This is the second, and largest, of the three argali paintings I’ve just finished. You can see the first one here. I’ll post the third one next Friday.
I spent over an hour watching these rams at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in 2010. And sometimes they watched me. But mostly they grazed, scratched, rested and did a little pre-rut testing.
One of the things I wanted to capture in this painting is how individual they all are, being different colors depending on their ages and having horns of various sizes and condition. It was a group of five and these were the three big boys, fully mature males, who probably weigh over 300 pounds each. Behind two of them is one of the younger rams,
I’m starting the New Year with a new series on Mongolian wildlife. These will be short profiles with essential information and interesting links. First up is the animal which brought me to Mongolia in the first place, the argali, now one of my favorite subjects.
Species: Argali (Ovis ammon)
Weight, height and horn length: Argali are the world’s largest mountain sheep. A large ram can weigh as much as 375 lbs (65-170km). They stand from 3-4″ (90-120cm) at the shoulder. The horns can measure up to 65″ (165cm).
Conservation Status: Near-threatened (IUCN Red List)
Habitat preference: mountains or large areas of rocky outcroppings in the desert steppe, some open desert; more recently found in mountain steppe (Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve)
-There are no argali in captivity, neither zoos or reserves. The only place to see them is in their native habitats.
– While the rams do fight it out during the annual rut for mating privileges, otherwise argali don’t have set herds or harems. Who is with who can change through the day. Rams mingle freely with ewes and lambs, form bachelor groups or wander around on their own.
– In July of 2009, I was in the right place and the right time to be the first person to ever photograph an argali swimming a river…the Kherlen Gol, which flows through Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. It was known that they do it, but since almost all the research on them is done at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, where there are no rivers, no one had ever actually seen, much less photographed, it.
When we last left the big argali painting (36×40″), I had worked through the composition and drawing. You can read that post here.
I finally got back to it this week. The first step was to use the good old grid system to transfer the drawing in pencil. Then I restated and refined it with a filbert (a flat brush with a rounded end) and a light tan tone. Scale does make a difference and the ram at the bottom, which looked ok in the smaller drawing, didn’t cut it when the head was around 13″ from the back of the horn to the nose. Back to the reference. And a much better head position. I taped a piece of tracing paper onto the bottom of the canvas and drew the new head. Once it was done, I moved the paper around until I had him where I wanted him. Then I did a transfer with graphite paper and a #7 pencil. The tricky part was where he overlapped the hind legs of the ram above him.
Now that I could see the painting at the final size, it was time to do the color rough. I have good reference and a pretty clear picture in my head of where I want to end up, so I decided to combine thinking value with working out the color scheme. All I’m after is the overall pattern of relationships, so it’s just blobs of color, but it has the information I need to get started.
I set the rough down where I could see it and then started painting. The first step, for me, is to cover the entire canvas with a medium dark tone that is somewhat opposite the color temperature I’ll eventually end up with. This is all scumbled in with a fairly dry brush. The fun really begins when I start to add the lights in over the darks. Whoohoo!
The main ram is present. There’s someone home in there, even though the eye is only indicated with a rough shape. I’ve added the first layer for the sky. It will go one step darker and cooler and then I’ll paint lighter, warmer tones over it, but still letting a little of the original color show through.
Next, it was time to “rock”, as in scumble in the first tones of the rocks. The light is coming from the right, so I want to establish my light side and shadow side right away and also introduce some visual variety and form. I’ve also added the darkest darks for the shrubs. I stood back at that point to see if they made a good pattern in and of themselves. Ok so far. May need a couple more on the right and left edges.
I’m looking in the mirror a lot at this point as I define the shapes of the rocks. If you look on the right, you can see where I’ve eliminated some pinnacles. The ram’s head felt too confined. He needed more air in front of him.
I spent the afternoon working my way across the canvas. The drawing is mostly lost at this point, but that’s ok because I have it stored in my head, hand and on the tracing paper. The next step is to find it again. I’ve redone the grazing ram (again) and lengthened the front leg of the main ram. Before continuing, I’ll do a proportion check. Argali have big bodies with very thin legs, so they sort of look “wrong” on the hoof.
I’m kind at the point, which many artists hit, when I hate the painting. The drawing was so nice and now things are a dull, undefined mess. All I can see at the moment are the things that are “wrong”. Now is when it’s important to hold onto the vision in my head of the painting I want to do. Here’s the one part I still like. It’s the top of the far left side pinnacle.
I have just received confirmation that I have taken the only known photographs of a Mongolian argali sheep crossing a river. This occurred at the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve during my Flag Expedition on the very first morning of observations. In fact, he (Dr. Reading believes it was a yearling ram) was one of four of the first argali I saw on the trip.
Dr. Reading also noted in his reply to my query that “Well, I don’t think anyone ever doubted that argali cross these relatively shallow, relatively slow rivers (at least I never did). All ungulates (and most mammals) swim pretty well and you need something a LOT more substantial that the Kherlen River to stop them.”
The main reason, I believe, that no one has gotten photographs is that the only place where argali have been studied in any depth is at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, which has a few small streams, but no rivers. Research has begun at Gun-Galuut and, in fact, an Earthwatch team is scheduled to be there for part of their time in September, but the emphasis has been on capturing and putting radio collars on the argali, not behavioral observations.
The four sheep that I watched were on the opposite side of the river from their home range, Mt. Baits. Their behavior appeared anxious and finally one bolted back across the river. He climbed up on a high point and looked back. The young ram finally turned and ran back up onto the mountain. The other three argali seemed indecisive and ultimately did not cross, but moved up onto a smaller mountain where I finally lost sight of them.
Here are detail shots of the main three photos: