I’m back home now from my two week trip to Wyoming, where I spent three great days in Yellowstone National Park, a day and a half in Jackson Hole and five days at the Susan K. Black Foundation Workshop (SKB).
I painted and sketched along the way and at the workshop, trying out a variety of combinations of paper and water media. Here’s an album of some of my pieces, all done on location:
Since I don’t really paint North American wildlife anymore, I found it liberating to not worry about getting “the shot”, although I ended up with lots of great photos, but instead to focus on sketching the live bison.
The third day I was in Yellowstone it snowed in the morning. I drove out to the Lamar Valley and set up my watercolors on the passenger seat of our VW Eurovan camper, then just looked out the windows to do these three studies.
There’s a huge mountainous cliff on the east side of the park that is known as a place to spot mountain goats. And, sure enough, I spotted this nanny and kid with my binoculars. I got out my spotting scope (a Leica Televid) and managed these two quick pen sketches before she and the youngster got up and moved off out of sight. Then it was back to bison.
One of the locations at the SKB workshop was a ranch that has been in the same family for over 100 years. Hope to be able to go there again next year.
Next week I’ll share photos and stories from the workshop.
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.
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.”