Sheltering in Place, Part 9

5 Minute drawings from Wednesday, during the Draw Breath virtual livestream figure drawing group on Facebook I’ve joined; Platinum Carbon fountain pen in a Strathmore Windpower Drawing sketchbook

I guess the big news here is that, at least for now, we’ve “crushed” the virus and plans for a partial reopening of businesses are being developed. We’ve only had a couple of new cases in the last couple of weeks for a total of 54. No deaths, currently no hospitalizations. We are required to wear masks now when out in public and to observe social distancing. Our public health dept. is doing a wonderful job, not only in dealing with Covid-19, but in the quantity and quality of their public communications about it. Locals can currently take a survey on what businesses they think should open first.

We’re going out for groceries, but otherwise keeping busy at home. On Sunday we’ll swing by the North Coast Native Plant Society place to pick up an order of….native plants. The ordering was done using a plant list on their website to make one’s choices of plant and quantity, then you downloaded the order form posted on their website, filled it out, photographed it and attached it to an email back to them. This was only one of four ordering options they offered. We will drive onto the property being used for the sale at noon on Sunday, pay with a check and then load up our plants. Everyone has a separate pick-up slot. It’s all been very well-thought out and organized so that they can still have their sale, but keep everyone safe.

In art news, I’ve been doing extensive repaints on some older paintings I’ve done of African subjects. I’ve entered three in an online animal art show and will get the results on the 5th. Here’s one of them:

“Playtime” oil on canvas 20×30″ (price on request)

And for serious fun I was invited a week or so ago to join a Facebook group called “Draw Breath”. Since live figure drawing isn’t an option now, a group of mostly illustrators who also attended or teach at my alma mater, the Academy of Art University, have arranged Monday, Wednesday and Friday livestreamed “virtual” sessions from 4-6pm. It’s a three way split screen with the model in the middle and an artist on either side drawing in real time and chatting about what they’re doing and why.

3 minute figure drawings; Koh-i-Noor Versatil 5340 clutch pencil with multicolor lead, 12×9″ Strathmore Windpower Drawing pad; I posted about this very cool pencil with a multicolor lead in my previous post

And, here’s some photos of the garden I just shot this morning. Things are really starting to take off. We’re supposed to get “real” rain tomorrow which is great.

Rhododrendron and forget-me-nots
“Citrus Splash” rose

And down by the pond on an old chunk of stump…

Finally (I have to pay attention to what my last image is because WordPress’ or some algorithm uses the final image in a post for the preview on other sites) here’s another of my Kenya pieces, a warthog…

“Ready to Run in 3…2…1″ oil on canvasboard 20×30” (price on request)

Why GOING THERE Makes all the Difference – Thank You, Simon

Four years ago today, internationally known wildlife artist Simon Combes was killed by a cape buffalo while walking with his wife on a mountain called Delemere’s Nose, which is part of the Delemere estate in Kenya where they lived. Just two months earlier, I and nine other incredibly fortunate wildlife artists were on the safari of a lifetime with him. Looking at dates on my images, I see that we had gotten up the morning of October 12 at the Kigio Wildlife Sanctuary and spent most of the day driving south to the Masai Mara. When we stopped for lunch in the Masai group ranch north of the reserve proper, we saw our first Mara wildlife, a male topi on top of a mound. Then, in rapid succession it was wildebeest, gazelle, hippos, a huge male giraffe right inside the entrance to the Reserve and then…lions!

My tribute page and the photos that I took of him during the safari are here. But what I want to share today is what it means as an artist to be able to travel to a place like Kenya with someone like Simon, who knew the ground and the animals and who always seemed to get us to the right place at the right time. I had realized very quickly on my first trip there in 1999 that it was  pointless to paint animals like cheetahs and lions without having seen them in their habitat. There’s really no way to get it right and those who have been there know the difference instantly. Trust me on this. So out of the 5,218 photos I shot in 2004, here are a few that I hope will illustrate this point, followed by some of the paintings that have resulted from the trip. If you want more, the whole safari is here. on my website.

Samburu encounter
Samburu encounter

Emotion and point of view play a major role in the creation of great wildlife art. How could the two women in the front vehicle not remember  and “channel” this encounter if they paint an elephant? We’ll all remember this morning in the Samburu going from cool to warm, the beautiful light and this bull elephant who made it abundantly clear that it was time for us to move along.

Impala and baboons
Impala and baboons

Artists get asked all the time where we get the ideas for our paintings. Well, here’s one I probably wouldn’t have thought of if I hadn’t seen it. Baboons and impala breakfasting together at Lake Nakuru. Part of the problem with zoos  and game parks is that the animals are out of context. You never see the natural groupings or interactions. Or if there are different species together, you have no idea how that would play out in the wild. To me, this kind of reference is gold. I can paint this African “Beauty and the Beast” scene because I saw it, photographed it, know it happened.

Young mara lions
Young mara lions

There really is something about lions. They define “presence”, even when they are still kids, like these two. Great afternoon light and you hardly notice that his face is covered with flies. For contrast, here’s a zoo lion. He’s gorgeous, with a huge mane and perfect whiskers. Dead giveaway, along with the flat light and lack of body condition. This lion don’t hunt. Which would you rather paint?

Zoo lion
Zoo lion

We went out on an evening game drive in the Samburu and as the sun was going down, it seemed to be really important to Simon to get to a particular place. We were literally along for the ride, so just waited to see what was up. Oh, yeah, this is very, very nice. It’ll do. Thank you, Simon.

Samburu sunset
Samburu sunset

Here’s a selection of the paintings that have come out of the safari so far.

Ground Hornbill
Ground Hornbill oil 18"x 24" (price on request)

Reference shot in the Mara. Simon did some interesting jogs with the vehicle to get alongside this big bird, who just wanted to walk away .

Samburu Morning
Samburu Morning oil 18"x 24" (price on request)

I loved the northern Kenya landscape with the huge, storybook doum palms.

Interrupted Nap (Spotted hyena)
Interrupted Nap (Spotted hyena) Private Collection

Reference shot in the Mara. There was a cub, too, but that’s a painting for another day.This one was snapped up by a collector who also loves vultures and gets first crack at any I do.

Thompson's Gazelle
Thompson's Gazelle oil 16" x 12" (price on request)

John Seerey-Lester was kind enough to choose this painting for inclusion in the 2008 Art and the Animal Kingdom show at the Bennington Center for the Arts.

That's Close Enough
That's Close Enough oil 12" x 9" (price on request)

Cropped in from a large herd of buffalo at Lake Nakuru. Nobody was getting anywhere near that calf. No way, no how.

Morning Break
Morning Break oil 12"x 24" (price on request)

Reference photographed in the Mara, where we got an eyeful of cheetah every day we were there. This painting was juried into the 2008 Animal Art show at the Mendocino Art Center here in California. I’ve got to be in the right mood to paint all those spots, but I do love cheetahs!


“A few days later I looked up from my work to see a new elephant, one that I had not seen before, standing quietly only yards from my easel. He had crossed the river to my side on the outer curve of the ox bow and wanted to pass through the narrow neck where I was working. To do so he would have to pass within five yards of me or go back the long way around. I held my breath as he shifted silently from foot to foot, carefully weighing the situation. Finally, he moved forward and past me, watching intently as I stood motionless. Such rare incidents of trust between man and wild animals give me a great thrill.”

Simon Combes, from An African Experience

Fieldwork for Wildlife Artists

When I made the decision to specialize in animal subjects, I also took a deep breath and made a personal commitment to reach the highest level of excellence that I was capable of (still chugging away). Then I researched the approach and working methods of the best current and past wildlife artists, figuring the odds were that they knew a few things that would be useful to me.

And guess what, not a single one of them, (including Bob Kuhn, Carl Rungius, Wilhelm Kuhnert, all unfortunately deceased) like Robert Bateman, Guy Coholeach, Ken Carlson, Dino Paravano, Lindsay Scott, Julie Chapman or Laney, to name some of my favorites, rely on other people’s photos except to supplement their own for specific elements, only go to zoos or game ranches or work exclusively from photos to the exclusion of anything else. They GET OFF THEIR BUTTS, pick up their sketchbooks along with their cameras and hit the road to where the animals are.

This is not a field for the lazy. Even if your passion is the songbirds and squirrels that you can see in your own backyard, you still need to do fieldwork. Believe me, it shows in the work to those who know.

(Endangered Rothschild’s Giraffe and I at the Kigio Nature Conservancy, Kenya or Why I Like Fieldwork.)

There is no substitute for seeing an animal in its own habitat. This was brought home to me when I went to Kenya and saw lions, elephants and warthogs “in context” for the first time. The warthogs in the Masai Mara were the same color as a lot of the rocks. Thirty elephants emerged from trees lining a river bank. They had been invisible. The only evidence of their presence was that the tops of the trees were moving. We were at most 50′ away. The lions are very similar in color to the dried grass.

The prey species like wildebeest and zebra had a vibe that is totally lacking in the ones I’ve seen in zoos. In the wild they have to Pay Attention and work to survive. The zoo animals don’t have to do either and it shows in their body language.

You need:

A good digital SLR: Point and shoot won’t do it. Too slow to catch movement and you can’t change out lenses if necessary

The sketchbook of your choice: you may have to try some different ones to find a combination of paper and pen/pencil that works for you

Pens/pencils: So many possibilities. I use fine point gel pens for the most part because they don’t smear and I can’t fuzt around and erase.

Patience: In ten years, I have found that, on average, a given animal will do something at least mildly interesting or worth recording within about twenty minutes, but you have to be willing to sit and watch and watch and watch and……., even in zoos

Curiosity: Which translates into a willingness to learn about your subjects, not just settle for superficial appearance

Imagination: I’ve been in the field with other artists who seemed to be trying to capture “The Pose” that they would then faithfully reproduce on canvas. I often seemed to be the only one whose shutter was firing. Why? Because I’ve learned that you can never know in advance what you will find useful and when you’ve spent hundreds or thousands of dollars to get to a place, it’s crazy to stint on reference collection, especially with digital cameras and the ever dropping price of memory cards.

The Payoff? Great, unique reference (how many cougar paintings have you seen recently that were obviously from the same captive animal shot in the same locations? Yawn.), your memories of what it was like to be there which will somehow seep into your work, stories to accompany the paintings that will interest collectors and the possibility of seeing things very few people are privileged to.

Here’s a few examples of shots taken on the off-chance they might come in handy sometime. Not necessarily interesting to anyone but me.

The Gobi Desert near my ger camp. Useful elements: cloudy sky, distant mountains, September grass, lay of the land, gravely surface, rocks with red lichen.

Grab shot from Lewa Downs Conservancy, Kenya. It’s a little blurry, but turns out to be the only tree that I’ve seen with that trunk color. It will be the perfect element for something, sometime.

Photographing the animals is a no-brainer, but don’t forget their habitat. I know what animals live in the Conservancy where I took this picture, so I know who could be found in this neat waterhole setting.

On the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro river in the Samburu, northern Kenya. We have: a little of the water for context (where did I take that picture?), grass, some kind of spiky leaved plant just coming up (needs to be identified), doum palm nuts and frond droppings and…..elephant dung. This was taken right in camp.

And, nearby, is a doum palm that has been partly rubbed smooth by elephants.

And here are some elephants. Nothing spectacular by itself (well, other than the fact that I’m seeing them in Kenya, of course!). But the preceeding photos provide context and additional elements that could be used with the photo below to create something more interesting and memorable.

I realize that these are exotic locations that many artists can’t get to or aren’t interested in, but the principle applies no matter where you are. Get out into the field and see as much as you can of everything around you. Filter that through your interests and passions as an artist and it will shine through in your work.


“Now the light was fading fast. We had to hurry to reach the gate before 7 pm, but just as we were leaving the plains, Dave said urgently, ‘Stop! Stop!’ Thirty yards from the road, a lion and lioness stood silhouetted by the setting sun. She moved against him, rubbing her body on his great shaggy main, and twitched her tail high in the air. Then, blatantly sensual, she crouched on the ground and the big male mounted her. The coupling was brief and ended with a climax of impressive snarls before she rolled onto her back in evident satisfaction.”

Simon Combes, from Great Cats: Stories and Art from a World Traveler

Thanks, Simon. (Photo from Oct. 2004 art workshop/safari led by Simon Combes two months before he was tragically killed by a cape buffalo. More images from the safari and a memorial page to Simon on my website)