How I Start a Big Painting & A Favorite Photo from Mongolia

One of the advantages of my illustration training is the process that we were taught for putting a picture together. I don’t do all the steps all the time, but now that I’m about to start one of the largest paintings I’ve done so far, I need the control that the process gives me.

My first sighting of argali at Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve, thanks to Onroo the local camp staffer who knows the place and where the animals tend to hang out, was a group of rams in wonderful morning light. Mostly they were grazing and resting. For this painting, however, I wanted action. The essential image popped into my head and then it was a matter of getting it down on paper, which is one reason why the thumbnail process is so valuable.

Here’s some of the reference that I’m using:


I liked the pose of the big ram who is third from the left. This photo was taken at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. I dumped the image into Photoshop and did a horizontal reverse to get him going the direction I wanted. And then zoomed in as much as possible. The next three are from Baga Gazriin Chuluu. Talk about reference eye candy.




I did a couple of drawings of the main sheep to try out position and gesture.


In this one I added the a background to see how that worked.

Argali-1My idea is to channel a little Edgar Degas and have the animals coming in from the frame, not have all of them within the frame. This is too static, but it gives me something to bounce off of. Gotta start somewhere.

Here’s the thumbnail sheet. I’m trying to figure out where the three masses of sheep will be in relation to each other. Then I did another, larger sketch.

Argali-thumbThis is more what I had in mind. Almost everything is on a diagonal, which gets rid of the too-static quality of the previous sketch. As I draw and re-draw the animals, I’m able to get to “know” them better and can refine and push the poses.

I spent a good chunk of yesterday doing a finished scale drawing that will be transferred to the canvas via the ancient and honorable grid system. I ended up with three layers of tracing paper. The bottom one had the lines for the edge. The second one had the drawing of the sheep. The third was the landscape. I did one and it’s really nice, but not right for this painting. Replaced it with a new sheet and re-did it. When I was satisfied that I had more or less what I wanted, I re-drew the argali, once again refining and tweaking the drawing.

At this point, I have solved the design/composition problem and the drawing problem. Both may be re-visited at any time as needed if I see something that needs fixing, but the next step is a value study, that is, the pattern of lights and darks. We were told in art school that if we get the values in a picture correct, then we can do anything we want with color, which I have found to be true. One of the tasks that needs doing to take the Gun-Galuut argali and the image of the sunny rocks and make them work with the Baga Gazriin Chuluu morning light. For that I’ll do a color study.

I hunted through my reference once again for the sheep images that I thought would work best. And here is, so far, finished drawing. Still not sure about the argali on the left. I’ll see how it looks to me on Monday. I also think I need a little more “air” on the right side and maybe the top. Not much, maybe a half-inch.


Finally, a favorite photo from the local Naadam at Erdene. Waiting for the race results.


Mongolia Monday- Using My Takhi Reference for Paintings and Limited Edition Giclees

Since, judging from the stats, the subject seemed to be very popular, I thought I would continue today with more on the takhi, specifically how I take the reference I shoot and turn it into a painting. More and more I start with drawings to become familiar with a new species or figure out things about one I’ve painted before.

Here are three drawings from last year, the first two of which were published in the Society of Animal Artists newsletter.

Takhi scratching leg; charcoal pencil on cold-ply bristol paper
Takhi scratching leg; charcoal pencil on cold-ply bristol paper
Takhi mare and foal; charcoal pencil on cold-press bristol paper
Takhi mare and foal; charcoal pencil on cold-press bristol paper

Now I’ll show you how I take an animal from one time and place and put her in a setting from another time and place, a challenge that every wildlife artist needs to meet successfully.  Here’s the setting:

Main takhi water source; Hustai National Park, Sept. 2006
Main takhi water source; Hustai National Park, Sept. 2006

What a treat! We came around the bend in the dirt track early in the morning and there, right in front of us were two harems at the same time, sorting out who gets to go first.

Watering place close-up; Hustai National Park, Sept. 2006
Watering place close-up; Hustai National Park, Sept. 2006

I always try for a variety of  shots; close-ups and the “big picture” for context. I used to come home with great close shots of something like a tree and found that I’d completely forgotten to get the surroundings, which really cut down on my options. Notice that the above photo is kinda fuzzy. But it’s still useable for reference.

Now here is the horse reference. Different part of the park, different year, different season. I’ve included two as an example of what to look for when evaluating images. These are similar, but the second, to me, is clearly superior. I love the rhythm of her gesture.

Takhi mare; Hustai National Park, May 2005
Takhi mare; Hustai National Park, May 2005
Takhi mare 2; Hustai National Park, May 2005
Takhi mare 2; Hustai National Park, May 2005

So next I did a drawing to capture that.

Takhi mare walking; charcoal pencil on cold-press bristol
Takhi mare walking; charcoal pencil on cold-press bristol paper

And, putting them together, here is the finished painting, completed in 2007. What I hope is that you can’t tell that I “stitched” together the reference from two sources.

Morning Drink   oil   12"x16" (price on request)
Morning Drink oil 12x 16" (price on request)

I also wanted to let you know that two of my takhi images are available as limited edition giclees, framed or unframed. The full information is on my website. Click on “Limited edition giclees” under Fox Studio in the column on the right and it will take you directly to my giclee page.

Takhi Foal; giclee on archival paper
Takhi Foal; giclee on archival paper

I saw this foal on the same trip as the mare in the painting above. He or she was quite a character.

Mongolia Morning; giclee on archival paper
Mongolia Morning; giclee on archival paper

I posted this last week, as the original painting is still available, but have also published it as a giclee. It’s another example of how I took the mare and foal, who were against a grassy hillside and moved them to a ridge that has Hustai’s famous mountain as the background. The third horse was added as a design element.

All my giclees are available for holiday delivery.


Let this be plain to all: design, or as it is called by another name, drawing, constitutes the fountain-head and substance of painting and sculpture and architecture and every other kind of painting, and is the root of all sciences. Let him who has attained the possession of this be assured that he possesses a great treasure…:

Michaelangelo (who ought to know)