Bess Petty: Bird Artist
By Ilana DeBare
Bess Petty was working for a company that made trade show banners when a friend asked if she had any small creations to include in a new gallery being set up by an artists’ collective.
Petty, a studio art graduate of U.C. Berkeley, had been sketching birds for fun. “I thought maybe I could make some [wallets] with birds on them, using scrap vinyl material from the place I worked,” she recalled.
That was in 2008. Since then, those initial scrap-material birds have grown into a menagerie of 83 different bird images that Petty sells on magnets, pins, notecards, coasters, stickers, pillows, and wallets.
One of those birds—a singing Western Meadowlark—is at the center of Golden Gate Bird Alliance’s Birdathon 2022 logo, which Petty designed pro bono.
Bird Versus Bird, Petty’s business, enjoys a five-star review on Etsy, where she currently does about half her sales. She also sells through gift shops at nature centers across the country. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, she sold her work in person at crafts fairs and other events, including some past GGBA Birdathon Awards Celebrations.
“My favorite type of order is from organizations and nature centers,” she said. “It’s supporting me but also supporting their conservation and education efforts.”
Petty’s love of drawing started as a child, when it was one of her favorite pastimes. Her love of birds took root early too.
“I grew up in Davis, where my family would go on nature walks on campus or hiking in the Sierra,”said Perry, who is now 43 with her own seven-year-old son. “We always had a bird book around to see who came to our feeder.”
Petty “fell into” graphic design as a student when, working at a textbook store, she was asked to create their newspaper ads and window displays. After college, she got a job at Fastsigns, an Oakland company that makes marketing materials for trade shows—the source of those initial vinyl scraps that she made into wallets.
Her initial bird creations proved so popular and so fun to make that she decided to open an Etsy store. “Etsy was still very small and very craftsy back then,” she said. “You could have terrible photos and people would still buy stuff. I feel lucky to have gotten in on the ground floor.”
Petty bought a tabletop machine to make pins and magnets, a manual device that can turn out 100 pins an hour, and which she still uses today.
“I kept adding more and more birds to the repertoire, and thinking, “What else can I put my birds on?” she recalled.
Petty’s artistic style is influenced by the silk screening that she did during college. “It’s flat, not overly detailed, and not too many colors in one design,” she said.
The images need to be simple since they’ll be printed on buttons as small as 1.25 inches in diameter. That can be a challenge when depicting a bird with complex coloring.
“For species with mottled colors, I’ll sometimes squint and see what are the fewest colors I can use without leaving anything important out,” she said.
Petty typically starts with a freehand pencil sketch of a bird. She gathers an array of field guides and photos—10 to 20 images in different poses—and creates her own view of the bird. Then she scans the sketch into her computer, does a line drawing in Adobe Illustrator, reduces the detail if needed, fills in the bird’s colors, and chooses a background color.
“My goal is to capture the liveliness and alertness of the bird,” she said. “I always wait until last to put the little eyeball in, which brings it to life.”
Petty does nearly all the work herself in her home near Lake Merritt: Her “studio” is a large table in the front room that holds her magnet stamping machine, computer, printer, and sewing machine. (She contracts with a commercial printer to produce the notecards and stickers.)
“I try to focus on products that are not bulky,” she said. “I have my little nook, with thousands of beady eyes watching me from their storage containers.”
Her most popular images include California Quail and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, which was the very first bird she designed. Belted Kingfisher is another crowd-pleaser.
“I wish I had a quarter for every person at a craft fair who said, ‘Ooh, look at that woodpecker,’ ” she said with a smile. “But a lot of people really do love kingfishers.”
The Covid pandemic was challenging for Petty, both as a business owner and a parent. Craft shows shut down, and many of the nature centers that carry her work were closed too. Meanwhile, her son was doing kindergarten at home, while she continued to work part-time for Fastsigns.
Now that her life is finally starting to re-stabilize, she’s considering the next steps for Bird Versus Bird. She plans to add some vulture images—Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, and California Condors. She may reduce her time at craft fairs and increase outreach to nature center stores.
One thing is certain: Petty will keep Bird Versus Bird on a craft scale, not a mass scale.
“If I wanted to grow this into a full-time business I could, but I would lose the fun part of it,” she said. “It’s fun to make things, and to take care of everything myself…. I can’t compete on price with something made in a factory overseas. But I can provide customized products to little nature stores that are not going to need quantities of 500.”
View and order Bird Versus Bird products at etsy.com/shop/birdversusbird. Or order a Birdathon 2022 t-shirt with Bess Petty’s Western Meadowlark logo at ggas.myspreadshop.com/. (Proceeds from t-shirt sales support Golden Gate Bird Alliance’s conservation and nature education programs.) Meanwhile, check out our array of special field trips and behind-the-scenes tours that are part of Birdathon 2022, from mid-March through early May: See our Birdathon web page for details and registration.