Untamed Land

Untamed Land
Untamed Land

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Africa on my Mind

Here in the dead of winter, my thoughts increasingly turn to escape from the cold and dark. One month from today, I will touch down at Johannesburg Int. Airport, and start my month-long safari. Of course I really look forward to seeing the big African animals outside of a zoo setting, but my main interest is in seeing the smaller critters. Especially the birds, and reptiles. I can't wait.
Before each exotic adventure, I like to do a series of small paintings of the wildlife of the region I will be visiting. I take these paintings with me, and either try to sell them to fellow tourists, or to Art galleries. Sometimes I trade them for lodging in some nice ecolodges. Once I was robbed of all my belongings in Costa Rica. The thieves got my passport, credit cards, traveller's checks, driver's license, and worst of all. they got my brand new camera equipment, and my beloved Ziess binoculars. Thankfully the thieves did not have an eye for great art, and they did'nt take my paintings. I was able to sell them to a wonderful little gallery, (Namu), in San Jose. This helped me to continue on my vacation, and return home safely.

This is the first of my Africa paintings, Cat in the Grass, 9x12" It's dangerous to become enamoured with your own work, but I'm happy with this one.

They can't all be winners. The actual painting does look much better than this photo, but it does'nt compare to the Cheetah. It is a Malachite Kingfisher, 8x10". I'll do a few more paintings, and post them on the blog before I leave for South Africa.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas Bird Count, Anchorage

For those of you who may not be familiar with the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count, it is a volunteer effort to take a census of winter bird populations. The event got started 110 years ago as an alternative to the Christmas Side Hunt. That was a yearly activity where idiots with guns went out on Christmas Day to shoot every bird, and animal they could find. They would load them onto awagons, and at the end of the day, take a tally of who shot the most critters. Most of their victims were never eaten.
Thankfully those days are long over, but the CBC lives on. It has become an important indicator of the health of regional bird populations. I have covered the same area in Anchorage with Owen Hughes, (who is 90) for 13 years.
We always start out at the crack of dawn, 9:30am, in Alaska. We keep going until well after sunset, 3:30pm. Before moving to Alaska, I participated in CBC's in Northern Arizona for many years.

This is where we started our count. It's a tiny park, next to the Chester Creek Greenbelt. The temperature was -5f, -20c, when we left our houses.

The first birds we encountered were Bohemian Waxwings. We counted 163 of them in total. In some years, we get 3000+.
Another photo of little black specks. These are American Robins. We saw 45 in all. That's way more than usual, we are lucky to get even one most years.

Black-billed Magpie.

There were 10 magpies today.

We saw 30 Ravens.
The only other species we saw were 6 Black-capped Chickadees. Five species altogether, that's our all-time low. 14 is our highest number ever. These totals are pathetic compared to the old Arizona counts. Once I participated in a CBC in San Blas, Mexico. We got 300+ species on that day.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Eagles of Winter

We have had a large dump of snow around here, that has continued for days. The snow in my yard is now thigh deep. The thermometer on my balcony reads -13c, thats +7f. Tomorrow is forcast to be 10 degrees colder. These temps are normal for this time of year, and the scenery is stunning. I've been seeing a lot of Bald Eagles around town. They are being fed by a few people, and many more of them fill their bellies at the city dump. The eagle above was enduring the snowstorm in a nieghbor's yard, yesterday afternoon.
The following photos were shot earlier near the fire station across town. That is where most of the town eagles hang out because an old woman feeds them year after year. This is strictly against the law, but the powere that be, look the other way.

The controversy about feeding eagles is that more eagles survive the winter than would otherwise survive. The artificially elevated eagle population puts extra pressure on traditional prey species in the summer months, when the eagles are not being fed. Nesting loons, and Sandhill Cranes, suffer the brunt of eagle depredations.
Volunteers monitor nesting loons around Anchorage, and the Matsu Valley. In some years, eagles snatch every single loon chick. The loon poulation is steadily dropping. The same thing is happening with the local crane population. That is why many conservation minded people hate the fact that eagles are being fed in the winter months. The number of eagles that feed at the dump is even greater. Another controversial practice is the rehabilitation of injured eagles. These eagles are released locally when they have recovered, and that adds to the problem. In spite of all that, it's great to see eagles up close.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Futile Pursuit of Perfection

When I was younger, often I would longingly admire the work of established wildlife artists. An artist would paint something, for instance an eagle, and I would look at it and say, "there is no need for anyone to  ever paint another eagle because this one is perfect, and who could add to that?" Six months, or a year later I would see another eagle painting by another artist, that put the first one to shame. How could that be if the first one was perfect?
Of course perfection is not a static condition, it's a fluid existence that always progresses. How do I measure perfection in my own art? Since I can't know how others percieve my artwork, I can only measure it against my own arbitrary standard. The way I judge my own paintings is by comparing the completed work against the mental picture that first inspired the painting. It does'nt matter whether the painting looks good, I dont even know if it looks good, unless it looks the way I invisioned it would look. Someone else seeing what I consider to be perfect, may not relate to it at all.
My paintings almost never look the way I wanted them to look. In fact, in me whole carreer, only three paintings have come close to the mark. One of those paintings was just completed today.

This is the first of my perfect paintings. Spectacled Eider, 8x10". Of course it is far from perfect by any standards other than the fact that it looks just like I intended it to look. If you have modest expectations, then it's easier to reach perfection. The actual painting, looked much better than this photo indicates.

This is my second perfect painting, Red-necked Grebe, 11x14" This is a more ambitious effort than the first. Miraculously, I painted the whole thing in one day. Everything went smoothly without a hitch. Why cant they all turn out like this one?
Here are two photos of the third perfect painting. The varnish is still drying on this painting. Feather Dusters, 18x24" It is a much more ambitious work than the grebe painting, and it took weeks to complete. I was interested in three things with this painting, light, atmosphere, and texture. These are the main themes of many of my paintings. I also wanted to make the eagles look down, and dirty. The mottled plummage of sub-adult Bald Eagles is more interesting to me than the more pristine, brown and white of the adults. That is why I portrayed two sub-adult birds of different ages, and one adult for comparison. They are lounging about on a rocky coastline like Bald Eagles often do here in Alaska.
Many people resent the eagles because they eat all kinds of garbage to survive the winter. Then in the summer, the elevated eagle population, eat many young loons, and Sandhill Cranes. Loon, and crane populations are on the decline, while eagles are more abundant than ever.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bohemian Delights

For the past several days, this whole region of Alaska has been socked in by a dense cover of ice fog. This afternoon the fog lifted for a few hours to reveal a frosty winter wonderland. After lunch I set out with my camera to get a few photos. I did'nt get far. In my driveway I heard the soft peeps of Bohemian Waxwings. When I looked up to spot them, I was impressed by the view I got of the waxwings in the Mountain Ash trees, growing alongside my driveway. I began photographing them, and kept at it until my fingers were numb from the cold. I shot 146 photos altogether. Here are just a few examples.

Bohemian Waxwings would not be here at this time of year were it not for the many ornamental, Mountain Ash trees that have been planted all over town. When the berries run out, the waxwings move on.
These guys are such elegant birds. They are certainly a bright spot in the long, dreary , Alaska winters.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Two New Remodels

Nature Blog Network
These are two paintings originally done in 2003. They gathered dust in a gallery since then until I got them back on Thanksgiving Day. Naturally for me, I could'nt just leave them be. I had to play with them in the hopes that I could somehow improve them.

The Gray Glider, 12x24". I think the overall idea of the painting is good, but I did a very sloppy job of painting this Great Gray Owl.
This is the new version. I repainted every square millimeter of the old painting.
The same version of the painting, photographed in a different light.
The next painting, Snowshoe Shelter, 15x30" was based on a scene of a Snowshoe Hare in the forest across the street from my house. Since then, the land has been developed and a mini mart now stands in it's place. I liked the overall painting but the hare's face looked really funky to me. The low angle of the winter sun, creates warm colors, called alpenglow.
So here is the new version of the painting. definitly better.Below is a close-up of the first version of the painting.
This is the new Snowshoe Hare. I left the eye as is, but I changed most of the rest of the painting. Good enough for me, at least for now.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Way to Hope

 If you drive from my house in Eagle River, to the picturesque little, hamlet of Hope on the Kenai Penninsula, you will pass several nesting Trumpeter Swans. At least in the summer months. Most of them can be seen, (with luck) around the Portage area, at the end of Turnagain Arm.
Trumpeter Swans were once near extinction, but are a conservation success story, and their numbers are on the rebound. They are a common sight in this part of Alaska.

I finished this painting this afternoon. It progressed along smoothly, and there were no major snags associated with it. The painting's title, The Way to Hope, 16x20",has two meanings. First, you can see them on the way to Hope, and their recovery gives one hope for other species in need of protection.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Lair of the Skunk Bear

Sometimes I spend more time trying to decide what to paint, as I do painting it. This time I set out to paint a Spruce Grouse. They have a complex pattern that makes their plummage very cryptic. This is what I like to paint. I selected some nice reference photos of grouse, and habitat photos, all taken this past summer at Goose Creek.
Then I sketched it all out on a 16x20" gessoboard. All well and good, just boring to look at. I set the drawing aside and gathered photos of Bohemian Waxwings. They are strikingly beautiful, and I have numerous photos of them. Mostly I shot the photos in the Mountain Ash trees growing alongside my driveway. I made a nice sketch on another 16x20" gessoboard... boring.
Next I erased the grouse sketch, and started playing with ideas for a wolverine painting. A friend of mine, Bart Quimby, took some decent photos of a wolverine, as it clambered over the rocks, high in the Chugach Mountains. He gave me permission to use his photos however I wished to do so. I also amassed some additional habitat photos that I have taken in the Chugach Mountains.
In no time I had a sketch on the 16x20" gessoboard that originally was a Spruce Grouse. This was not so boring.
The first part of the painting came off without a hitch. It went smoothly, and very rapidly. I got very enthusiastic about this painting. There were  a few minor problems, painting the wolverine itself, but I soon worked them out to my satisfaction. The rocks in front of the wolverine just did not look as good as the rest of the painting. I re-worked them a few times, and then just added some Birch limbs in front of them. Good enough.
Lair of the Skunk Bear, 16x20" This photo does not do the painting justice. It does replicate the colors fairly well. I also photographed the painting in different light. only the close-up photo came out well.This photo shows the painting  better than the first photo, but the rocks in the painting are not this color. All in all, I am happy with this painting. Given time, I will grow to hate it because I invariably hate all my paintings. Although some hold up better than others. It's the thrill I get while I am planning, and painting that gives me a sense of well being. Not so much the finished product. This one gave me a thrill.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Being Green

One of the blogs I follow, Wild Australian Art, by Peter Brown, inspired this painting. He is working on a painting of a Reef Egret called, Launch. It was the addition of the branch to that great painting, that reminded me of a photo I shot in Nayarit, Mexico, years ago.
This branch looks nothing like Peter's branch. I have no idea why this photo jumped into my mind. All I knew was that I wanted to paint it.
 However I was not real enthusiastic about including the White Ibis. So the search for a suitable subject to place on the branch began. I sorted through my photographic files from Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Thailand, and Cambodia. I considered various raptors, parrots, trogons, bee-eaters, and wading birds of many species. They all seemed to be good subjects to paint, but I have painted so many birds lately.
Then I decided to try adding a cat of some kind. That would have worked just fine, but it's so cliche. Then I thought about doing a painting of a monkey. I have good photos of many species of monkeys, and I don't remember ever painting a monkey. For whatever reason I could not get enthusiastic about the idea.
I love reptiles, and have many, many photos of them. I looked over photos of Boa Constrictors, and I even drew in an iguana. Instead I settled on a male Green Basilisk.This is a lizard I photographed at Cano Negro, near the Nicaraguan border in northern Costa Rica. They are locally known as Jesus Christ Lizards  because of their habit of running across the surface of the water. They always hang out on branches overhanging the water. To escape danger, they rise up on their hind legs, and sprint across the water's surface. I have seen them run across wide rivers in a split second. They are beyond cool.So this is what I came up with. Being Green 12x24"Yet another painting that will probably never sell. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed painting this one. I did sell a small painting last night. A Red-backed Vole, (mouse), amoung fallen leaves.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Tropical Stuff

Last night brought the first smattering of snow for the season. With the coming of the endless Alaskan winter, my thoughts invariably turn south.
Almost every year I escape the coldest, darkest part of winter by travelling to some exotic location. This year it will be South Africa, but that wont be until the end of January. That means I have to endure the brunt of the nasty. At least it is beautiful.
Over the years I have accumulated an immense collection of tropical reference photos. They make compelling subject matter for paintings. I have become very familiar with certain tropical habitats, and wildlife.
The problem is that most art galleries in Alaska want only Alaska subjects. That means endless paintings of bears, wolves, eagles, and moose etc. Most art buyers want some memento of theit Alaskan adventure. A bear symbolizes Alaska better than anything else. That is why I have painted hundreds of them, and I want to cry everytime I'm about to start a new one. Once I'm into the process it's not so bad.
Ocassionally I just have to paint a tropical subject. These paintings are very hard to sell. I'm hoping that the internet will one day become a steady marketplace for selling these things. I would paint many, many more of them if I could sell them.
The reason I am posting this so soon after my last entry is because I am bored, and it's a way to set up my next blog post which will be a new tropical painting. The following are a few old paintings. Most of which have still never sold, and never get displayed anywhere.
Laughing Falcon, 16x12" This painting is set at the Fortuna Waterfall, near the Arenal Volcano.
This is my favorite part of Costs Rica. Too bad so many other tourists have discovered the place also.
Another Costa Rican subject. Speckled Tanager, 12x16" This painting is set on the property of Alexander Skutch. He was the pioneering ornithologist, and author of the Neotropics. He died at age 100. I had the priveledge of meeting him twice, and getting him to sign his field guide for me.Chestnut-crowned Antpitta. 10x8" These birds occur near Mindo, in Ecuador. The Mindo cloud forest is as good a birding destination as anyplace on earth. Another Ecuadorian bird that is found around Mindo, is the Plate-billed Mountain Toucan. 11x14"

The White-throated Toucan, 12x9", occurs in the Ecuarorian Amazon.Also found in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Black-headed Parrots, 14x11"Ocelots are another Neotrpical inhabitant. 8x10"The big cat, Jaguar, 9x12". I have only found their tracks. One day I hope to be fortunate enough to see the living cat in the wild.
Painted Mud, 12x9" These Macaws, and parrots visit a clay lick in the Ecuadorian Amazon. How is it that this painting has never sold? What the hell is wrong with people?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Another Bad Painting

The problem is that I'm lazy, and I dont take the time to properly plan out a painting. I just get up in the morning, eat some breakfast, and sit down to paint. It's a mindless habit. That's how I get mediochre results like this painting. Last summer I photographed a Spotted Sandpiper on the banks of Goose Creek.
I liked this photo, but the light was very flat. The overall composition, with the vertical stalks of grass seemed intersting to me.
                               This is the pose that I liked the most.

In the photos, the rocks compete too much with the Spotted Sandpiper, so I decided to darken the rocks behind the bird. Now I'm not so sure that was a wise decision. The grass hardly shows against the background rocks. Worst of all, the overall painting looks flat, and gloomy.

This is a close-up of the sandpiper. The painting is 14x11" I' think it's really boring, and beneath the level of artwork that I should be doing at this point in my career. Now that I've set the bar so low, the next painting is bound to be better. Ho hum.