About 1820, around the age of 35, Audubon declared his intention to paint every bird in North America. In his bird art, he mainly forsook oil paint, the medium of serious artists of the day, in favor of watercolors and pastel crayons (and occasionally pencil, charcoal, chalk, gouache, and pen and ink). As early as 1807, he developed a method of using wires and threads to hold dead birds in lifelike poses while he drew them.
In 1823, Audubon went to Philadelphia and New York, looking for financial support in the form of subscribers to enable him to publish his artwork, but he found support lacking.As a result, in 1826, he set sail for the United Kingdom with 250 of his original illustrations, looking for the financial support of subscribers and the technical abilities of engravers and printers. After exhibiting his drawings in Liverpool and Manchester, he journeyed to Edinburgh, where he met the accomplished engraver William H. Lizars. Lizars engraved up to ten of the first plates but was unable to continue the project when his colorists went on strike. In 1827, Audubon engaged the noted London animal engraver Robert Havell Jr., and his father, Robert Havell Sr. Havell Jr. oversaw the project through to its completion in 1838.
The original edition of Birds of America (sometimes called the Havell Edition after its printer, and sometimes called the "Double Elephant Folio" (because of its size) was printed on handmade paper 39.5 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide. The principal printing technique was copperplate etching, but engraving and aquatint were also used. Watercolor was then added by hand.
Audubon funded the costly printing project through a pay-as-you-go subscription. Prints were issued in sets of five every month or two in tin cases and each set usually included one very large bird, one medium-sized bird, and three small birds. In 1838, at the end of the thirteen-year project, 435 plates (87 sets of five) had been issued. The plates were published unbound and without any text. It is estimated that not more than 200 complete sets were ever compiled.
By visiting the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove one can see our museum collection of Audubon’s Birds of America. A “Double Elephant Folio” is always on exhibit showcasing one bird each month. Page turning occurs once every four weeks on Thursday’s. Throughout the home you can also see framed images from the first edition “Double Elephant Folio” gracing the walls.