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.
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…
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.
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.”
I just received notice that my painting “Thompson’s Gazelle” has been accepted for “Art and the Animal Kingdom XIII” at the Bennington Center for the Arts. This is the third year in a row that I have gotten into this show, plus twice into their “American Artists Abroad” exhibition. John Seerey-Lester, who I have studied with a number of times over the past ten years and who knows African wildlife very well, to say the least, was the guest juror, so that makes this one quite special. You can see the painting on my Feb. 26 post.
So, here’s one example of the kind of reference I got at the San Francisco Zoo this past weekend. Just about filled a 1Gb memory card with the antics of these two sisters, who were orphaned up in Montana and have found a home in San Francisco. They played up a storm in the water for about ten minutes. I wasn’t sure what would happen shooting through the thick glass, but other than a slight cool cast, they’re not bad. Upon review, as expected, no one of the photos I took is quite what I’m envisioning, but parts of them are excellent.
The gorillas were very active, as were the penguins. Got some kangaroos in mid-hop. Big cats pretty much flaked out. It was amazing to look at the enclosure walls closest to the public and realize that Tatiana, the Siberian tiger, was able to go straight up and over one. Now there’s more concrete wall, glass and heavy cyclone fencing secured with cables. Signs everywhere with shushing lips and others with the prohibition about teasing or harassing the animals and a phone number to call to report any such activity. Quite a few times, I heard parents quieting down their children. In general, it seemed quieter and more polite even on a busy weekend, which made the zoo a pleasanter place to be, really. Nicer for the animals too.