Ber van Perlo

Born: 22 June 1936 in Nijmegen, The Netherlands | Degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Wageningen

R1-SelfieI have painted about 7,000 of the 10,000 bird species of the world. I started in 1982 when I visited my friend Peter de Leeuw, an ecologist working in Kenya at the time. In those days there was no printed bird guide that showed all the bird species of East Africa. In particular, the migrants from Europe and Asia were missing. In preparation for a second visit to Kenya, it seemed a good idea to make some ‘cards’ with the main diagnostic features of difficult groups like the cisticolas (brown-and-rufous, often black-streaked warblers) and larks. Shortly after my second visit I decided that I would also try to create a real field guide. The first version was illustrated in colour pencil, not a medium that is suitable for printing. That became apparent when friends thought that the completed work should not be kept to myself but should be submitted to the publisher HarperCollins in London. There I was told that they were willing to publish the field guide if I painted the 1500 species in gouache. This I did.

I had been working as a physical planner and landscape architect for the Dutch State Forest Service since 1964, but in 1991, at the age of 55, I left the service and decided to move to Kenya. There I spent countless hours at the National Museum in Nairobi, sketching the bird skins from its large collection. (I can still remember the smell of the camphor-like substance which was used to preserve the skins and lingered on my clothes when I came home.)

So far I have written and illustrated eight field guides and illustrated four other bird books, adding up to an average of about one book every three years. In producing a book I prefer to do everything myself. For my latest published book ‘A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, Hawaii and the Central and West Pacific’ I did all the artwork, prepared the distribution maps on my computer, wrote the text and compiled the index. Of course, I needed people to help me, and I am very grateful to the experts that have generously given substantial support and advice.

It is sometimes said that the painting in my books is “a bit sketchy, somewhat fast and loose, not finely finished”. However, if you see a bird in the field, you see its plumage as a single surface; painting each individual feather will give too much information unless the feathers form a pattern. Also, I find it difficult to draw straight lines, for example when depicting the parallel primaries in a folded wing, or perfect circles when forming an eye, but this is not important as long as the species illustrated can be identified. To me it is essential that one can see that my work is hand painted; I love the magic of small spots and streaks that create the shape of something that looks quite different in reality when seen from nearby.

Currently I am working on Birds of South America, Vol. II, Passerines, which I hope will be published in 2015.

I love my work as an ornithologist, writer and illustrator, which I pursue with great enthusiasm. Yes, I officially retired in 2001, but I cannot imagine ever stopping.