Tales From The Field: The Magnificent Frigatebird and I


In March of 2011 I was one of thirty artists invited to go on a “dream junket” to San Carlos, Mexico to paint, sketch and shoot reference for a Sea of Cortez exhibition at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona. And of course I happily accepted the chance to spend a week in a beachfront condo with 29 fellow artists.

One of the truly special things we got to do was to spend a day in a boat cruising some of the islands. There were birds everywhere and just about every one of them was a new species for me.

At one point, fishing lines were put in the water. I didn’t pay much attention since I was riveted by the bird life, which included brown pelicans blue-footed boobies, gannets, cormorants, frigatebirds and wonderfully graceful tropicbirds.


We cruised around near this outcropping on one of the islands.


A gannet flew by.


And, at a distance, a magnificent frigatebird flew by. In the meantime, someone hooked a yellowjack and hoisted it onto the boat. We were all gathered around admiring it when I looked up and spotted a frigatebird flying towards the boat, coming closer and closer. I had my camera with the long lens and started to shoot photos as fast as I could as the bird came right over our heads.


Frigatebirds mostly make their living stealing fish from other birds and this one had spotted ours, hoping for an opportunity to snag it. Alas, no. But I snagged enough good photos to create a triptych I titled “Magnificent Flyer”. I was honored when it was chosen to be used for the exhibition and direction banners at the museum.

“Magnificent Flyer” oil triptych each panel is 25×16″ (price on request; not sold separately)

Sea of Cortez Wrap-Up: What A Weekend!

One of the banners which uses an image from my frigate bird triptych
One of the banners which uses an image from my frigatebird triptych

Most of us who have traveled in groups have experienced the phenomena of everyone swearing undying friendship and promising to stay in touch and then, after awhile…crickets….as the participants all go back to their daily lives and routines. There was no reason to believe that this group would be any different or that very many would make the effort and spend the money to come back from all over the country for a one-day opening reception and group dinner. But I, and they, did! Every artist in the show was at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on March 16!

I didn’t take as many photos I as probably should have or could have, but sometimes one just wants to be a part of an event, not a recorder of it, and this was definitely one of those times. As seems to be the case with events like this, there’s never enough time to see and talk to everyone else although I did my best.

Dr. David Wagner greets a guest. My triptych "Magnificent Flyer" was chosen for the "title wall" for which I am very honored
Dr. David Wagner greets a guest. My triptych “Magnificent Flyer” was chosen for the “title wall” for which I am very honored

It’s an amazing show we’ve collectively created and I am honored to be a part of it. I think we really captured the spirit of the Sea of Cortez and the area where we spent a week in March of 2010. Yes, it’s been two years since the trip. You can read about it and the creation of two of my three paintings in the show here.

Guy Combes and Andrew Denman
Guy Combes and Andrew Denman

As enjoyable as the opening was, the REAL fun began at the home of the couple who put their fishing yacht at our disposal on the trip (without which there would be no Sally Lightfoot crab or magnificent frigatebird paintings) and then hosted us all for dinner in the evening. It was warm, a nice break from the cold or rainy winter weather elsewhere, and there was a even live mariachi band to accompany the delicious Mexican food.

John Kobold, Ronnie Williford, Paula Williford, Mary Garrish
John Kobold, Ronnie Williford, Paula Williford, Mary Garrish

As a way to show our appreciation to Dr. Wagner for all his hard work and organizing of the trip and then the exhibition (definitely an exercise in cat herding at times), after dinner a number of us presented a light-hearted, but sincere tribute roast.

Paul Rhymer and Carolyn Thome
Paul Rhymer and Carolyn Thome

Yours truly kicked it off with a “media analysis” of the tremendously conscientious (a steady stream of emails month in and month out for over two years) communication on the part of Dr. Wagner. Then followed a recreation of The Incident of the Stingray Sting (hoping to post the link to a video when available), the Sting Ray Song and the presentation of various gifts and awards. Our hosts were also put on the spot recognized and then, as the finale, Andrew Denman sang, with new words, “We’ll Do It Our Way”, which tells the story of the trip and some of the memorable things we saw. The video for that is available for viewing here. You can see photos of the reception and the evening’s festivities here.

Here are the credits for the cast:

David Wagner Gets Roasted

Andrew Denman, as The Singer
Kim Diment, as Chorusline Dancer
Susan Fox, as Media Analyst
Mary Garrish, as the mild-bedside-mannered Physician
John Pitcher, as the wayward Artist and Co-Producer
Rachelle Siegrist, Chorusline Dancer
Featuring Wes Siegrist, in the lead role as victim, David Wagner
and Sue Westin, as Choreographer and Co-Producer

Molly Moore, one of our merry band of artists, put together a 38 minute slide show of trip, which you can view here.

Susan Fox with "Up Close-Sally Lightfoot Crab"
Susan Fox with “Up Close-Sally Lightfoot Crab”

For more about the trip and images of one work by each participating artist, go here.

"El Tigre-Nacapuli Canyon"
“El Tigre-Nacapuli Canyon”

Coming Up Soon! The Opening Of The “Sea of Cortez” Art Exhibition

El Tigre (Nacapuli Canyon)  oil  36x24"
El Tigre (Nacapuli Canyon) oil 36×24″

Here’s all the latest information on the Sea of Cortez art exhibition that I am one of thirty artists participating in. You can find out about the trip we all took, the opening weekend and see an example of each participating artist’s work here. Shown here are two of the works that I will have in the show.

"Up Close-Sally Lightfoot Crab"  20x46"  oil
“Up Close-Sally Lightfoot Crab” 20×46″ oil

New Painting Debut! “Magnificent Flyer”

Magnificent Flyer oil 40×46″ (three panel triptych)

This is the third of three paintings I’ve done for the “Sea of Cortez” show, which will debut at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in March.

It’s a triptych showing one Magnificent Frigatebird who came swooping in behind our boat after one of the artists caught a fish. His landing gear was down, hoping to snag it if he got a chance. I grabbed my camera and got five photos of him. I was really pleased to see these three and submitted all of them for the curator to chose from. And even more pleased when he gave me the go-ahead to do all of them as a set.

Here are the three paintings. Each of them is 40×16″:

You can see the other two paintings, “El Tigre (Nacapuli Canyon” and “Up Close-Sally Lightfoot Crab”, plus my other posts about my trip to the Sea of Cortez as part of a group of 30 artists here.

New Painting Debut! “El Tigre (Nacapuli Canyon)”

El Tigre (Nacapuli Canyon)  oil  36×24″

I just finished my second painting, “El Tigre (Nacapuli Canyon)”, for the group show I’m participating in, “The Sea of Cortez”, which will be opening next March at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona. The first one “Up Close-Sally Lightfoot Crab” can be viewed here.

This new painting came about as a result of my interest in comparing the Gobi and the Sonoran Desert. There are argali sheep in the mountain ranges that rise out of the Gobi, so I wondered if there were desert bighorn in the part of the Sonoran Desert that we visited, particularly the spectacularly beautiful Nacapuli Canyon.

I was given the contact information for a scientist who is familiar with the megafauna of the area. He more or less told me that he had bad news and good news. The former was that there is no record or evidence of desert bighorns in the canyon. The good news (and very good news it was indeed) is that there have been sightings, along with pugmarks and other evidence, of jaguars in the canyon. So I knew what one of my paintings would be.

Nacapuli Canyon is quite popular with visitors to the area for picnicking and hiking. Big cats tend to be very wary about the presence of humans, so while other wildlife like birds and coatimundis aren’t too difficult to see, the odds of seeing a jaguar are close to zero. But…as an artist I knew that I could “see” a jaguar in the canyon and show other people something very special about this place that might help conserve it for future generations.

Here’s the step by step process of the creation of “El Tigre (Nacapuli Canyon)”-

One of the canyon reference photos I used. There were a total of 21 photos of the canyon, vegetation, jaguars and other big cats for paw position reference in my digital “album” for this painting.
Study of the proposed painting, approved by the show curator, Dr. David Wagner
Charcoal pencil studies. The lifted paw in my main reference photo was blurry, so I went through my other big cat reference and searched Google images to find paws in a similar position that were in focus.  I also needed to understand the spot pattern before I started to paint it.

Finally it was time to start the painting:

Blocking in the drawing with a brush, adjusting the relationships of the various elements as I go. I used a fairly intense burnt sienna tint which I knew would show through in spots in the finished work and give it a nice glow. I also changed the proportions, making it wider than I had originally planned.
Close up of the star of the show. The visible part of him is 3.5″ long. His head is 1″ from ear to nose.
First color lay in, indicating the shapes of the shadows
Well into it now, working over the whole surface of the painting. I finished the canyon and made a start on the jaguar. Then I left for Mongolia for seven weeks. I tweaked the farthest mountain, lightened the sky and finished the big kitty yesterday.
Detail of the waterhole and surrounding rocks in progress
El Tigre (Nacapuli Canyon) oil 36×24″

New Painting Debut! “Up Close-Sally Lightfoot Crab”

“Up Close-Sally Lightfoot Crab” 20×46″ oil

Definitely a change of pace for me, this painting is the first one of three for the upcoming Sea of Cortez group show, which will open at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on March 16, 2013. You can read about the trip and see some of the drawings I’ve done and photos I shot here.

While I was on the trip with 30 of my colleagues in March of 2011, we had access to a very nice fishing yacht whose owners generously took us out to an island that not only had these colorful, irresistible-as-subjects crabs, but also California sea lions and many species of birds.

I knew as soon as I saw them that I would want to paint one. Fortunately, there was also a Zodiac (small pontoon boat) that got us right up to the rocks. That and fast shutter speeds and I got some great reference.

Here’s the step-by-step of “Up Close-Sally Lightfoot Crab”:

Here’s how I was able to get such great shots. We were able to get REALLY close to them.
Reference photo; I knew from the beginning that I wanted to paint the crab BIG and crop in for a horizontal rectangle. I used other photos for comparison and to change the position slightly of one leg.
Preliminary graphite study, 7×17″;  to learn my subject, ensure that the composition worked and to establish the value pattern
Color rough,  6×14″; this is a really different color palette for me compared to the more restrained earth tones I use for my Mongolian subjects. Can’t remember the last time I used red and yellow pretty much right out of the tube.
Grid transfer in pencil; Raymar canvas board is tinted with raw sienna
The brush drawing. I realized after I’d done the one from the pencil drawing that the crab wasn’t nearly big enough, so I wiped if off and re-drew it. By this time I’d done the graphite study and the color rough, so I “knew” him/her pretty well and it didn’t take long.
First color pass
This is a little more than half-way there. The next step was to catch the background up with the crab and then move on to the legs and claws and then go back and tweak everything until it was done.
“Up Close-Sally Lightfoot Crab” 20×46″ oil

I thought I’d share some details of the crab and the background.

The crab was on a rock totally encrusted with barnacles. I had absolutely zero interest in painting 50 gazillion of them, so instead I analyzed the visual texture and values and then indicated those in a variety of colors and values.
But just to make sure the viewer knows what they are, I did a few more finished ones in the lower right hand corner.
The eyes were fun. The challenge was to get expression, to have the viewer feel that the crab is looking right at them.

The next painting for the show will truly be something completely different…a landscape with Nacapuli Canyon as its subject, with a special extra thrown in.

Drawings From The Sea Of Cortez Trip

I’ve been having fun over the last month or so doing graphite drawings from reference I shot during the artist’s trip to the Sea of Cortez this past March. You can find out more about the trip here.

One of the reasons for doing them is to explore possible subjects for finished paintings that will be submitted for the 2013 exhibition, “The Sea of Cortez: Where the Desert Meets the Sea”, to be held at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona.

All the drawings are done with a General Draughting Pencil on 14×17″ Strathmore vellum bristol.

So, without further ado:

Roseate spoonbill
Sally Lightfoot crab
Blue-footed booby
Magnificent frigatebird
Elegant or Royal tern (the birders on the trip never could decide for sure which species)

Field Sketches From The Sea Of Cortez Trip

There’s nothing quite like sketching on location to “store” the feeling of a place in one’s mind and hand. It adds an important dimension to the photographs.

Here’s my favorites from the trip and, at the end, a little bonus from one of the hotels I stayed at before departure:

Nacapuli Canyon, at the "waterhole"- pen and ink
Fan Palms, the iconic tree of the canyon- pen and ink
View across the estero, not far from the condos we stayed at- pen and ink
Promontory on the coast as seen from the boat- pen and ink
Organ pipe cactus, Nacapuli Canyon- pen, watercolor pencils and gouache

And finally….would you put this in YOUR coffee, given the name of the company?

The Sea Of Cortez-An Album Of Images

What a trip it was! The whole package…great scenery, interesting animals, terrific traveling companions who are also great artists and, in 2013, the exhibition at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to top it off.

I’ll be blogging about specific aspects of this experience and the art that I plan to create from it between now and showtime, but today I thought I’d share an overview of some of my favorite images, an album, if you will.

And, for this coming Mongolia Monday, I’ll compare and contrast Mongolia’s Gobi with the part of the Sonora Desert that I have now visited.

View from the condo I shared with four other artists.
Nacapuli Canyon
Someone took pictures of almost everything. Here's Carel Brest van Kempen photographing ants.
Predator water beetle; waterhole in Nacapuli Canyon
As yet unidentified lizard; Nacapuli Canyon
Estero Solado; an estuary ringed by three species of mangrove
Roseate spoonbills feeding in the estero
The turkey vulture who wouldn't abandon "his" fish
One of about six species of fiddler crabs living on the shores of the estero
Willets on the beach near the condo in nice morning light
Pelican feeding frenzy off-shore in San Carlos
The wonderful boat that we went out in
The boat made it possible for the plein air painters to get to great spots like this
Heerman's gull; almost at eye level from the boat's dingy
San Pedro Island; we spent a day birdwatching and snorkeling along its three mile length
Brown pelicans
Brandt's cormorants
Sally Lightfoot crab
Blue-footed booby colony; the white is guano
Blue-footed booby; an artist favorite
California sea lions
Male California sea lion
Female magnificent frigatebird
The Sea of Cortez
Group shot- photo by Molly Moore- Field Trip to San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico, March 19 - 26, 2011. Pictured are Linda Bittner, Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen, DeVere Burt, Andrew Denman, Kim Diment, Kim Duffek, Cathy Ferrell, Susan Fisher, Susan Fox, Mary Garrish, Ann Geise, Shawn Gould, Mary Helsaple, Heiner Hertling, John Kobald, Deian Moore, John Pitcher, Don Rambadt, Paul Rhymer, Rebecca Richman, Carolyn Thome, Christine Sarazin, Rachelle Siegrist, Wes Siegrist, Martha Thompson, Glenn Thompson, Sue Westin, Ronnie Williford, Debbe Wilson, and Nicholas Wilson. (Not pictured are John Agnew and Molly Moore). Leading the field trip was Richard C. Brusca, Ph.D. The trip was organized by David J. Wagner, Ph.D. for artists to produce a body of artwork for a museum exhibition entitled The Sea of Cortez, produced by David J. Wagner, L.L.C., and scheduled to premiere at The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute from March 16 through June 2, 2013.