“Almost There” oil on canvasboard 12×18″ (price on request)
For the first three weeks of November I was at the easel every weekday painting the pieces that I showed the color comps of on Sept. 22 here. I finally decided not to use them for the original purpose and will be entering them in some upcoming juried exhibitions. I’m pleased and proud of them so I want to debut them here on my blog. The one above is from reference I shot at a naadam in Erdenet Soum in 2015. I got to ride in the chase car for two of the races so I got fantastic reference as we drove alongside the horses and riders.
In Mongolia the sweat of a winning horse is thought to be auspicious, so the trainer scrapes it off. The traditional tool for this was the bill of a Dalmation pelican, an endangered species, so now the scrapers are made of wood, often with nice carving on them. One always knows the trainers by the scraper in their belt or sash. I was really struck by the colors of this two-year old, who had already raced. Very pretty.
And here you can see one of the trainers at the same event with his scraper tucked into his sash. This would be his personal riding horse. He (they are almost always stallions or geldings) has a traditional saddle that is well-worn and a common type of bridle knotted from hand-braided rope.
I’ve also kept up with Inktober52, not missing a week so far. Four drawings to go. You can see all of them on my Instagram feed here.
It’s been twenty years since I began painting in oil. Before then I was a graphic designer/illustrator and before that I worked as a sign painter for a local shop, starting at age 22 in 1976. Along the way I also did calligraphy, messed with typography and developed a great fondness for historic decorative styles like medieval and celtic illumination and art nouveau. All of them gradually fell by the wayside as I focused on gaining competency as an oil painter who specialized in animals. But those interests were always lurking out there, sometimes with a feel of longing. But then it was back to the easel. However, a few years ago I started to toy with how I might bring some of that back into my work. I let it perk as I did three exhibitions in four years, the final one being last March, the “Wildlife Art: Field to Studio” group show in Connecticut. With time and mental space available at last, I realized that, for the time being, I’d said all I wanted to say about representing animals in realistic habitats/backgrounds.
I started to seriously work on what a new direction would be. What elements would it include? I wanted to emphasize pure design more and include decorative elements and calligraphy. For the former I would draw on my fifteen years of experience as a freelance graphic designer. For the other two I still have my library of reference books and I knew, starting with my second trip to Mongolia in 2006, that the vertical Uigher script that Chinggis Khan chose for the Mongols was still taught in the schools, used in advertising and had also become a respected and breathtaking art form. I have experience in brush lettering, but wasn’t sure that I wanted to try to learn “bichig”, which would require finding a teacher in Ulaanbaatar.
The solution to the lettering came last year at the end of the 4th WildArt Mongolia Expedition. Our guide, Batana, has a son who is a budding artist. When told about me he said he wanted to meet me. So one evening I and the two other participants were invited to dinner at Batana’s home. I met his son and looked through his work, which was very, very good for a self-taught fifteen year old. Before leaving Batana surprised us each with a gift, our names written out in bichig.
I came home and started thinking again about my “new direction” as I had come to call it. And it occurred to me that I now knew of a Mongolian calligrapher with whom I had a mutual contact. Batana and I had become friends on Facebook, so I messaged him to ask if his calligrapher friend would be interested in writing out some words for me. The answer came back “yes”. We worked out a price per word. I made up a list of ten and sent them to Batana. Within 48 hours I had ten large jpg images in my inbox. They were wonderful! I ended up getting two more batches of ten, so I have thirty words in bichig now and will be getting more. There was the matter of payment. My tour company, for whom the calligrapher, who uses the nom de guerre “Bichig Soyol” on Facebook, had worked in the past, was kind enough to let me do a credit card charge on their website. Then they called him and he came to the office to pick up the cash.
I was going to be going to the Susan K. Black Foundation workshop in Dubois, Wyoming in September and decided to try to have a couple new works for show there. The first one still needs some re-working, so this is the first finished piece in my new style.
Part of what drove me was the realization that my interest and passion is animals. To put them in a habitat means that, generally and by far, most of the painting will be landscape, not animal. And at this point, I want to focus on them. My new approach will let me use any and as much landscape as I want. Or none.
I’m taking my inspiration for the non-animal colors from landscape photos I’ve taken in Mongolia over the years. I have albums in Photos for “Warm”, “Cool” and Warm/cool” images. I’ve also got albums for design elements from monasteries, gers, patterns and symbols. I can mix and match all these elements as I wish. So now I’ve pulled all the threads together….animals, design, decorative motifs and lettering. And am I ever having fun!
We were driving on an upland areaoverlooking the Tuul Gol one morning in 2011 and saw a herd of horses right by the road. Photo time. They were circling and circling, all trying to get their heads into the middle of the group to keep the flies off, but sometimes for a very short time some would stop and see what I was doing. That’s when I snapped this photo. I simplified it by removing some parts of other horses so that the center of interest would that line of heads. I really liked the pattern and rhythm of their overlapping forms. And then there was the foal as a bonus.
It’s always interesting to sit down at the easel again after a “lay-off”. This time it was over six weeks. Things feel awkward and thoughts of “Oh, jeez, will I remember how to paint.” flit through one’s head.
But it always works out. I get back in the saddle by doing a few small, warm-up pieces using my newest reference. This time I picked three different subjects that I thought had great light, so that I could work on light/shadow and value relationships. The first two were done in two sittings with a some additional tweaking after I’d let them sit overnight. The third took somewhat more time since I was also working to catch a likeness and keep the shadow somewhat high key.
There’s a certain rhythm to creating paintings. I usually have a number of them underway at various stages of completion. Of course, most of them are hanging around unfinished. Then I get to the final sitting on one of them and pretty soon, Ta Da!, it’s done!
I finished one yesterday and one this morning. First, my latest Mongol Horse series painting:
I shot the reference for this one on my camping trip in Mongolia this last July. We had pulled into a soum center, which is the American equivalent of a county seat. My guide went over to some trucks filled with horses and chatted with the men, who were taking a break in the shade since it was a warm day at the northern edge of the Gobi. I stayed in the car, but got some good photos. My goal in this piece was to capture the wonderful quality of light that is one of the things I love about Mongolia.
This is a typical Mongol horse who is being taken on a “Naadam (festival) tour” for the horse race events. He’s a winner since he’s wearing a blue scarf called a khadak. He’s not spiffy looking compared to a thoroughbred, but he can also run 20 miles or more without stopping. I also always like seeing the bi-colored manes, which adds a bit of flash.
I grew up with the redwood forests of northern California and have never been a “desert person”. But I love the Gobi (which means “desert” in Mongolian). This scene was also from my 2010 camping trip. The air was incredibly clear, almost crystalline. And it was obvious why Mongols call their country “The Land of Blue Skies”. This is a small piece that I’ve done for myself to start to understand how to paint an amazing part of the world.
This was the first painting I started after the long travel layoff. I wanted to keep it simple, so I chose this beautiful paint horse standing with his back to the morning sun. In my reference he was standing with a hill behind him, which wasn’t very interesting, so I “moved” him to a background that let me do a landscape, too. The setting is the Hangai Mountains of central Mongolia, a lush and scenic part of the country that isn’t anything like the vision most people have of the Land of Blue Skies.
When traveling in Mongolia, one often sees the herders out taking care of their animals. Often they’re wearing western clothes, but a lot of them wear del, the traditional long garment. It’s very practical and makes them look very dashing. What isn’t quite so dashing are the ubiquitous baseball caps, however inexpensive and practical they are. So when I was at a mountain blessing ceremony at Bag Gazriin Chuluu and was walking around after the horse race, this gentleman really stood out with his red and yellow hat. I have no idea who he was, but he was scraping sweat off one of the horses with a special blunt, flat blade. I believe the sweat from a winning horse is considered to have the strength of that horse in it and so is very auspicious. The blue scarf is a khadak, which is used for offerings.
Here’s the step-by-step for “After the Race; Scraping Sweat:
Today I thought I’d share my record of the progress of a painting that is currently hanging in the Redwood Art Association juried membership show at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka, California, which is about 20 minutes from where I live. This sequence should give you a pretty good idea of how I work.
Here’s the reference image that I started with. It was taken in September 2008 at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. This group of horses wandered right past the ger camp one evening. I got lots of great pictures. Looking at them when I got home, I was struck by the stallion’s pose as he showed off around the mares. I haven’t done too many domestic horse paintings and I wanted to really focus in on understanding their structure and capturing the sheen of the coat, so I decided to use a fairly large canvas and only paint the horse.
Here’s how I started. The support is gessoed canvas on hardboard and measures 24″x36″. I did an initial lay-in with a brush. All I cared about at this point was getting the horse where I wanted him on the canvas and indicating the proportions correctly. You can see on the front leg that is lifted where I have started to do the actual drawing.
This step shows the finished drawing for the head, shoulder and front legs. At this point, I had dragged out all my books on horse anatomy to double check the structure and confirm that I had understood it correctly. Changes are easy to make at the drawing stage, but I’ll wipe out and re-do at any point if I see something that’s wrong. That’s just the way it goes sometimes and I don’t fight it or make excuses to myself anymore. I also have a full-length mirror behind me and I use it constantly to check the drawing for accuracy. I’ve designed the mane and the tail shapes, some of which are planned to go off the edge of the canvas so the horse isn’t floating and looks more like he just happened to be walking through the frame.
I’ve started to lay in the first layer of color on the body and hindquarters and am already varying the values to pick out anatomical structures like the hind leg tendon and to start suggesting the roundness of the torso. Since I’m working from a digital photograph, which flattens form, I’ve schooled myself to compensate by always looking for ways to get back the three dimensional form I know is there.
I’ve finished the initial color layers and am starting to paint with the knowledge that the strokes I make now will quite possibly be visible in the finished painting. I’m always refining the drawing as I go. One of the things that interested me about doing this particular piece is that you can’t see his eyes at all, so I wanted to capture his attitude and character from his body language and by painting him big on the canvas. I was also thinking of the design of the positive space -the horse- and the negative space -the background.
I’ve developed a procedure in which I go darker and the opposite color temperature than where I want to end up. When I come in at the last with the final value and temperature, the contrast will create the richness and variety that I really like.
Most of the basic lay in is done. All my darkest darks and medium tones are in, except for those patchy looking bits that I haven’t gotten to yet. Now the fun starts….all the juicy highlights, modeling and finishing touches that are a reward for the prep work leading up to it.
And here is the finished painting! Since all I cared about was the horse, I kept the background simple and just added some shadows to “ground” him. I wanted a neutral tone that related to his color and then added the soft yellow band to give it a little visual punch. I feel like I have a much better grasp of horse anatomy now and I’m pleased with how it came out.