I think we’ve all had the experience of looking at art that is really, really good. It’s both an inspiration and sometimes a cause of despair. But one of the traditional ways to train one’s eye is to look at good art. Lots of it. In the original.
Then there are the days in the studio when we wonder why we ever thought we could do this. We know (I hope) what our goal is for a particular painting, but we Just Can’t Quite Get There.
It can be easy to lose perspective. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that the artists we so admire didn’t begin at the high level we associate with their work.
I happen to have accumulated over the years some examples in print of early work by some very well-known artists, along with their mature work. I thought I’d offer three examples today.
I want to make it clear that I don’t believe that any of the early examples are “bad” or inferior in any way. The purpose of showing them is simply to demonstrate that everyone’s art evolves over time (or should). They are illustrations, not easel paintings, so they were done as jobs for an art director, with whom the artist didn’t always see eye to eye. The limitations of commercial work are what led them to become what we think of as Fine Artists, who paint or painted only for themselves.
Keeping that in mind:
Howard Terpning is one of the most prominent American painters working today. I knew his name as an illustrator and it wasn’t until I became a painter that I encountered him as a fine artist. His work didn’t attract me much since I’m not that interested in Native Americans, his specialty. But I was at a workshop with John Banovich, who is known for his African wildlife paintings, particularly lions and elephants, and there in his studio, kept near his easel, was a book of Terpning’s work. John picked up the book and explained that it was worth studying for the quality of the painting, separate from the subject matter. I took my turn paging through it and saw immediately what John meant, so I bought my own copy as soon as I got home. I learned a valuable lesson that day: don’t let subject matter get in the way of learning from a great artist.
Guy Coholeach, as far as I know, has always been an animal artist, although when he was an illustrator I suspect he took the jobs as they came, regardless of subject matter. I do remember knowing and admiring his work from long before I went back to art school and got a degree in illustration. When I became an animal artist myself, there he was, one of the most prominent wildlife painters in the field. He’s probably best known for his paintings of the Big Cats. One of the things I find inspiring about his work is that he doesn’t arbitrarily limit himself to one “style”, but does what’s needed to express his vision of a subject. So his work can range from very tight and beautifully rendered to juicy and painterly. In either case, his drawing, composition and paint handling is impeccable.
Bob Kuhn is my idol. Simple as that. Especially when I was struggling on all fronts trying to do a decent painting, I’d get stuck on some aspect and ask myself “What would Bob do?”. I’d get down my Bob Kuhn books (I have all of them) and go through them until I found his solution. I’d bounce off it to come up with what worked for me, knowing that ultimately I had to find my own way and not rely on someone else. Not to knock other artists at all, but I personally don’t have, and have never had, any interest as a painter in detail per se. In an art genre where highly detailed work has been the standard, Bob Kuhn was a beacon of light and hope that I could find a place in the animal art world while working in a painterly manner. I also learned from him not to compromise on getting the best reference possible, to draw from live animals as often as possible and to be knowledgeable and accurate in how I portray a species in their anatomy, behavior and habitat. Can’t ask for more than that from your hero.
Obviously, drawing skills are fundamental for the creation of visual art, whether it’s representational or not. By “drawing” I mean having the hand/eye motor coordination to make the marks you want, where you want them and the way you want them with your tool of choice, whether or not you approach your work using lines or shapes.
For the purposes of this post, however, I am talking about the use of “dry media”- pencils, charcoal and the like on supports such as paper and canvas. Plus the ability to represent an animal realistically and accurately. It goes hand-in-hand with the development of what I’ll call “visual judgment”, which is how you learn when you’ve made a mistake and what you have to do to fix it.
Part of the inspiration for the following comes from a comment thread I recently saw on Facebook in which an artist flatly stated that “passion” was the most important component of a painting. I would submit that passion uninformed by technical skill in areas such as drawing, design, form, structure, light, value, color and the handling of edges creates work that might have a certain initial level of visual excitement, but won’t stand the test of time or even close scrutiny. To my mind, lack of skill creates visual distractions that get in the way of the artist’s ability to express their passion. I also think that it can be used as a convenient excuse to get out of the hard work (it is HARD and it is WORK) of creating art.
I recently was a member of the jury which evaluated applications for membership in the Society of Animal Artists. Five votes were required for acceptance. The jurors were all artists with very keen eyes who were also uncompromising in their standards. I enjoyed the experience very much, both for the chance to see a lot of animal art and to learn from the other jurors. It was an objective process. The judging was not based on “like” vs. “not like” or “passion” or other vague emotional responses. The drawing of the animal was the first thing we looked at, whether it was a painting or a sculpture. Accuracy and an understanding of the structure of a species, plus a firm grasp of basic anatomy (“A leg can’t bend that way.”) were key. If the drawing of the animal was faulty, the application was rejected. It was one of the most consistent problems I saw in the work we viewed.
If, after taking a long, objective look at your work, you can see that there is room for improvement in your drawing skills, consider these books, which are from my own library and that I have found useful over the years. In no particular order:
-Drawing and Painting Animals by Edward Aldrich
-Animal Drawing, Anatomy and Action for Artists by Charles R. Knight
-Animal Drawing and Painting by Walter J. Wilwerding
-The Art of Animal Drawing by Ken Hultgren
-Drawing Animals by Victor Ambrus
-The Animal Art of Bob Kuhn…A Lifetime of Drawing and Painting by Bob Kuhn
-Drawing With An Open Mind by Ted Seth Jacobs
-The Pencil by Paul Calle
-Fast Sketching Techniques by David Rankin
And, for animal anatomy, you need both of these:
An Atlas of Animal Anatomy for Artists by W. Ellenberger, H. Dittrich and H. Baum
Animal Anatomy for Artists, The Elements of Form by Eliot Goldfinger
I’m sure that there are other good and useful books about animal drawing and anatomy and I invite you to share them via the comments section.
Personally, I have found that learning from good teachers is a great time-saver. What could take years of trial and error can maybe be addressed in an hour and then you get to move on to the next challenge.
In that spirit of benefiting from those who have gone before, here’s some thoughts about the making of wildlife art that I find worthwhile, illustrated with a few of the reference photos I’ve shot through the years.
“One of the challenges of painting a number of animals, particularly pronghorns, is to design an interesting grouping. What I try to achieve is an appealing overall shape; an uncontrived, natural look to the grouping…”
“…the need to convey those gestures, poses and attitudes that spell out the character unique to the animal.”
“You look into the eyes of a leopard in a zoo, and sure, you can get a lot out of them. But look into the eyes of a lion 30 feet away from you, when you’re standing right in front of him with no rifle, and let me tell you, they look a lot different. They do.”
NICHOLAS HAMMOND author of Modern Wildlife Painting:
“The best of modern wildlife painters show us the mystery and death, memory and beauty and what is to be learned, or lamented, loved or wept for.”
I recently received an email from an art student in Northern Ireland (wonders of the internet!), who is doing a paper about an artist whose work she likes for her “A Levels”. That artist would appear to be me. I liked her questions since they got me thinking some more about what I do, why and how. So I thought I would share it with you:
1.Why did you choose animal art?
As I think about it, it might be more appropriate to say that it chose me. I drew animals more than anything else as a child by far. When I was back in art school at age 35, I tended to think of using animals for my assignments. When I moved to “easel painting”, I started doing animals early on and when I learned about the field of wildlife art, that pretty much sealed the deal. I do enjoy other subjects, but it has always been my animals that have drawn the strongest response from people.
2.How would you gather information for your topic (ie do you study the body movements of animals, go to the zoo etc)
I do fieldwork trips every year to see animals in their own habitats and also visit zoos whenever possible. I have a large reference library that includes a number of books on animal anatomy. I sketch from live animals when I can and take a lot of photos. My digital image library has over 10,000 animal pictures alone, taken since 2004. Plus hundreds of prints from before I went digital.
3.Have you ever been influenced by a person or place?
Yes, I seem to be the kind of artist who is inspired more by what I see in the natural world, as opposed to a more purely internal vision. Taking a master class from John Seerey-Lester in 1997 was probably the greatest single reason I’ve become an animal artist because of his encouraging words about my paintings, which made me believe that I could succeed if I was willing to work hard.
The four places that I find most inspiring are Mongolia, Kenya, the Yellowstone/Wyoming/Montana area and my own home ground of northern California.
4.Is there a particular artist whose work has inspired you?
If I had to name one, it would be Bob Kuhn, a legendary illustrator who became one of the two or three top wildlife artists of the 20th century. I’m inspired by the quality of his draftsmanship, design/composition, his painterly technique, his knowledge of his subjects and his uncompromising willingness to do what it took to get reference he needed. He’s my role model for everything a wildlife/nature artist should be. He passed away last year.
5.What media do you prefer working in and why? Is there a medium you are not comfortable with?
I work in oil. The original impetus was having wanted to paint in oil since I was a child, but now it’s because it’s the medium that most lets me express my vision of a subject. I love everything about it except the fumes, so I pay attention to proper ventilation.
I’m probably least comfortable with something like pastels, for the very pedestrian reason that I don’t like having my hands messy while I work and I don’t want to wear gloves.
6.My favourite piece of your work is ‘Double check’, how did you come up with the idea and how did you gather photographs etc to help you?
Ah, I just delivered that painting to the buyer. It’s one of my favorites ,too. I hadn’t done a coyote for a long time and I have some great reference of them that I shot over a couple of trips to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. I was looking for an image that would work at a small size and had interesting light. I also look for an aspect that represents something authentic about the animal and what they are like, both as a species and as an individual. The painting used two pieces of reference, one of the coyote and one for the background. So I already had the reference for that one.
7. When did you realise your talent for art and why in your opinion is animal art so effective?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t draw. I don’t know how much talent I have, but I’ve been willing to work hard for a long time. I’ve been told that my animals have “life” in their eyes and I agree, but that seems to happen without conscious volition on my part, so maybe that’s my “talent”.
Human affinity for animal images goes back to the Stone Age, as can be seen by cave paintings and pictographs. We have literally shared our lives with them for over 10,000 years (in the case of dogs). We share our world with them. Every culture has some relationship to animals, mostly positive, sometimes negative, but a connection nonetheless. We see ourselves reflected in them. We project ourselves and our emotions, ideas about good and bad, and our needs onto them. Images of animals and our liking of them are one facet of that long history.
8. Do you have any future plans for your art?
To continue to grow as an artist and get better. To always look for new ways to more accurately express my vision. To use my art to promote conservation and environmental issues, while making a decent living.
9. What do you think is unique about your art?
My vision and point of view and how I express that stylistically. Which really is, or should be, true for any other artist, no matter what their subject matter or medium.
10. Where do you paint and do you find the environment you work in important?
I have a 450 sq. ft. studio at my home. I have worked in a variety of environments, including a garage, and would have to say, that, yes, it’s important. I need an organized, properly lit space. I need the work space to not get in the way of doing the work.
11. When it comes to doing the fur on the animals, what do you find to be the fastest but most effective way for this?
I don’t personally think that speed, per se, is the goal. First comes the decision about what your vision is and then, what is the most technically appropriate way to accomplish that? Having said that, however, I have no interest in detail for it’s own sake. I would find painting every hair boring to do and usually find it boring to look at. What challenges me is seeing how much I can simplify and leave out and still communicate something like “fur”. So, I don’t literally think “fur” when I’m painting. I’m thinking shape, value, color, color temperature, visual texture, etc., which is a more abstract level. If all those come together then that area will say “fur” even though it’s really just blobs or spots or strokes of paint.
12. Is the background as important as the animal itself?
I would answer that somewhat indirectly by saying that the idea of the painting is the most important and every element present must support that idea, whether it’s the animal or the background. It all has to come together as a coherent whole.
13. What scale would your art normally be and how long would it take you to complete?
The smallest paintings I do are 6″x8″ and, so far, the largest is around 36″x48″, plus a variety of sizes in between. I decide on the subject first and then choose the size and proportion that will best suit the idea I have.
I can finish a small painting to be used as a study in a couple of hours. “How long does it take?” is a question artists get all the time and the answer is usually some variation on “It depends.” It depends on how complex the composition is, how much preliminary work was necessary, how many changes were required along the way, whether one got stuck and had to let the thing sit for a week, a month, a year.
14. Were you hoping to strike any emotions from your audience? if so what?
I think that part of what defines something as “art” is whether or not it elicits an emotional response in the viewer. So, yes, I guess I always hope for that. But I’m really more concerned with recording my emotional response to my subject than trying to project or control that of the viewer.
15. Which is you favourite piece of your own work and why?
Whatever the latest one is that came out the way I’d envisioned it. Currently it’s the Cape Buffalo Head Study. It may be the best painting I’ve done so far and I did it as demo over the course of about six hours at an art festival with constant interruptions. Interesting, in view of my earlier comment about my preferred working environment and that I hadn’t envisioned anything in particular about it except to have something going to draw people into my booth.
16. Is there anything that motivates you whilst painting?
The thought that somewhere, sometime, someone viewing my work might be inspired to become actively involved in working to save our planet. It needs all the help it can get.
May all our interviews be so merry and bright.
My most faithful collector and I have had a list of paintings that she would like me to do. Since she grew up on a cattle ranch in Southern California, she wants a painting of an oak tree with polled Hereford cattle, plus a few other elements. So this is where my illustration training kicks in. I find this kind of thing fun if, once the content is decided on, I am left to solve the problem and paint it as I see fit. I have now started the sketches. I haven’t drawn cattle much, so that was the first step. Here’s a few that are promising-
Hereford cow and calf
ART QUOTE OF THE DAY
“You do not have to go very far to find suitable subjects. The cat lounging on your sofa, the horse down the road, yours or your neighbor’s dog; all are proper subjects and all will give knowledge which can later be broadened by trips to the nearest zoo or museum. My old friend and counselor, Paul Bransom, was the man who first urged me to go to the zoo, and to draw, draw, draw, Even the best reference sources don not take the place of real knowledge of animal structure. That can only be gained by putting your time in with the animals.”