It’s clear that one lesson we, as a species MUST learn, is to share. All of these animals have just as much right to be here as we do. As they go, in the end, so shall we.
I’ve never made a point, for the most part, of specifically seeking out endangered or threatened species to photograph for my paintings. But, as it’s happened, in less than ten years I’ve seen two dozen, plus one, all in the wild. Quite a surprise, really.
Sometimes they’ve been pretty far away, but that in no way diminished the thrill of seeing them. Close-ups in a zoo or other captive animal facility can be useful, within certain limits, but seeing a wild animal in its own habitat, even at a distance, is much more satisfying and gives me ideas and information for my work that I couldn’t get any other way.
In no particular order, because they are all trying to survive on this planet:
Contest result: No one got all the noses right. The right answers are: grizzly, bison, moose, turkey vulture, elk. The person who came the closest guessed black bear instead of grizzly because the muzzle wasn’t dished, but nailed all the rest. This may be because it was a young animal. I went back to my reference and took a good look at my pictures of black bear and I think, in fairness, that I didn’t do a good enough job making it clear in my drawing which was which, so I would like to announce that Heather Houlahan is the winner and will be getting a packet of my notecards. Congratulations and thanks to everyone who entered!
On to mouths. After eyes, the mouth may be the most defining part of an animal’s head. These drawings were done with a Venetian Red Derwent Drawing Pencil. They’re kind of waxy, like Conte crayon as opposed to chalkier, for lack of a better term, like hard pastels. The paper is, once again, vellum bristol.
All of today’s examples are from Kenya.
First up, a reticulated giraffe that I photographed in the Samburu, Kenya in 2004.
Giraffe lips, believe it or not, are very interesting. As anyone who has fed a giraffe at a wild animal park knows, the upper lip is extremely flexible, almost prehensile. What is really impressive, however, is that the mouth is so tough that a giraffe can wrap it’s tongue around a very thorny acacia branch, pull it loose, stick it in its mouth and chew it without a second thought or, apparently, getting punctured.
This is the mouth of a white rhino that I photographed at the Lewa Downs Conservancy, south of the Samburu, also in 2004. Lewa is one of the best places to see these prehistoric-looking beasts. White rhinos, when seen from the front have a square lip. Black rhinos’ lips come to a point. According to Wikipedia, there is no actual evidence that the word “white” is a mis-translation of the Afrikaaner word for “wide”.
This is the mouth and muzzle of a Coke’s hartebeest, a large antelope, which I saw in the Masai Mara, Kenya. It has a very long head. When I enlarged the image to see the mouth better, I was struck by how its shape and the shape of the nose flowed together in an almost art nouveau manner. Just the kind of thing I look for.
Also from the Mara, this is the mouth of a spotted hyena. Their jaws are trememdously strong and can break large bones apart. And, as you can see, are filled with teeth. Studies have proved that they hunt at least as much as they scavenge. They live in female-centric “clans” in a defined territory that they defend against anything, even lions. I really enjoyed watching them and hearing them “whoop” at night.
This is the muzzle of a young lion I saw in the Mara. No scars yet and it has an almost soft quality that will change as he gets older.
Finally, I was out in the safari vehicle at dawn, also in the Mara, when we came upon a lioness who was just waking up. She gave us a REALLY big yawn, got up, stretched and ambled off. Keeping everything lined up and in decent perspective was challenging as you can see from the erasure marks.
Next week the eyes have it and then I’ll put it all together.
IMHO, there is too much animal art out there in which the subject has about as much life as a department store manequin. Why is this? Is it a lingering result of Descartes’ pernicious idea of animals as “mere machines, incapable of thought or feeling” (Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma)? Being so concerned with surface features that the inner life of the animal is ignored? Not doing the fieldwork and observation which would reveal that inner life? I could make a case for any and all of those reasons, but the fact remains that there are an awful lot of “dead” animals on canvas out there.
Internationally known wildlife artist John Banovich, who I have been fortunate enough to study with, pointed out in one workshop a few years ago that “you are only as good as your reference”. Since then I’ve realized how true that is. I look back through the print photos that I took before I went digital and it’s so obvious why I couldn’t get my work past a certain level. I didn’t have top-notch reference. I struggled to paint with what I had because I wanted to do it so badly.
Digital photography has been a godsend since it has always been necessary, as any professional photographer knows, to take 20, 50 or 100 shots to get the keeper. Now there’s no excuse not to fire away and greatly increase the chances that you’ll get the shot that will allow you to do the painting that will be ALIVE. Here’s an example: two images of a cheetah, taken 3 seconds apart. The first is ok, but the second is much, much better. The only difference is a slight turning of the head, but it makes a big difference in the expression.
For an painted animal to “be alive”, the artist is required to accept that they are sentient beings, with their own consciousness. Whatever else animals are, they aren’t “dumb”.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing animal features one by one and how they relate to capturing life and expression. The final installment will be how it all comes together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Here’s a selection of the paintings that have come out of the safari so far.
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 .
I loved the northern Kenya landscape with the huge, storybook doum palms.
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.
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.
Cropped in from a large herd of buffalo at Lake Nakuru. Nobody was getting anywhere near that calf. No way, no how.
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!
ART THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“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.”
Personally, I have found that learning from good teachers is a great time-saver. What could take years of trial and error can maybe be addressed in an hour and then you get to move on to the next challenge.
In that spirit of benefiting from those who have gone before, here’s some thoughts about the making of wildlife art that I find worthwhile, illustrated with a few of the reference photos I’ve shot through the years.
“One of the challenges of painting a number of animals, particularly pronghorns, is to design an interesting grouping. What I try to achieve is an appealing overall shape; an uncontrived, natural look to the grouping…”
“…the need to convey those gestures, poses and attitudes that spell out the character unique to the animal.”
“You look into the eyes of a leopard in a zoo, and sure, you can get a lot out of them. But look into the eyes of a lion 30 feet away from you, when you’re standing right in front of him with no rifle, and let me tell you, they look a lot different. They do.”
NICHOLAS HAMMOND author of Modern Wildlife Painting:
“The best of modern wildlife painters show us the mystery and death, memory and beauty and what is to be learned, or lamented, loved or wept for.”
JUST RECEIVED WORD–“Morning Break”, below, has been accepted into the Mendocino Art Center Animal Art exhibit! It will be on view there in Mendocino, California from Sept. 3-27.
AND…if you live in central Humboldt County, tonight is the opening reception for Wild Visions 2, a group show of nationally recognized nature and wildlife artists, including yours truly, at the Umqua Gallery, Arcata from 6-9pm. Lots of new work by all of us and some oldies, but goodies too. We snagged a great feature in the local paper this morning!
The other artists are Linda Parkinson, watercolor, who has done many commissions of birds and had her work published in American Falconry magazine; Shawn Gould, acrylic, who has done freelance art for National Geographic; Paula Golightly, oil and acrylic, whose day job is working as a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service; John Wesa, well-known local serigrapher; and Derek Bond, egg tempera, who has recently had work accepted into the first Artists for Conservation juried show.
This is the first time all of us have shown together and we hope it won’t be the last.
BACKYARD BIRD WATCH
The two Allen’s hummers are showing up right around 1:30 every afternoon. How do they know? Can you imagine how tiny their wristwatches must be? Right now, if I only had room for one hummingbird friendly plant it would be Crocosmia “Lucifer”. If you have a little room for a truly red, red, red flower, you might buy a few bulbs.
WHAT ARE THESE? Answer on Monday
“Am writing an essay on the life-history of insects and have abandoned the idea of writing on ‘How Cats Spend their Time’.”
W. N. P. Barbellion (Bruce Frederick Cummings) 1889-1919
Got back from my trip last Thursday evening with no more than what is the usual nonsense when one flies these days. Plane was late getting to Denver, so we were late leaving Denver, which meant I missed my 4:12 connection in San Francisco. On the bright side, the airline automatically rebooked me on the next flight home at 6:30, which was good since the last flight out didn’t leave until, ouch, 11:30pm.
We have a canine guest right now, a 3.5 year old male German Shepherd rescued from a seriously rotten situation. I’m doing the emergency foster while a ride is lined up to get him to his long-term foster. He’s spent the last four months with people who didn’t “like” him, so he was kept inside and forced to do his business in a room. He’s got what looks like flea allergy dermatitis. Very thin fur on his back end and tail. Also very scared at first, but totally unaggressive.
We have him on a long cable tie-down on the patio so he can have peace and quiet, but start to get used to a normal environment not filled with screaming and craziness. He’s unneutered, but very submissive. Ignores the cats. Associates collars and having his neck reached for with something negative, but isn’t head shy. Niki is modeling calm, balanced behavior and setting boundaries for their interactions, so he’s my partner in helping get the poor guy back on an even keel. He’ll be a fantastic family companion once he’s had time in a stable environment and gets his confidence back.
I guess the moral is, if you really don’t want an animal, don’t just ignore it and stop caring for it, do what it takes to get them to a place where they have a chance to get a new home where they will get the love they deserve. Sheeh, is that so hard?
I had a great time sketching and photographing at the Denver Zoo, along with getting to see the Robert Bateman show at The Wildlife Experience. There were so many of his iconic images- the snow leopard sitting on a cliff as snow swirls around, the orca amongst the kelp, the storks at dusk with the shimmering band of gold water, plus some of his early abstracts. He is the living master in wildlife art when it comes to design/composition and the sheer beauty of his painting. Very, very inspirational. If you are in the Denver area and you want to see the best in animal art, see his show.
There was also a small room with paintings of African subjects and I was tickled to quickly realize that I had at least met, if not studied, with all of the artists: John Seerey-Lester, John Banovich, Simon Combes and Daniel Smith. I think I feel a lion painting coming on!
In the meantime, here are some of my sketches from the Denver Zoo. Most of them took less than three minutes, if that, so no time to doodle around. First I try to capture the gesture of their pose or movement, then add things like eyes and fur texture. Last is value, Sometimes I end up adding the modeling and “color” while I’m having lunch. The lions were very fit for zoo cats, but I’ll still “tighten” them up by referring to lions I photographed in Kenya.
The horses are my beloved takhi, of which three were out when I was there. I had seen domestic yaks, but these were the first wild yaks. They manage ok in The Mile High City, but in their native (shrinking) habitat, they thrive at 15,000 feet plus.