The View from Here


Snakes ‘n Art
July 1, 2009, 9:32 am
Filed under: Art News, Reptiles & Amphibians
Coelophysis, detail from a mural for the Riverbanks Zoo

Coelophysis, detail from a mural for the Riverbanks Zoo

I’ve been a snake guy as long as I can remember. Well, that’s not really true, dinosaurs came first, then lizards, and THEN snakes. That’s the same track many reptile lovers have followed. Dinosaurs fired the imagination as a youngster, followed by the realization that living reptiles are just as cool, if not quite as big. My first pet was a Green Anole, a real dinosaur in my 7 year-old imagination. I still love dinosaurs, and have made several paintings of them.

Deinonychus, a detail from a mural for the Riverbanks Zoo

Deinonychus, a detail from a mural for the Riverbanks Zoo

Snakes are really special animals, however. They have that reptile “coolness,” an aspect that says “danger!” the same way a gang-banger might try to say it by looking tough.  Many snakes even have a supraocular scale that gives them a wicked look, as if they’re frowning.  Combine that with the use of venom and swallowing their victims whole, and you have the perfect attractants for adolescent boys.  As we mature, we begin to appreciate other snake qualities, such as their beauty (both subtle and outrageous)and amazing adaptions for life without legs.

The first snakes I kept were Northern Water snakes, readily available in Ohio.  Then came Garter snakes, Black Rat snakes, and the holy grail for young snake catchers in my neighborhood, the Eastern Milksnake. By the time I was about 13, I got my first exotic snake, a Columbian Rainbow Boa.

"Brazilian Rainbow" 20 x 15, acrylic on illustration board. Collection of Paul Beaver

"Brazilian Rainbow" 20 x 15, acrylic on illustration board. Collection of Paul Beaver

I paid $15 dollars for it at a local pet store. My dad helped me build a cage for it, a wooden box with a glass front and screened vents.  I worried over it for about 2 months because it wouldn’t eat. One day after returning home from school, I went to my basement corner to check on the snake, and was astounded to see a squirming mass of baby boas and afterbirth!  My Rainbow Boa had 17 babies, all live born.  I was, of course, thrilled.  They all had a spot and rosette pattern like the more exotic Brazilian Rainbow Boa. The mother was essentially plain brown (but very iridescent).  At about 12 inches long, they needed baby mice (pinkies), which wasn’t always easy for me to get. I started trading the baby boas for other snakes. I did keep a few that I raised to adulthood and kept until I was in college.

The next several years saw an enlarging collection of snakes. I began working at the Dayton Museum of Natural History (Now the Boonshoft Museum) as a high school Junior Curator, and took care of the Museum’s live snake display. I had visions of becoming a herpetologist.  As I became acquainted with sources for exotic snakes, I began to covet the venomous ones. They were extra-cool. Not only were some really extraordinary in appearance (like the Rhino Viper),  they were dangerous.

A Speckled Rattler, photographed in Arizona. A cryptic beauty, but snappy.

A Speckled Rattler, photographed in Arizona. A cryptic beauty, but snappy.

Teenage boys love dangerous stuff.  I bought by mail order some fairly dangerous snakes that I kept hidden under my bed or explained away as a harmless venomous snake look-alike.  I was very lucky and was never bitten. I also had a little training by some of the older staff at the museum, watching them handle the museum’s live Copperheads and Timber Rattlers. I never tried to actually touch my “hot” snakes, using hooks or tongs to transfer the snakes to a secure box before cleaning the cages.

I eventually got on a track that took me into a career in museum exhibit design and then fine art, instead of becoming a herpetologist. I usually point to Algebra 3 as my turning point from a career in the sciences to one in art, but it probably had more to do with growing up with artists for parents.

"Buddha's Protector" 20 x 15 acrylic.  This snake is modeled on one that I kept for yearss

"Buddha's Protector" 20 x 15 acrylic. This cobra is modeled on one that I kept for years. Collection of the Artist

It took many years to outgrow my desire to keep deadly snakes, but I never lost my fascination for them. Perhaps was the realization that I make my living with my hands (definitely at risk in a bite), and the arrival of a baby in the house.  While living in Florida and Kentucky, I was able to observe venomous snakes in my own yard, without having to keep them. There were Diamondbacks in my Florida yard, and Copperheads in Kentucky. Other folks might be pretty upset about this, but I was thrilled.

A Western Diamondback in Arizona

A Western Diamondback in Arizona

A sidewinder, photographed in Arizona. My favorite rattlesnake.

A sidewinder, photographed in Arizona. My favorite rattlesnake.

I still love vipers, cobras, rattlesnakes and all the rest.  Whenever I travel to places where these animals live, they are highest on my list of desired sightings. After growing up reading the adventures of famous herpetologists, it has been a thrill to see rattlers in the Arizona desert, Fer-de-Lance in the Amazon, cottonmouths in southern swamps, and cobras in Borneo.

The dangerous ones will remain my favorite snakes to paint. They offer a measure of drama just because of their dangerous potential, and many are quite beautiful.  Some are beautiful in their cryptic camouflage, and others are outrageously colored, such as the coral snakes or the African vipers like the Rhino viper and Gaboon viper. All of them have that special something that appeals to my inner 15 year-old.

A Fer-de-Lance, photographed in the Peruvian Amazon.

A Fer-de-Lance, photographed in the Peruvian Amazon. I searched the rainforest for this snake, finally finding one beneath our lodge.

A Cottonmouth in the Everglades

A Cottonmouth in the Everglades that I rescued from certain death on the main park road

"Diamond In The Rough" 11 x 20, acrylic on illustration board. Collection of the Artist.

"Diamond In The Rough" 11 x 20, acrylic on illustration board. This snake lived behind my house in Florida. Collection of the Artist.

"The Feathered Serpent"  15 x 20, acrylic on canvas. Collection of Mary Huels

"The Feathered Serpent" 15 x 20, acrylic on canvas. There is a joke hidden in this painting, but you have to be able to read Mayan glyphs to get it. Collection of Mary Huels

I actually haven’t painted all that many snakes, despite having a reputation as a herp artist. Really, only a handful. Perhaps it’s because they are incredibly difficult to paint well, or maybe it is the limited market for snake art. If you know my art, you know I like to do detail. Detail on snakes means lots of scales, and in specific patterns and numbers.  Not only that, but the scales change in perspective as they go around the snake’s curves, and they change in how they overlap each other depending on if they are on the inside or outside of a curve. This is very difficult and tedious to re-create. It is not so simple as drawing cris-crossed lines as we did when we were kids. Still, I’ve pushed my way through a few snake pieces, and will likely do more in the future.

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