By Ilana DeBare
Looking at Rita Sklar’s vivid paintings of birds, you’d think she’d been wielding both binoculars and brushes since she was a child.
But it’s been less than two decades for both.
Sklar – a prize-winning Oakland painter who will be exhibiting her work at our Birdathon Awards Celebration on Sunday May 18 – received her first set of paints as a 10-year-old. She took to them with gusto. But then she abandoned painting in junior high and didn’t pick it up again until around 2000, when she took a watercolor class in Spain.
That was soon after she first started paying attention to the birds all around us.
“I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even notice birds for most of my life,” Sklar said. “Then I was walking around Lake Merritt for exercise and I noticed some ducks, and saw that some looked different from the other ducks, and that led me to start walking around with a (bird) book. I was getting less exercise, but I was getting more fascinated.”
Sklar joined Golden Gate Audubon and started going on field trips with volunteer leaders like Bob Lewis and Rusty Scalf. She began learning about the environmental threats to bird populations.
That launched her on a series of paintings of birds in decline – at-risk species such as Nuttall’s Woodpecker, California Thrasher, Tri-colored Blackbird, and Surf Scoter.
Some of her works are traditional watercolors. But others are experimental or mixed media. Her Surf Scoter painting (shown next to her, above) is a collage that incorporates fragments of pages from a report about the Cosco Busan oil spill.
“I like trying different things,” Sklar said, taking a break in her cozy Dimond district studio, where the walls are covered with her prints and paintings. “My quail painting is on rice paper, and my Canvasback is on Yupo, which is a kind of plastic that doesn’t absorb the paint.”
Sklar doesn’t typically paint in the field. She works from photographs – either her own or more detailed close-ups by local bird photographers like Bob Lewis. In recent years, she has moved towards combining realistic bird images with abstract backgrounds as in her painting of Black-necked Stilts in flight.
“I did the birds first, then I covered them with a frisket (protective coating) to protect them,” she recounted of the stilt painting. “Then I just wailed into the painting with color. I was pouring paint, letting it drip, moving it back and forth, adding more color. The white of the tail feathers is the paper itself. Most of the white on my birds is not painted – it’s the paper that has been protected.”
Sklar has received growing recognition for both her bird paintings and her paintings of people. A prominent Bay Area hospital recently identified a series of 11 paintings for purchase. Sklar’s stilt painting – called “Winged Migration in Black and White” – was given an Award of Distinction by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. in 2013.
Why choose to paint birds?
“I want to share the feelings of joy I have when I see birds,” Sklar said. “Their beauty, how excited I am about their flight, their wings, their beak shape.”
Want to see her actual work, rather than a meager blog-sized image? Sklar’s paintings – of both birds and people – will be on display at the Montclair Gallery in Oakland for two months starting on May 13.
Or come to the Birdathon Awards Celebration! Sklar will be there in person along with a selection of her paintings. And for every piece she sells at the Birdathon Celebration, she will donate 25 percent of the proceeds to Golden Gate Audubon.
The Birdathon Awards Celebration is open to everyone, whether you went on a Birdathon trip or not! Join us for gourmet appetizers, boutique wines and artisan beer on tap from Linden Street Brewery – as well as optics demonstrations, live jazz, and door prizes. It’s from 3 to 6 p.m. on Sunday May 18 at a private location in the Oakland Hills. Tickets start at $35 ($20 for students.) Click here to buy tickets, or here for more information. The deadline to sign up is May 8.