Press), where they can continue to delight and inspire China’s fast-growing bird-loving community.

ILLUSTRATIONS

orioles-phillipps
Phillipps had the enviable talent of conceiving the layout of entire plates. An example of Phillipps’s technique is her plate for orioles and Asian Fairy Bluebird for the Field Guide to the Birds of China. (Karen Phillipps)
Karen Phillipps-technique
Even the best photographs can confuse for purposes of identification. Variance of lighting, shadows, too much detail of fine plumage—all these can draw from the essentials. Here are some examples of the contrast between photography and painting. Clockwise from top left: (a) a photo-like painting of Pine Grosbeak, (b) a clear photo of Ashy-throated Warbler, (c) a scientifically accurate illustration of Ashy-throated Warbler, and (d) Karen Phillipps’s quick and simple presentation of Ashy-throated Warbler. (a: Xiao Yao b: Craig Brelsford c: Yang Xiao Nong d: Karen Phillipps)

MORE ON JOHN MACKINNON AND KAREN PHILLIPPS

— Read about MacKinnon and Phillipps’s masterpiece A Field Guide to the Birds of China and its importance to Shanghai birders: Field Guides to the Birds of Shanghai

— Read the posts MacKinnon has authored for shanghaibirding.com: Author: John MacKinnon

— Read about MacKinnon’s historic visit to Shanghai and his day birding with the shanghaibirding.com team: John MacKinnon in Shanghai

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Well-spotted in the Bamboo, by John MacKinnon

Editor’s note: John MacKinnon is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the most influential book ever written about the birds of China. Herewith we present “Well-spotted in the Bamboo,” John’s third guest post for our site. In it, John introduces the bird community of Jinfoshan, the highest peak in the Dalou Mountains in the city-province of Chongqing. John’s bird of the trip was Spotted Laughingthrush (above), a “quiet, gentle bird” of mountain forests and one of seven species of laughingthrush at Jinfoshan. — Craig Brelsford

by John MacKinnon
for shanghaibirding.com

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

I recently was invited to join a workshop of the China Bird Watching Association to review three years’ monitoring of wintering data on Scaly-sided Merganser. The attraction was that the meeting was to be held in Jinfoshan National Nature Reserve in Nanchuan District, Chongqing. So I added a day to my trip for birdwatching and ended up on the top of this spectacular mountain for three days. Whilst floods were raging in Hubei and Anhui, we 40 birdwatchers enjoyed beautiful weather—blue skies and only occasional quick showers of rain to liven up the bird life.

At an elevation of 2251 m (7,385 ft.), Jinfoshan is the highest peak in the Dalou Mountains. The reserve was recently added to the South China Karst World Heritage Site. It is also listed as an important bird area on account of its having Reeves’s Pheasant. Jinfoshan combines ease of access with great birding trails and pristine habitats. It deserves much more attention, but it is not well-known to most birders.

Jinfoshan offers a great chance to view vertical stratification of flora and fauna, since you rise quickly—at first by shuttle bus and then by cable car through the subtropical evergreen valleys, temperate mixed forests, and finally subalpine forest and meadows.

Birds of the lower country
Birds of the lower country and hotel gardens at Jinfoshan. Top: White-collared Yuhina Yuhina diademata. Bottom: Vinaceous Rosefinch Carpodacus vinaceus (L) and Red-billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythroryncha. (John MacKinnon)

I did not have time to explore the lower levels, but even whilst waiting for the shuttle bus we could see Red-billed Blue Magpie, Hair-crested Drongo, Blue Whistling Thrush, Russet Sparrow, and Plumbeous Water Redstart. Overhead circled Crested Honey Buzzard.

Our meetings were in a fancy five-star hotel. My own room had a bath big enough to swim in! But the real attraction was to get out into the surrounding forest whenever the meeting schedule gave us a chance.

Not that the meeting was not interesting in itself! I was impressed to see so many motivated and very professional presentations by the various monitoring teams. More rivers and reservoirs get monitored each year, and more than 1,000 wintering Scaly-sided Merganser were recorded in the winter of 2016-17. The Association has also done a magnificent job in developing the species as a lovable and charismatic emblem of conservation in China.

Even from the hotel windows and gardens there were plenty of birds to see. Olive-backed Pipit and White Wagtail were nesting on the grassy flat roof, and Verditer Flycatcher perched temptingly on prominent perches (though proved skittish for photography). The woods echoed to the calls of Large-billed Leaf Warbler and Bianchi’s Warbler. Green-backed Tit were in full breeding plumage; White-collared Yuhina was the most visible bird. The most beautiful of the common birds was certainly Vinaceous Rosefinch, the males of which were gorgeous in their deep purple plumage.

The cable-car ride offered amazing views of the deep gorges and lush forests. Great flocks of swifts circled their nesting sites on the sheer limestone cliff faces. In fact, these were mixed flocks, with Pacific Swift, House Swift, Himalayan Swiftlet, and Asian House Martin all visible.

Enter the woods and you meet a different complex of birds. The undergrowth is thick with bamboo, and indeed this site was historically within the range of Giant Panda and may again be considered as a site for reintroduction.

Birds of Jinfoshan forests
Birds of the mountain forests. Top: Black-headed Sibia Heterophasia desgodinsi. Bottom: Red-tailed Minla Minla ignotincta (L) and White-bellied Green Pigeon Treron sieboldii. (John MacKinnon)

A rustling in the trees revealed feeding White-bellied Green Pigeon. Busily collecting moths and other insects were Red-tailed Minla, whilst the Blue-winged Minla were more leisurely preening each other after a morning bath. Black-headed Sibia sneaked in and out to collect small fruits. Flocks of Grey-hooded Fulvetta rattled alarm in the bamboo in mixed flocks with Rufous-capped Babbler and some very pretty Black-throated Parrotbill.

Whilst colleagues at the merganser meeting swarmed the site with an array of expensive cameras and optics, I stayed deep in the forests, looking for laughingthrushes. I was jealous of the others getting nice photos of Slaty Bunting and White-bellied Redstart, but I had my own rewards in the damp bamboo.

One of the most extraordinary bird calls consists of many dozens of high-pitched notes merging together into a prolonged whistle. The entire call lasts almost a minute, but the caller is elusive. Finally I nailed it down and photographed the caller in the act—an elusive Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler.

Another bird making loud and rather melodious calls was Red-billed Leiothrix working their way among the undergrowth collecting food for their nearby nestlings. Chinese Babax sneaked about on the forest floor.

Spotted Laughingthrush
‘For me,’ MacKinnon writes, ‘the highlight of the trip was meeting flocks of rather approachable Spotted Laughingthrush.’ A mainly Himalayan species, Ianthocincla ocellata ranges into China east to Jinfoshan and Shennongjia in Hubei. (John MacKinnon)

Jinfoshan boasts seven species of laughingthrush. The lower sectors are home to White-browed Laughingthrush, Moustached Laughingthrush, and White-throated Laughingthrush. Near the reserve summit in open scrub and in the forested limestone forests, the common Elliot’s Laughingthrush creeps about, making low, quiet glides and gentle calls.

For me the highlight of the trip was meeting flocks of rather approachable Spotted Laughingthrush—a species with a much more restricted China distribution, being a Himalayan species extending in mountain forests as far as Jinfoshan and Shennongjia. This is a quiet, gentle bird, hopping about on the forest floor searching under leaves and through the moss.

Spotted Laughingthrush
‘Whilst colleagues … swarmed the site with an array of expensive cameras and optics,’ MacKinnon writes, ‘I stayed deep in the forests, looking for laughingthrushes. … I had my own rewards in the damp bamboo.’ Here is MacKinnon’s biggest reward: close views of the gorgeously patterned Spotted Laughingthrush. (John MacKinnon)

I sat among fluffy rock squirrels and watched their antics. They took me back to my favoured sites with warm memories of being among the Giant Panda of Wolong in Sichuan and the hilly forests of Bhutan.

MORE ON JOHN MACKINNON

John MacKinnon has played a major role in the development of shanghaibirding.com. MacKinnon has authored posts for the site, he has visited Shanghai and birded with the shanghaibirding.com team, and he has served as a consultant and inspiration from the very beginning.

— Read the posts MacKinnon has authored for shanghaibirding.com: Author: John MacKinnon

— Read about John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps’s masterpiece A Field Guide to the Birds of China and its importance to Shanghai birders: Field Guides to the Birds of Shanghai

— Read about MacKinnon’s historic visit to Shanghai: John MacKinnon in Shanghai

Featured image: Spotted Laughingthrush Ianthocincla ocellata, Jinfoshan, Chongqing. (John MacKinnon)
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