Mongolia Monday- New Painting Debut! “Argali On The Rocks”

Argali On The Rocks 15×30″ oil on canvas

I had gone out very early from the research camp at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve this past July and had settled down on a rock to see who would show up at the water hole.

I looked up and saw these two rams checking me out as they scanned their surroundings.

The sun was just hitting the cliff tops, so they really stood out against the morning sky.

For the painting, I wanted to give a sense of the landscape that they live in and how comfortable they are on tilted surfaces that would make most of us somewhat nervous.

Soon after I took this and some more photos, they came down onto the valley floor and joined up with some buddies for a drink and a graze.

I got to watch them for about half an hour.

And yes, after 2 1/2 years, I’ve updated the look of my blog with a new theme. I finally found one that I liked and that has new features and functions the previous one lacked. Let me know what you think!

An Olympic Drawing Opportunity

If you’re watching the Olympics you know that it sometimes seems more like ads interspersed with some sporting events than the other way around. I’ve also realized that I don’t know how argali sheep are put together as well as I need to, especially the legs, and I’ve got a major takhi painting coming up

Put the two together and I’m getting some good sketching time in. I’ve got all my images from my last two trips to Mongolia on my MacBook Pro, sitting in iPhoto, which happens to have a great enlargement function. I’ve set the laptop on a small folding table (are they still called “tv trays”?) and am using a 9×12″ sketchbook.

These are drawn with a fine felt tip pen with no preliminary pencil work. I either get it or I don’t. None take more than about five minutes, so there isn’t a lot of time invested. The purpose is to hone in on areas that I don’t understand as well as I should. Purely process, not result. Plus, I keep in mind that photos flatten objects, so I need to compensate for that when drawing three dimensional animals.

I started with a page of takhi, plus a cow I saw at Hustai.

Then I moved on to argali. One of the challenges is to keep the legs and body in proper proportion since the legs are really skinny and long. There isn’t a lot of muscle definition to play with, like with horses, so one has to nail the overall shape.

I’m struggling with the horns, too. They move back and around in space and I’m suspicious of how the camera might distort them. What I really need is to draw from the live animals. But there are none in zoos that I know of and in the wild you’re lucky to watch them from 600 meters (over 600 yds.)

Ideally, I’d have my Leica Televid spotting scope, which would solve the problem, except that it is entirely impractical to haul it around in the terrain where the argali are, at least for me. So it’s photographs and a pair of domestic ram’s horns that I brought back from England some years ago. I don’t have access to taxidermy mounted argali, but the problems there would whether or not the horns are typical, how good the quality of the mount is and is it a Mongolian argali.  Notice that I started on the left with only basic shapes and didn’t worry about modeling or “color”.

The best images I have of argali so far are a group of six rams at Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve. They were considerate enough to have parked themselves in the open within sight of the main road through the reserve in great morning light. I would have been lucky to have spotted them, but the local man living in the reserve who my guide hired to go out with us both mornings that I was there saw them right away. Here’s a long shot from where we stopped. They’re right back against the rocks, in the middle.

I’ve circled them in red.

Piece of cake, right? Here’s what I got when I zoomed in with my Nikon Nikkor VR 80-400 lens. These are 10mg files, so they can take quite a bit of enlargement and stay sharp. I’ve got about 84 images total to work with. There’s something useful in all of them. Love these guys.

Here’s a close-up of the three rams in front. A perfect Exhibit A of the subject of a previous post about why you have to get out there and do the fieldwork. There’s no other way to get this kind of reference (Buying it from someone else doesn’t count). Game ranch animals won’t do it either. They’re out of context and, unless you’ve observed the species in the wild, you have no idea whether or not any behavior that you see is “real”.

And closer yet of one I drew last night. Everyone was fat and sassy and in great condition. Notice that the younger ram is much browner than the older ones. His behavior was different, too. He was a little more skittish, kept more space between himself and the others than they did between each other and was last in line when they all finally moved up into the rocks.

Great stuff! Action, a terrific pose, rim light. Here’s the page of sketches that include this ram.

Give it a try! It’s a great way to keep training your eye.

Memorial Day Miscellany

First, I want to honor and express my appreciation for all the men and women who serve and have served in our armed forces.  I’ve read a lot of history and it’s true- Freedom isn’t free. But, America should never go to war except as a last resort and should never risk our soldiers lives without a compelling reason. My thoughts are with the families whose loved ones have died in service to our country.


Besides coming down with a cold a couple of days ago, I sat down on Friday to start sketching and got diverted by re-arranging my corner workspace. So not much in the way of sketches or materials info. yet, but I am thrilled to have my wonderful old oak drawing table back in action. Shifting it 90 degrees lets me use the iMac so I can draw from it the same as with the easel. Here’s a couple of pics of the new arrangement. The Rocky Mountain mule deer head was a flea market find. There are also images from Bob Kuhn and Robert Bateman for inspiration. And my favorite 1960’s psychedelic poster, The Green Lady by Mouse and Kelly.

Eowyn inspecting the new set-up
Eowyn inspecting the new set-up
Easel is on the right
Easel is to the right

It’s time to start to pull it together for the upcoming Expedition. One part of it will be keeping a journal, which is provided by the AFC (Artists for Conservation). It’s bound in Italian leather and comes with its own bag. Nothing like a little intimidation.

journal 1Yup, I’ll be hauling this puppy all over central Mongolia for three weeks. I need to do a title page and a map Real Soon Now, but how to face the terror of the blank page? The thought of making a mess is paralyzing, but it must be overcome. I know, I’ll start at the very back-

journal 2So I used an argali image from the trip last year that is representative of what I hope to see and sketch. I’m experimenting with ways to add color. This is Pelikan pan gouache used as a watercolor wash. The paper has a nice tooth and isn’t too soft, but I wanted to see how different drawing options worked, so that’s what’s on the bottom. The Wolff’s carbon pencil didn’t flow and the General’s charcoal pencil was too soft (for my purposes). A mechanical pencil with an HB lead and the Sanford draughting pencil worked well, as did the Pentel pen. I’ve got two kinds of Derwent watercolor pencils that I’ll experiment with next, along with a couple of other things.

Mongolia Monday- Excerpt from My 2006 Trip Journal- Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve

Travelers get attached to a particular place for a variety of reasons. Maybe it was stunningly beautiful or irresistibly peculiar. Maybe it was somewhere they’d wanted to go to since childhood, finally made it and it was everything they’d dreamed of and more. Maybe something special happened while they were there. Maybe they went for one reason and discovered something unanticipated but compelling. The latter probably most applies to why Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve has become one of my most favorite places on the planet.

This seems unlikely to me since I’ve never been a “desert” person. That would have been my mom, who found the area around Hemet, California (the landscape, not the trashy sprawl) quite to her taste. I like my landscapes green. With trees. Preferably redwoods. Like these at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, about 30 minutes from our house. I spent my childhood getting to camp out at places like this. Pretty darn lucky, I’d say.


But Mongolia got to me. Except for the northern part of the country, which is the southern edge of the boreal forest, trees are not what Mongolia is about. It’s the ultimate wide-open-spaces destination. I went to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu for an Earthwatch project and found a place so special that I plan to go back until I can’t travel anymore. I returned in 2006 for a short visit, just a couple of days. Here’s what happened the first day.

October 6, 2006

Woke up and 6:30, out the door in less than 10 minutes to walk down the valley. Too early for good light, but saw a couple of argali dash up the hill from the stream over 100 yds. away so no photos.


Valley where research camp is located


First sun on the rocks

Came back for 7:30 am breakfast. Baaska (my guide), driver and master’s student still asleep, so headed out on my own about 8:30 am. Found my favorite huge rock! Windy but not cold. No argali or ibex. Stopped to rest and have a snack and realized that not only was the wind getting much stronger, but that the distant rocks were getting hazy with dust, just like when I was out with Rich (Dr. Richard Reading, the Earthwatch project’s Principal Investigator, and I walked back to camp in an on-coming dust storm in 2005 after the team had walked a 4km argali survey). Decided it was time to go directly back to camp since no one knew where I was, just that I would be back at 1pm for lunch. Got out the GPS, punched “Go To” POI #1 (camp) and got back just fine.


This rock turned out, from another angle, to be three formations that were overlapping, but I still like it! It’s about the size of an aircraft carrier.

ikh-nartiin-chuluu-nestCinereous vulture nest

Since I’ve never been here at this time of year and there really isn’t anyone to ask until Amgaa gets here or maybe Jed (two of the other scientists), it seemed sensible to play it safe. Maybe after lunch will be a good time to go out in the van and check out the Tibetan writings and see if we can spot any argali. The Mongolians, Baaska, student, driver, ranger are all yakking away in the kitchen ger. I’ve never known people who could sit down together, never having met before and just roll along talking like the Mongolians. It feels from the outside like the continuation of an ageless oral culture which hasn’t been undermined by tv. Yet.

ikh-nartiin-chuluu-skull2Argali skull

I hope this wind dies down. Being out in Ikh Nart again, just me and the rocks was really great.

5:15 pm- Went out in our van with the ranger at 1:30. He needed to do some telemetry and was willing to find inscriptions. We found five, but no luck at all finding the one Rich took me to last time. Saw and photographed a large herd of  ewes with, it looked like, one ram and a smaller group a few minutes later. It has really stayed windy and cold. I’m in the ger with the stove going.


Tibetan inscription


Herd of argali sheep