The Iridescence of Birds (or: Painting with eye-shadow)

posted in: Hadley Hooper, Patricia MacLachlan | 12

If you were an author, writing more than half a century after the death of your muse, living thousands of miles away in a different time and place, and you wanted to understand what inspired your hero, to share the brightness and beauty they bring to your life, to give answers and spark curiosity, making connections across generations and cultures, would it surprise you if all that could be achieved with just two sentences, indeed, two questions, left unanswered?

If you were an illustrator, living and breathing the work of one of the word’s most famous painters and sculptors, working on just your second picture book and you wanted to capture the colour and light and shape and movement which embodies this artist without falling into mimicry, would you surprise yourself if you chose a radically different artistic technique, rarely associated with the artist in question to make connections and find a shared language?

Would it surprise you if such visual and verbal bravery could weave together into a book which resonates and captivates? Would it surprise you to find so much folded in, packed up and spread out over 40 paves creating an exquisite example of the multifaceted nature of picture books?

In theory I know how the best picture books can work magic with the slimmest selection of words. I’ve seen on many occasions illustrations powerfully and subtly extend even the most beautiful writing.

birdscoverAnd yet I was still taken by surprise by The Iridescence of Birds: A Book about Henri Matisse written by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper. I was taken by surprise, filled with delight and touched with wonder.

MacLachlan and Hooper’s exploration of what inspired Matisse to create the art he did works so well partly because of a poetic lightness of touch; the use of suggestion in both words and images. Pared back to its simplest, it is also ‘just’ a story about a young child, enjoying a warm and playful relationship with his mother, dreaming about what he might be when he grows up, a scenario familiar, reassuring and one with which both adult reader and young child are happy to identify. Yes, this child happens to grow up into an incredible artist, but the unspoken message that comes through is that perhaps so could the child listening to this story. Perhaps they too will be inspired by what they find around them, even by apparently everyday things.

Notes from the author and illustrator on their approach to creating this book, plus a judicious choice of further reading (all books written for children about Matisse) are the icing on the cake. This briefest of biographies is an example of narrative non-fiction at its very best. I do wish more UK publishers would take up the challenge of supporting the creation of more brilliant books like this one.



The book’s title comes from Matisse’s love of birds: For much of his life he kept fancy pigeons, and indeed apparently shortly before his death he gave his last bird to Picasso. Inspired by this image by Matisse…

Polinesia, The Sky Musée des Gobelins, Paris
Polinesia, The Sky
Musée des Gobelins, Paris

… we set about cutting out our own pigeons from silver paper, and then decorating them with that well-known artistic medium: Eye-shadow.

Why eye-shadow? I wanted something which really captured the iridescence you find on the neck of pigeons, the tails of magpies, the feathered eyes of peacocks, and I thought that eye-shadow might just do that.



Actually the eye-shadow didn’t show up so well on the silvery paper we’d chosen for our birds…


…so things quickly developed and we turned our hands into wings, covered in iridescent feathers.


Not at all where I expected this activity to end up but we nevertheless had a thoroughly enjoyable time and won’t forget painting our hands with eye-shadow in a hurry!


Whilst making our birds and decorating our hands we listened to:

  • The Black and White Pigeon sung by Burl Ives
  • Turtle Dove by Dog on Fleas
  • On the Wings of a Dove – sung here by Dolly Parton

  • Other activities which could work well alongside reading The Iridescence of Birds include:

  • Printmaking. Hooper created her illustrations by combining relief printmaking with digital techniques. Here’s a whole Pinterest board dedicated to printmaking techniques you can try easily with kids.
  • Trying out techniques which Matisse used regularly. Here’s another Pinterest board all about Henri Matisse art projects for children.
  • Going on an Iridescence Hunt. Can you find any iridescent bugs? What about feathers? Blow some bubbles, or look for oil leaks on the roads to find more examples of iridescence in your neighbourhood.

  • What books have you recently enjoyed which cross the boundary between fiction and non-fiction?

    12 Responses

    1. Anne Booth

      Every time I read one of your posts I am amazed at your creativity. Have you ever written or illustrated a book yourself, Zoe? You have so many ideas.
      Anne Booth recently posted..‘Dog Ears’

      • Zoe

        Hi Anne, I DO have lots of ideas – more than I have time to actually put to paper. It’s a good thing, but frustrating!

      • Zoe

        Hi Claire, yes, I had to let go my vision here a bit – I had spent some time planning and prepping, only for it not to quite work and then go somewhere else entirely. Not always an easy thing to accept!

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