How I Start A Painting

There are many artists who come up with a way of working that satisfies them and they never alter it. That would not be me. Every year about this time, I sit back and rethink my whole process of painting a picture. I’m perfectly willing to toss it all in the air and tweak and change whatever I think needs it. It’s very liberating.

I recently went to the Norman Rockwell show and was reminded of how thorough a process he used, how he broke down the elements of a picture and solved the problems as much as he could with each step, always leaving the door open for alterations down the road if needed. It’s the same procedure we were taught when I was getting a degree in illustration at the Academy of Art in the late 1980s. One didn’t need to do every step every time, but it was always there to fall back on if one got in trouble. (The steps are: thumbnails, rough drawing for composition, finished drawing, value study, color study, finish)

One of the things Rockwell did was very finished charcoal drawings at the final size. It always looked like a lot of work, even though I really love to draw, and I guess I never really got the point. I do now. I got into messes a couple of times in the past year, partly due to not solving all the drawing and value problems before I started to paint. I had begun doing drawings at the final size for the large pieces, but only outlines, no value. I’ve just started a series of three argali paintings and decided to take it up a notch.

I also needed to rethink how I got my image onto the canvas. I don’t have a projector anymore and don’t really want one. I’ve found a lot of value in drawing an animal multiple times because I really LEARN it. A painting shouldn’t be about saving time or doing it fast. It should be about doing what it takes to get it RIGHT.

One benefit of doing the drawings at the finished size is that it is then easy to make a tracing and do a graphite transfer. The alternative is the venerable grid system, which works just fine, but, dare I say it, takes a lot more time to no good purpose and, more importantly, didn’t give me as accurate a result.

These three pieces are compositionally simple. I have a clear idea in my head of where I want to end up. The main upfront decisions were how big and what proportions each one should be since they are intended to hang as a group, although they will be priced individually.

The reference photos (which I am not going to post due the vagaries of the internet) were taken during one action-packed hour with five argali rams at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in Mongolia in July 2010. And two afternoons I spent there this past August during an eleven day stay doing studies of argali horns at the research camp really paid off in being able to understand the horns in the photos.

I’ll start with that page from my sketch journal and then show you the steps so far for the three paintings. I didn’t do thumbnails or rough drawings, but went straight to finished working drawings of the animals, but still thinking about what the landscape will look like.

Argali horns, research camp, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia, July 2012
Argali horns, research camp, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia, July 2012

Painting No. 1- Tentatively titled “Coming Through”, a big ram asserting his right to walk wherever he wants to, when he wants to

Beginning the graphite drawing; detail to show how I "drew through" the ram in back to make sure the parts all are in the right places. I used another piece of reference for the back legs since the ones in the photo didn't read well.
Beginning the graphite drawing; detail to show how I “drew through” the ram in back to make sure the parts all are in the right places. I used another piece of reference for the back legs since the ones in the photo didn’t read well.
Finished drawing; graphite on vellum bristol
Finished drawing; graphite on vellum bristol
I put tracing paper over the drawing and did an outline only drawing to use for transferring the image to the canvas
I put tracing paper over the drawing and did an outline only drawing to use for transferring the image to the canvas
Brush drawing on canvas after graphite transfer
Argali horns, research camp, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia, July 2012

Painting No. 2- No title yet

Finished drawing; graphite on vellum bristol
Finished drawing; graphite on vellum bristol
Outline on tracing paper
Outline on tracing paper; I’m drawing shapes of structure and values
Brush drawing on canvas
Brush drawing on canvas

Painting No. 3- No title yet

Graphite drawing; this was the third one and felt that I didn't need to go all the way to the same point. It was more important to get all the size and position relationships between the rams correct. The one in the back looked very odd in the reference photo, so I changed out his head for a profile instead of three quarters view
Graphite drawing; this was the third one and felt that I didn’t need to go all the way to the same point. It was more important to get all the size and position relationships between the rams correct. The one in the back looked very odd in the reference photo, so I changed out his head for a profile instead of three quarters view. Notice that the single ram and the group are on separate pieces of paper so I can move them around.
The tracing paper transfer version
The tracing paper transfer version
The brush drawing
The brush drawing

I should have a pretty good handle on argali horns by the time I’m done with all three paintings.

Mongolia Monday- The Wildlife Of Mongolia Through An Artist’s Eyes: Argali

Argali ram, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, 2005

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.

Group of four argali rams, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, 2005

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.

To quote from the Red List entry on argali:

“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).

Argali ewes and lambs, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, 2005

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.

I saw this large group at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu in 2008; seventeen animals, I think, and they ran up that vertical cliff like water flowing uphill

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.

A typical sighting of some ewes and older lambs at Ikh Nart, but with a cinereous vulture, the world's largest, sitting on a rock in the background; in the distance is the desert steppe

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.

Driving into Ikh Nart in 2008; a grab shot from the car of four rams
Rams on rocky hillside at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve in 2009; the key to spotting them is to look for movement and those long, thin legs, which don't seem to quite fit the landscape; this was with my 80-400 mm lens (effectively 600mm on a digital body) at maximum zoom
This group of rams, at Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve were about 800 meters away within plain view of the road through the park; "lazy" animal watching

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.

For one of my first argali paintings, I wanted to show them in the fantastic landscape of Ikh Nartiin Chuluu; April 2005
Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Argali 15x30" oil
Argali ewe, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu; April 2005; I added a lamb and moved the ewe up so her head would be against the sky for maximum contrast
Argali Ewe and Lamb, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu; 12x12" oil on canvasboard
Old ram, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu; April 2005; He's probably long gone, but we spent a, for me, memorable half hour together as he let tag along behind him after checking me out; that's also him in the first photo at the top of this post
Mutual Curiosity 17x30" oil

New Painting Debut!- Argali Ram (Head Study); And A Cautionary Tale Of The Importance Of Good Reference Images

I find that I have a perfect opportunity to demonstrate how critical good reference is and what a difference familiarity with a species makes in how well one is able to draw and paint it. Besides showing off my latest work.

I first went to Mongolia on an Earthwatch Institute-sponsored project “Mongolian Argali” in the spring of 2005 at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. I had two Nikon D70 digital SLRs that shot 6MB RAW files. Quite good at that time. My lens was a Tamron 100-300 with a 2x doubler, which made it slow, but did let me get decent stuff from quite a distance. I took 735 images of argali sheep during my two weeks on the project and I was hot to paint them when I got home. For reasons that are now lost in the mists of time, I chose the image below for my first head study (file under “What was I thinking?”)

Now, granted I could zoom in on it quite a bit and I was really interested in understanding the shapes, not details, but still. Why didn’t I pick one like this?

Much closer. Better light. Structure of things like the area around the eye easier to see. Maybe I was seduced by the beautiful set of horns on the ram. Oh well, live and learn.

In any case, I sent a jpg of the finished study to the Mongolian scientist I worked with and he thought I’d done a very good job, which was nice to know. But……the painting continued to bug me, so I did a re-paint. And then another. And futzed with it some more. And then life moved on, the painting was shelved and that was that. So now it’s kind of a mess and I’m not going to work on it again. The only image I have of it when it looked finished is on a promo page I did for myself. The image below is scanned from that, so it’s not great, but it does show my first attempt to paint an argali head.

Fast forward to this year’s trip during which I spent a week at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu and shot 852 images of argali. I now have Nikon D80s which have 12MB RAW files (you are shooting RAW format, aren’t you?) with a Nikon Nikkor AF VR-80-400 and the difference in the optics is obvious.

Here’s the shot before the reference shot. It’s a little out of focus, but I make it a practice to never, ever put my prime painting reference images on the internet. But my subject, the ram in the middle, has pretty much the same head position.

Now THAT’S  some good stuff to paint from! Scroll back up to the previous image and see how flat the light is by comparison. I really handicapped myself right out of the gate.

I’ve now been painting and drawing argali for five years and have been back to the reserve to observe and photograph them four more times. I’ve also learned a lot more about their behavior and what their lives are like. All of that feeds into my paintings so I’m not just rendering their surface appearance, as too many wildlife artists are wont to do.

One piece of advice I would give to aspiring animal artists is to absolutely paint what you love when you feel the need to paint it, but consider focusing in on one or two species and get to know them really well in all aspects. I think you will soon perceive a difference in what you have put into a painting with those subjects versus those which you approach casually because you happen to have a photo that you like.

Here’s the step by step of the new painting:


Brush drawing, indication of shadow shapes, laying in a background tone; notice that it goes into the animal



Adding a cool tone to the shadow areas



Starting to model the forms of the head and horns; things look a little ugly at this point



Working on the light areas, continuing to define the form and structure



Almost there; time to punch up the areas that are most important



Argali Ram (Head Study) 18x14" oil on canvasboard


How I Start a Big Painting & A Favorite Photo from Mongolia

One of the advantages of my illustration training is the process that we were taught for putting a picture together. I don’t do all the steps all the time, but now that I’m about to start one of the largest paintings I’ve done so far, I need the control that the process gives me.

My first sighting of argali at Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve, thanks to Onroo the local camp staffer who knows the place and where the animals tend to hang out, was a group of rams in wonderful morning light. Mostly they were grazing and resting. For this painting, however, I wanted action. The essential image popped into my head and then it was a matter of getting it down on paper, which is one reason why the thumbnail process is so valuable.

Here’s some of the reference that I’m using:


I liked the pose of the big ram who is third from the left. This photo was taken at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. I dumped the image into Photoshop and did a horizontal reverse to get him going the direction I wanted. And then zoomed in as much as possible. The next three are from Baga Gazriin Chuluu. Talk about reference eye candy.




I did a couple of drawings of the main sheep to try out position and gesture.


In this one I added the a background to see how that worked.

Argali-1My idea is to channel a little Edgar Degas and have the animals coming in from the frame, not have all of them within the frame. This is too static, but it gives me something to bounce off of. Gotta start somewhere.

Here’s the thumbnail sheet. I’m trying to figure out where the three masses of sheep will be in relation to each other. Then I did another, larger sketch.

Argali-thumbThis is more what I had in mind. Almost everything is on a diagonal, which gets rid of the too-static quality of the previous sketch. As I draw and re-draw the animals, I’m able to get to “know” them better and can refine and push the poses.

I spent a good chunk of yesterday doing a finished scale drawing that will be transferred to the canvas via the ancient and honorable grid system. I ended up with three layers of tracing paper. The bottom one had the lines for the edge. The second one had the drawing of the sheep. The third was the landscape. I did one and it’s really nice, but not right for this painting. Replaced it with a new sheet and re-did it. When I was satisfied that I had more or less what I wanted, I re-drew the argali, once again refining and tweaking the drawing.

At this point, I have solved the design/composition problem and the drawing problem. Both may be re-visited at any time as needed if I see something that needs fixing, but the next step is a value study, that is, the pattern of lights and darks. We were told in art school that if we get the values in a picture correct, then we can do anything we want with color, which I have found to be true. One of the tasks that needs doing to take the Gun-Galuut argali and the image of the sunny rocks and make them work with the Baga Gazriin Chuluu morning light. For that I’ll do a color study.

I hunted through my reference once again for the sheep images that I thought would work best. And here is, so far, finished drawing. Still not sure about the argali on the left. I’ll see how it looks to me on Monday. I also think I need a little more “air” on the right side and maybe the top. Not much, maybe a half-inch.


Finally, a favorite photo from the local Naadam at Erdene. Waiting for the race results.