Filed under: Adventures, Art News | Tags: Africa, Elephants, Lions, painting in Africa
As an artist, I have had little interest in Africa. It is partly the hundreds of nature films about the continent, or most likely, it is the hundreds of paintings I’ve seen of African animals that have jaded me. Just being a painting of an African animal made it a cliche to me. I had gotten to the point that I just wasn’t interested in looking at another zebra or lion, no matter how well they were portrayed.
Going there changed everything. I knew it would, but experiencing such a place is a mind expander. This gets back to the fact that an emotional connection to the subject is the real inspiration to do a work of art. Not quite like falling in love, but a personal experience that is significant enough to make you want to express your feelings about it.
This definitely happened to me during my trip to Tanzania. Getting within a few feet of a pride of lions was an experience that brought tears to my eyes. Close enough to hear them sigh, to smell them, to have them look into my eyes (that was actually a bit disconcerting).
This same experience was repeated numerous times with many different species. Then there was the overwhelming majesty of it all. To look out over a spectacular landscape and see five or six species of large mammals, all at once and some of them in huge herds is just awesome, in the most appropriate meaning of the word. Meanwhile, behind you is a family of mongoose, and there’s an eagle, and oh, I see a python in that tree… it just doesn’t quit!
The purpose of the trip, however, wasn’t just to wow us. I was part of a group of nine artists from four countries that banded together to do what they could to help stop the slaughter of elephants.
Artist Ambassadors Against Poaching: R-L Sandy Scott (USA), Tony Pridham (Australia), John Agnew (USA), Jan Martin McGuire (USA), James Hines II (USA), Robert Louis Caldwell (USA), Paul Dixon (South Africa), Julie Askew (UK), Dale Weiler (USA)
Our intention is was to experience wild elephants (and everything else), produce art works about elephants and sell them to raise money for elephant conservation. Specifically, the money will go to the African Wildlife Trust, an NGO in Tanzania formed to fight elephant poaching. Money will go to rangers for vehicles, radios and weapons, among other needed supplies. An impromptu auction on Facebook of sketches and small paintings raised over $2,000. A future exhibit at the Hiram Blauvelt Museum of Art will raise much more! Watch for details and dates.
Experience wild elephants we did. Sometimes we experienced them a bit closer than we had planned, such as the group of females and young that we surprised as we drove around a corner in our open safari vehicle.
That’s my face on the right, as we were charged by the female elephants with young. They were pissed because we surprised them, and they let us know. The rumble of running elephants, combined with the sounds of pissed-off elephant screams is quite enough to get your heart beating faster. Fortunately, Auntie on the left stopped short of our vehicle, and the rest of them then stopped as well. They could have easily destroyed our vehicle, and likely us with it. Most of our encounters with elephants were much more peaceful, sometimes even friendly. I won’t bore you with the 3,000 images I took of elephants, but watch for some of them to appear as elements of future paintings. I took nearly ten thousand photos on the two week trip, not at all unusual for photographers in Africa, especially in this digital age that makes multiple photos easy and cheap. Others on the trip took twice as many photos as I did! I used a Nikon DLSR (D7000) with a 70-300mm lens as my primary. Changing lenses in the field was to be avoided at all costs, as it was an extremely dusty environment (end of dry season in late October).
I also painted in the field with artists Jan Martin McGuire and Julie Askew. There was certainly no shortage of subject matter for “plein aire” painting (painting outdoors). However, it wasn’t quite the same as painting “en plein aire” at home, as there were roaming lions, Cape Buffalo, and other dangerous animals. Our guides insisted on armed escorts while we were on the ground outside the vehicle.
That’s Thomas with a .454 rifle, powerful enough to stop a charging elephant (god forbid). There was a pride of nine female lions in the area where we were working, so the rifle was not just a prop. However, Thomas and our driver spent most of their time sleeping in the vehicle as we painted. As it turned out, we were harassed by bees, not lions. Some local honeybees discovered our paint-water jars, and soon the entire hive seemed to be enjoying the new water source. We had to construct a decoy out of a plastic water bottle that we cut in half with a Masai spear. This kept most of the bees busy away from our painting spot.
Filed under: Adventures, Ivory-Billed Woopeckers | Tags: Bruce Creek, Choctawhatchee River, Ivory-Bill, Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Ivory-Bills
I returned to the Choctawhatchee basin in the Florida panhandle in February, with the Cincinnati group lead by John Ruthven. The last time I had been there was 2010, when we froze in the swamps, sometimes breaking ice as we launched our kayaks. I missed last year’s expedition as it conflicted with my term as Artist in Residence at Everglades National Park. This year, the mild winter spared us the frozen mornings of the last trip. We had near perfect conditions, although the water was about 6 feet lower than during my last visit. This limited boating to stream channels, as the swamps were nearly dry. This enabled us to hike further than we had on other trips, and we found some promising habitat for Ivory-Bills.
We had no sightings and heard no double knocks, but we did find some trees with tantalizing evidence of large woodpeckers foraging. Ivory-Bills like to use their beaks as chisels to pry off bark from recently dead young hardwoods. The tip of the beak is even flattened like a chisel, and we hear it leaves a mark like someone used a screwdriver to pry the bark off. Pileated woodpeckers can also leave similar horizontal marks, but they aren’t supposed to have the same sharp-edged grooves that Ivory-Bills leave.
One area in particular had a tree with some very hard-edged grooves, and the general habitat matched the description given to us by old timers in the area who claim to have seen the bird several times over their lifetime. They tell us, “You boys are spending too much time down in those river swamps.” Of course, we’ve had some success in river swamps…. myself and another in our group, Sally Woliver, had a good sighting in 2008 of a male Ivory-Bill along Bruce Creek, and Geoff Hill’s gang has made several sightings in the Choctawhatchee basin, mostly along stream channels. What the locals have told us, though, is that the IBW’s prefer upland swampy valleys surrounded by hardwoods. The spot where we found this tree fit that description. On Google Earth, you can see a horseshoe-shaped cypress/gum swamp, with mature hardwoods all around. We walked out on an old logging road through the hardwoods until we encountered the swamp forest, and found several trees within a 100 square yard area that had been worked on by possible Ivory-Bills. Unfortunately, we found this place on the last day, so a more detailed investigation and “stake out” will have to wait until next time.
Here are a few sights from the trip to the Choctawhatchee River basin:
Filed under: Art News
I have just begun a new mural project for the Appalachian Forest Museum (http://www.highlandssanctuary.org/AFM/AFM.htm), housed in the former gift shop of the old Seven Caves tourist attraction. The good folks at the Highlands Sanctuary and Arc of Appalachia preserve system acquired the old Seven Caves property, and have returned it to its natural state by removing the concrete trails and lights. The gift shop building from the tourist attraction is being remodeled into the museum, an interpretive center for the preserve system. There will be a series of small (4′ x 8′) murals on panels between the artificial trunks of vanished forest giants. Geoff Mowery of northeastern Ohio completed the first four panels. I will be doing two; “Lost Treasures,” depicting plants and animals that have disappeared from our eastern forests either through extirpation or extinction, and “The Living Waters,” a cross-section of a forest stream, depicting the specialized animals that inhabit it.
After receiving the narrative and species list from the project administrator, Bruce Lombardo, I began a small B&W sketch. The setting is a primeval Ohio forest, with American Chestnut trees, Scarlet oaks, Pignut Hickory, and other forest giants no longer seen in our Appalachia. Animals such as the Forest Bison, the Mountain Lion, and the Eastern Wolf prowl the forest, and a Shawnee hunting party stalk the bison.
The purpose of the sketch is to allow discussion of the composition and species depictions. After the black and white sketch was approved, I moved the mural panels to my studio and began the painting. The first step was to transfer the sketch to the full-sized panel.
After the B&W sketch was inplace on the mural panel, it’s time to begin blocking in some color.
After the base colors in certain areas are in, I can began developing some bark textures with a sponge.
After sponging in a base for the bark texture, I can begin working out the details in the bark, to define the species of tree. Detailed leaves will be added later.
After finishing the basic texture of each species of tree, I’ll begin adding other details, such as moss and lichens. Herbaceous plants, smaller trees and seedlings, and the animals and humans in the image will appear later. The garish colors you see here will be muted and more natural looking as layers of color, light and shadow are built up.
Things are developing in the fall forest, as more saturated colors appear, and the trunks of the forest giants are detailed:
The foreground plants and leaves are starting to appear, and there is now a Shawnee hunting party stalking Woodland bison:
I suppose the title should be, “Painting Among Crocodiles,” since I didn’t use them as painting tools. Instead, I paint pictures of them and their habitat. Last winter, I spent nearly a month in Everglades National Park as Artist In Residence. One of my stated goals was to paint and draw the American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), not to be confused with the American Alligator (Alligator misissippiensis). Both exist in the park, which is the only place in the world where you can see the two species in one place.
The crocs prefer brackish water and can tolerate salt water, having salt removal glands. The alligators stick to mostly fresh water. So, the place to see crocs in the Everglades is in the mangrove areas, and in Florida Bay and the Keys. They are not hard to find in the Park. Flamingo usually has a few on voluntary display, hanging out near the boat docks and canoe rental area. You can also see them in Eco Pond and Nine Mile Pond. It was in Nine Mile Pond where I had some up close and personal encounters with them.
I had paddled around in Nine Mile Pond in my inflatable kayak, on my own and with a ranger-led group, and had scouted out a few likely scenes to paint from the kayak. I had seen at least one large American crocodile basking at the water’s edge, but he wasn’t in the vicinity of where I was headed to paint. Not that I especially fear these crocs, but I have a healthy respect for any predator several times my size.
So I loaded up my gear and shoved off, headed to a nicely formed mangrove tree not far from the parking lot. As I rounded the corner near the subject tree, I surprised a large croc that had been basking at the base of my tree. He disappeared with a thrash and splash, and I figured he was gone. I pulled into the channel near the tree, tied off the boat and set up my easel.
After I had been working for awhile, I heard the sound of a large animal drawing a deep breath just behind me. I turned quickly to look over my left shoulder, and caught a glimpse of the croc’s head diving under the water. That was followed by a powerful thrust and splash from the tail, which rocked me in the boat. Hmmm….
No, I don’t really believe the croc was stalking me. I had been sitting very quietly painting in my boat, and the croc probably surfaced nearby completely unaware of me until I turned my head and startled him. If he had really been stalking me, I believe my sudden movement would have stimulated an attack rather than flight. The only time a croc made me nervous was the day before when I was scouting Nine Mile Pond. I spotted a big croc basking and approached to get some photos. I kept a respectful distance between myself and the croc, especially since he was bigger than my boat. Even so, I seemed to upset him, and he launched himself into the pond with a huge splash. He surfaced out in the middle, and I took some photos of him swimming around. Eventually he seemed to take notice of me again, but this time he seemed curious and began to slowly close the distance between us. This time I backed off and headed for other waters.
Crocodylus acutus does not have a reputation as a maneater, but it is still a powerful predator, well equipped to dispatch a soft, pink meal like myself. In my white inflatable kayak, I suppose I looked like a big marshmallow with a pink, chewy center. There are places in the world where I wouldn’t dare paddle around in such a flimsy craft with my body so close to the water. Saltwater crocs (Crocodylus porosous) and Nile Crocs are both very large species that would attack a mammal my size without hesitation. It’s been suggested that acutus just doesn’t normally have large mammals in it’s diet, so we don’t appear to them as a prey item. Nile crocs, on the other hand, have been filmed grabbing wildebeest and zebra by the nose, and tossing them over their back into the water. A well known kayaker and trip leader was taken by a Nile croc, right out of his kayak in the Zambesi River. Saltwater crocs have been notorious as maneaters as well, taking people in southeast Asia and Australia with some regularity.
Of course, alligators get to be huge predators as well, and they do have a record of attacking folks occasionally in Florida. These are usually situations where humans have tempted gators beyond their natural aversion to eating people. Falling into the water near an alligator’s mouth is one way to stimulate a feeding response, another is to splash around among the gators in an area where people feed them. As more wild lands turn into suburbia, gator-human conflicts become more common.
I was Artist in Residence at Everglades National Park this January, and although I spent a lot of time doing plein aire paintings, I also shot nearly 3500 photographs. Many or most of these will become references for future paintings, but some are art in their own right. I apply the same composition techniques, the same color balance rules, etc. The big difference is that I have no control over nature. Much of photography is a combination of skill and luck– being in the right place and time with the right intentions. Of course, as painter I have total control, and can change things that I don’t like, but much of my painting is first visualized in the camera. I might find a landscape that lends itself to a well composed photo, sometimes a stage for some creature. I use the scene in a painting only after I have reconfigured it to suit my needs. In this way, photography is a passive art discipline, recording what we find, as opposed to painting, where we create everything from “scratch.”
Sometimes my photos are of something unusual or striking that I find in nature… often these same subjects would look too perfect, too contrived to become a painting. As a photo, we might look at it and say, “How unusual,” but as a painting, we would probably say, “That doesn’t look correct.” We accept photos as a record of reality (not so true anymore), while a painting must portray our expectations of reality.
So, I suppose that my photography and painting are blended in a way. I use the camera as a visualizing tool. I parse the images I see in nature through the viewfinder. I’m also a photo-realist. I don’t copy photos directly, but I need all of that visual information to make the scene accurate. In other words, I’m not making anything up, just rearranging things to suit my imagination and artistic sense. It is all accurate, even if the overall scene came from my imagination. This need for accuracy has its foundations in my career in natural history museums as an exhibit designer, illustrator, modeler and muralist.
I’ve completed my second stint as Artist in Residence, this time in Everglades National Park. What a great place to be in January, especially if you’re from the north. The locals were complaining about how chilly it was down there… but 68° felt pretty nice to me. It was 5° in Cincinnati when I was packing the car for the trip to Florida.
So, three weeks with nothing more serious than, “Where am I going to paint today?” This is a wonderful situation for an artist who normally works in a studio or at home and is constantly interrupted by the daily requirments of business or family. And, in a tropical “paradise” no less.
Now, some folks might not consider the largest swamp in the country to be paradise, with it’s requisite mosquitos, alligators and snakes, but it is for me (except for the mosquitos). I happen to love alligators and snakes, and if you’re familiar with my art you already know that. The Everglades are a unique subtropical habitat, full of life and offering some sublime landscapes to paint and admire.
Because this was the dry and cool season, mosquitos were almost absent, and the temperatures were pleasant (especially compared to home). This would not be the situation in the summer months, when it would be impossible to do plein aire painting in the Glades without some sort of air-conditioned space suit. The mosquitos become so thick in the summer that a person can literally choke on them… this is no exaggeration… and the temperature and humidity hover in the range of 90°/90%. The only place comparable would be the arctic tundra, where the mosquitos get almost as bad in the summer (but not as hot).
However, I was there in the pleasant season. I spent many blissful hours sitting at my easel in very delightful wilderness settings. I finished ten plein aire paintings, and took nearly 3,500 photos. I’ll post some of my better plein aires here, and also check my Facebook page and website. All the plein aire paintings are for sale, in the $350-450 range. I’ll be producing some studio paintings (more expensive) from this trip in the coming year or two. I will be exhibiting both studio and plein aire works at the Earnest Coe Visitor Center at Everglades National Park in 2013.
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve recently signed on with Miller Gallery of Hyde Park, Cincinnati. They will represent me in the Cincinnati tri-state area. Their current show, “Zenscapes” features some of my pebble paintings.
Miller Gallery (www.millergallery.com) is celebrating its 50th year in Cincinnati.