IMHO, there is too much animal art out there in which the subject has about as much life as a department store manequin. Why is this? Is it a lingering result of Descartes’ pernicious idea of animals as “mere machines, incapable of thought or feeling” (Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma)? Being so concerned with surface features that the inner life of the animal is ignored? Not doing the fieldwork and observation which would reveal that inner life? I could make a case for any and all of those reasons, but the fact remains that there are an awful lot of “dead” animals on canvas out there.
Internationally known wildlife artist John Banovich, who I have been fortunate enough to study with, pointed out in one workshop a few years ago that “you are only as good as your reference”. Since then I’ve realized how true that is. I look back through the print photos that I took before I went digital and it’s so obvious why I couldn’t get my work past a certain level. I didn’t have top-notch reference. I struggled to paint with what I had because I wanted to do it so badly.
Digital photography has been a godsend since it has always been necessary, as any professional photographer knows, to take 20, 50 or 100 shots to get the keeper. Now there’s no excuse not to fire away and greatly increase the chances that you’ll get the shot that will allow you to do the painting that will be ALIVE. Here’s an example: two images of a cheetah, taken 3 seconds apart. The first is ok, but the second is much, much better. The only difference is a slight turning of the head, but it makes a big difference in the expression.
For an painted animal to “be alive”, the artist is required to accept that they are sentient beings, with their own consciousness. Whatever else animals are, they aren’t “dumb”.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing animal features one by one and how they relate to capturing life and expression. The final installment will be how it all comes together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.
Hope you find it interesting!