Like has been true with many or my artist friends and colleagues, the combination of the election and a pandemic that’s now into its second year, has made it hard to focus on making art at times. I did three paintings in November and otherwise have been sketching on Monday afternoons with a group of artists who also have a background in illustration. I’ll be posting a “best of…” those here in the near future. While there will still be posts about the garden, the collies and such, this year I want to move more towards passing on some of what I’ve learned as someone who has worked in one art-related field or another since 1976.
So, to start off, I’m going to share work-in-progress images of the above painting, which I did in 2009. It’s from a place I’ve been to in Mongolia a number of times. This white camel was still alive and at the visitor ger camp in Arburd Sands ( a dune complex that is one of the farthest north of the Gobi) where I stayed when I was last there in 2018.
This is one way I often start a painting. I’ve already done some rough studies for the composition so I drew it onto the toned canvas with raw sienna and brush. I moved the brown camel behind her to get the humps into the painting, which sets up a rhythm with hers. It’s always good to remember not to get “married” to your reference. Do what it takes to get a good strong composition. Just because it’s in the photo doesn’t mean you have to paint it.
The next step was to rough in the shapes of the shadows. So now I have two values and can play off that for the rest of the painting. I also made some corrections to the drawing.
Now I’m starting to add colors, cool for the shadows on the camels and a warm violet tone for the sandy ground. I also continue to refine the drawing as I go along, tweaking and adjusting as necessary.
All the basic local colors are in now, generally darker than they’ll eventually be. I work more or less from dark to light. I’ve also started to add brushwork to create the wooly texture of their coats. The whole surface of the painting has paint on it now. I’ve got the drawing the way I want it.
Closing in on the finish now. All the light and shadow areas are set. The ground and background are also ready for the final stages. For the camels it’s time to punch the values and color temperature, which needs to be much warmer to show that great late afternoon light. And below, once again is the finished painting. I ticked in the shrubs and ground plants at the end to make the ground more interesting and to introduce a color, green that repeats the vegetation behind the animals and is the complement of the warm reddish tones of the camels. It’s important to not get hung up on “local color”. Color is relative and depends on what a given color is next to and on the light the subject is in.
Today’s post is a poem about the Gobi and a “sandalwood brown camel”, but I also want to remind you that the deadline for the Mongolphile Quiz is this Friday at 5pm, Pacific time. Twenty questions here and here.
“From the Top of a Camel the Sun Seems so Near” by Zhanchyvn Shagdar
Gobi of exquisite mirage
Has the seven colors of the rainbow.
And my brown camel with graceful legs
Can travel for a month without rest.
When I ride my sure-footed brown camel
The sun in the sky seems so near,
Oh, I’m on my way, my sweetheart,
And I’ll be with you at sunset.
Gobi, with its bushes of saksaul,
You are renowned in this wide world,
And my sandalwood brown camel
Can jog faster the longer the road.
When I ride my sandalwood brown camel
The moon in the sky seems so near,
Oh, my love, linked to me by fate,
I’ll be meeting you when the moon rises at night.
Gobi in the radiance of pure gold
Is beautiful like a new family tent,
And the jogging of my straight humped brown camel
Can reach the distant horizon.
My Gobi with its bushes of saxaul,
You are renowned in this wide world,
And my sandalwood brown camel
Can jog faster the longer the road.
I’ve posted a number of music videos here on my blog, but it occurred to me this morning that so far I’ve not posted any spoken work. I happen to love listening the Mongols speak their language, even if I mostly don’t know yet what they are saying. I thought that you might enjoying hearing what it sounds like.
Here’s a YouTube video of the recitation of a famous poem “Love One Another, My People” by one of Mongolia’s most beloved poets, O. Dashbalbar. It is followed by an English translation.
It’s accompanied by “White Stupa No. 1” from one of Mongolia’s favorite composers, N. Jantsannarov. The images are a wonderful look at Mongolia. I recognized quite a few of the places.
Love one another, my people, while you are still alive. Don’t keep from others whatever you find beautiful. Don’t wound my heart with heedless barbs, and Don’t push anyone into a dark hole.
Don’t mock someone who’s gotten drunk, Think how it could even be your own father. And, if you manage to become famous, Open the door for happiness to others! They should also not forget your kindness. To someone who is lacking a sngle word of kindness, You should search for it and speak it out. Whether outside in the sun or at home when it’s cold, Don’t spend one moment at rest.
Don’t use harsh words to complain, you women,
About the kind young man you remember. Speak lovingly to those who loved you! Let them remember you as a good lover.
Our lives are really similar, Our words constrict in our throats the same way, Our tears drop onto our cheeks the same way – Things are much the same as we go along the road. Wipe away a halt woman’s tears without a word, Talk your lover up when she’s tripped and fallen!
Today you’re smiling, tomorrow you’ll be crying. Another day you’re sad, and the next you’ll be singing. We all pass from the cradle to the grave – If for no other reason, love one another! People must not lack for love on this wide earth! I grasp happiness with the fire of my human mind, The golden shines lovingly upon us all the same, and So I think that loving others in the path of life, I understand that to be loved by others is great joy.
My plan was to go back to Kenya in 2005 for an Earthwatch Institute-sponsored research project “Lions of Tsavo”. But I was leafing through the new Expedition guide and a project I hadn’t seen before caught my eye, “Mongolian Argali”, whatever those were. Oh. Wild sheep. But….Mongolia. Now there was a place that seemed like it might be interesting to travel to. And who knew how long the project would last. Some went on for a decade or more. Others only for a year or two. I called the Earthwatch office, changed projects and, without realizing it at the time, changed my life.
Argali (Ovis ammon) are the world’s largest mountain sheep. A big ram can weigh close to 400 pounds. The horn curl can reach 65″. Their preferred habitat is rocky uplands, mountains and steppe valleys. They are currently listed on the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened and Appendix II of CITES. Accurate population estimates are hard to come by. The most current one is perhaps as many as 20,000 in Mongolia. It is known that the total continues to drop in the western and central parts of the country, is stable in the south, but seems to be increasing in the east.
Threats include poaching, both for subsistence meat and for the horns, which are now in demand in China for use in traditional medicine. It has also been shown that there is a nearly 100% grazing overlap between the wild argali and domestic livestock, which includes horses, sheep, goats and cattle. Predation by the herder’s domestic dogs, particularly on lambs in the spring, is also a problem. Trophy hunting is not currently a large factor, but the license fee income (18,000 USD) ends up going almost entirely to the federal government. Very little trickles down to either the local people or for conservation projects. One response at the local level has been to create reserves where hunting is not allowed.
As you can see below, there is now an Argali Conservation Management Plan. My on-going involvement with the womens’ craft collective comes under item four on the list.
“Additional conservation measures are desperately required in Mongolia. Clark et al. (2006) outlined the following:
• Implement the recommendations outlined in the Argali Conservation Management Plan. • Improve enforcement of existing legislation that would help conserve argali. • Enhance conservation management in protected areas where argali are found at high population densities, and increase the capacity of protected areas personnel and other environmental law enforcement officers. • Work to improve the livelihoods of local communities in areas where argali are protected by local initiatives and re-initiate community-based approaches to argali conservation (Amgalanbaatar et al. 2002a). • Develop public education programmes to raise awareness of the status of and threats to the species. • Continue ecological research, monitor population trends, and study the impacts of threats, including work in the Altai and Khangai Mountains to complement research occurring in the Gobi Desert. • Implement the recommendations from the Mongolian Wildlife Trade Workshop as outlined in Wingard and Zahler (2006).
Until a joint research effort was started by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the Denver Zoological Foundation at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in 2001, very little was known about argali ecology, behavior and population status. This was the research that I had signed up to help with as part of the second Earthwatch team ever to go to Mongolia.
It was April of 2005. Spring in Mongolia is a time of cold, wind and dust storms. Daytime temperatures during the team’s two week stay, living in a traditional felt ger, sometimes only reached 32F. I had the time of my life. When they found out I was an artist, one of the scientists asked if I would be willing to go out and do direct behavioral observations. And that’s what I did for the last three days, trekking out alone into the 43,000 hectare reserve with a clipboard, data forms, GPS, cameras, water bottle and snacks, trying to see the sheep before they saw me, otherwise any data I collected was invalid.
Although a lot of the animals were in poor condition coming out of a typical Mongolian winter in which temperatures can plunge to -40F, I saw many groups that included rams, ewes and lambs, gathered some useable data and got some pretty good photographs. It was a perfect two-fer. I was able to contribute to scientific knowledge of a species and at the same time get information that would be invaluable for painting them.
I’ve been back to Ikh Nart five times since then and argali have become a particularly favorite subject. I’ve also seen them now at two other locations: Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve and Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
I thought that I would share some of the photos I’ve taken and the paintings that have come out of them. It usually takes around three, often quite a few more, reference shots since I move animals around, change backgrounds or whatever it takes to make a composition work. I’m only going to show the main animal reference that I worked from. This fieldwork is critical. When working on a painting, I’m also remembering what it was like to be at that place, how the wind felt, the utter quiet when I stopped for a break, then trudging along, looking up and seeing that the sheep had already spotted and were watching me.
I’m going to have to once again interrupt my current series to share some news and the accompanying memories-
I got word last week that Choidog, the subject of my painting “Choidog and Black”, which is currently in a national invitational American Academy of Equine Art show in Lexington, Kentucky, passed away in late March. He was about 80 years old and was healthy until the very end. Choidog was one of the legends of Mongolian horse training, having won the national Naadam race three times.
I first encountered him on a fall 2008 trip to Mongolia when my husband and I stayed at Arburd Sands ger camp, which is operated by one of his sons and daughters-in-law. We were invited to his ger by them for the family’s annual foal branding. It was a magical afternoon, which you can read about here. He was every inch the proud Mongol horseman and we knew that we were in the presence of someone special.
At the ger camp, there was a book, “Horse People”, by Mattias Klum. One chapter was about Choidog and his family. I glanced through it, only casually interested, since my focus at the time was almost exclusively on wildlife.
Last July, on my Artists for Conservation Flag Expedition, I had the opportunity to see him again, as his ger happened to be only a kilometer or so from Arburd Sands ger camp, where I was staying for one night on the way to a nature reserve. He didn’t have much to say to me and directed almost all his conversation to my male guide, but that was fine because it let me just sit and quietly watch him as he lay at ease on the bed opposite.
This time, I searched out the “Horse People” book at the ger camp and read, really read, the chapter about Choidog.
Later in the trip, I was visiting a young horse trainer and his wife at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. Once again I was in a ger sitting on the floor drinking suutei tsai (milk tea) while a conversation went on around me since I don’t speak much Mongolian yet. I noticed a magazine tucked up between the roof felt and a support pole. There was a photo of a man on the cover and it looked like, even from across the ger, Choidog. I finally had the Mongol scientist I was with ask about it. The young man took it down and handed it to me saying “You have sharp eyes”. It was a much younger Choidog and the magazine, which was for and about Mongol horse trainers, had a feature article on him with photos from the Naadam races he had won in the 1960s.
When I got home, I found a copy of “Horse People” on Alibris. One passage that struck me was Choidog saying that “In Communist times each family could only own 75 horses. The rest went to the state. Now we can own herds of 300-400, if we can manage it. There’s no limit. In communist times it was strange for someone to have his own herd.” This was in about 2002.
I was told, at the time we were there in 2008, that he had between three and four hundred horses. When I mentioned this to the young horse trainer at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, his eyes got rather wide and he remarked that that was a lot of horses.
The chapter ends with this passage: “He can mount his ‘favorite black’ stallion and thunder off into the unending pastures, just to feed his heart. “To run on horseback in the morning is high exhilaration.” he says, eyes shining. “It is to feel alive, completely awake.” ”
Two of the things I like best about traveling to Mongolia are staying in a ger and visiting people in their gers (“ger” means “home” in Mongolian).
Actress Julia Roberts was hosted by a family of horse trainers during the filming of an episode of the PBS series “Nature” called “The Wild Horses of Mongolia” (which isn’t what it was about, although there was a little takhi footage from Hustai National Park included). At the end, she’s sitting in a ger filled with Mongolians, looking into the camera with this big grin, saying something to the effect of “I’m sitting here in this ger and I don’t understand a word of what these people are saying, but I’m as happy and content as I’ve ever been in my life.”
Yup, she nailed it. I feel the same way. There’s something about the quality of space created by a ger that is very special. I’ve been in clean ones, dirty ones, sat on stools, beds and the floor, seen beautifully furnished ones and ones with next to nothing in them and I get the same content feeling in all of them. Hand me a bowl of suutei tsai (milk tea) or airag (fermented mare’s milk) and some aruul (dried yogurt) or tsotsgii (cream) and I’m a happy camper (and a cheap date too, I guess, although my husband would probably beg to differ). Anyway, here are some of my favorite images of gers from my four trips to Mongolia.
First, ger camps:
In 2005, I got to visit a ger factory and see how they are made:
Then we went to the Black Market where you can buy anything ger; from individual parts to the whole thing.
The research camp at Khomiin Tal (takhi reintroduction site) in western Mongolia is spectacularly sited in a river valley:
My first experience of staying in a ger was during my first trip to Mongolia on an Earthwatch project “Mongolian Argali” (now called “Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe”; highly recommended) in the spring of 2005. The camp is much bigger now; seven gers, two containers and a volleyball court:
I’m in the middle of a rather large painting (no, not the argali one; a subject for another post; short, short version: got stuck, needed to let it sit for awhile), so I thought I would post a few drawings that I’ve done recently and then get back to the easel. It’s juried show painting season, so I’m trying out different reference images to see if I think they’ll make a painting. These were all done with Wolff’s carbon pencils on Canson Universal Recycled Sketch paper, which turns out to be quite a nice combination.