PleinAir Salon winner - "Fox Sparrow Study" by Michael Dumas
"Fox Sparrow Study" by Michael Dumas, 20x16 in., graphite on canvas, won the "Best Drawing" category for the November 2020 PleinAir Salon

Congratulations to Michael Dumas, whose work has been recognized in the PleinAir Salon, a monthly art competition with many categories in which to enter your art.

Fox Sparrow Study: My Inspiration and Process


The inspiration for my work comes from the everyday experiences found in real life, much of it to do with things of a humble nature that often go unnoticed. Sparrows in general fall into this category, perhaps because they don’t sport the flamboyant colors found in many songbirds, and to the unconcerned eye one sparrow looks pretty much like any other.

My interest in sparrows came suddenly and unexpectedly, when as a young boy I heard a loud ‘thump’ of something hitting our kitchen window. Upon investigation I found what we simply referred to as a ‘brown-bird’, laying limp and still upon the grass. Picking it up I marveled at the intricacy of patterns and all the subtle things that were not visible from even a short distance away. Holding it in my hand and realizing it would not revive was an emotional, intimate act whose memory stays with me even now.

I have probably drawn and painted more sparrows than any other subject, and perhaps this is the reason why.

Fox sparrows pass through my area in early spring and late fall. They are harbingers of seasonal change, transient visitors that inspire my interest anew every year.

My Drawing Process

For “Fox Sparrow Study” I worked from life sketches, photographs, a specimen, and objects from the field. The support is a fine-weave portrait canvas, to which I applied several layers of gesso and sanded smooth. The gesso is very receptive to graphite and I used H and HB pencils for the two uppermost birds.

I altered the rest of the canvas by applying a water-thin wash of gesso in order to provide a slightly gritty texture. Using HB and 2B pencils within this toothy area enhanced the underlying grain and enriched the darks. To provide a durable, protective finish I applied several sprayed-on layers of final varnish.

On Entering the PleinAir Salon

I was very pleased when a drawing/sketchbook category was included in the Plein Air Salon Competition because drawing is the foundation for all of my work, including final paintings. Having “Fox Sparrow Study” awarded Best Drawing in the 2020 Plein Air November Competition was particularly gratifying for this reason as well as because of my personal connection with the subject matter.

Over the years I have entered my work in numerous competitions, and I’ve learned that each judge brings with them particular preferences and viewpoints. For this reason, I am not discouraged should my entry not be awarded a win. Entering a work of art you feel is strong more than once can often yield a pleasing outcome.

Every painting has its own distinct harmony, a balancing of color, tone, composition, brushwork, and so on. It is a necessary process of learning and practicing one’s craft. There are unlimited variations to any given painting however, and it seems to me that the path to each one has to do with an emotional thread acting as guide.

Additional Works

Oil painting of sparrows
Michael Dumas, “Sparrow’s Rest,” Oil on Russian birch, 10.25” x 23”

In a shed behind Bellamy’s Mill two sparrows perch on a pile of discarded flour sacks. Some areas are ablaze in full sunlight while others are only softly illuminated; the rest recede into deep darkness. There are many people who pass by but no one seems to notice.


Oil painting of sparrows
Michael Dumas, “Influx: Sparrows in the Louvre,” Oil on Russian birch, 10.25” x 17.5”

Several sketches of statues in the Louvre and memories of the many little street-urchin house sparrows lay filed away and dormant for years. I thought about them occasionally, sensing a painting was there to be found. What if some carefully selected statues were placed in such a way as to seem aware of the birds?


Contemporary realism figurative art
Michael Dumas, “Gypsy,” Oil on Russian birch, 5” x 7”

In the city of Arles, a man removes himself from the hustle and bustle of the city square and seeks a quiet spot. He trusts his little white dog to warn of intruders, and the dog watches me.


Oil painting of chickadee
Michael Dumas, “Winter Drift (black-capped chickadee),” Oil on Russian birch, 7.5” x 10.5”

The day is cold, but I am dressed warmly, my attention focused on the intricate patterns of golden-rod stalks and dead grass pressed down by the snow. A dark flurry against the blue shadows leaves me with an impression of wings in full spread. It is such a fragile thing, and easily lost.


Contemporary realism figurative art
Michael Dumas, “Fur Trade,” Graphite on smooth Strathmore Bristol, 12” x 16”

A band of voyageurs rest awhile at the end of a long portage, the large trade canoes and their contents scattered about. The reenactment is authentic, but one man seems to me much more convincing than the rest. Later, in the studio, I keep this impression foremost in my mind and push it as far as I can.


Contemporary realism wildlife art
Michael Dumas, “Flight of the Kestrel,” Oil on Russian birch, 8” x 12”

There is an American kestrel hunting in Northey’s field. Multiple figures on a page in my sketchbook preserve my attempt to comprehend what is taking place. In the studio I advance this composite sketch approach as a fully conceived finished painting with the aid of museum specimens to refer to.


Wildlife paintings
Michael Dumas, “First Light (common yellowthroat),” Oil on Russian birch, 10.25” x 5”

It is very quiet this early in the day, the water calm, and the air thickened by a rising mist. Winter dead cattails stand upright or stretch across the water’s surface; their stiff and straight-edged lines somehow softened by the light and moisture laden air. I think I hear the repeated ‘wichity whichity’ call of a common yellowthroat.


Contemporary realism art - Plein Air Salon winning artist
Michael Dumas, “Waiting for Spring,” Graphite on smooth Strathmore Bristol, 14.5” x 10.75”

An overnight snowstorm can transform the world. Things once familiar are suddenly noticed as if seen for the first time. Form is simplified, contrast is deepened, … and the silence……………….

Connect with Michael Dumas
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Other categories for the PleinAir Salon art competition include Best Building, Best Drawing and Sketches, and many more! Visit to view the complete list.

Why should a contemporary realist enter the PleinAir Salon?

Because this art contest is created by PleinAir magazine, which features not only plein air paintings, but also studio paintings, all types of paintings are eligible and do not need to have been completed in plein air, but should originate from a plein air study or plein air experience. As we know, many studio paintings start with plein air sketches. Our interest is in rewarding great paintings.

The PleinAir Salon awards $50,000 in CASH each year! Learn more at, and enter your best work for your chance to win this art competition. Enter now – the next deadline is coming soon!

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