Improve Your Paintings!

Some Thoughts On Applying For Membership In The Society Of Animal Artists

SAA members and guests at the opening weekend of the 49th Art and the Animal; Rolling Hills Wildlife Experience

This post was originally written for the Society’s Facebook public page and blog, but I wanted to share it here since I think what I have to say relates not just to what my thoughts are about applying to join the SAA, but also lays out in general some of my beliefs about what makes good animal art. It’s illustrated with images of various members of the Society, who I am proud to call my colleagues and friends.

The deadline for the next round of consideration is coming up in mid-April. I thought that, having participated in three membership juries now as a member of the Executive Board of the Society, I would offer some observations and tips  that might be helpful to those of you who aspire to membership in the SAA.
A couple of notes before we start- First, I’m a painter and that’s what I know best. What I’m going to say applies to most other media, but creating a successful painting will be my main focus. Second, this article represents my personal views and is not an official statement by the SAA, any of its officers or the other board members. If you have any comments or questions, please direct them to me.
Now, to begin: I recommend that you do this exercise. Go to the Society’s website, visit the virtual museum and the individual websites of any member’s work that catches your eye. Then get out at least eight or ten of your own pieces. Line them up. Look at them objectively. This is not easy. We tend to be either too hard or too easy on ourselves. Do your best to be honest since that is when opportunities for growth happen.

The late Simon Combes giving a demonstration; Lewa Downs Wildlife Conservancy, 2004

Representational painting in general, and animal art in particular, have well-established criteria for what constitutes a “good” painting. These principles have evolved over a number of centuries. They are not “subjective”.

You are not in competition for a limited number of spots as would be true with a juried show. We usually have between two and three dozen applications to consider. We can accept all of them. Or none of them. Each applicant’s work is judged on its own merits.

Greg Beecham at the Quick Draw; Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005 (Suzie Seerey-Lester to left)

Pick one piece that you honestly believe is at or is close to the level of the work of the artists who are already members.

You now need four more at or near that level, because one of the things that will sink an application fast is one or two good pieces followed by the jury seeing the next three or four go off the cliff. You will be judged by your weakest pieces. Consistency is very important.

Kent Ullberg gets inspired at the SAA 50th Anniversary event; San Diego Safari Park, 2010

Consistent in what? Glad you asked…

1. DRAWING: Animals have a physiological and behavioral reality that a competent animal artist has to understand and demonstrate to the jury. In other words, you need to be able to draw them with accuracy and understanding if you are a traditional representational artist and clear understanding if you are going to handle them in a more personally expressive way. You are hoping to join the ranks of animal artists who have been doing this, in some cases, for decades. They know if the drawing is correct or not. Which way a leg can bend, how a wing moves in flight or what the pattern of spots are on a leopard are not really subject to debate, however open they are to informed interpretation.

Karryl sculpts on location at the 50th Anniversary event; Rolling Hills Wildlife Experience, 2010

2. CRAFT: We want to see a solid understanding of your chosen media, whatever it is. If you decide to submit work in more than one media, then all of them need to be at an equal level of competence. Don’t submit a little of this and a little of that, hoping that something will stick, like spaghetti on a wall.

David Rankin on location, ready for anything at Torrey Lake: Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005

3. DESIGN AND COMPOSITION: Do you have a solid grasp of design and composition? Have you made a conscious decision about every element of your piece? For instance, are the subjects in the majority of your submissions plopped automatically into the middle of the canvas or thoughtfully placed to carry out your central idea?

Andrew Denman gets worked over by an affectionate bobcat; he, Guy Combes and I visited the Sierra Endangered Big Cat Haven last year

4. PERSONAL VISION: Are you creating art based on a personal vision or simply copying photographs? (It is well-known that photographic images flatten and distort three-dimensional subjects like animals, so the artist must learn how to compensate for that if their goal is a realistic representation.) What do YOU have to say about lions and elk, butterflies and buzzards? Let your opinion, point of view and passion come through. HAVE an opinion, point of view and passion about your subjects.

John Seerey-Lester paints a mountain lion; Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005

5. KNOWLEDGE: Do you understand basic animal anatomy? Do you understand the habitat of the species you are representing? Have you learned about their behavior as an inspiration for your work? Or is everyone just standing around? If you put an animal in a realistic setting,  you are now a landscape painter too. Are both your animals and any habitat shown depicted at the same level? Or does one lag behind the other?

Yours truly hard at work in the Gobi, Mongolia 2010

Animals are specialized subject matter that require study and the accumulation of knowledge over time to represent successfully. There are no shortcuts.

We are looking for artists who have mastered their art and craft at a consistent level and who present us with a body of five works which all reflect that level.

GOOD LUCK!

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