amy azzaritoDIYpast & present

past and present: audubon + diy paperweight project

by Amy Azzarito

Want to have your own Audubon print? This blue heron hand-colored engraving from 1837 could be yours for $80,000.)

There has always been a relationship between interiors and nature. In light of the current and (seemingly never-ending) John Derian-esque craze for all things nature, I thought it might be fun to take a look at one of the most well-known naturalists – Audubon.

from left:  Flamingo, Gyrfalcon

It’s nearly impossible to look at a bird print and not think of John James Audubon. And there’s a good reason for that – Audubon’s Birds of America, published between 1827 and 1838,  was comprised of 435 images all drawn life-sized. The book was a result of 18 years of work. Not only did Audubon trek across the United States searching for his subjects, but he spent nearly as much time looking for subscribers for his volumes. In light of Audubon’s enormous achievements, it’s extraordinary to realize that he likely never would have pursued his career as a naturalist if his life had worked out the way he had intended. It was only when Plan A didn’t work out, that he turned to drawing – and he pursued his passion for birds with a dogged determination.

from left: Wild Turkey, Yellow breasted chat from the New York Historical Society

John James Audubon was born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and his French chambermaid, who died of infection shortly after his birth. His illegitimacy would be a source of embarrassment for his entire life and something that he successfully concealed from all but those closest to him.  After the death of his birth mother, he was taken to Nantes, France where he was raised by his father’s wife.

An original Audubon print can run you into the tens of thousands of dollars, but this DIY Audubon paperweight is less than ten dollars! It a quick and fun way to bring a little nature into your home or office!

CLICK HERE for the rest of the post – including an easy Audubon-inspired DIY after the jump!

Audubon’s Mill Grove home

Audubon had an early fascination with birds and drawing, but it doesn’t seem to have been something that he considered doing as a career. In 1803, just four months past his 18th birthday, Audubon was sent to America, to escape conscription into the army that Napoleon was mustering for war with Britain. Audubon arrived in New York and was struck with the yellow fever -a virus transmited by the bite of a mosquito. Audubon was nursed back to health outside of Philadelphia by two Quaker woman who taught him English – as a result, his English was peppered with thee’s and thou’s.

He lived on the family-owned estate at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia, where he hunted, studied and drew birds, and became infatuated with a local girl, Lucy Bakewell, who would become his wife.  It was at Mill Grove that Audubon developed his method for drawing birds. Although Audubon would observe and sketch birds out in nature, he nearly always killed his subject so that he could study it at his leisure. (He was a proficient hunter.) He developed a mounting technique using wire and a grid board that gave him the ability to position the bird as if it were alive.

Audubon painted the male Great Horned owl on the right in Henderson Kentucky in 1814. The female was painted later in 1821.

In 1808, Audubon moved to Louisville, Kentucky to start a general store (he married Lucy 6 months after setting up shop). Two years later, he sold his share of the Louisville store and moved to Henderson, Kentucky.

Initially, Audubon did well in Henderson. He had little time for drawing and concentrated on supporting his family that now included two sons.  The land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States but also put an immense burden on the countries young financial system. The price of the land had to be paid in gold, and as a result, banks were forced to call in outstanding loans and those people with debt were forced to sell assets at a loss. Prices for everything fell quickly. Audubon had a string of bad luck and went from relative prosperity to bankruptcy rather quickly. The Audubons were forced to move in with Lucy’s sister Eliza and her wealthy husband Nicholas Berthoud. Audubon drew the portraits of the Berthouds, perhaps as a way to make himself useful and their portraits led to other commissions and soon he was earning money with portraits and giving drawing lessons.

He developed a renewed interest in birds and began to see the possibilities of his art. Once Audubon determined that he wanted to draw birds, he was resolute. For the next six years, he traveled collecting specimens leaving Lucy to support herself and their two sons. She made a living teaching. It’s not unsurprising that Audubon’s conduct was viewed as a form of abandonment by her family (including her sons) and was a source of contention between the couple.


Then in 1826, realizing that Philadelphia did not have the technology to produce the size folio that he envisioned, Audubon traveled to Great Britain with a portfolio of 300 images and met with almost immediate success. The British were eager to get a look at American wildlife and Audubon traveled around Britain speaking about his work. He earned enough money to begin publishing Birds of America, for which he sold advance subscriptions. The cost of printing the entire work was $115,640 (more than $2,000,000 today) and Audubon raised the money for the enterprise himself not only through the subscriptions, but also by holding exhibitions, oil painting commissions, and selling animal skins. The success of the publication enabled Audubon to achieve a certain level of prosperity for his family.

Audubon died in 1851. Lucy would live another twenty-three years. Without Audubon the family had difficulty making ends meet. At age seventy, Lucy returned to teaching to help support the family and she sold Audubon’s original drawings to the New York Historical Society for $2,000.

passenger pigeon (The hand-colored engraving of the two passenger pigeons from 1836 is anther pricey number. It sells for $29,000)

Some of the birds drawn by Audubon have become extinct or threatened. The passenger pigeon (above) is an example of a bird drawn and described by Audubon that no longer exists. Once the most common bird in America, it was estimated that there were one hundred million passenger pigeons in the United States during Audubon’s lifetime. The birds became extinct in the early 20th century.

Birds that have become extinct since Audubon’s work:

  • Carolina Parakeet
  • Passenger Pigeon
  • Labrador Duck
  • Great Auk
  • Esquimaux (Eskimo) Curlew
  • Pinnated Grouse (Greater Prairie-Chicken)

Birds represented in Audubon’s work that are now on the endangered list:

  • California Condor
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Bachman’s Warbler
  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker
  • Whooping Crane

In addition the Audubon Society has a list of the top 20 bird species whose populations are in decline.

vintage bird prints above bed from sneak peek: lucy allen gillis

An easy way to incorporate some Audubon-style into your space is by simply framing a group of prints, but see the diy project below for another way to bring a little Audobon chic into your home!

Facts to Know

  1. Not only did Audubon live in a young country, but its population was also young. Even by 1820, 58 percent of the American population was under twenty.
  2. Although Audubon did misidentify some species, he discovered twenty-five new ones and twelve new subspecies.
  3. One of Audubon’s great innovations was presenting the birds within their natural environment. Although the images of nature were usually done by someone else, at that time most animals or birds were depicted on a white background.

Books to Read

  • Lucy Audubon: A Biography by Carolyn E. Delatte – It’s not an exaggeration that Audubon would have never succeeded without the help of Lucy. Yet, while there is so much written on her husband, there have been few publications devoted to Lucy’s role in his success.
  • John James Audubon: The Making of an American by Richard Rhodes – There are certainly many Audubon biographies. This is one of the more recent ones and I liked how Rhodes contextualized Audubon’s life with what was happening the the country at the time. This book was the primary resource for this post and I highly recommend it.


diy project!
use an audubon image to create a paperweight!

Paperweights with natural history imagery are such a lovely way to add a bit of the outdoors to a dreary office space, but here’s a way to choose an image that means something to you! I created these paperweight using a photo paperweight kit that had a cardboard backing and piece of felt and then printed out an Audubon image (for free!) from the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery. (I should add that if you don’t want an Audubon image, there are plenty of other images to choose from

materials needed
paperweight kit, $6.95
color printout of Audubon image from NYPL’s digital gallery

The birds of America, from drawings made in the United States and their territories. By John James Audubon from the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery

1. As an homage to Audubon, I chose a bird image. I picked puffins.  I reduced the image to a size that worked with my paperweight and  simply printed it in at Kinkos.


2. The paperweight kit came with a cardboard backing and a piece of felt. I used the cardboard oval as a template, and cut out my puffins. Then it was all a matter of assembling!


Suggested For You


  • I’ve been a fan of designsponge for a couple of years now, and I’m not particularly given to commenting on posts, but I just wanted to say that this column is hands-down my absolute FAVOURITE. (with We Like it Wild and Living In coming a close second). Thanks for all the thought and research you put into this!

  • Oh my! Audubon was so talented and it seems like his art was made for home decor. I was lucky enough to work in a poster shop and so I scored the flamingo print for a very low price. It is now a key piece in my dining room. I love looking at my life size raspberry red flamingo while eating cake :p it’s the best!

  • Thank you~-Thank You! for presenting Audubon s story and images. I have given thought to creating paperweights as gifts ,seeing yours -has inspired me to do the same for some very special folks

  • My word, this is one of the most in-depth, lovely articles I’ve read in a long while. I love history and you dished it up beautifully.

    I’m thinking about 2 things:

    1. Never thought deeply why we bring the outdoors in. I’m pondering that today. Man subordinating nature? Living harmoniously? Primitive desires visualized?

    2. Makes sense “young america” had many young ppl. Fun trivia.

  • I love the paperweights. I’ve had a fascination with the Audubon Society since one of my father’s professor’s collection… Long story. What a great post.

  • This makes me so happy. I found a wonderful 1950s copy of Birds of America and I just adore his vibrant illustrations. I’m selling a copy on my etsy now as well…

  • Cool idea! My mom had a large print of that blue heron all through growing up. And we are highlighting Audubon as artist of the month at our elementary school, so nice to read an article on him.

  • Thankyou for highlighting the beautiful work of Audubon! I was just astounded by the beauty of these prints, especially the flamingo one. This is a fantastic post.

  • Don’t you just love when someone pulls it all together for you?? I have the Birds of America book, I have the paperweights, now I have the inspiration! Thanks Amy!! There are several birds from the 1960s Audubon book listed on my etsy site for under $10. And hundreds more here in my dining room. Great project!

  • Thank you for this great article with so many of the images. The current top ten endangered bird list is a bit different than the one you listed. It’s here: http://www.audubon.org/news/top10/download.php. Thankfully the peregrine falcon is no longer on the endangered list due to DDT being banned and it has been successfully re-established. Thank goodness for these small successes now and then. It’s so sad to see any species vanish or become endangered.

  • Thanks so much for this post! I was lucky enough to go see some of Audubon’s originals at The New York Historical Society last February. The care, detail, and wonderful colors just oozed spirit and love of the wild. They were quite eye-opening! I’m definitely going to try out the paperweight project to help remind me of that beautiful artwork.

  • Great post! I love that you added some of the history about Audubon. I have been studying his work in depth over the past few years and am currently working on a “Birds of Prey” collage series inspired by him. Will be showing the series at the Philadelphia Airport starting in Feb!

  • so random, but i just got married at the Audubon Society at Millgrove this past August. Love seeing his work and the house in this post. Brings back fond memories

  • thanks for the awesome DIY project!

    FYI, I read a newspaper article that said the peregrine falcon was taken off of the endangered list this year!

  • I’m almost certain I commented on this post, but I don’t see it. Thank you for the link to the kits. I do paperweights of some of my artwork, but have used only blanks. The entire kit makes it so much easier!

    • hi lana

      the last comment i have registered under your ip was from 10/29 on the terror-ium post. sometimes thing pop into our spam filter for one reason or another and we miss them, so feel free to send an email if you don’t see your comment, we can go hunt through spam for it or just repost it :)


  • The University of Pittsburgh finished scanning the complete set a few years ago and it’s AMAZING how far in you can zoom and the images you can see. I love flipping through all the different birds. (http://digital.library.pitt.edu/a/audubon/) You can also order some very nice, high quality reproductions of whichever print you like. We have some hanging here in their archives and they are gorgeous.

    That being said, I love this paperweight idea since I can’t necessarily afford a large print (even at an employee discount!).

  • Thank you – i came across your post during my searches of the interweb – the Gyrfalcon image was a life saver we were trying to do a b&w print array for our dining room and we wanted bird prints that image was our inspiration, some color but mainly a high contrast b&w theme. Thanks!

  • I’m doing a social studies fair project on him and needed the names of birds. This website helped a lot!!

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