Fresh off the easel! “Summer Snack, Mongolia”. Without really meaning to I took 2021 off from painting and didn’t do much art at all. Quite of few of my colleagues spent the year the same way, not very motivated with Covid so serious. But as the new year has dawned folks are picking up their brushes, pens, pencils etc. again same as I am. I did another painting before this one, which I’ll also be posting a step-by-step on but am so pleased with this one I decided to share it first.
The setting is in the northern mountains of Mongolia not far from the city of Erdenet. I was the guest of a family for the aimag (county’s) Naadam festival. They are race horse trainers so I had the privilege of being part of the preparations for the races. Mongol horses are allowed to run free when they aren’t being used for work. I was out walking around and I spotted this mare and foal with the valley and mountains behind her.
Now I head for the finish…
At this point I was unhappy with the hind leg of the foal closest to the viewer. I painted it and wiped it out at least 4-5 times. And here, once again, is the finished painting….
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.
“Almost There” oil on canvasboard 12×18″ (price on request)
For the first three weeks of November I was at the easel every weekday painting the pieces that I showed the color comps of on Sept. 22 here. I finally decided not to use them for the original purpose and will be entering them in some upcoming juried exhibitions. I’m pleased and proud of them so I want to debut them here on my blog. The one above is from reference I shot at a naadam in Erdenet Soum in 2015. I got to ride in the chase car for two of the races so I got fantastic reference as we drove alongside the horses and riders.
In Mongolia the sweat of a winning horse is thought to be auspicious, so the trainer scrapes it off. The traditional tool for this was the bill of a Dalmation pelican, an endangered species, so now the scrapers are made of wood, often with nice carving on them. One always knows the trainers by the scraper in their belt or sash. I was really struck by the colors of this two-year old, who had already raced. Very pretty.
And here you can see one of the trainers at the same event with his scraper tucked into his sash. This would be his personal riding horse. He (they are almost always stallions or geldings) has a traditional saddle that is well-worn and a common type of bridle knotted from hand-braided rope.
I’ve also kept up with Inktober52, not missing a week so far. Four drawings to go. You can see all of them on my Instagram feed here.
I’m starting a new ongoing series of posts about my personal favorite artists and why they are. Art goes back a very long way. The current oldest known work of art is 40,000 year old cave paintings of wild cattle in Borneo. Animal art! You can read more about that here.
I’ve not personally visited any of the caves with wall paintings, but I have seen a number of sites in Mongolia with pictographs on outdoor rocks. My best photos of, and favorite, rock art is at Hogno Han Nature Reserve which is about five hours west of Ulaanbaatar. It’s on the west side of a small valley so it faces east. It’s easy to walk right up to it from the road. But sometimes there’s “local traffic” to get past first.
I love that long before “civilization” began people expressed themselves through art and in a way that has survived for us to see it today. The creative drive has clearly been with us for a very, very long time. We all have that capacity. It’s just a matter of finding out the best way for us to express our own creativity, whether it’s painting, crochet, cooking, singing, sketching, sewing, whatever appeals to you. It’s about the joy of doing it, not the result. How do you express your creativity? Let me know in the comments!
In a country where 100km is a good day’s travel on the earth roads that serve most of it, we had just learned from locals at Baruunbayan-Ulaan, a soum center where we had stopped to get petrol, that the heavy log and plank bridge we heading for in order to cross the Taatsyn Gol had been destroyed, a casualty of five days of rain in the Hangai Mountains followed by serious flooding downstream in the Gobi, where I was on a two-week camping trip in July of 2010, traveling in a Land Cruiser with Khatnaa, my driver/guide and Soyoloo, our cook. The closest intact bridge would require almost a two day detour north and then back south, which didn’t appeal to any of us. What to do.
Khatnaa decided that we would drive on west to the river and see what the situation was. Also at the petrol station were two very full Mitsubishi Delicata van’s worth of Mongol men and their families. A little later a third one showed up.
In one day that had incident enough to two, here’s my journal entry from July 15, which gives a certain immediacy to what followed (photos after the journal entry):
“What an amazing day. Went south-west with Orog Nuur (Orog Lake) as our goal. Khatnaa knew there was the Taatsyn Gol (Taatsyn River) to cross, so stopped at a petrol station to ask about it. Also there were two van loads of Mongols from Togrog who were heading west to mine for gold. Usual Mongol socializing and information exchange ensued.
A third van showed up and we all headed towards the river, which was flooded due to rains in the Hangai Mountains.
We got across one stream, but were stopped by a broad ribbon of streams and mud. The main channel was moving fast and pulsing with even more water.
Went back up to the bluff overlooking the river and had lunch, watching the three van loads of Mongols look for a way across and mess around in the water.
Went back down to the river. Khatnaa walked a long way to see if he could find a crossing point, but came back and told us that the last stream of water was the worst of all. So we were faced with going north 100 km to the closest bridge. Such is travel in Mongolia.
Suddenly, there was action with one of the vans. A bunch of guys had formed a line across one point of the main channel and the van charged into the water, started to stall, but the guys all got behind it and pushed it on through!
Well, if a van could make it, our big Land Cruiser certainly could and did, without even needing a push. We did end up with an extra passenger, a little eej (mother) who wasn’t about to miss her chance to ride in our big car.
We got out on the other side and I photographed the other two vans making the crossing. Then said our good-byes.
We followed one van up a soft sand slope. It promptly got stuck so we rolled back down and went around it and on up the hill.
The entire “adventure” of the river crossing was a perfect example of Mongol practicality, improvisational skills and good humor. No one at any point got angry, showed frustration or swore. When it looked like things had stalled out, the guys took a break and goofed around in the water. Or so it seemed. They were clearly having fun but they were, in retrospect, also searching for a crossing point.
The spot they found was one where the channel wasn’t too wide or deep and where they felt the bottom was solid enough for a vehicle to get across with a minimal chance of getting stuck.
Without winches, cables or even rope, they simply used the same solution they always do – push.”
Here’s a selection of the photos that I took…
In Mongolia, when traveling in the countryside, even when it seems bad it can be very good. And something cool, interesting or out and out wonderful happens every day.
Last weekI shared photos of buying my ger at the Narantuul Market in Ulaanbaatar. This week you’ll see it put up for the first time.
A few hours after all the shopping was done I caught the evening train down to Dalanjargalan Soum, where the Ikh Nart reserve headquarters is located. The reserve Director, Dr. Amgalanbaatar, was kind enough to let me stay overnight in the “dorm” room used for visitors. The next day he and I and Anand, a member of his staff, drove out to the set-up location in the reserve’s grey Russian fergon van. Shavka arrived with his truck and the unloading and set-up began.
I had been given a choice of three locations, all in the vicinity of local herders in case I needed assistance. I was in the reserve itself, but not in the Core Area where, other than the research camp that has been there since 2001, no camping is allowed. I liked this location the best.
Note: You can find a number of sites and videos about putting up a ger. Mine’s a little different, I believe, since it shows one being put up for the first time, so there are first time steps that you normally wouldn’t see.
So how did it go, my week of living in my own ger for the first time? Really well. There was one very strong storm with heavy wind and rain that pulled part of the cover almost halfway off, but Choi and his wife fixed that the next morning. Wind blew a lot of dust in on the bottom on one side one afternoon, but putting up a section of the interior curtain (which hadn’t been done since there was no cord to string it up with, but I found a way to fake it) so that it fell onto the floor solved that problem. I used my cooktop for heating water for coffee in the morning and tea for visitors. I also had bansh (small meat dumplings used for soups) for dinner a couple of nights. I did a little laundry using the steel basins I’d bought and also managed a standing bath and hair wash.
Food storage became an issue and I lost some items, like a loaf of bread that turned moldy, due to lack of refrigeration. A small solar powered refrigerator with battery storage is on the list for next year. One often sees them in herder gers these days. I was happy with candlelight at night, so not really feeling the need for an “electric” light. My toilet was the great outdoors, which I’m used to, but it was a bit much for a week in one place. My current thought is to have a small vertical wall maikhan (the cloth summer tent) made with a divider down the middle. On one side would be a pit toilet with a seat and on the other a place to take a shower using a sun shower bag.
I slept well (I always do in a ger anyway) and found that I had, in fact, understood what was needed to do this to be happy and comfortable for a week or more. In the evenings I took one of the stools outside and put it close enough to the ger wall that I could sit with back support and watch the sun go down. A nice nip of Chinggis Gold vodka and some Ukrainian chocolate nougat candy (from Roshan, my favorite) and life was just about perfect.
On June 15, exactly one month ago, I got to spend some of the most fun hours I’ve had in eleven years of traveling to Mongolia, buying a ger at the Narantuul Market inUlaanbaatar. Not to bring home, but to use at one of my favorite places in the world, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in Dornogobi Aimag, which I went to on an Earthwatch project (still going strong) on my first trip to Mongolia in 2005.
Before I left home, calls were made for me to get price estimates so I would know approximately how much things would cost. As it turns out, it’s impossible to get traveler’s checks anymore and foreigners are limited on how much money they can take out of an ATM per day. So I carried $1500 in cash with me, which was converted into tugrik, the Mongolian currency, before we went to the market.
I didn’t do this on my own, but had the expertise and assistance of two Mongols. One, Dr. Amgalanbaatar Sukhiin (Amgaa), is the Director of the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve Park Administration who I’ve known for eleven years. He granted my request to be able to set up a ger in the reserve, designated some choices for the location and helped with the shopping (talking to the sellers, carrying the money and paying for things) and the set-up. The second is Batbold (generally known by his nickname “Shavka”), a herder who lives with his family near the reserve, in a ger, of course. He was kind enough to drive his truck to Ulaanbaatar, help with all the purchases, transport everything back to Ikh Nart and help with the set-up. This dream come true would not have happened without them, along with other helpers you’ll meet next week.
“Ger” means simply “home” in Mongolian, but it’s generally associated with the round “felt tents” that the Mongols have lived in for over a thousand years. It’s a structure that is perfectly adapted to conditions in the Mongolian countryside. I thought of buying and living in one for a week to ten days a year as a kind of final exam to see how much I’d learned over the years staying at the Ikh Nart research camp, tourist ger camps and visiting many herder families.
So, how did I do on the budget? The ger cost 1.5 million tugrik…$750 USD. We were moving fast so I didn’t write down what everything else cost. All of it together came to $1200, pretty much what I’d estimated. I also paid Shavka’s gas and road fees and something for his helper and that took care of the rest.
Next week: Putting up my ger at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve.
I am truly honored and excited to announce that the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project will now be a featured conservation organization for this year’s WildArt Mongolia Expedition! Accompanying the announcement are photos I’ve taken of bankhar over the years.
To quote from their mission statement: “The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to help slow down and reverse the desertification of the Mongolian Grassland Steppes, and to preserve and protect traditional Mongolian culture. We strive toward these goals by resuscitating the traditional use of the livestock guardian dog known as the ‘Bankhar dog’.”
“Lethal predator control (shooting, trapping, poison) and retribution killings of predators are major threats to predator populations in Mongolia. The use of the Livestock Protection Dog has been shown to reduce predation on domestic livestock by 80-100%, eliminating the need for lethal predator control and allowing predators to target natural prey species instead of domestic ones.”
The predators in question are snow leopards and wolves. Desertification means the the herders must move their animals to higher elevations, into snow leopard territory, with the risk that entails. Wolves have always preyed on domestic animals, but environmental degradation has contributed to decreasing populations of wild prey species such as the gazelles, which has in turn increased their predation on livestock. Add climate change, which is resulting in unstable and more severe weather, and the struggle for herder families to survive, much less thrive, has become increasingly difficult. Yet the Mongols have always felt themselves to be a part of nature and believe that wildlife, including predators, has as much right to live as they do, a dramatic contrast with attitudes one often encounters in the US.
The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project addresses all these issues, but of particular interest to me is how the program reduces the killing of the endangered snow leopard and also wolves, who seem to be holding their own and who play an important role in Mongol culture since the Mongols believe that they are descended from a blue wolf and a doe.
The herders have always had general-purpose guardian dogs. The difference is that, as is done in a number of other countries, the program’s puppies are bonded with the livestock from the earliest age and, once placed, stay with the sheep and goats 24/7. Even though the project is still relatively new, it has already been proven to work. The herders don’t lose animals and the predators, a critical part of a healthy ecosystem, survive.
Our last stop on the Expedition will be near Hustai National Park (one of the three takhi/Przewalski’s horse reintroduction sites in the country), where local herder families have “adopted” puppies bred by the project. We will meet with them, learn about their lives, experiences and the place of wolves in Mongol culture, reporting back what they have to say. We’ll also meet with project staff and learn first-hand about what I believe to be a very important conservation initiative, one that I’ve had the pleasure of being in contact with from the beginning.
You can learn more about the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project here.
On my trip to Mongolia last year, I learned that out in the west the drivers are also the cooks. When it came time to head out into the countryside I went with him and my guide to the local Nomin Market in Hovd and helped with the shopping. It was really fun. And I learned what ingredients one can find for real Mongol food in a grocery store. I’d had the traditional noodle soup with mutton in it, but either made from scratch or served to me already done. This time I found out very useful information such as that boortz, the dried meat strips, which I’d only seen before hanging on a string tied between the roof poles of a ger, could be purchased dried, chopped up and packed in a bag ready to use! The driver also bought a few bags of dried noodles. Ah ha! Then during the trip I watched him make the soup and knew I could do it at home.
Last year, before I went to Mongolia, we had bought a ram and ended up with 108 lbs. of mutton in the freezer. In the top photo is what’s left over from the last shoulder roast we had. And a bag of noodles, half-used because I’ve made this soup once already. I knew that dishes like the soups and tsuivan (noodles with bits of mutton, mutton fat and vegies) were a way of using every last bit of meat. I set aside the big pieces for a second dinner and used the smallest pieces that were surrounded with fat. And there was plenty of it, as you can see on the left in the photo below. On the right is the leaner meat.
I’ve divided the mutton into the fat, the leftovers for the next dinner and, at the bottom, the meat and fat that will go in the soup.
Here’s the small stock pot I used with the water heating up on our gas cooktop.
This is a very simple soup: water, mutton, mutton fat, salt and I added some onion flakes, although a Mongol cook would go out and snip some wild onion. But the salt I used is from Mongolia, lake salt from Uvs Aimag, out in the northwest. I bought a couple of boxes of it at the market a couple of years ago. I had stayed in an apartment with the mother of an acquaintance that same year and saw her kitchen. Next to the stove was a lovely little birch bark container that she kept her salt in. I loved it! And later on during the trip had the great good fortune to find the container below in an Ulaanbaatar antique shop for only $15. I swear I would have paid fifty for it since it even still had its handmade wooden lid.
I happily brought it and my boxes of salt home. My host had put her salt directly into the container. But since, as far I knew, mine would be irreplaceable, I lined it with a small plastic bag. You can see the salt, which is large-grained, crumbly and very tasty.
I let all the ingredients simmer for about 30 minutes and, voila!, a pretty authentic Mongol noodle soup. It’s delicious!