Drawings and sketches

Animal Expression, Part 1

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.

Pronghorn doe

Pronghorn doe

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.

African Wild Dog

African Wild Dog

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.

Cheetah 8:45:11am

Cheetah 8:45:11am

Cheetah 8:45:14

Cheetah 8:45:14

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”.

Meercat

Meercat

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.

Lion yawning

Lion yawning

Hope you find it interesting!

3 replies »

  1. This is topic I have long struggled with when working with photographers. There are wonderful photographers who cannot take a good picture of an animal to save their lives, simply because they cannot see the animal as an individual life force. They take a technically proficient picture that renders the subject as alive as a piece of furniture. Because … they SEE the animal as a piece of furniture.

    I can tell you in one glance if a photographer “gets” animals or not. It’s in the frame, so to speak.

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  2. Hi Susan-
    I am curious…and I understand your feelings on expression in wildlife art….are you totally against working from mounted animals? I have done sketches the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Natural History Museum in New York, and took lots of photos of the mounts. I understand that some are better than others- and of course the eyes would be way wrong-but for basic forms, colors, etc???? There are several painings in my head that I want to do…for example, I want to do a triptych of grizzlies, and one of mountain goats. Now, I saw both live in Yellowstone, but the goats from miles away on a mountain (thank God for binoculors!!) and have some pix from the grizzles…but none in the poses i want. I have some zoo reference ones also…but the mounted ones stand still so nice and it is such a pleasant way to spend an afternoon….
    just wanted to get your thoughts. of course, first-case observation is best…but if that does not work out???

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  3. Lori, it’s like using photographs. They have their place as long as one thoroughly understands the limitations. There is no substitute for viewing live animals. Zoo animals are useful too, but the same caveats apply.

    If you look through some of my past posts, you can read what else I’ve written about these issues. Photos, mounts and zoo animals should be used as supplements for actual observation.

    I’ve been around enough top wildlife artists to know that they know the difference. And I can tell if someone has been to Kenya or is putting a zoo lion in a landscape that they have not seen themselves. You can’t hide from those who know.

    I’ve seen wild mountain goats in Glacier. Got some decent photos of a nanny and kid. But the light isn’t that great and they were a fair ways off. I just haven’t seen enough of them close enough to feel that I can pull off a successful painting at this point.

    I would not trust either the form or color of a mount for primary reference. (How old are some of them and how much have they faded through the years?) I’ve drawn from mounts also, mostly at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. For getting the basics of how the animal draws and to see some details like paws and ears, mounts can be very useful. And it’s true, they do hold still nicely, but think about it- they’re DEAD. Imagine the difference between a taxidermy mounted house cat and the expressiveness of a live one. Don’t you think there’s something fundamental missing in the former?

    I simply don’t do paintings that I don’t have the reference for rather than try to make it work with distant photos and taxidermy mounts. It’s a large stack of ideas, but that’s how it goes. I’m not going to waste my time trying to fit the square peg of inferior reference into the round hole of my commitment to do the highest quality work that I am capable of.

    PS- Loved the Field Museum! Saw the maneless lions, got the t-shirt.

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