I’m back home after my Wyoming trip with no big juried show deadlines to paint for, so it’s my time of year to work on my painting process, in which I review the work I did over the last year thinking about what worked and what didn’t, what I might want to do in the coming year and how. I’m also going back to basics in a couple of areas to improve my skill set. One of those areas is contour drawing. I shared some of the those from the SKB workshop in last week’s post. Another is value studies or, as David Rankin, the nationally-known watercolorist who I studied with at the workshop, calls them, Gray Studies. You can find a number of his excellent tutorials on his Facebook page here and on his website here. (Go to “Watercolor Training Files” on the left hand side and then “Grey Studies Training Files”.
I spent quite a bit of time one afternoon at the workshop simply figuring out, with his help, how to put down a correct single tone watercolor wash (the *secret* is plenty of water) using a 1″ flat brush (I usually use rounds). The really important exercise was learning his four value “recipe” for doing gray studies by painting along with him as he did one.
Once back home in the studio I wanted to build on what I’d learned. I’ve done value studies as a preliminary step for my paintings for years and it was something I’d learned in art school. I’d done them as graphite drawings or very small oils and it always felt a bit time consuming, however necessary. But this way of doing them in watercolor was an eye-opener. So easy, really. Paint around the whites, covering everything else. Then add layers of middle values. Save the darkest dark, if there is one, for last. But it took some new thinking and seeing to be able to do it and know what I was doing.
So I’ve spent most of the week painting gray studies from my photo reference. It was fun to revisit some of my Kenya wildlife images. These are all in Payne’s Gray (which has a very nice blueish tone) on an Arches 140lb cold press watercolor block, using sometimes a flat and sometimes a round. None took more than an hour or so. The stork above was the second one. In order:
At this point I felt that I understood the process enough to paint some that might become finished oils.
I did the quick preliminary drawings with a 9B Cretacolor Monolith pencil. It’s important not to labor over them, just indicate the basic shapes, plus where the white of the paper will be. So there you have it…a quick and inexpensive way to try out art ideas and value patterns.
I got back home at midnight last Saturday from two days in Grand Tetons National Park and five days at the 15th Annual Susan K. Black Foundation workshop. Both were a resounding success. You can read about my time in the park here. This post is about the workshop, which I’ve attended four times in the past and plan to go to next year.
All the previous instructors had been invited and almost all of them where there, including nationally known artists like James Gurney, John and Suzie Seerey-Lester, Greg Beecham, Mort Solberg, David Rankin, Jeanne Mackenzie, Andrew Denman, Guy Combes, Ann Trusty Hulsey and John Hulsey, all of whom I know personally or have studied with or both.
One of the main events is the Quick Draw, a traditional name but almost every artist at this workshop did paintings. Here’s some photos of the event in action. It’s followed by sketches and watercolors that I did in the Grand Tetons and EA Ranch.
The weather was partly cloudy while I drove around Grand Tetons NP, which meant interesting light that could change very quickly. The aspens and cottonwoods were turning to their fall colors, too. All in all a perfect time to be there.
Both of the first ones were painted over the course of a couple of hours along the Moose Wilson Road.
I’m back home after my three plus week trip back east and pretty much caught up. I had a great time at the Explorers Club Annual Dinner and down south visiting a number of wildlife refuges. The frosting on the cake was the opening reception on March 31 and also weekend activities for “Wildlife Art: Field to Studio” at the Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut. Five of the seven participating artists were able to attend. From left to right in the photo above: David Rankin, Alison Nicholls, Susan Fox, Sean Murtha and Karryl. All our hard work has paid off. It’s a fantastic exhibition that I’m so proud to be part of!
Here’s a album of photos from the events…
On Saturday morning the gallery hosted a special event for children, bringing in live animals from Animal Embassy for them to draw.
“Wildlife Art: Field to Studio” will be open until May 4 at the Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut. You can find out hours and more at the Flinn Gallery website.
I’m getting ready to begin my Fall Painting Season and decided to start by tweaking my working process. Every successful representational painting has two things: solid composition and a strong, well-thought out value pattern. Of course drawing, color and edges are important also, but one can make the case that the design and values are critical. So I’ve spent the last few days doing small value studies of reference photos that I’m thinking about painting. I’m working on the drawing part at the same time, too. None of them took more than an hour or so.
They are all done on various types of watercolor paper I already have on hand, experimenting to see which one serves my purpose best, and with one color…Winsor Newton Payne’s Gray. The brush is a Round No. 10 Prolene by ProArts. The study sizes run from 6×6″ to 7×10″, so not very big.
I got the idea to use watercolor for preliminary value studies (instead of, for instance, pencils or oils) from my friend and colleague, nationally-known watercolorist David Rankin. You can read his information about what he calls “Gray Studies” here.
I like it because it’s fast, effective, fun and let’s me practice with the media I use on location when I’m in Mongolia.
So, if your paintings are looking kind of flat or you’re finding that using color is confusing your values, I highly recommend that you get the simple set of materials listed below and try this. It may be a bit of a struggle at first to truly grasp the difference between color and value (the relative light and dark of something separate from its color) and to move away from your reference in order to get the right amount of contrast in the right places (a viewer’s eye is going to go first to the area of highest contrast, so you need to make a conscious decision about where your focal point is), but hang in there, just keep adjusting and experimenting and you’ll be rewarded by a visible improvement in your work.
1 tube Winsor Newton Payne’s Gray transparent watercolor
1 small dish or whatever you think will work for a palette.
Watercolor paper (I’m using “stock on hand”….small blocks of Art Lana Lanaquarelle hot press, Arches cold press and Saunders Waterford cold press; or you can get sheets of 300 lb, which doesn’t have to be stretched). If you buy sheets then you will need something to mount them to. I use a rectangular scrap of foamcore taped around the edges with clear packing tape and then use 1/2″ drafting tape to hold the corners of the paper to the board.
1 brush- Use at least a no. 10 round or 1/2” flat; your choice of brand (I like the Robert Simmons Sapphire synthetics, but also have a couple of the Prolene and Dick Blick rounds)
Reference photos with strong light and shadow patterns.
The main reason for my road trip to Wyoming at the beginning of last month was to attend the Susan K. Black Foundation Workshop for the first time in too many years. My travels to Mongolia have often gone into September and the workshop is always the second week so that it will be right after the Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival. But this year I was home by the end of July.
In every good way, nothing had really changed and the welcome I got was touchingly warm. What sets this workshop apart is that there are always a number of instructors and one can bounce around between them as one wishes. You can learn from painters in oil, acrylic and watercolor. Plus, this year, sculptors. Even better, anyone who has been an instructor is permanently invited to come back every year and many do, so it’s equal parts workshop, a reunion of artist friends and colleagues and a gathering of the animal art and landscape clans. All in an informal environment with great food and terrific scenery at the Headwaters Arts and Conference Center in Dubois, Wyoming, which is about 90 minutes from Jackson.
There’s always a Special Guest Instructor and this year it was none other than James Gurney of Dinotopia fame. He also presides over one of the most popular art blogs in the internet, Gurney Journey, and has written what has become a standard book on the subject “Color and Light”. His endlessly inventive ways to work on location have been a real inspiration for me personally. So I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to watch him in action.
There were plenty of opportunities to work on location, including a couple of local ranches.
One of the best parts of the workshop is the good times with artist friends and colleagues, often in the evening at the local saloon, the Rustic Pine Tavern.
Besides working out on location, attendees could also do studio painting.
One of the highlights of the week is the “Quick Draw”, which is actually a “Pretty Quick Paint”. It’s a great chance to watch a lot of very accomplished artists in action at once, creating auction and raffle-worthy work in front of a large crowd, including fellow artists.
The final evening was an entertainment-packed extravaganza, starting with two suspiciously familiar faces who introduced themselves as Sir Charles Willoughby, who somehow had to keep order (good luck with that), and Chip Chippington (all the sleazy game show hosts you’ve ever seen rolled into one hilarious package).
The fun started with a quiz to identify which instructor various species of dinosaurs were named after…
And I’m sorry to say that by this time I was laughing too much to get any pics of the rest of the show.
The night was capped by open mic performances, including one by the awesome kitchen staff.
There was a point during the early part of the evening when a slide show was shown of various attendees and instructors sporting a really impressive variety of hats. Getting into the spirit after the lights came up, James Gurney popped one of his Dept. of Art traffic cones (used to create space around where he is working on location in urban areas) on his head…
My artist friend and colleague, nationally known watercoloristDavid Rankin, has gotten into iPad drawing in a big way. His app of choice is Paper 53 and he really knows how to get the most out of it. He’s now teaching workshops about iPad drawing in and around his home city of Cleveland, Ohio.
I sent him this photo I took of the first bloom of the year on my herbaceous peony “Sarah Bernhardt”, saying that I’d love to see how he’d draw it on his iPad.
The very next day he sent me this great little step-by-step. Here’s what he has to say about it: “The image shows 3 stages in the production of this Peony image… using Paper by 53 on an iPad 2 with a Pogo Sketch Pro Stylus. Presently I’m doing a Bird a Day throughout 2013, but I’m considering next year to do a “Flower a Day”. The first stage…the Drawing Stage…is most important…and actually a rather hard stage as you have to pay close attention as I work my way around the entire structure of the flower. I’ve sketched flowers like this for years. But now…with this app…I can add full color and much more comprehensive lighting.”
Of course the same procedure could be used with “real” watercolors. David likes using his iPad for fast studies like this before he does the finish in watercolor, too.
This post was originally written for the Society’s Facebook public page and blog, but I wanted to share it here since I think what I have to say relates not just to what my thoughts are about applying to join the SAA, but also lays out in general some of my beliefs about what makes good animal art. It’s illustrated with images of various members of the Society, who I am proud to call my colleagues and friends.
The deadline for the next round of consideration is coming up in mid-April. I thought that, having participated in three membership juries now as a member of the Executive Board of the Society, I would offer some observations and tips that might be helpful to those of you who aspire to membership in the SAA.
A couple of notes before we start- First, I’m a painter and that’s what I know best. What I’m going to say applies to most other media, but creating a successful painting will be my main focus. Second, this article represents my personal views and is not an official statement by the SAA, any of its officers or the other board members. If you have any comments or questions, please direct them to me.
Now, to begin: I recommend that you do this exercise. Go to the Society’s website, visit the virtual museum and the individual websites of any member’s work that catches your eye. Then get out at least eight or ten of your own pieces. Line them up. Look at them objectively. This is not easy. We tend to be either too hard or too easy on ourselves. Do your best to be honest since that is when opportunities for growth happen.
Representational painting in general, and animal art in particular, have well-established criteria for what constitutes a “good” painting. These principles have evolved over a number of centuries. They are not “subjective”.
You are not in competition for a limited number of spots as would be true with a juried show. We usually have between two and three dozen applications to consider. We can accept all of them. Or none of them. Each applicant’s work is judged on its own merits.
Pick one piece that you honestly believe is at or is close to the level of the work of the artists who are already members.
You now need four more at or near that level, because one of the things that will sink an application fast is one or two good pieces followed by the jury seeing the next three or four go off the cliff. You will be judged by your weakest pieces. Consistency is very important.
Consistent in what? Glad you asked…
1. DRAWING: Animals have a physiological and behavioral reality that a competent animal artist has to understand and demonstrate to the jury. In other words, you need to be able to draw them with accuracy and understanding if you are a traditional representational artist and clear understanding if you are going to handle them in a more personally expressive way. You are hoping to join the ranks of animal artists who have been doing this, in some cases, for decades. They know if the drawing is correct or not. Which way a leg can bend, how a wing moves in flight or what the pattern of spots are on a leopard are not really subject to debate, however open they are to informed interpretation.
2. CRAFT: We want to see a solid understanding of your chosen media, whatever it is. If you decide to submit work in more than one media, then all of them need to be at an equal level of competence. Don’t submit a little of this and a little of that, hoping that something will stick, like spaghetti on a wall.
3. DESIGN AND COMPOSITION: Do you have a solid grasp of design and composition? Have you made a conscious decision about every element of your piece? For instance, are the subjects in the majority of your submissions plopped automatically into the middle of the canvas or thoughtfully placed to carry out your central idea?
4. PERSONAL VISION: Are you creating art based on a personal vision or simply copying photographs? (It is well-known that photographic images flatten and distort three-dimensional subjects like animals, so the artist must learn how to compensate for that if their goal is a realistic representation.) What do YOU have to say about lions and elk, butterflies and buzzards? Let your opinion, point of view and passion come through. HAVE an opinion, point of view and passion about your subjects.
5. KNOWLEDGE: Do you understand basic animal anatomy? Do you understand the habitat of the species you are representing? Have you learned about their behavior as an inspiration for your work? Or is everyone just standing around? If you put an animal in a realistic setting, you are now a landscape painter too. Are both your animals and any habitat shown depicted at the same level? Or does one lag behind the other?
Animals are specialized subject matter that require study and the accumulation of knowledge over time to represent successfully. There are no shortcuts.
We are looking for artists who have mastered their art and craft at a consistent level and who present us with a body of five works which all reflect that level.
A few months ago I blogged about a terrific book by nationally-known artist David Rankin called “Fast Sketching Techniques – Capture the Fundamental Essence of Elusive Subjects”. You can read about it here.
While I was at the Society of Animal Artists 50th Anniversary Exhibition, the pre-show opening activities included full days at both the San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park (since re-named the San Diego Zoo Safari Park) and the San Diego Zoo. I had already planned to do more sketching than photographing, so had what I needed. What I hadn’t planned on was getting to spend part of one day and almost all of the next sketching with…David Rankin! What a difference it made to watch how he does his fast sketching. And once I got the hang of it, I was hooked. I did around three times the sketches that I would have done before. And they were better, too.
Another point that David made that really, really helped me was his observation that every media or drawing tool can be compared to a musical instrument. Each one has to be learned and mastered on its own. As he said, a piano is different than a violin.Watercolor is different than gouache. Charcoal pencils are different than Conte crayons.
I have always assumed that drawing is drawing and that I should be able to pick up any pen or pencil and get a good result because the fundamentals of good drawing exist separately from what one draws with. Not so, it turns out. Not only do I now have an explanation for why I’ve had trouble with results when I change media or tools, but it got me off a hook I didn’t even know I was on and gave me a real confidence boost.
There was one other minor benefit….my perception of my subjects, both live and in photographs, was fundamentally altered. I find that I am seeing the simple shapes better and more quickly. I’ve always felt a little lost doing 3/4 views of heads and have struggled trying to understand the structure of an argali’s horn curl. I’m seeing both of those much better now.
All that said, here’s the art. None of these took more than a couple of minutes at most:
And here are three argali drawings done in the studio from reference I shot at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in August. Drawn with a 6B Wolff’s Carbon pencil on Strathmore Vellum Bristol.
As I am about two months out from my Mongolia trip, I’ve decided to consolidate my blog posts to Monday and then do quick updates as needed on other days of the week. For the next few months, most posts are going to have Mongolia content as I share my preparations and, with luck, the trip itself.
I have my plane tickets and will be leaving on July 5, staying overnight in Seoul, Korea and arriving in Ulaanbaatar on the afternoon of the 7th. I’ll be taking the local United Express flight to San Francisco, Asiana to Seoul and MIAT to UB, and doing it in reverse without the overnight for my return on July 30. My current plan is to attend the National Naadam celebration in UB and then, in some order still to be determined, spend a day or two at Hustai seeing the takhi, travel to the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve and the Baga Gazariin area to explore the argali habitat in those places, with hopes that I will be able to see and photograph them.
The one “appointment” that I have is to be at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu the week of the 20th for three days of meetings with the herder women to discuss their ideas for a crafts cooperative, which I plan to support. For this purpose, and for other projects that might come up in the future, I have established a non-profit association, Art Partnerships for Mongolian Conservation (APMC). Our mission will be to use the arts to promote conservation in Mongolia. My 501(c)3 sponsor is the Denver Zoological Foundation, which has set up an account for me so that donations made to APMC are tax-deductible. For more information, email me at email@example.com.
SKETCHING VS. DRAWING
Last week I said that I would do a book review of an excellent “drawing” book. I got it out recently to use as a guide for honing my field sketching techniques for the upcoming Mongolia trip (see how it’s all dovetailing?). It’s called “Fast Sketching Techniques” by David Rankin, who, as it happens, won an AFC Flag Expedition Grant a couple of years ago to travel to the source of the Ganges River in India, one of his most favorite countries. He, dare I say it, draws a very useful distinction between drawing and sketching and does it in a way that I think encourages people to pick up a pencil and paper and give it a go.
Here’s where you can find it on Amazon, but it looks like it has gone out print, so you might end up with a good used copy. I highly recommend it. Here are a few pages to give you an idea of David’s approach. He is a signature member of the Society of Animal Artists, has been in every major wildlife art show multiple times and is an excellent teacher and “critiquer”. In short, he knows his stuff.
Next week, I’ll have post some of the sketch work I’ve been doing in order to get up to speed for the real thing.