Very pleased and proud to announce that “In His Prime, Gobi Argali Ram” 22×28″ oil on canvasboard, has been accepted into the Artists for Conservation “International Exhibition of Nature in Art”, which will debut in Vancouver, B.C. Canada in September and go on tour to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona from January 18 through March 30, 2020, with an anticipated return to Lanwan Museum in Qingdao, China.
You can visit my personal page and gallery on the Artists for Conservation site here. A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of listed paintings will be donated to selected conservation organizations.
It’s been twenty years since I began painting in oil. Before then I was a graphic designer/illustrator and before that I worked as a sign painter for a local shop, starting at age 22 in 1976. Along the way I also did calligraphy, messed with typography and developed a great fondness for historic decorative styles like medieval and celtic illumination and art nouveau. All of them gradually fell by the wayside as I focused on gaining competency as an oil painter who specialized in animals. But those interests were always lurking out there, sometimes with a feel of longing. But then it was back to the easel. However, a few years ago I started to toy with how I might bring some of that back into my work. I let it perk as I did three exhibitions in four years, the final one being last March, the “Wildlife Art: Field to Studio” group show in Connecticut. With time and mental space available at last, I realized that, for the time being, I’d said all I wanted to say about representing animals in realistic habitats/backgrounds.
I started to seriously work on what a new direction would be. What elements would it include? I wanted to emphasize pure design more and include decorative elements and calligraphy. For the former I would draw on my fifteen years of experience as a freelance graphic designer. For the other two I still have my library of reference books and I knew, starting with my second trip to Mongolia in 2006, that the vertical Uigher script that Chinggis Khan chose for the Mongols was still taught in the schools, used in advertising and had also become a respected and breathtaking art form. I have experience in brush lettering, but wasn’t sure that I wanted to try to learn “bichig”, which would require finding a teacher in Ulaanbaatar.
The solution to the lettering came last year at the end of the 4th WildArt Mongolia Expedition. Our guide, Batana, has a son who is a budding artist. When told about me he said he wanted to meet me. So one evening I and the two other participants were invited to dinner at Batana’s home. I met his son and looked through his work, which was very, very good for a self-taught fifteen year old. Before leaving Batana surprised us each with a gift, our names written out in bichig.
I came home and started thinking again about my “new direction” as I had come to call it. And it occurred to me that I now knew of a Mongolian calligrapher with whom I had a mutual contact. Batana and I had become friends on Facebook, so I messaged him to ask if his calligrapher friend would be interested in writing out some words for me. The answer came back “yes”. We worked out a price per word. I made up a list of ten and sent them to Batana. Within 48 hours I had ten large jpg images in my inbox. They were wonderful! I ended up getting two more batches of ten, so I have thirty words in bichig now and will be getting more. There was the matter of payment. My tour company, for whom the calligrapher, who uses the nom de guerre “Bichig Soyol” on Facebook, had worked in the past, was kind enough to let me do a credit card charge on their website. Then they called him and he came to the office to pick up the cash.
I was going to be going to the Susan K. Black Foundation workshop in Dubois, Wyoming in September and decided to try to have a couple new works for show there. The first one still needs some re-working, so this is the first finished piece in my new style.
Part of what drove me was the realization that my interest and passion is animals. To put them in a habitat means that, generally and by far, most of the painting will be landscape, not animal. And at this point, I want to focus on them. My new approach will let me use any and as much landscape as I want. Or none.
I’m taking my inspiration for the non-animal colors from landscape photos I’ve taken in Mongolia over the years. I have albums in Photos for “Warm”, “Cool” and Warm/cool” images. I’ve also got albums for design elements from monasteries, gers, patterns and symbols. I can mix and match all these elements as I wish. So now I’ve pulled all the threads together….animals, design, decorative motifs and lettering. And am I ever having fun!
I’m very pleased to announce that “A Good Stretch”, 20×24″ oil on canvas, has been accepted into the 55th Annual “Art and the Animal”, the prestigious international juried exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists (I’ve been a member and Signature Member since 2002). The venue for this year is the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History from August 28-October 25. There were 395 submissions from 237 members (the Society has almost 500). One could submit two works, but only would be accepted. It’s extremely competitive and a real honor to have made the cut. (This is my fifth time in the show since I first got in in 2009.)
My subject is a Gobi argali ram, seen above, who I spent a hour with at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve last year. I climbed up and sat on a rocky slope overlooking the valley where the research camp is located, across a draw from him and in full view. Even did a few sketches. When I got home and went through my photos I realized that he was in three of my argali encounters over the four days I was at the camp. The white area on one horn where the surface layer has broken off (almost certainly from a fight during the rut) makes him easy to recognize. Nice for me because I always want to paint individuals.
Continuing on from last week, I knew that I was going to do a big painting (big for me, at this point) when the five rams walked across the stream bed in the beautiful morning light.
I also knew that it would be a complex piece that would take more planning than I’d done in the past. I’ve started a couple of big paintings, only to have them bog down and fail because, while I did do preliminary sketches and drawings, I found that I hadn’t really solved some critical problems and then was faced with figuring them out on the canvas. A recipe for frustration and failure.
Not this time. First, I thought about what it was that made me want to paint this scene. It was not only the argali, but the interesting alternating pattern of light and shadow, which started in the foreground and went all the way back. And it was important that it be about my emotional response to this very special experience.
Here’s one of the reference shots. I create Albums in Aperture where I can put all the images I’m using on a painting. In this case, thirteen. Here’s the lead ram.
Since I had a pretty clear image in my head of where I wanted to end up, I didn’t do thumbnails this time. And, having struggled with understanding how to work larger, I decided to start larger right away. This is the first layout, done on 19×24″ Canson Calque tracing paper.
As you can see, I adjusted the proportions as needed. I wanted the emphasis to be on the rams, but still show enough of the background to place them in a specific setting and show that alternating light and shadow pattern.
You will also notice that I have an even number of animals, which breaks a “rule”. But they are in an uneven number of “groups”. This doesn’t happen by accident. Or if it does, then there is a conscious decision to keep it.
I had also done a finished drawing of the two rams, which some of you saw a few months ago on Facebook (you can “Like” my public page here).
The next step was to do a small color rough to figure out how I would achieve the visual effect I was looking for. This is on a 6×8″ canvasboard. I blocked out the part that didn’t fit the proportion.
What was critical was to play up the golden light on the ram’s horns and to make sure the argali were the objects of highest contrast by placing them against the central shadow shape. Notice that I’m just painting blobs of color to get the relationships down.
The central tree has a cast shadow. This is something that has given me trouble in the past. The shapes, edges and value relationships have to be just right. So I did a couple of studies of just that tree, along with another to figure out some of the same things where the stream bed goes back into space.
Now it was time to do a large value study, 12×24″. I adjusted the relative position of the rams, moving the pair forward a little.
I had to know if what I had come up with would work at the final size I had decided upon- 24×48″. This is where I’d gotten into trouble before. I asked an artist colleague for advice and he said to take my finished drawing to a copy place and have it blown up to the final size, which I think is a really good idea.
But I chose to try something else. I have found great value in the re-drawing process. It allows me to refine, correct, simplify and really learn to know my subjects in a way that would not be possible if I simply did a drawing, transferred it and started to paint, or worse, heaven forbid, projected them. The depth of understanding and flexibility I get is critical to the quality of my finished product.
First I put a sheet of tracing paper over the drawing above and drew a one inch grid on it.
Then I placed my untoned canvasboard on the easel and ruled a grid on it in pencil. I taped tracing paper to it. It took three sheets to cover it. I lightly sketched a transfer drawing so that every element was in the right spot.
Once the background was laid in, I taped on three more pieces of tracing paper and did the final pencil drawings of each argali. Now I had this:
Because the argali were all on their own pieces of paper, I could do a final check on position and easily move them if needed. I also now had the whole composition at the final size and could see that it did, in fact, work. Whew!
I removed the tracing paper, toned the canvas, re-attached it and, using a No. 7 pencil and a sheet of homemade graphite transfer paper, transferred the drawing.
Using the tracing paper drawings as a guide and referring back to the photo reference if necessary, I carefully re-drew the argali with a brush, figuring I’d get the most important elements down first. Here’s a close-up which also shows the loose lay-on of the background. Notice that you can see three of the four hooves. They vanish later as I decide to add additional and larger rocks to create more of a visual separation between the sheep and the viewer.
Here’s the finished drawing, with basic values starting to be indicated. Notice that the rocks in the foreground and middle ground are just roughed in. No need to spend a lot of time on them at this point.
Finally it was time to start adding color! I work all over a canvas in a sitting, keeping the edges soft and letting colors “bleed” into each other. This lets me control where the harder edges will be later on. I’ll also “lose” the drawing, knowing that, having drawn the animals multiple times, I can “find them” again with no problem. First I established the shadow shapes, letting the undertone be the light.
Here’s a close-up of the lead ram in progress. Still keeping it loose, but working on light and shadow and correct structure.
I started to see a problem in the forequarters and it nagged at me for a couple of sittings until I realized that the leg closest to the viewer was too far forward. Moving it and the shoulder back about a quarter of an inch solved the problem. His head was also a little too small. That’s a big advantage of working this way. I can make changes at any point in the process, which turned out to be really important when I was trying to keep track of so many pictorial elements and their relationships to each other.
Let’s take a quick break. Here’s my palette. For this painting, I used my standard color range: transparent oxide red, cadmium red medium, cadmium orange, yellow ochre light, cadmium yellow pale, cadmium yellow, titanium white, ultramarine blue, Winsor violet (dioxine), sap green, terra verte, chromium oxide green.
Missing this time around is cobalt blue and magnesium blue hue. I mix my own earth colors and greys. My black is a mix of transparent oxide red and ultramarine blue. I can easily shift the color temperature by changing the proportions.
The palette itself is a scrap of Swanstone solid surface countertop. I got the idea from another art blog and I like it much better than the glass one I’d been using.
Ok, back to the painting. I’m probably about mid-way through at this point. All the value relationships are set (at least I thought so) and basic colors are on.
Oh, darn. I realized that having all the rams in the same light wasn’t very interesting. I went back to my reference images and found a nice shot of the very first one coming out of the shadows. Now I needed to put the fourth ram in that light. Aperture is great for this since it lets you show multiple images at once.
Much better. Having solved that final, somewhat major problem, it was now a matter of simply pushing on, solving all the problems, making decisions, tweaking and tweaking (what Scott Christensen more elegantly calls “orchestration”).
Until, finally, after far longer than I have ever spent on a single painting, it was done.
Sort of an odds and ends Friday as the year winds down. The deep freeze is over here in coastal Humboldt County and it’s back to nice normal rainy weather with nighttime lows in the 40s. I’ve been getting in some good easel time of the past few weeks. Here’s a new argali painting from reference that I shot in July at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. I watched this group of rams work their way across the rocky slope for almost an hour. “Uul” is Mongolian for “mountain”.
I’ve also decided that I want to paint not just the domestic Mongol horses, but the people who ride them. Which brings me back to wrestling with human figures, as described in an earlier post. I get a better result if I can scan the drawings rather than photograph them and also wanted to really hone in on accuracy, so these are smaller and done with a Sanford Draughting pencil, but on the same vellum bristol (which erases very nicely). The heads ended up being only 3/4″ high, which is pretty small, but it reminded me of a story from art school that I thought I might pass along.
One of my teachers was Randy Berrett, a very good illustrator who chose to work in oils. This was kind of masochistic, in a way, because it added a layer of complexity when he had to ship out a wet painting to meet a deadline. In any case, he was showing some examples of his work in class and one was a really large painting of the signers of the either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, I can’t remember which. Someone asked why he painted it so large. Randy’s answer really struck me at the time and has stayed with me. It’s something worth remembering when planning a painting. He said that he wanted the heads to be at least an inch high and that requirement controlled the final size of the painting. I’ve sized more than one painting on the basis of that criteria since then.
The first drawing combined two pieces of reference. One of the horse and one of the man. In the latter, he was in front of the horse’s head. In the former, I didn’t like the pose of the horse. Moving the man back works much better. The sweat from a winning horse is considered to be good luck. There are special scrapers made to remove it.
Part of the reason I did the previous two was to see if the images “drew well” and to work on horses coming forward at a 3/4 angle. The final two are head studies, in which the heads are 1 1/2″ from forehead to chin.
Finally, the folks at Eureka Books in Old Town, Eureka have decided to hold a special art show. Here’s the Call for Entries.
Spent pretty much all of my easel time on the argali painting this week. I think I’ve got it on track now. I need to do some detail drawings of the horns of all three to make sure I understand their structure and perspective before I begin the final stage on them.
I tried painting the big ram light all over, like my reference of him, yesterday, along with defining his neck and shoulder muscles. Came in this morning and realized that I needed to go back to the original color rough because I’d lost the value contrast I needed and the interesting color variation that the younger rams have on their heads and bodies. So I ended up going in dark over light, which worked just fine.
I also added a couple more layers of color to the sky- a light warm and a light cool, knocked back the right side background with a pale glaze and the left shadow side with an ultramarine blue glaze to cool it down.
This morning I started on the young ram on the left and pretty much have him where I want him. Then I went back to the main ram and repainted him from head to tail.
I’m starting to get the light quality I’m after. Next, I believe, will be the left side and foreground rocks to “catch them up” with the rest.
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.