Coming Tuesday, Dec. 9! The 2nd Annual “12 Days of Drawings Sale”

It’s drawing sale time again, but this year with something special added…in 2004 I went on the art workshop safari of a lifetime with internationally-known wildlife artist Simon Combes.  For 16 glorious days he regaled us with stories (with a few naughty limericks thrown in), shared his knowledge of the wildlife of Africa and made sure we got to see as many species as possible. Tragically, Simon was killed by a cape buffalo ten years ago this month. To honor him, some of the drawings I’ve created for the sale have been done from photo reference I took during the safari. The sale will start with them. It will be an auction and 20% of the sales price will be donated to the Soysambu Conservancy (formerly the Delamere Estate), which is where Simon grew up and one of the places we stayed in 2004. Very important conservation work is being carried out there. I photographed the young Rothschild’s giraffe, an endangered species, at Soysambu. It’s graphite on paper.

Simon Combes posing by one of the Land Rovers
Simon Combes posing by one of the Land Rovers, which had been attacked by a hippo that had come into our camp (a story for another day…)

After the Africa drawings, there will be a variety of other subjects, including some from Mongolia. 20% of the proceeds from those pieces will be donated to the Department of Conservation Biology at the Denver Zoo to support scientific research in Mongolia. The sale will take place on my public Facebook page: You do not have to have a Facebook account to bid or buy. Purchase and payment instructions will be included with each post. I hope that you’ll come check it out!

Thank you and happy holidays!
Susan Fox


Some Thoughts On Applying For Membership In The Society Of Animal Artists

SAA members and guests at the opening weekend of the 49th Art and the Animal; Rolling Hills Wildlife Experience

This post was originally written for the Society’s Facebook public page and blog, but I wanted to share it here since I think what I have to say relates not just to what my thoughts are about applying to join the SAA, but also lays out in general some of my beliefs about what makes good animal art. It’s illustrated with images of various members of the Society, who I am proud to call my colleagues and friends.

The deadline for the next round of consideration is coming up in mid-April. I thought that, having participated in three membership juries now as a member of the Executive Board of the Society, I would offer some observations and tips  that might be helpful to those of you who aspire to membership in the SAA.
A couple of notes before we start- First, I’m a painter and that’s what I know best. What I’m going to say applies to most other media, but creating a successful painting will be my main focus. Second, this article represents my personal views and is not an official statement by the SAA, any of its officers or the other board members. If you have any comments or questions, please direct them to me.
Now, to begin: I recommend that you do this exercise. Go to the Society’s website, visit the virtual museum and the individual websites of any member’s work that catches your eye. Then get out at least eight or ten of your own pieces. Line them up. Look at them objectively. This is not easy. We tend to be either too hard or too easy on ourselves. Do your best to be honest since that is when opportunities for growth happen.

The late Simon Combes giving a demonstration; Lewa Downs Wildlife Conservancy, 2004

Representational painting in general, and animal art in particular, have well-established criteria for what constitutes a “good” painting. These principles have evolved over a number of centuries. They are not “subjective”.

You are not in competition for a limited number of spots as would be true with a juried show. We usually have between two and three dozen applications to consider. We can accept all of them. Or none of them. Each applicant’s work is judged on its own merits.

Greg Beecham at the Quick Draw; Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005 (Suzie Seerey-Lester to left)

Pick one piece that you honestly believe is at or is close to the level of the work of the artists who are already members.

You now need four more at or near that level, because one of the things that will sink an application fast is one or two good pieces followed by the jury seeing the next three or four go off the cliff. You will be judged by your weakest pieces. Consistency is very important.

Kent Ullberg gets inspired at the SAA 50th Anniversary event; San Diego Safari Park, 2010

Consistent in what? Glad you asked…

1. DRAWING: Animals have a physiological and behavioral reality that a competent animal artist has to understand and demonstrate to the jury. In other words, you need to be able to draw them with accuracy and understanding if you are a traditional representational artist and clear understanding if you are going to handle them in a more personally expressive way. You are hoping to join the ranks of animal artists who have been doing this, in some cases, for decades. They know if the drawing is correct or not. Which way a leg can bend, how a wing moves in flight or what the pattern of spots are on a leopard are not really subject to debate, however open they are to informed interpretation.

Karryl sculpts on location at the 50th Anniversary event; Rolling Hills Wildlife Experience, 2010

2. CRAFT: We want to see a solid understanding of your chosen media, whatever it is. If you decide to submit work in more than one media, then all of them need to be at an equal level of competence. Don’t submit a little of this and a little of that, hoping that something will stick, like spaghetti on a wall.

David Rankin on location, ready for anything at Torrey Lake: Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005

3. DESIGN AND COMPOSITION: Do you have a solid grasp of design and composition? Have you made a conscious decision about every element of your piece? For instance, are the subjects in the majority of your submissions plopped automatically into the middle of the canvas or thoughtfully placed to carry out your central idea?

Andrew Denman gets worked over by an affectionate bobcat; he, Guy Combes and I visited the Sierra Endangered Big Cat Haven last year

4. PERSONAL VISION: Are you creating art based on a personal vision or simply copying photographs? (It is well-known that photographic images flatten and distort three-dimensional subjects like animals, so the artist must learn how to compensate for that if their goal is a realistic representation.) What do YOU have to say about lions and elk, butterflies and buzzards? Let your opinion, point of view and passion come through. HAVE an opinion, point of view and passion about your subjects.

John Seerey-Lester paints a mountain lion; Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005

5. KNOWLEDGE: Do you understand basic animal anatomy? Do you understand the habitat of the species you are representing? Have you learned about their behavior as an inspiration for your work? Or is everyone just standing around? If you put an animal in a realistic setting,  you are now a landscape painter too. Are both your animals and any habitat shown depicted at the same level? Or does one lag behind the other?

Yours truly hard at work in the Gobi, Mongolia 2010

Animals are specialized subject matter that require study and the accumulation of knowledge over time to represent successfully. There are no shortcuts.

We are looking for artists who have mastered their art and craft at a consistent level and who present us with a body of five works which all reflect that level.


Why GOING THERE Makes all the Difference – Thank You, Simon

Four years ago today, internationally known wildlife artist Simon Combes was killed by a cape buffalo while walking with his wife on a mountain called Delemere’s Nose, which is part of the Delemere estate in Kenya where they lived. Just two months earlier, I and nine other incredibly fortunate wildlife artists were on the safari of a lifetime with him. Looking at dates on my images, I see that we had gotten up the morning of October 12 at the Kigio Wildlife Sanctuary and spent most of the day driving south to the Masai Mara. When we stopped for lunch in the Masai group ranch north of the reserve proper, we saw our first Mara wildlife, a male topi on top of a mound. Then, in rapid succession it was wildebeest, gazelle, hippos, a huge male giraffe right inside the entrance to the Reserve and then…lions!

My tribute page and the photos that I took of him during the safari are here. But what I want to share today is what it means as an artist to be able to travel to a place like Kenya with someone like Simon, who knew the ground and the animals and who always seemed to get us to the right place at the right time. I had realized very quickly on my first trip there in 1999 that it was  pointless to paint animals like cheetahs and lions without having seen them in their habitat. There’s really no way to get it right and those who have been there know the difference instantly. Trust me on this. So out of the 5,218 photos I shot in 2004, here are a few that I hope will illustrate this point, followed by some of the paintings that have resulted from the trip. If you want more, the whole safari is here. on my website.

Samburu encounter
Samburu encounter

Emotion and point of view play a major role in the creation of great wildlife art. How could the two women in the front vehicle not remember  and “channel” this encounter if they paint an elephant? We’ll all remember this morning in the Samburu going from cool to warm, the beautiful light and this bull elephant who made it abundantly clear that it was time for us to move along.

Impala and baboons
Impala and baboons

Artists get asked all the time where we get the ideas for our paintings. Well, here’s one I probably wouldn’t have thought of if I hadn’t seen it. Baboons and impala breakfasting together at Lake Nakuru. Part of the problem with zoos  and game parks is that the animals are out of context. You never see the natural groupings or interactions. Or if there are different species together, you have no idea how that would play out in the wild. To me, this kind of reference is gold. I can paint this African “Beauty and the Beast” scene because I saw it, photographed it, know it happened.

Young mara lions
Young mara lions

There really is something about lions. They define “presence”, even when they are still kids, like these two. Great afternoon light and you hardly notice that his face is covered with flies. For contrast, here’s a zoo lion. He’s gorgeous, with a huge mane and perfect whiskers. Dead giveaway, along with the flat light and lack of body condition. This lion don’t hunt. Which would you rather paint?

Zoo lion
Zoo lion

We went out on an evening game drive in the Samburu and as the sun was going down, it seemed to be really important to Simon to get to a particular place. We were literally along for the ride, so just waited to see what was up. Oh, yeah, this is very, very nice. It’ll do. Thank you, Simon.

Samburu sunset
Samburu sunset

Here’s a selection of the paintings that have come out of the safari so far.

Ground Hornbill
Ground Hornbill oil 18"x 24" (price on request)

Reference shot in the Mara. Simon did some interesting jogs with the vehicle to get alongside this big bird, who just wanted to walk away .

Samburu Morning
Samburu Morning oil 18"x 24" (price on request)

I loved the northern Kenya landscape with the huge, storybook doum palms.

Interrupted Nap (Spotted hyena)
Interrupted Nap (Spotted hyena) Private Collection

Reference shot in the Mara. There was a cub, too, but that’s a painting for another day.This one was snapped up by a collector who also loves vultures and gets first crack at any I do.

Thompson's Gazelle
Thompson's Gazelle oil 16" x 12" (price on request)

John Seerey-Lester was kind enough to choose this painting for inclusion in the 2008 Art and the Animal Kingdom show at the Bennington Center for the Arts.

That's Close Enough
That's Close Enough oil 12" x 9" (price on request)

Cropped in from a large herd of buffalo at Lake Nakuru. Nobody was getting anywhere near that calf. No way, no how.

Morning Break
Morning Break oil 12"x 24" (price on request)

Reference photographed in the Mara, where we got an eyeful of cheetah every day we were there. This painting was juried into the 2008 Animal Art show at the Mendocino Art Center here in California. I’ve got to be in the right mood to paint all those spots, but I do love cheetahs!


“A few days later I looked up from my work to see a new elephant, one that I had not seen before, standing quietly only yards from my easel. He had crossed the river to my side on the outer curve of the ox bow and wanted to pass through the narrow neck where I was working. To do so he would have to pass within five yards of me or go back the long way around. I held my breath as he shifted silently from foot to foot, carefully weighing the situation. Finally, he moved forward and past me, watching intently as I stood motionless. Such rare incidents of trust between man and wild animals give me a great thrill.”

Simon Combes, from An African Experience

Fieldwork for Wildlife Artists

When I made the decision to specialize in animal subjects, I also took a deep breath and made a personal commitment to reach the highest level of excellence that I was capable of (still chugging away). Then I researched the approach and working methods of the best current and past wildlife artists, figuring the odds were that they knew a few things that would be useful to me.

And guess what, not a single one of them, (including Bob Kuhn, Carl Rungius, Wilhelm Kuhnert, all unfortunately deceased) like Robert Bateman, Guy Coholeach, Ken Carlson, Dino Paravano, Lindsay Scott, Julie Chapman or Laney, to name some of my favorites, rely on other people’s photos except to supplement their own for specific elements, only go to zoos or game ranches or work exclusively from photos to the exclusion of anything else. They GET OFF THEIR BUTTS, pick up their sketchbooks along with their cameras and hit the road to where the animals are.

This is not a field for the lazy. Even if your passion is the songbirds and squirrels that you can see in your own backyard, you still need to do fieldwork. Believe me, it shows in the work to those who know.

(Endangered Rothschild’s Giraffe and I at the Kigio Nature Conservancy, Kenya or Why I Like Fieldwork.)

There is no substitute for seeing an animal in its own habitat. This was brought home to me when I went to Kenya and saw lions, elephants and warthogs “in context” for the first time. The warthogs in the Masai Mara were the same color as a lot of the rocks. Thirty elephants emerged from trees lining a river bank. They had been invisible. The only evidence of their presence was that the tops of the trees were moving. We were at most 50′ away. The lions are very similar in color to the dried grass.

The prey species like wildebeest and zebra had a vibe that is totally lacking in the ones I’ve seen in zoos. In the wild they have to Pay Attention and work to survive. The zoo animals don’t have to do either and it shows in their body language.

You need:

A good digital SLR: Point and shoot won’t do it. Too slow to catch movement and you can’t change out lenses if necessary

The sketchbook of your choice: you may have to try some different ones to find a combination of paper and pen/pencil that works for you

Pens/pencils: So many possibilities. I use fine point gel pens for the most part because they don’t smear and I can’t fuzt around and erase.

Patience: In ten years, I have found that, on average, a given animal will do something at least mildly interesting or worth recording within about twenty minutes, but you have to be willing to sit and watch and watch and watch and……., even in zoos

Curiosity: Which translates into a willingness to learn about your subjects, not just settle for superficial appearance

Imagination: I’ve been in the field with other artists who seemed to be trying to capture “The Pose” that they would then faithfully reproduce on canvas. I often seemed to be the only one whose shutter was firing. Why? Because I’ve learned that you can never know in advance what you will find useful and when you’ve spent hundreds or thousands of dollars to get to a place, it’s crazy to stint on reference collection, especially with digital cameras and the ever dropping price of memory cards.

The Payoff? Great, unique reference (how many cougar paintings have you seen recently that were obviously from the same captive animal shot in the same locations? Yawn.), your memories of what it was like to be there which will somehow seep into your work, stories to accompany the paintings that will interest collectors and the possibility of seeing things very few people are privileged to.

Here’s a few examples of shots taken on the off-chance they might come in handy sometime. Not necessarily interesting to anyone but me.

The Gobi Desert near my ger camp. Useful elements: cloudy sky, distant mountains, September grass, lay of the land, gravely surface, rocks with red lichen.

Grab shot from Lewa Downs Conservancy, Kenya. It’s a little blurry, but turns out to be the only tree that I’ve seen with that trunk color. It will be the perfect element for something, sometime.

Photographing the animals is a no-brainer, but don’t forget their habitat. I know what animals live in the Conservancy where I took this picture, so I know who could be found in this neat waterhole setting.

On the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro river in the Samburu, northern Kenya. We have: a little of the water for context (where did I take that picture?), grass, some kind of spiky leaved plant just coming up (needs to be identified), doum palm nuts and frond droppings and…..elephant dung. This was taken right in camp.

And, nearby, is a doum palm that has been partly rubbed smooth by elephants.

And here are some elephants. Nothing spectacular by itself (well, other than the fact that I’m seeing them in Kenya, of course!). But the preceeding photos provide context and additional elements that could be used with the photo below to create something more interesting and memorable.

I realize that these are exotic locations that many artists can’t get to or aren’t interested in, but the principle applies no matter where you are. Get out into the field and see as much as you can of everything around you. Filter that through your interests and passions as an artist and it will shine through in your work.


“Now the light was fading fast. We had to hurry to reach the gate before 7 pm, but just as we were leaving the plains, Dave said urgently, ‘Stop! Stop!’ Thirty yards from the road, a lion and lioness stood silhouetted by the setting sun. She moved against him, rubbing her body on his great shaggy main, and twitched her tail high in the air. Then, blatantly sensual, she crouched on the ground and the big male mounted her. The coupling was brief and ended with a climax of impressive snarls before she rolled onto her back in evident satisfaction.”

Simon Combes, from Great Cats: Stories and Art from a World Traveler

Thanks, Simon. (Photo from Oct. 2004 art workshop/safari led by Simon Combes two months before he was tragically killed by a cape buffalo. More images from the safari and a memorial page to Simon on my website)