In The Studio: New Paintings!

"Mongol Horses" oil 14x18"
“Mongol Horses”  oil  14×18″

I’ve had a number of new paintings in progress for quite awhile now. Last week I finally, really got back to the easel and finished up what amounts to a new body of work. They are all part of an idea that I have been thinking about for the past few years and what I’ve been calling to myself my “New Direction” in which I focus on the animals as design elements, adding historic decorative symbols, motifs and patterns that are used in Mongolia. The very special element is “bichig”, the Mongolian vertical script that Chinggis Khan adapted from the alphabet of the Uighur people who allied with the Mongols rather than fighting them (which would have ended badly for them as they had seen for themselves).

I introduced my “New Direction” in a previous post in regard to doing repaints of older work, using “Friends” as an example, in which I added a border around what had been a plain background.

'Friends" oil 18x24"
“Friends”  oil  18×24″

One of the ideas that has had me excited about this new work is to go through my reference and find images that, properly cropped, had a strong design. So this one of an otherwise fairly non-descript brown horse became much more interesting. And it was fun to paint!

"Scratching" oil 14x18"
“Scratching”  oil  14×18″

For this one I used the Mongolian word for “scratching” written out in bichig as the additional design element. I didn’t want it to detract from the horse, so kept the value contrast low while using a color that was related to the color of the horse.

"Two Takhi" oil 20x10"
“Two Takhi”  oil  20×10″ 

One of the things I wanted to get away from was putting animals in a realistic full landscape. My solution with “Two Takhi” was to use a traditional symbolic cloud motif for the sky and a simple color field of overlapping marks of warm and cool greens for “the ground”.  I kept the value contrast fairly low except for the horse’s heads. The vertical format let me focus on what was interesting in the reference…the shapes of the overlapping heads and forequarters of the two horses, takhi/Przwalski’s horses that I saw at Hustai National Park.

"Watching You" oil 12x24"
“Watching You”  oil  12×24″

This one was another that never quite made it after I originally “finished” it in 2012 and then set it aside . I added the longevity symbols to the plain background and now it works. I did a pretty thorough repaint on the horses, too. One of the things l love about working in oil is the ability to pull out an older piece, look at it, say “hey, I know how to fix that” and then do it. These horses were part of a good-sized herd I saw as we headed south towards the Gobi from Hustai in 2010. The flies were pretty bad so they kept moving around as one after another tried to get its head and body into the middle of the group. The painting above, “Friends”, came out of that same encounter and there will be more to come. The morning light was wonderful.

The Art Life: You Can Go Back Again (To An Old Painting)

Mongol Horse #9- Friends
“Friends”  oil 18×24″ (price on request)

When I was working towards a degree in illustration at what was then the Academy of Art Collegs in the late 1980s, the question came up in one class about how far to go trying to make a piece work and, if it’s not, should one start over. The advice the teacher gave us and that I have followed until last year was that past a certain point, well, there was no point. Time to move on to the next piece and not repeat oneself. Made sense to me. Don’t beat the proverbial dead horse.

Fast forward to March of 2016 when I spent two wonderful days visiting and painting with superb landscape painter and friend James Coe at his home near the Hudson River Valley south of Albany, New York. We spent a few hours in his studio talking shop. He pulled out one piece after another, both plein air and studio paintings. And started to talk about how this one or that one had sat for months or years until he figured out what was needed and fixed it. Or how he’d done a small piece of a scene and was planning on doing it again larger. Some he’d painted four or five times from his plein air study. I’d never heard of such a thing! Gobsmacked I was.

Like anyone who has been at the painting game for awhile I have a lot of paintings that I either got stuck on and never finished or didn’t feel were good enough to show anyone except the cat. But now….now! Somehow Jim had given me “permission” to go back to those old pieces and see what I could do with them and it would not be wasting my time or mistreating the horse, which was now alive and well.

So there’s that. The other thing that has happened is that after toying with the idea for close to three years now, I decided to see how I could integrate my love of pure design, lettering and historic decoration back into my work with my Mongolia subjects. After painting a dozen new pieces for “Wildlife Art: Field to Studio” last year I felt that for the time being I’d had said all I had to say about depicting an animal or animals in a traditionally realistic landscape and it was time to move in what I call to myself my “new direction”. I did a couple of small pieces last fall as tryouts and have a number of larger ones under way, all new. But I’ve also gone back to paintings that just never seemed to work for one reason or another and gave them another look.

I’d also created albums in Photos for images I’ve shot that suggest possibilities for interesting designs and also some for a variety of elements, both natural ones like landscapes with warm, cool or warm and cool colors and human-made like ger or monastery decorative painting. And I found a Mongolian calligrapher who was willing to write words for me and email them as large jpgs, so I can integrate the vertical script, bichig, into my work.

What I’m finding is that adding the decorative elements is not just fun, but makes these old ones visually more interesting so they now work. I’ll be showing more of my “salvage” efforts in the future. In the meantime here’s the painting above as I originally did it in 2012, without the decorative border. I also repainted the horses, tweaking the drawing of them, and generally punching up the color.

MH #9- Friends (original version)


In The Studio: New Work In A New Style!

Ikh Nart Argali Ram #3
Ikh Nart Argali #3  oil  20×24″

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.

“Peaceful”  oil  18×24″ (lettering design-Bichig Soyol)

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.

“Foal”  oil 9×12″ (lettering design-Bichig Soyol)

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!

Argali IArgal)
Argali Horns  oil  13×28″ (lettering design- Bichig Soyol)