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Artist Inspiration

An artist’s quest for inspiration and the story behind his latest piece

by William R. Beebe

William R. Beebe, Snowy’s Evening Retreat

About this time every year in Charleston, birders are treated to seeing large colonies of great egrets and snowy egrets nesting in dense foliage along the wetlands. Nesting begins in early spring, but summer is when the young birds really become active and start testing out their wings. Adult birds are very active too, raising the little ones and continuing to court their mates, sporting beautiful breeding plumage and strutting their stuff.

I’m fortunate to live near several of these rookeries and have spent quite a bit of time studying the habits of snowy egrets around the Lowcountry. This season has been exceptional as far as imagery goes, inspiring my most recent aviary painting, Snowy’s Evening Retreat.

Interestingly enough, almost 200 years ago in the spring of 1832, John James Audubon was in Charleston doing the same thing! He reported having seen thousands of snowy egrets in full breeding plumage. He painted the delicate white snowy egret as I often see them, stalking along the water’s edge. In the distance of his painting one can detect a tiny hunter coming toward the bird, a sign of danger lurking, for they were considered a delicacy. The beautiful white breeding plumage became highly sought after in the late 19th century for women’s fashion, to the point where the species almost became extinct. Thanks to individual state Audubon Societies formed in the 1890s, and eventually the National Audubon Society formed in 1905, we’re all blessed to have a strong egret population today.

It has inspired me to paint a number of bird portraits, choosing to paint the birds roughly life size with solid backgrounds so not to distract from the bird. I’ve read that Audubon, on his quest to paint every bird in America, painted each bird life size. Although I’m not scientific like he was, measuring each bird’s length and height, I do prefer to paint so the viewer can get an idea of roughly how big each bird is.

Process of layering in Snowy’s Evening Retreat

On Isle of Palms, I recently witnessed snowy egrets in a wonderfully dark botanical background. After photographing the birds, I knew this was what I wanted to paint – focusing not just on the bird but also on the background. I found the dark background fascinating, and as I looked further into the darkness, I discovered overlapping layers of palmetto leaves, tropical in nature.

The interesting flora surrounding the bird brought to mind not only Audubon’s famous work, but also the aviary art of another wonderfully talented Charleston artist, John C. Doyle. I discovered his art and passion for painting wading birds when I moved to Charleston two years ago.

From the 1980s-2014, Doyle traversed the Lowcountry, studying, drawing, and painting birdlife. In particular, his paintings of great egrets and great blue herons caught my eye. He filled his backgrounds with light and color, many of which captured the magnificent swamp and surrounding flora at Magnolia Plantation.

In Snowy’s Evening Retreat, I portray the snowy egret away from the nest, courting its mate with its breeding plumage displayed, actively flirting. Evening light highlights greenery in the foreground and makes the bird stand out. And even though the trees are dense and mainly monochromatic, light filters through the palmetto leaves adding depth and drawing your eye around the canvas.

These birds are delicate looking birds with fine feathers. I use their bright yellow feet and yellowish beak area as identifiers to distinguish them from similar looking birds. They’re also very social birds, and I wanted to capture their playful personality.

I recently finished Snowy’s Island Sanctuary, the second in the series of snowy egret paintings I’m creating, all inspired by my bird outings here in the Lowcountry this season.

William R. Beebe’s second piece in his snowy egret series, Snowy’s Island Sanctuary



Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
mostly spring and summer for nesting rookeries to spot egrets, herons, and anhingas

Mount Pleasant
great spot year-round for a wide variety of birds

Downtown Charleston
early summer for night herons

Mount Pleasant
spring and summer nesting in rookeries

Isle of Palms
spring and summer for nesting egrets and herons year-round by the water for a wide variety of birds

spring, fall, and winter for shorebirds like sandpipers, plovers, and black skimmers summer for brown pelicans

Mount Pleasant
great for brown pelicans, egrets, and herons year-round

year-round for a wide variety of birds

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Posted in Visual on August 20, 2019 (Issue 42: Summer 2019) by Matt Mill.

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