Hans, you have spent considerable time in India. What brought you to India?
Having been born and raised in frigid Germany, I have always been drawn to the warm and exotic tropics. After traveling extensively in the tropical Americas and Africa, I yearned to see your marvelous country. After my first trip to India in 1994, I hardly wanted to go anywhere else, returning four more times (so far), each visit lasting about a month. I found the wildlife incredible, the people very friendly, and the variety of cultures and architecture a wonderful bonus.
When and what generated your interest in raptors?
I learned to read at a very early age, and my parents gave me a book for my fifth birthday that described the training of a goshawk by a German forester. I was spellbound and began to notice raptors around my home town and in the nearby woods. I well remember being sharply called to order by my Latin teacher because I was completely fixated on a kestrel perched on a ledge of a building across the schoolyard. I also on occasion found molted hawk feathers in the forest, which fed my imagination.
When did you start painting raptors and what fueled this interest?
My earliest raptor painting, actually a color pencil drawing of an eagle, goes back to 1941, when I was four years old (even before I got that book). At around the age of 10, I decided I needed to paint all the birds of Germany and actually managed to finish about 16 species, including a Common Buzzard. Both my parents and a favorite uncle, who was an ardent birdwatcher, encouraged me.
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As an example, Hans shows us an image of a painting he recently finished: a juvenile Peregrine Falcon, male. It starts as an idea on the back of a scrap of paper (as you can see it’s an old letter) and ends up highlighting the wonderful shape of a falcon’s wing, its aerodynamic design and specialized configuration. The very strong diagonal makes for a fine composition.]
Who are the artists whom you think influenced you?
As a child, I was completely unaware of other painters of hawks, but as soon as my horizons widened, I discovered the Swedish wildlife artist, Bruno Liljefors, whose use of paint is unequaled to this day. However, he did not always get his biology right; for example, he shows a White-tailed Sea Eagle mantling as she feeds her young, something that no raptor mother would ever dream of doing during that activity. Such spreading of the wings while crouching over the food is reserved for occasions when a successful raptor seeks to hide its hard-gotten prey from other raptors who hope to steal it. There are a few other artists whose work I admire – for example, David Reid-Henry, who knew his hawks and painted them well. I was amused to learn in Africa that he stayed at people’s homes as a house guest and never failed to start a painting of some local raptor and then move on, with the promise of returning to finish the painting (while he would enjoy another fortnight’s free lodging).
How big is the market for raptor paintings in the US and Europe?
While birdwatching has been very popular in the US, it is currently undergoing a spurt of growth, just as in India. I was fortunate that the University of California Press invited me to write and illustrate two field guides – Raptors of California (2005) and Owls of California and the West (2007) – and they sell well.
While the market for raptor paintings is nowhere near as large as that, say, for landscapes, there are people both in the US and Europe who do enjoy raptors enough to make it worthwhile to paint these subjects. Foremost among these are of course falconers, who often like to see their birds depicted and thus memorialized. But there are also lovers of the wild; I recently sold a painting of a Golden Eagle to a professor of economics in Washington, D.C. Most raptor painters depict other subjects as well, and if they are really looking for success in the US, they usually move to the Midwestern states where wildlife art is more popular. But I’ll never leave California; no other state has as many raptors.
Raptors are difficult to identify with so many intermediate plumages. You have been identifying raptors on some of the Indian egroups.
When it comes to identifying raptors, I put on my biologist’s hat. For 37 years, I taught zoology, including ornithology and related subjects, at a college in the San Francisco Bay Area and honed my skills identifying species by whatever means required – the shape, the voice, the flight style, etc. I will say that some of your Indian eagles are a difficult bunch, though I have learned to look for fairly subtle traits, such as beak profile and tail length. I do enjoy debating identities with Indian experts and am happy to find so many people excited about a subject close to my heart. And of course I learn a lot myself in the process.
Was it your passion in painting that led you to learn more about these species?
It may be that my being an artist gives me a leg up in spotting unique characteristics that identify species, because I had to train myself to look carefully.
Tell us something about your interest in falconry? How popular is it in the US and Europe?
My early fascination with that book about a trained goshawk has never left me, and I myself have flown a variety of species throughout my life. There is no better way to learn about the behavior of a raptor than by training it and flying it at wild quarry. Very often all the action takes place right before my eyes, and frequently, other raptors that I would not have otherwise noticed are drawn to the scene, and I get to see behaviors that one would normally only glimpse at a great distance.
There are about 4,000 falconers in the US, where the sport is closely regulated; it is much more popular in the British Isles, which places surprisingly few constraints on the practice. Continental Europe is home to numerous falconers, who are usually very conscious of tradition and where hawking is also rather tightly regulated. I was sad to discover that India has outlawed the sport that used to be such a big part of her heritage; neighboring countries are home to a handful of practitioners whose activities can be followed online. Still, because of the Indian culture, raptors in most parts of India, having enjoyed freedom from human persecution for so long, are remarkably fearless and confiding and can be observed with far greater ease than those of the West.