I went on my first trip to Kenya in January of 1999 to participate in an Earthwatch Institute-sponsored project studying lake ecology at Lake Naivasha. But first I arranged to spend five days in the Masai Mara at what was then called Camp Kicheche. I arrived incredibly jet-lagged from the long flights from California but was also equally excited to finally see African wildlife in their native habitats.
The photo at the top is my first sighting of wild African elephants. a family group moving into the bush. My driver, Daniel, stopped the car and turned off the engine. I had the car to myself. He had the hatch was open and the windows rolled down so I could get good photos. At this point I was using a Nikon N2000 SLR with a built-in motor drive (first time I’d had one with that), a Tamron 28-300mm lens and 2x doubler. and had brought 78 rolls of Kodak 200 and 400 ASA print film. Not a “pro” set up but pretty good for what we could afford.
The rest of the family group appeared, saw us, turned and headed away out of sight. And I thought that was it for my first elephant experience. Closer would have been great, but at least I’d seen some, and early in my first game drive on my first day, so no complaints.
But, no, two reappeared with one looking straight at us.
Then they started down the slope towards us….
The smaller of the two turned and walked away into the bush.
The big one came on down the hill towards the car, which as you will recall, was sitting with the hatch and windows open. I kept taking photos as he got closer and closer.
Full zoom-in on this wonderful creature. At this point, Daniel said in a low tone of voice “It would be good to be quiet now”. Oh, right. The motor drive. So I set the camera in my lap as the elephant came closer and closer, straight towards the car. I realized that he was so tall that he could have rested his chin on the roof of the Land Cruiser. Or reached in and plucked me right out of my seat through the hatch. At that moment I became a fatalist. Whatever was going to happen would happen and there wasn’t a thing to be done about it. At about six feet from the front of the car, he turned and crossed in front of us on a diagonal. Daniel and I just quietly sat and watched him.
Once past the car he turned and went back up the slope to rejoin the group, stopping just for this instant to give us one last look.
Business attended to and, point made, he walked off into the bush.
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.”
I tend to start a number of paintings in succession and then finish them in batches. Is it that way for any of you? Or do you have a more even work flow? How do you decide what to do next?
Here’s a new one from reference that I shot in Kenya in 2004. It was after the conclusion of the Simon Combes safari and I had flown back down to the Mara for a few days at Rekero Camp, which is on the Talek River. Fabulous camp, great staff, wonderful food, terrific drivers. I’d love to go there again. It’s apparently one of the places the Big Cat Diary people stay when they are filming and I can see why. It’s a tented camp right in the bush. Buffalo wander through and you can hear the hippos grunting and roaring at night since the tents are mostly right above the river. A real storybook African place.
A couple from Ireland were kind enough to invite me along on their game drives. My first morning with them we saw a serval walking down the road as the sun came up. I loved the color of the first light of the day hitting his or her coat, but most of the shots weren’t particularly paintable. We were so close that my point of view was from above ( I know, I know- boo hoo) or the gesture was awkward, etc. But…..I got some great reference at the Denver Zoo this last May. Nothing special in the Light Department, but wonderful eye-level alert poses. So I put the two together and came up with this. I kept the grass loose and impressionistic so that the focus would be on the cat, who is Up At Dawn.
I’ve also just finished my first in a planned series of paintings of Mongolian horses, the ones the Mongolians ride, not the takhi. I got a lot really good shots in great light, but picked this one to start with because I loved the color of his coat.
I’m going to be in a group show with a flower theme at my gallery, starting next week. It’s not something I’ve done a lot of, well, any, but I have some great hummingbird reference that I shot right outside my studio windows so….for something completely different…
I went back to an Art Nouveau/Arts and Crafts inspiration from my previous incarnation as an illustrator and used a decorative approach. Flatter light with a plain background. It was fun and I’ll probably do more flower subjects in the future. This one sure got me using my reds more than usual. The bird is a male Rufous hummingbird, just another little rottweiler in a bird costume. Thank goodness they aren’t the size of ravens or none us would be able to go outdoors when they’re around.
What do you listen to when you’re working? I can’t write this blog with music going, but otherwise I always have something on. I’ve acquired a taste for celtic-inspired world music and really like listening to Kila, Peatbog Fairies and Shooglenifty (No, really.). When I want to up the energy level, it’s time for some Afro Celt Sound System. I’ve been know to listen to Baka Beyond and Kenyan benga music when working on African subjects and Mongolian music when I’m…. you get the idea. Favorite rock includes anything by John Mayer, Mark Knopfler and Sting. Also still Stuck in the Sixties with Quicksilver Messenger Service (love, love, love John Cippolina, my guitar hero), Jefferson Airplane and of course The Beatles and Rolling Stones. When I come into the studio in the morning and need to ease in slowly, it’s Enya, Clannad or Nightnoise.
ART THOUGHT FOR THE DAY
If anyone, in the beginning of study, will set himself to study the various compositional forms, then experiment and practice with the variations of them, he will find that his instinctive taste is developed; and subjects will in time lend themselves easily to his feeling for unity, and soon he may be able to forget all about them.
It must never be forgotten and let this be most strongly emphasized – that the dominant aim of the student should be to train and equip himself to the point where he can judge unity and all of its contributing factors by “feeling”.
I’ve had the good fortune to take two trips to Kenya, one in 1999 and the second in 2004. It really is the greatest animal show on earth. What is happening there now is terribly disheartening. The Kenyan people have never known what it is like to have an honest, competent government and they deserve better. But when you have a young, educated population (most Kenyans finish high school and many have university educations), a lack of good jobs, a majority of the population that stills thinks more in terms of what tribe they belong to than being Kenyans and a one of the three most corrupt governments in the world, the stage is set for the situation that is occurring now. Kenya is very dependent on tourist income and when things exploded, I could hear the sound of safaris being cancelled. I don’t think that it would dangerously unsafe to travel there right now, since visitors have been wisked from the airport to the heavily guarded hotels and then out into the parks and reserves, also guarded, for a very long time due to the serious crime problem in Nairobi, but I wouldn’t take the chance myself until things calm down. The frustration level is clearly very, very high.
On a happier note from happier days for the country, I was fortunate enough to go on an art workshop safari with the late Simon Combes and nine other artists in October of 2004. (I plan to share some of my travel stories and the paintings that came out of them in this blog.) Afterwards, I flew back down to the Masai Mara and stayed a few days at a fantastic tented camp, Kekero, which in on the Talek River. Close enough that hippos woke me up at night with their grunting and roaring. Boo hoo. The routine, either on safari or at a tented camp, is to be awakened before dawn, which, with Kenya being on the equator, is always around 6am. Coffee and some cookies are delivered and you have 15-30 minutes to pull it together, get dressed and be out at the vehicles. So, every morning, you get to see the very light of the day, which suggested the title of this painting, “First Light”
He was a beautiful big boy, still resting after a night of feasting. It was magical to sit there as little by little the sun illuminated him in warm morning light. We had him all to ourselves and hung around until he got up and wandered off.
On the domestic front, I would like to introduce Persephone, who will be seven this year. We had gone to look at a puppy and the woman mentioned a cat she had rescued. Short version: the kitten wouldn’t get down off a fake ficus tree when ordered (!?) to do so, so was grabbed and thrown across the room into a wall. Grandson calls Grandma, who rushes over and takes the cat. Too many dogs in house, so cat ends up in the back carriage house of her small Victorian where we saw her, liked her, adopted her (puppy went to someone else). I watched for neurological damage, but she seemed fine (I know, some would say, with cats who can tell). We did have to take her to the vet for the removal of a front canine that had split vertically into three pieces after we noticed her jaw was swollen, undoubtedly an impact injury, but other than that she’s been fine. This is one of my favorite pictures from when she was about a year old.
She has ended up being not exactly a svelte cat, despite a weight management diet. She’s just an endomorph and has nicknames like The Princess, the Bon Bon and The Plush Princess. She is lightning fast though. I saw her catch a gopher once. Strike, pull it out of the hole in a split instance and then carry it off to eat the whole thing. Here’s a more recent photo. She really is a beautiful cat, but, boy, is she a princess.