New Painting Debut!- Argali Ram (Head Study); And A Cautionary Tale Of The Importance Of Good Reference Images

I find that I have a perfect opportunity to demonstrate how critical good reference is and what a difference familiarity with a species makes in how well one is able to draw and paint it. Besides showing off my latest work.

I first went to Mongolia on an Earthwatch Institute-sponsored project “Mongolian Argali” in the spring of 2005 at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. I had two Nikon D70 digital SLRs that shot 6MB RAW files. Quite good at that time. My lens was a Tamron 100-300 with a 2x doubler, which made it slow, but did let me get decent stuff from quite a distance. I took 735 images of argali sheep during my two weeks on the project and I was hot to paint them when I got home. For reasons that are now lost in the mists of time, I chose the image below for my first head study (file under “What was I thinking?”)

Now, granted I could zoom in on it quite a bit and I was really interested in understanding the shapes, not details, but still. Why didn’t I pick one like this?

Much closer. Better light. Structure of things like the area around the eye easier to see. Maybe I was seduced by the beautiful set of horns on the ram. Oh well, live and learn.

In any case, I sent a jpg of the finished study to the Mongolian scientist I worked with and he thought I’d done a very good job, which was nice to know. But……the painting continued to bug me, so I did a re-paint. And then another. And futzed with it some more. And then life moved on, the painting was shelved and that was that. So now it’s kind of a mess and I’m not going to work on it again. The only image I have of it when it looked finished is on a promo page I did for myself. The image below is scanned from that, so it’s not great, but it does show my first attempt to paint an argali head.

Fast forward to this year’s trip during which I spent a week at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu and shot 852 images of argali. I now have Nikon D80s which have 12MB RAW files (you are shooting RAW format, aren’t you?) with a Nikon Nikkor AF VR-80-400 and the difference in the optics is obvious.

Here’s the shot before the reference shot. It’s a little out of focus, but I make it a practice to never, ever put my prime painting reference images on the internet. But my subject, the ram in the middle, has pretty much the same head position.

Now THAT’S  some good stuff to paint from! Scroll back up to the previous image and see how flat the light is by comparison. I really handicapped myself right out of the gate.

I’ve now been painting and drawing argali for five years and have been back to the reserve to observe and photograph them four more times. I’ve also learned a lot more about their behavior and what their lives are like. All of that feeds into my paintings so I’m not just rendering their surface appearance, as too many wildlife artists are wont to do.

One piece of advice I would give to aspiring animal artists is to absolutely paint what you love when you feel the need to paint it, but consider focusing in on one or two species and get to know them really well in all aspects. I think you will soon perceive a difference in what you have put into a painting with those subjects versus those which you approach casually because you happen to have a photo that you like.

Here’s the step by step of the new painting:


Brush drawing, indication of shadow shapes, laying in a background tone; notice that it goes into the animal



Adding a cool tone to the shadow areas



Starting to model the forms of the head and horns; things look a little ugly at this point



Working on the light areas, continuing to define the form and structure



Almost there; time to punch up the areas that are most important



Argali Ram (Head Study) 18x14" oil on canvasboard


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