The tolai hare is the only rabbit/hare species found in Mongolia. They’re usually seen in rocky or semi-desert areas. My subject was one that I saw one evening at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. I was positioned up in the rocks above the spring-fed stream waiting for argali sheep to show up when this hare hopped out from behind some rocks into plain view. What made it even better was there was a hoopoe perched on a rock not far away. Both species are very skittish and bolt at any movement. Here’s a couple of photos of hares I’ve seen during my trips to Mongolia.
Also at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu. You have to see them before they see you to have any chance of getting photos. Sometimes they wait until you’re so close that you’ve almost stepped on them and then they explode from right at your feet, which really boosts one’s heart rate!
During the 2016 WildArt Mongolia Expedition we were enroute to the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area to explore critically endangered Gobi bear habitat (saw tracks and scat but no bears, not surprising when the total population is currently estimated to be 40 of them). The Fergon van that carried our equipment was stopped by a blocked fuel line. We all got out of the SUV and poked around while that was attended to. I spotted this tolai hare right away and got some decent photos before it bounded off.
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.
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.
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.
The herd split and went around me on both sides as I madly snapped as many photos as I could.
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.
Last weekI shared photos of buying my ger at the Narantuul Market in Ulaanbaatar. This week you’ll see it put up for the first time.
A few hours after all the shopping was done I caught the evening train down to Dalanjargalan Soum, where the Ikh Nart reserve headquarters is located. The reserve Director, Dr. Amgalanbaatar, was kind enough to let me stay overnight in the “dorm” room used for visitors. The next day he and I and Anand, a member of his staff, drove out to the set-up location in the reserve’s grey Russian fergon van. Shavka arrived with his truck and the unloading and set-up began.
I had been given a choice of three locations, all in the vicinity of local herders in case I needed assistance. I was in the reserve itself, but not in the Core Area where, other than the research camp that has been there since 2001, no camping is allowed. I liked this location the best.
Note: You can find a number of sites and videos about putting up a ger. Mine’s a little different, I believe, since it shows one being put up for the first time, so there are first time steps that you normally wouldn’t see.
So how did it go, my week of living in my own ger for the first time? Really well. There was one very strong storm with heavy wind and rain that pulled part of the cover almost halfway off, but Choi and his wife fixed that the next morning. Wind blew a lot of dust in on the bottom on one side one afternoon, but putting up a section of the interior curtain (which hadn’t been done since there was no cord to string it up with, but I found a way to fake it) so that it fell onto the floor solved that problem. I used my cooktop for heating water for coffee in the morning and tea for visitors. I also had bansh (small meat dumplings used for soups) for dinner a couple of nights. I did a little laundry using the steel basins I’d bought and also managed a standing bath and hair wash.
Food storage became an issue and I lost some items, like a loaf of bread that turned moldy, due to lack of refrigeration. A small solar powered refrigerator with battery storage is on the list for next year. One often sees them in herder gers these days. I was happy with candlelight at night, so not really feeling the need for an “electric” light. My toilet was the great outdoors, which I’m used to, but it was a bit much for a week in one place. My current thought is to have a small vertical wall maikhan (the cloth summer tent) made with a divider down the middle. On one side would be a pit toilet with a seat and on the other a place to take a shower using a sun shower bag.
I slept well (I always do in a ger anyway) and found that I had, in fact, understood what was needed to do this to be happy and comfortable for a week or more. In the evenings I took one of the stools outside and put it close enough to the ger wall that I could sit with back support and watch the sun go down. A nice nip of Chinggis Gold vodka and some Ukrainian chocolate nougat candy (from Roshan, my favorite) and life was just about perfect.
This is the second, and largest, of the three argali paintings I’ve just finished. You can see the first one here. I’ll post the third one next Friday.
I spent over an hour watching these rams at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in 2010. And sometimes they watched me. But mostly they grazed, scratched, rested and did a little pre-rut testing.
One of the things I wanted to capture in this painting is how individual they all are, being different colors depending on their ages and having horns of various sizes and condition. It was a group of five and these were the three big boys, fully mature males, who probably weigh over 300 pounds each. Behind two of them is one of the younger rams,
There are many artists who come up with a way of working that satisfies them and they never alter it. That would not be me. Every year about this time, I sit back and rethink my whole process of painting a picture. I’m perfectly willing to toss it all in the air and tweak and change whatever I think needs it. It’s very liberating.
I recently went to the Norman Rockwell show and was reminded of how thorough a process he used, how he broke down the elements of a picture and solved the problems as much as he could with each step, always leaving the door open for alterations down the road if needed. It’s the same procedure we were taught when I was getting a degree in illustration at the Academy of Art in the late 1980s. One didn’t need to do every step every time, but it was always there to fall back on if one got in trouble. (The steps are: thumbnails, rough drawing for composition, finished drawing, value study, color study, finish)
One of the things Rockwell did was very finished charcoal drawings at the final size. It always looked like a lot of work, even though I really love to draw, and I guess I never really got the point. I do now. I got into messes a couple of times in the past year, partly due to not solving all the drawing and value problems before I started to paint. I had begun doing drawings at the final size for the large pieces, but only outlines, no value. I’ve just started a series of three argali paintings and decided to take it up a notch.
I also needed to rethink how I got my image onto the canvas. I don’t have a projector anymore and don’t really want one. I’ve found a lot of value in drawing an animal multiple times because I really LEARN it. A painting shouldn’t be about saving time or doing it fast. It should be about doing what it takes to get it RIGHT.
One benefit of doing the drawings at the finished size is that it is then easy to make a tracing and do a graphite transfer. The alternative is the venerable grid system, which works just fine, but, dare I say it, takes a lot more time to no good purpose and, more importantly, didn’t give me as accurate a result.
These three pieces are compositionally simple. I have a clear idea in my head of where I want to end up. The main upfront decisions were how big and what proportions each one should be since they are intended to hang as a group, although they will be priced individually.
The reference photos (which I am not going to post due the vagaries of the internet) were taken during one action-packed hour with five argali rams at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in Mongolia in July 2010. And two afternoons I spent there this past August during an eleven day stay doing studies of argali horns at the research camp really paid off in being able to understand the horns in the photos.
I’ll start with that page from my sketch journal and then show you the steps so far for the three paintings. I didn’t do thumbnails or rough drawings, but went straight to finished working drawings of the animals, but still thinking about what the landscape will look like.
Painting No. 1- Tentatively titled “Coming Through”, a big ram asserting his right to walk wherever he wants to, when he wants to
Painting No. 2- No title yet
Painting No. 3- No title yet
I should have a pretty good handle on argali horns by the time I’m done with all three paintings.
What? You say. She’s seen them and photographed them. Surely she knows what they look like. Well, in a manner of speaking, I do, of course. I’ve got quite of bit of reference of them from previous sightings and have done a couple of small paintngs. But until this past trip I didn’t really have sharp, close-up reference of ibex in good light and also doing interesting things. Now I do.
I spent three out of my first four mornings at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in August taking around 1000 photos of 2-3 groups of nannies, kids and young billies. I’ve done an initial sorting and 5-star rated (in Aperture, my image management software) the ones that caught my eye for possible paintings.
But…I’ve learned when I decide to paint a new species that I’ll be sorry if I just dive in and hit the easel. I first need to “learn what the animal looks like” and to do that I simplify things by doing a number of monochrome sketches and drawings to familiarize myself with their structure, proportions and anatomy, along with looking for interesting behaviors. I pick reference photos that have a strong light and shadow pattern or some kind of interesting, perhaps, challenging, pose. Sometimes I throw in a quick indication of the ground so I can start to think about that, too.
I like doing small, fairly quick pen sketches. For those I use Sakura Micron .01. and .02 pens on whatever sketchbook I have on hand. They give me a basic idea of what I need to know. Then I’ll often do some finished larger graphite drawings on vellum bristol. I also did a couple of iPad drawings using ArtRage, which makes it easy to lay in some color.
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m going to be publicizing the WildArt Mongolia Expedition while I’m here. On September 22, I will be at ArtiCour Gallery, just off Sukhbaatar Square, from 11am to 7pm, meeting Mongolian artists and friends, talking about the Expedition, sharing images of my work and doing demonstrations of sketching, watercolor and iPad drawing. I’ve created a Facebook Event here.
I’ve been able to get in some good field sketching time this trip and thought I’d share a selection of what I’ve done so far. In August I went to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu and Arburd Sands. Once the Expedition in September was postponed, I needed to make other plans. I’ve spent six days at Jalman Meadows ger camp in the Khan Khentii Mountains and got back yesterday from four days back at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, this time staying at Nomadic Journeys’ Red Rock ger camp. Tomorrow morning I go to Hustai National Park for four days to observe, photograph and, with luck, sketch takhi.
I’m using a Moleskin Sketch journal with Sakura Micron .01 and .02 pens and water- soluble colored pencils.
It was Siberian ibex this time at Ikh Nart. I’d see them on previous trips and always take photos, but my main goal has been seeing as many argali as possible. This year most of those were 20km or so to the northeast, so it was not possible to walk to where they were, at least for me, and I didn’t have a car and driver this time. I’m good for about 8-10km or so a day, especially if it’s hot. And was it hot! Probably close to 100F on a couple of days and not starting to cool off until around 10:30 at night. We also had a couple of rain storms move through during the eleven days that I was there, one with quite a light show.
I walked down the valley the first day, followed a slope up to the top, sat down to sketch the scene in front of me, looked around and there behind me I saw that I was being watched by an ibex. Forget the sketching, the wildlife fieldwork was on!
It turned out there was a group of around a dozen nannies and kids, one of each wearing radio collars, who were hanging around two adjacent rock formations. The first day there were also two young billies, one two and one three years old, judging from the ridges on their horns. I saw and photographed them in that same location three out of the next four days, shooting hundreds of images, around 900 in all. So you know one subject I’ll be painting this winter….
My main reason for going to Ikh Nart, though, was to have my annual visit with the members of Ikh Nart Is Our Future, the women’s felt craft collective that I support. I had a very good meeting with the director, Ouynbolor, during which we spoke (through a translator) about how things had gone since I last saw her and what she needed me to do for this next year. Coming up will be a larger quantity of the full-color brochures I and staff at the Denver Zoo had produced to explain the collective to visitors to the tourist ger camp. They will also now be produced in Mongolian, not just English. There were also matching product tags in three sizes. They worked well, but a much larger quantity of those will also be needed for next year.
I registered a url for the collective last year, knowing that they wanted to have a website. At the meeting we were able to work out the content and a way to communicate while it’s being put together.
The really special part is that I was able to arrange to go to the soum center (county seat), Dalanjargalan, for a night and a day. I had always met the women at either the research camp or the tourist ger camp and felt that it would be very beneficial to spend at least a little time where they live (when they are not out in the countryside at their gers with their animals) and learn a little about their lives. I got a walking tour that included the local school and shop. I stayed in the home of one of the collective members. Had lunch at the home of another and, in the afternoon, around a dozen members gathered at “the office”, a little building that used to be a gas station, to process their wool, turn it into felt and also work on various items that they will sell. I saw the felt presses that I had helped them acquire in action, along with the good sewing scissors they had requested in 2009. They have quite an operation set up now and work very efficiently and with great care and conscientiousness. I shot both still photos and around an hour of video with my new Panasonic recorder, enough to put together a little YouTube video after I get home.
My ride back to camp arrived later than expected, around 10:30pm, and the reason was that they had seen and captured two very young long-eared hedgehogs that were crossing the road in front of the car! Hedgehogs are one of the species being studied at Ikh Nart, by a graduate student named Batdorj. Within a kilometer of leaving Dalanjargalan, a third one dashed across the road, this time an adult darian hedgehog, and it was captured too, riding back to camp on the lap of one of the students wrapped in his jacket. I was able to get a lot of photos and also video the next evening before they had radio transmitters glued to their backs and were transported back out to the general area in which they’d been caught. And yes, there will definitely be hedgehog paintings, cards and prints coming up.
I also had time to just wander around the reserve and see what there was to see and it turned out to be….wildflowers! The rains have been very good this year and everything is green, green, green. I’ve been to Ikh Nart in August before, but have never seen so many different flowers and so many that I had never seen there before. It was like walking through a huge flower garden.
Finally it was time to depart. We were taking the train overnight to Ulaanbaatar. Most of our luggage, except for what we needed for the night, was taken back to UB by car in the afternoon. The rest of us caught the 1:14 am train and arrived about 8:30 am. I had never done this before, but managed to get around five hours of decent sleep. We were taken back to Zaya’s Guesthouse, where we got showers and sorted our dirty clothes for laundering. The rest of the day was spent getting lunch and puttering around, catching up on emails. The next day I spent most of the afternoon doing a massive download and back up of all the photos and videos I’d shot.
So now I’m at Zaya’s, which I highly recommend to anyone coming to Ulaanbaatar. The rooms are sparkling clean, there is free wifi and the location is very convenient, right off Peace Ave. not far from the State Department Store. There is a common living room with a very comfortable sectional sofa and a full kitchen for the use of guests.
As for the WildArt Mongolia Expedition, I’m now working on the last bits of planning and arranging, some things having changed since I left the US. Flexibility is important when doing things in Mongolia. It makes some people really angry when something doesn’t go right or on schedule (so this is not a country they should visit), but I’ve found that it creates possibilities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
I’ll be in UB for the next 2-3 days, then I’m hoping for a long weekend at a ger camp I’ve stayed at before. Stay tuned!