Watercolors From My Latest Trip To Mongolia, Part 2. And Horses!

Ikh Nart 1

I go to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu (Ikh Nart, for short) Nature Reserve on every trip to Mongolia. It’s where I went on my very first one in April of 2005 to participate in an Earthwatch Institute-sponsored expedition to assist in research that has been carried out there since the mid-1990s. For the two weeks the team of ten of us were there it never got above 32F/0C (not exactly spring weather on the north coast of California where I live), with almost constant wind. Loved every day of it. As of 2016 I bought my own ger with furnishings and have been given permission by the reserve director, who was one of the argali sheep researchers on the Earthwatch project, to set it up in the reserve. So I’ve known him for a long time and am very grateful for being able to “live” in this very special place for a week or more a year. When I’m not there he has the use of the ger for the reserve’s guests.

This year I was allowed to set up at the research camp, which was very convenient since it’s one of the best places to see wildlife. The caretaker, Ulzii, and I have also known each other since that first trip, so I had a trusted back-up just in case I needed it. Which was good because Ikh Nart had gotten no rain to speak of when I got there and then had three corking good storms come through in five days. I got to watch the land go from brown and parched to green with flowers blooming. I also watched the dry streambed turn into quite a “raging” torrent for an hour or so. Many photos and video, so that will be the topic of a future post and a YouTube video.

I did my usual tramping about wildlife watching, also sketching and painting. I still need to scan my journal, which I do a lot of drawing in, but here are my watercolors.

Ikh Nart 2
The research camp valley’s west end where it opens out onto the steppe. I’ve always loved this view. Watercolor 9×12″ on Arches 140lb.cold press block

Ikh nart 7
Ikh Nart view west to the steppes. Watercolor 9×12″ 140lb. Arches cold press block

Ikh Nart 5
Ikh Nart rocks. Watercolor 8×8″ Waterford 140lb. cold press


I was out hiking the south edge of the valley and spotted this dramatic overhang. Found some nice flat rocks to sit on and lay out my paints. Looked up and there was an animal standing under it looking at me. Grabbed some quick photos. Then it lay down with just its head showing. Before I finished the painting it left, so I added it from memory. But, when I got back to camp and downloaded the day’s images onto my MacBook Pro I saw that it hadn’t been an ibex, but was instead a female gazelle! Twelve trips to Ikh Nart over the years and this was the first time I’d seen a gazelle in this part of the reserve. But for the painting, an ibex she will remain.

Ikh Nart 3
Looking back up the valley to the research camp. Watercolor 8×8″ Waterford 140lb. cold press

Ikh Nart 4 (2)
Elm trees. Watercolor 8×8″ 140lb. Waterford cold press

It was getting hot so I left the top of the valley and went back down into it to look for a location with shade. I found it in a clump of old elm trees and did this study, along with the view towards the research camp. When it hasn’t rained a number of species lose all their leaves and look like they’ve died. But add any amount of rain and they seem to almost instantly leaf out again. I was working away totally focused when I heard a noise behind me. I turned and saw this…


It was a “burrrr” and a snort from this herd of domestic Mongol horses who wanted to get to the spring to drink. And I seemed to be in the way. I looked at them. They looked at me. Then the stallion made his decision.

horses 4_wm

horses 2

The herd split and went around me on both sides as I madly snapped as many photos as I could.

horses 3_wm

They rejoined and continued on to the spring. As you can see they were very thin from lack of graze, especially the mares with foals. This was the third dry year in a row. But the storms that came through, I hope, brought enough rain to let them fatten up for the long, very hard Mongolian winter. There are no horses tougher than these, so they’ve got a good chance.

Part 5: The 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition: Enroute North to Erdenesogt Soum

1. departure haze
Departure from Great Gobi A, looking north on a hazy day

Our time in Great Gobi A at an end, we packed up and headed back north the way we’d come. The fuel level in the Land Cruiser was low so the first order of business was to get to a soum center, Bayan-Ondor, to fill up. We also had lunch there. Soyoloo, our cook, went into a cafe and arranged for us to use a table and to get a thermos of milk tea. This worked out very nicely.

Once again I’ve included a fair number of photos to show our route in case it might be of interest to someone else doing research about going there.

2. road north
Heading north

3. mts. and camels
The areas of haze created interesting atmospheric perspective

4. leaving GGA
The boundary sign we passed going into Great Gobi A. I hope to see it again sometime on another trip there.

5. livestock
Not far north of the SPA boundary, we started to see livestock. There was a fairly large herd of goats in the distance. You can see that we are now in an area of more red soil than gravel.

6. gers
We came upon this line of gers with no one around, as far as we could tell, since we didn’t stop. No dogs or any of the things outside that one sees at herder’s gers

7. bags on grid
However, there was this cleared area which had been divided into a grid and bags of something laying within each square

8. gazelles
A little farther on and back into a shrubby area we suddenly spotted two gazelles! I was barely able to get a few grab shots from the car and then they were gone.

9. arachnid
We stopped for some reason that I can’t recall now and someone saw this arachnid. She was over an inch long. No idea of the species.

10. road north
We drove through the afternoon back through the basin and range topography

11. wildflowers
On another short stop I photographed a couple of wildflowers. From the shape of the flowers I think this one is a member of the pea family

12. mountain
We finally had the mountain in view which had been totally covered in snow when we saw it on our way south

13. Bayan-Ondor
Bayan-Ondor, where we got gas for the vehicles and had lunch

15. family
 The man probably was bringing his or his wife’s mother into town to shop and maybe visit with friends

16. ovoo
Then we were on our way to our next stop, Amarbuyant Monastery, which had been destroyed in the late 1930s as had been so many, but was supposed to be undergoing restoration. The Dalai Lama had been there and this stupa was built in his honor.

17. herder and daughter
But we were on a very “local road” and Erdenbat had never been this way, so when we saw a herder and a little girl sitting up on rock keeping an eye on their livestock we stopped to ask directions. We were quite charmed by the two of them as a father out with his daughter,  who he clearly had great affection for. She was very self-possessed, not an uncommon thing to see in Mongolian country kids

18. leading the way
The herder decided that the best thing was to show us the way, so off we went with him in the lead

19. earth road
We finally reached a point where we could apparently go the rest of the way on our own, so we gave them each a gift as a thank you and went on our way through some pretty rugged terrain

20. well
We came upon a well and stopped for Kim and Oliver to see how they work. This one is typical in that a very large commercial tire has been split lengthwise to form the trough, a great reuse of something that would otherwise be thrown away

21. khiid
We came up over a rise and there before us was Amurbuyant Khiid…what was left of it. It had been a major commercial caravan route and a hive of activity. That all ended in 1937 when the Mongolian communist government destroyed it and hundreds of other monasteries in the country to break the political and social power of the lamas

21. old walls
Wall sections like these are pretty much all that is left

22. censor
There were a very few artifacts to see like this incense burner, which would have been outside of one of the temples

22a. temple-stupa
There has been some rebuilding and there are monks and students in residence again. But it felt like rather a sad, isolated place. We asked for and were given a tour of the two temples, but not with much enthusiasm or welcome

I started to feel uneasy not long after we started to visit the second temple. Wasn’t sure why. There was a stillness I found unsettling and not just that it was quiet. We were shown a couple of large panels in the main temple that listed all the people who had donated to the restoration, along with the amounts they had given. It added up to millions and millions of tugrik. The surviving old temple was in poor condition and visible repairs were cheaply done, although the interior wood framing and supports looked sturdy and good. The new temple, in the shape of a ger, also had a feeling of being built quickly and cheaply. The ceiling was made square panels a little like the acoustic tiles one sees in America. Some were askew and some seemed worse for wear. In both cases, it felt like no one had noticed and no one cared. The tower for, I assumed, calling the monks to prayer, looked to be in pretty bad shape. A new long, low building, had been constructed (visible in the front of the photo of the complex above). There was also a good array of solar panels to provide power. Our young student tour guides walked us past the newish long living quarters building on our way out, answering some last questions, and a very unfriendly male voice ordered them back inside. The closest school was 60km away and the boys only attended one week a month. The rest of their time was at the monastery taking classes in Buddhist practice. And so we left. We had been given permission to camp somewhere in the vicinity and we drove around looking for a spot. I became more and more uncomfortable and stressed, to the point that I finally had to say that I needed to leave now, right now. Something felt bad and wrong there and I needed to get away from it. It was so very odd and I was clearly the only one who felt it, or at least no one else said anything. Have never had anything like this happen on any of my travels to any place before. But leave we did and found a spot on an open plain to the north with a great view. As sometimes happens a local herder and his wife showed up on their motorbike to check us out and have a visit. We went to their ger the next day.

22b. herder ger
Our “neighbors”, a kilometer or two from where we were camped

As we pulled up the woman came out. She was holding her hand which was wrapped in a plastic bag. We could see instantly that it was terribly swollen, a bite of some kind. I gave her a half-dozen or so ibuprophen for the pain, emphasing that she should take no more than three at a time. Her husband was going to take her to the soum center hospital, probably more of a clinic. It turned out after some chat and a translation from our guide, Batana, that the woman had gotten down on the floor of the ger, reached under a bed to get something and felt a sting. At that point all the Mongols decided that it had been a scorpion. Her life wasn’t in danger, but she definitely needed to see a doctor. They left and we were on our way a short time later after getting water from their well.

22a. mountain
Ikh Bogd Nuruu from the south. Orog Nuur (Lake) is on the other side

23. ovoo
We now drove towards Ikh Bogd Nuruu and worked our way around the south end of the mountain, passing this ovoo on the way

24. road sign
A road sign!

25. mt. south side
We drove back along the north side of the mountain, passing large herds of animals. The hope had been to camp in the area or by the lake but the presence of many herders and their dogs made that unsafe, so we had to settle for stopping a few times for photos

26. lake, herder
And what a photo opp!

27. stupa
After working our way through some extremely rough ground, we arrived at an overlook for Orog Nuur. It was a big deal for me to see the lake again since I had camped there on the south shore in 2010 on my very first tent camping trip in Mongolia. It was also the first time I’d traveled with Soyoloo. So it was special for both of us since it’s pretty remote

We continued on and found a sheltered spot not far from a soum center. It was quite windy, as it had been for a lot of the Expedition. The drivers and guide went into town to get gas and buy snacks.

28. vultures
The next morning, not far from the soum center we came upon this flock of eurasian black vultures and I got a lot of really good reference photos

29. Horses
And it’s always nice to see a herd of horses on the way

30. herder chasing horse
One mare and her foal had other ideas, though, and the owner was still trying to catch up and turn them back when we went out of sight

31. child
Turned out that it was International Children’s Day, which is a very big deal in Mongolia, with celebrations in every town. Lots of the children are all dressed up and as cute as can be

32. girl on bike
There was a fenced area that was obviously for community gatherings and this day it was all for the children

33. road ovoo sign
In the far distance were the mountains we were heading for. And, look, a second road sign!

34. bayanhongor
Closing the loop, we arrived back in Bayahongor, which had been our jumping off point for the journey south. We stopped in town and did some final grocery shopping

35. Erdenesogt
Then we did what I had originally planned to do when we were there before…travel north up the river valley into the Hangai Mountains to Erdenesogt, which is in the far background

We drove up to a high point with an ovoo and wonderful view of the river valley, then backtracked a short way to a special spot where we set up camp for a few days. And that will be next week’s story.

The *Value* of Value Studies & Some Examples

6x6" Horse studies
6×6″ Horse studies

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.

Materials list:

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.

Here’s some more of what I’ve been doing:

Horses; I deliberately chose to put the darker wash along the contour of the left horse’s head, mane and back to make the white, lightest area pop out. Notice that it stops at the eye where the shadow area begins, so that part of the background was left lighter.

Short-tailed weasel or stoat
Short-tailed weasel or stoat; I learned from this one that my reference photo doesn’t have as much value contrast as it seemed when I picked it, so for this study I pushed the contrast between the weasel and the background. Still not happy with the shadow areas around the animal, so I’ll probably do another quick study just using shapes to get the values where I want them.

Mongolian yak
Mongolian yak

A more finished study of Siberian ibex
A more finished study of two Siberian ibex


Mongolia Monday- Using My Takhi Reference for Paintings and Limited Edition Giclees

Since, judging from the stats, the subject seemed to be very popular, I thought I would continue today with more on the takhi, specifically how I take the reference I shoot and turn it into a painting. More and more I start with drawings to become familiar with a new species or figure out things about one I’ve painted before.

Here are three drawings from last year, the first two of which were published in the Society of Animal Artists newsletter.

Takhi scratching leg; charcoal pencil on cold-ply bristol paper
Takhi scratching leg; charcoal pencil on cold-ply bristol paper

Takhi mare and foal; charcoal pencil on cold-press bristol paper
Takhi mare and foal; charcoal pencil on cold-press bristol paper

Now I’ll show you how I take an animal from one time and place and put her in a setting from another time and place, a challenge that every wildlife artist needs to meet successfully.  Here’s the setting:

Main takhi water source; Hustai National Park, Sept. 2006
Main takhi water source; Hustai National Park, Sept. 2006

What a treat! We came around the bend in the dirt track early in the morning and there, right in front of us were two harems at the same time, sorting out who gets to go first.

Watering place close-up; Hustai National Park, Sept. 2006
Watering place close-up; Hustai National Park, Sept. 2006

I always try for a variety of  shots; close-ups and the “big picture” for context. I used to come home with great close shots of something like a tree and found that I’d completely forgotten to get the surroundings, which really cut down on my options. Notice that the above photo is kinda fuzzy. But it’s still useable for reference.

Now here is the horse reference. Different part of the park, different year, different season. I’ve included two as an example of what to look for when evaluating images. These are similar, but the second, to me, is clearly superior. I love the rhythm of her gesture.

Takhi mare; Hustai National Park, May 2005
Takhi mare; Hustai National Park, May 2005

Takhi mare 2; Hustai National Park, May 2005
Takhi mare 2; Hustai National Park, May 2005

So next I did a drawing to capture that.

Takhi mare walking; charcoal pencil on cold-press bristol
Takhi mare walking; charcoal pencil on cold-press bristol paper

And, putting them together, here is the finished painting, completed in 2007. What I hope is that you can’t tell that I “stitched” together the reference from two sources.

Morning Drink   oil   12"x16" (price on request)
Morning Drink oil 12x 16" (price on request)

I also wanted to let you know that two of my takhi images are available as limited edition giclees, framed or unframed. The full information is on my website. Click on “Limited edition giclees” under Fox Studio in the column on the right and it will take you directly to my giclee page.

Takhi Foal; giclee on archival paper
Takhi Foal; giclee on archival paper

I saw this foal on the same trip as the mare in the painting above. He or she was quite a character.

Mongolia Morning; giclee on archival paper
Mongolia Morning; giclee on archival paper

I posted this last week, as the original painting is still available, but have also published it as a giclee. It’s another example of how I took the mare and foal, who were against a grassy hillside and moved them to a ridge that has Hustai’s famous mountain as the background. The third horse was added as a design element.

All my giclees are available for holiday delivery.


Let this be plain to all: design, or as it is called by another name, drawing, constitutes the fountain-head and substance of painting and sculpture and architecture and every other kind of painting, and is the root of all sciences. Let him who has attained the possession of this be assured that he possesses a great treasure…:

Michaelangelo (who ought to know)

Scratch That Itch! now on EBay

Scratch That Itch!
Scratch That Itch! oil 8"x6"

Just listed on EBay. Seven day auction. Starting bid- $40. Buy it now- $60. Free shipping. Return in 14 days for any reason.

“Scratch That Itch” is a 10″x8″ original oil painting on canvas board. It is unframed.

The subject is a takhi foal I photographed at Hustai National Park in May of 2005. One of the rarest animals in the world (there are only around 2000), takhi are the only surviving species of true wild horse and are being reintroduced to three locations in Mongolia. I’ve been lucky enough to visit two of them.

You can view the listing here

Happy bidding!

Mongolia Monday- Planes, Trains and….Camel Carts!

One of the most rewarding parts of travel is finding out how many ways there are to address the everyday challenges of life which are perfectly valid, but really, really different from how one does things at home. If the traveler is open to new experiences with an attitude of neutral curiosity, he or she might find that “difference”, in and of itself, is not threatening. Pity the impervious person who spends fair sums of money and time to travel and comes home utterly unaffected and unchanged. What an opportunity for the enrichment of one’s life wasted.

Mongolia is such a great place to get out of one’s own bubble. Customs and practices that haven’t changed in 1000 years exist happily alongside 20th/21st century technology. So, the country family holds its annual foal branding and a city relative records the occasion with her cell phone camera. Perfect.

(I would also like to note here that I have zero tolerance for those who want to deny more traditional cultures modern equipment, technology or goods because it will somehow “spoil” them. Selfish, romantic nonsense. The thought that a people like the Mongols could somehow be “spoiled” by integrating the modern world into their lives is ridiculous, IMHO. Lack of western technology does not equal stupid. Grant people the right to make up their own minds and choose what makes sense to them.)

Which brings us to today’s theme- how to get around, round, round in Mongolia. We will proceed from western high-tech to (for westerners) the picturesque.

Chinggis Khan International Airport, Ulaanbaatar
Chinggis Khan International Airport, Ulaanbaatar

Train between Ulaanbaatar and Choir
Train between Ulaanbaatar and Choir

Motorcycle, western Mongolia
Motorcycle, western Mongolia

Love the seat cover!

A ride home from the train station
A ride home from the train station

Truck with handcrank starter, Hovd, western Mongolia
Truck with handcrank starter, Hovd, western Mongolia

The Mongolians might be the greatest mechanics in the world. Travel stories by writers who have gone there are filled with accounts of impossible repairs in the middle of nowhere. Lack of money, parts, towing services (Ha!) and the need to find a way has bred an amazing level of ingenuity, which I have personally experienced with awe and respect. But those are stories for future posts.

the fabulous Russian Fergon van
the fabulous Russian Fergon van

You travel in these to ensure you get there, not because they’re comfortable. Four gear shift levers and counting.

Tractor with hay, Hovd, western Mongolia
Tractor with hay, Hovd

Horse cart with bottled water, Choir
Horse cart with bottled water, Choir

Donkey carts, Hovd
Donkey carts, Hovd

Camel cart, between Ulaanbaatar and Choir
Camel cart, between Ulaanbaatar and Choir

Rubber boat, Khar Us Nur National Park, western Mongolia
Rubber boat, Khar Us Nuur National Park, western Mongolia

My guide had talked about “the boat” (!?) when we were leaving Hovd for Khomiin Tal. Our last night out I found out what he was talking about. He’d purchased this inflatable boat when he was in Germany and this was his first chance to try it out.

Hauling water in Hovd
Hauling water in Hovd

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of running water in the towns I’ve been in, so one sees it being hauled in these carts. It makes you think about your use of water and be more mindful of what it took to provide it.

Moving bricks to the kiln, western Mongolia
Moving bricks to the kiln, western Mongolia

Home from shopping, Hovd
Home from shopping, Hovd

Lots of people have to walk to where they need to go, but, of course, the quintessential way to get around in Mongolia has always been on horseback.

Herding goats near Hustai National Park
Herding goats near Hustai National Park

I like this picture because you can really see how she is riding standing up in the saddle. The stirrups are tied together under the belly of the horse to keep them in place. Ah, THAT’S the secret.

Choidog at the foal branding, Arburd Sands
Choidog at the foal branding, Arburd Sands


Hey Ho, It’s Back to Work I Go

I don’t know about other artists, but after a long trip it takes a little internal shove for me to get going again. I need to shake the rust off, get in the groove, just….start…..working.

I also spent some time thinking about my work procedures. I love to paint and tend to dive in, flail around and pull it together, or not. I’ve got some ideas about what I want my work to look like and have come to conclusion that I need to spend more time on the preliminaries, especially for larger works. That means drawing, drawing, drawing. Plus value and color studies as needed.

Winter is when I try to push my work to the next level and experiment and, since the first winter storm of the year arrived yesterday, I guess it’s time.

This week I’ve done a pile of charcoal drawings of the Mongolian horses, which I got fantastic reference photos of. I’ve always struggled for some reason with poses where the horses have their heads down, grazing, so I decided to get a handle on that once and for all. What worked was doing the body first and then adding the head. I’d been doing it the other way around, to my eternal frustration.

Here’s a selection of some I feel came out ok. They are done with a 6B extra soft General Charcoal pencil on 2 ply Strathmore Vellum Bristol and are unretouched. I’m always looking for what will add to the illusion of three dimensional structure and a body in space and what will help me get a handle on the anatomy.

These took 15-20 minutes each.

I also want to get some action into my work, so here’s a couple of running horses.

No idea if any of these will find their way into paintings, but I enjoyed doing them.


“Artistic growth is, more than anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy: only the great artist knows how difficult it is.”

Willa Cather