Rare thing: The Lawrence's goldfinches, bottom right, were a unique find for Heinzel.
Birds on a Page
Renowned illustrator depicts Napa County's avifauna
By Patricia Lynn Henley
Hermann Heinzel has been enthralled by birds nearly all of his life. After World War II, Heinzel's family moved from his native Poland to West Germany, leaving almost everything behind. For the eight-year-old boy, the only thing available in abundance was the nature that filled and surrounded his village. He was fascinated, and spent hours watching the wildlife all around him, especially the kind with wings and feathers.
"In the village, there was a boy who had a bird book, and I wanted one as well," Heinzel recalls by phone from his home in France. He didn't have a lot of resources, but he was resourceful. "I cut the ends off a newspaper and glued them together. I had no colored pens, but in one way or another I made it look like a bird book."
The other boy wasn't able to lend Heinzel the bird book, so he couldn't copy the drawings. Instead, Heinzel created his own, sketching the birds he saw around him.
Heinzel's still drawing birds, only now he's a world-renowned illustrator who has followed his avian interests throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, the Galapagos and North America. His most recent work, Birds of Napa County (Heyday Books; $12.95), is a colorful and descriptive paean to the feathered denizens of that lush valley.
"The book is outstanding. It's very informative, and the artwork is outstanding," enthuses George Gamble, who together with his brother Launce Gamble commissioned Heinzel to paint some of the more than 310 species found in Napa. "If I were a birder in Napa County or anywhere else in the United States, I'd love to have this because it's written so well and the illustrations are so nicely drawn."
The Gamble family has owned a cattle ranch northeast of Lake Berryessa since 1934. A lifelong birding enthusiast, Gamble connected Heinzel with other locals who intimately knew the best bird habitats, and took the illustrator to several sites himself. On one memorable day, Gamble drove along the Knoxville Road just north of Lake Berryessa, where he knew there were Lewis's woodpeckers, a species Heinzel had never seen before.
"Herman spotted one and started hyperventilating," Gamble remembers cheerfully. "He virtually fell out of the car, he was so anxious to get out and get his binoculars and look at the bird. You wouldn't believe how excited this man gets."
Heinzel treasures the memory as well. As part of the Napa book project, he saw three species for the first time: Lewis's woodpecker, Lawrence's goldfinch and the yellow-billed magpie.
"I can't describe what it means to see a bird that I wanted to see for a long time, but there they were and it was wonderful," Heinzel says reverently.
Heinzel's powers of observation are even greater than his enthusiasm, Gamble says.
"He's an artist with an amazing gift for detail," Gamble explains. "He wants to know everything there is about the bird, it's interaction with other species, it's habitat. He points out things that you would never dream of noticing--color variations or just the contour of the bird, the tail length, the wing shape. He's particularly knowledgeable."
Perhaps that's because Heinzel is interested in more than just the number of species viewed. "Bird watching is not just counting birds like postage stamps, but watching the activity," he explains.
Heinzel does multiple sketches of each type of bird, capturing its movements and making notes about color, habitat and other important factors. If he can, he'll do a field sketch using watercolors. He also studies and draws stuffed specimens in museums. Although he didn't find any while in Napa, in his home in Southern France he often picks up dead birds along the road, so he can examine them more closely. One thing he never does is work from a photograph.
"It is just a fraction of a second of the life of the bird when the picture is taken, and the colors are always changing," he says. "I prefer to use my binoculars."
Heinzel works in what he terms a "very peculiar way" compared to other illustrators. "When I have a plan for the book, I put the birds on a page. I put the families of birds together and draw them in felt pen."
The felt pen outlines, which include habitat details, get blown up to about 60 percent, are copied onto transparent paper and then transferred to drawing paper. Each bird is painted separately, using watercolors, wash and acrylics. "The most important thing is not only the paint, but very good quality brushes," Heinzel explains.
The finished paintings are digitized in the computer, then carefully placed on the book pages to match Heinzel's felt pen outline. The Napa bird book was digitized in Germany, typeset in London and printed in Spain.
Heinzel will be back in the North Bay soon, leading birding walks and giving presentations on his sketching techniques. He's looking forward to it.
"If I could afford it, I would come every year to California," he says passionately, "because I like it so much."
Birdwatcher: Heinzel employs a unique, multilayered style for his illustration.
On the Fly
Bird illustrator and expert Hermann Heinzel will be leading bird walks and giving presentations on his observations and sketching techniques:
Saturday, April 14 Bird walk in the Lake Berryessa area. 9am. Free. 510.549.3564,
ext. 315 for reservations and directions.
Sunday, April 15 Presentation on the birds of Napa Valley at the Carolyn Parr Nature Center. Westwood Hills Park, 3107 Browns Valley Road, Napa. 4pm. Free. 707.255.6465.
Saturday, April 21 Earth Day celebration with Heinzel hosted by the Napa-Solano Audubon Society. There will be live music and activities for the whole community. Napa Valley College Soccer Fields, 11am to 4pm. Free. 707.227-9997.
Saturday, April 21 Presentation and reception at the Napa Valley Museum, 55 Presidents Circle, Yountville. 4pm to 6pm. $5-$10. 707.944.0500.
Monday, April 22 Bird walk through the Napa cemetery. Meet at Copperfield's Books in Napa, 3900-A Bel Aire Plaza, Highway 29 and Trancas Street, Napa. 9am; free with purchase of book. 707.252.8002.
Tuesday, April 26 Presentation and book signing at Richardson Bay Audubon Center, 376 Greenwood Beach Road, Tiburon. 7pm. Free. 415.388.2524.
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