Colorful Photographic Compilations Are Homages to Birds

'Birds are an incredible barometer of how healthy an ecosystem is.'

scarlet macaw and red-rumped parrot
Scarlet macaw and red-rumped parrot.

Greg Oakley

An array of beautifully colored birds perch on plants and flowers. Each sits alone in isolation on a white background, drawing the viewer’s focus to detailed feathers, round, dark eyes, and interesting beaks.

A compilation of detailed photography, the images are created by Australian photographer Greg Oakley, who has worked as a graphic designer and artist for more than 40 years.

In his new book, “Homage to the Bird" (Images Publishing), Oakley’s images involve combining sometimes hundreds of photos to create a single scene where he “removes the bird from its usual context and recast it in a romantic, idealized style that harkens to the historic artists.”

Focusing on common, threatened, and extinct species, he says he hopes to bring awareness of the fragility of birds due to habitat loss.

Oakley spoke to Treehugger about his fascination with winged creatures and how he creates his art.

Western bowerbird and superb fairywren
Western bowerbird and superb fairywren.

Greg Oakley

Treehugger: How did you become interested in creating images of birds?

Greg Oakley: Since early childhood, I have always been engrossed in birds. I have also loved drawing and painting, so the natural progression was a merge of these two loves.

How did your passion for wildlife and the natural world begin as you were growing up in Australia?

I was fortunate to live in several beautiful natural areas when I was young—especially houses adjacent to native bushland and rivers. I spent many hours playing in these areas and forged a real connection with the natural world.

Gray-crowned babbler and weebill
Gray-crowned babbler and weebill.

Greg Oakley

How did other artists influence your work? 

When I was young, I was given two books that influenced my fascination with birds: “Australian Finches” by Klaus Immelmann, with plates by Neville Cayley and the classic “Birds of Australia” by Neville Cayley. I became enamored with the delicate beauty of the illustrations.

My interest became even more enhanced many years later after receiving a copy of “Birds of Australia” with color plates by John Gould. I loved how the birds were depicted in isolation with little or no competing background, which enhanced the impact of the bird on the viewer. I did a series of paintings in a similar style when I was 18—and then, after many years of being an artist, I expanded on this style with my current photographic work. I aim to recreate the early illustrators' style in a more realistic and contemporary style.

How much time have you spent studying birds in their natural habitats?

I have spent countless hours in the field, watching and recording birds and their behavior. I have been lucky to have visited many different habitats in Australia and overseas, studying these beautiful creatures.

Chesnut munia and Gouldian finch
Chesnut munia and Gouldian finch.

Greg Oakley

What is your creative process like?

I begin by visualizing a particular species in a specific pose and position, usually sketched on paper. I then photograph the bird, mainly in the wild (but also sometimes in zoos and bird parks). The accompanying plant will then be visualized and selected after much research. I sometimes photograph up to 80-100 separate images of the plant, after which the whole composition is assembled digitally.

Are there certain birds that are more exciting to draw than others? Some that are easier or more difficult?

I have always loved finches and parrots in particular, but any bird is a good subject! Sometimes I enjoy the challenge of doing a piece with a rare bird that is hard to find and also hard to photograph. For example, the image of a regent parrot in my book was achieved after much research and travel to their specific habitat.

I am also working on a new series of extinct birds, which is incredibly time-consuming and challenging. A lot of reading and research is required to achieve these images, some of which do not have any imagery available as a reference—only old descriptions. I am recreating some species that have been extinct for over 300 years, using bits and pieces of my photographs and re-assembled digitally.

Olive-backed sunbird and azure kingfisher
Olive-backed sunbird and azure kingfisher.

Greg Oakley

How do habitat loss and climate change play a role in your work?

These issues are a significant factor in my work. Birds are an incredible barometer of how healthy an ecosystem is. As the planet warms and the weather changes, birds are often the first to succumb. My work is a celebration of the beauty of these delicate creatures and a reminder of what we stand to lose.

What do you hope people will take away from your images?

I aim to create a visual bond between the bird and the viewer by depicting tiny details and vibrant colors that the casual observer does not usually see.