FOR WILLIAM R. BEEBE, creating a painting begins well be-fore he picks up a brush. Beebe has a passion for avian art, which means before he can even start to compose a work, he has to spend hours or days researching his subjects. Here’s an example: Today, William (Bill to his friends) and his wife, Jen (who functions as his creative partner and right hand in the business of art), will spend a couple of hours on the boardwalks of the Shem Creek Park. They’ll both spot, and Bill Beebe will take hundreds of photos of brown pelicans, herons, egrets and other feathery regulars around the marsh.
The Beebes are enthusiastic birders, and the research is something they both enjoy. “Birding is a great way to start the day or end the day,” Bill Beebe says. “Birds like to feed at low tide, so wading and shorebirds are easier to capture in action if they are unafraid. More and more, I plan my trips around the light and the tide.”
For those not initiated into the delightfully maddening world of birding, birds do not care to have their pictures taken. Not only are they unwilling models, but they are also skittish, fidgety and actively uncooperative. Making a good bird photo can take the most skilled photographer days, weeks or even years. Even if Beebe takes an award-winning photo, he’s just getting started.
Beebe settles in front of his 27-inch iMac computer screen and downloads his digital images, then systematically eliminates the noncontenders until he narrows it down to the “possibles.”
“It’s great fun when he downloads all the photos, and we can look at them on the big screen,” Jen Beebe says. “We enjoy reliving the day and excitement.”
The Beebes have been birding for roughly 15 years, and Bill Beebe has been painting professionally for more than 30 years. They are refreshingly kind to and supportive of one another, and their happy partnership transfers to Beebe’s paintings on a quantum level. Going through photos, they almost always agree on the keepers. “The final image ends up picking me,” Bill Beebe says. “It has to have something that stands out, something that makes it exceptional.”
He will then spend up to three weeks in his studio coaxing a new creation from the photo. The result will have more color and personality than a photo-realistic painting. A snowy egret may be against a different background, or a brown pelican may be casting a saucy stare. This is a style known as creative realism, a technique that uses impressionistic touches to take a painting beyond realism. “I want to create a painterly painting. I want to create some sense of style where people know it’s a Beebe,” the artist says. In other words, he wants you to see the hand of the artist. This technique brings the personality and detail of the bird to the foreground. You see the bird the way Beebe sees the bird.
Beebe graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in fine art. His art career began when he moved to Maine in 1990 and began painting historic wooden schooners, lighthouses, lobster boats and coastal villages. Now a Lowcountry resident, Beebe is delving into his passion for painting birds and historical buildings. Charleston is full of both.
“I love the retro look of the historic buildings downtown. I love details like the window boxes, colors, the old-fashioned shutter work, the cornices, the ironwork in the gates and the secret gardens,” Beebe says. Though many historic buildings in Charleston have been depicted in fine art paintings, Beebe looks for a unique perspective. Take, for example, his portrayal of Charleston’s iconic Rainbow Row. “Most people paint Rainbow Row straight on; it’s been done so often,” he says. “The first time I painted it, I wanted to do something different. I painted it so that you’re looking down the sidewalk with the iron balconies overhead.”
Indeed, Beebe’s depiction of Rainbow Row makes you feel like you’re part of the action, instead of outside looking in. He did something similar with his painting of Market Hall at the intersection of Market and Meet-ing streets. The focus is on the historic Greek Revival building. This perspective is straight on, but it has the dimensions of the intersection, multiple vanishing points and a unique combination of straight-on architecture and complex perspective.
One of the best parts of en-joying Beebe’s work is that he invites viewers into his daily life and the backstories of each of his paintings through a won-derfully narrated online journal. He also shares his photographs on social media, which are an artistic delight on their own.
Beebe’s architectural and wildlife paint-ings are available through his website and Mary Martin Galleries of Fine Art in Charleston. *
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com