the greatest catharsis
Duff communicates emotions through art
by Kathryn Manis
FREQUENTING art and history museums as a child had a profound
impact not only on Zak Duff’s interests, but on his perspective
on the world. The son of two teachers, Duff spent his early years
just outside Washington, D.C. The family took full advantage of
the area’s museums and galleries, cultivating a sense of curiosity
and appreciation for beauty that would follow him long after he
“We spent a lot of time on the weekends going to the different museums — I
studied animals at the Natural History Museum, learned about animal and botani-cal
life at the Audubon Society and Collection, and spent time at the National
Portrait Gallery,” he says. “So, I grew up with art and nature, and that continued
when I later ended up in North Carolina.”
The Leland-based artist’s love of nature is particularly apparent in his popular
watercolor works, rendered on cold press paper and decommissioned oceano-graphic
charts. The pieces in this ongoing series, depicting interesting local wild-life,
are meticulously researched and highlight the unique qualities of each subject.
In “Cardinalis,” Duff represents the state bird as it prepares to land. The vibrant
creature moves clawed-feet-first and its toes arch downward, reaching for a branch
or other surface. Large wings stretch and spread behind the bird and shades of
orange, pink, and dark red highlight individual feathers as they move in tandem.
The bird’s flight is captured on a predominantly white background with small,
watery swaths of pale green, suggesting the foliage it is aiming to land on.
Cardinals are renowned for their vibrant appearance, and Duff accentuates the
bird’s bold coloring with heavy-handed highlight; white acrylic paint and lighter
shades of the composition’s color scheme create a high contrast. The result is an
impressive brightness that mimics the bird in flight with a passionate flurry of
Duff describes his detailed research process for these watercolor images.
“I’ll start by talking with people, finding out what local wildlife they are inter-ested
in,” he says. “I’ll go down to the docks and ask people who are heading out
what they are fishing for that day, I’ll talk to people who are walking their dogs,
find out what is on the minds of the people who live here. If I can photograph the
animal in nature, I will. If I can’t, I leaf through National Geographic and art refer-ence
books. I want to see pictures of them in all different kinds of light. I want to
understand the movement of the animal and depict the special colors their scales
and feathers catch when they reflect light, how their bodies move, how their gills
act, what their wingspan and tail feathers look like.”
Artist Zak Duff in his Leland home studio.
PHOTO BY ALLISON POTTER