Untamed Land

Untamed Land
Untamed Land

Monday, January 31, 2011

Feathers on the Brain

Way back in high school, one of my classmates was a licensed falconer. He really impressed me with his knowledge of raptors. He could identify all the local hawks and owls, and talk authoritatively about them.
I particularly remember one day in art class when he was trying to do a pencil drawing of a hawk. He was struggling with the feathers of the bird's shoulder. His drawing looked very similar to the re-creation I did in the above photo. He knew all about lesser and greater coverts, secondaries and primaries etc. What he could'nt do was make them look natural.
He was far from satisfied with his results and we were discussing the difficulty of making feathers look right. I wanted to help him but I did'nt know how to properly render bird feathers either. The art teacher was fully aware of our discussion, but she felt that it was her job to encourage artistic self expression rather than to teach technique. I assumed at the time that she did'nt help us because she could'nt draw feathers either.
We were approaching the problem from an illustrator's perspective, rather than an artistic viewpoint. We knew nothing about the underlying structure of the bird, and how it influenced the surface texture of feathers.
In the last post I discussed the need to pay attention to tonal values. This time I will cover the topic of underlying form. I did'nt start making any real progress with surface textures until I spent a great deal of time studying the works of other artists, especially Robert Bateman's paintings. He was all about the overall form, and never obsessed about detail. I would love to use some of his paintings as examples, but I worry about copyright infringement so I'll use my own paintings which are heavily influenced by his approach to painting.
Learning to paint feathers is like learning to read. You memorize the individual letters but you can't start reading until you place the letters in context with the entire word. You can't make a feather look right until you place it in the proper context of the wing's basic shape. The trick is to paint the form of the wing first, and then add individual feathers. Or rather the impression of individual feathers. The Goshawk's shoulder in the photo above is an example. I formed the feathers around the contour of the hawk's shoulder only after I had painted the shape of it's shoulder.
The contour of the Golden Eagle's wing in the photo above is another example.
About the same time I was struggling to draw feathers correctly I was given the art materials of a local artist who had recently passed away. He died after a long life and my understanding was greatly enhanced by studying what he left behind.
One important clue I picked up was a simple notation left on a preliminary sketch. It said, "light source?" and was followed by an arrow. I puzzled about what that meant until I realized that the artist was referring to the directionality of the painting's light and shadows. The painting above for example, is strengthened by the strong light with cast shadows which emphasizes form. The adult eagle's wing looks right because I painted it's form in context with the rest of the composition. All this before I added surface details.
Birds with complex patterns like this Golden-crowned Sparrow are an added challenge because you have to figure out how to incorporate the pattern into the bird's form. First you need to think about the form and then contour the pattern to wrap around the curves. Some markings will be very distinct where they face the viewer and others are intentionally obscured to suggest curvature.
This Red-throated Loon demonstrates how the feathers follow the curved form of the bird, with some cast shadow to create the illusion of three dimensions. It has the added feature of some reflected light at the back of the bird.
Making white feathers can also be a bit of a challenge. One of Robert Bateman's paintings that astounded me most of all was a pair of Tundra Swans standing on a frozen lake. It can be found in his first book. It impresses me so much because it depicts a white bird, standing in front of another white bird, both of them set against a white background.
The technical challenge of pulling that off is something that  amazes me. I analized that painting for hours on end. It helps to have a strong light source for that kind of a painting to emphazise the bird's form.
 The painting above depicts a pair of Trumpeter Swans that I observed in Potter Marsh, south of Anchorage. Notice the mix of warm and cold tones beneath the swan's plummage, and especially in the cast shadows.

Another challenge that I still struggle with is the look of wet feathers. Two things that help re-create that impression is to show streaky down in between the surface feathers, and to add a reflective sheen like you can see on the eagle's back.
Those same characteristics of streaky feathers and reflective light can be seen on this Red-necked Grebe's back. There are also water droplets that dont really show well in the photo. This is one of my favorite paintings.
Another crucial technique to understand is the use of washes and glazes to create atmosphere and mood.  A wash is a very thin layer of white or any color that includes white. A glaze is a very thin coat of paint of any color that excludes white. Payne's Gray makes a great wash, and Burnt Sienna makes a great glaze. Robert Bateman is the undisputed master of these techniques.
There are hardly any hard details on the above Northern Hawk Owl because I used several thin washes over the whole painting. It softened the mood of the painting.
This Snipe painting is warmed and softened by some Burnt Sienna Glazes applied on top of the painting.
I really took it to an extreme with this Snowy Owl painting. There are almost no details on this bird's body.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Hoary Tale

Hoary Marmot Study, 7x5"
My latest painting is another miniature. This is the Alaska sub-species of the Hoary Marmot. Many people mistake marmots for badgers or wolverines, but badgers and wolverines are  relatives of weasels. Marmots are rodents, like big fat squirrels. In North America there are Hoary, Yellow-bellied Marmot, and Woodchuck, also called Groundhog. Hoary Marmots are further divided into the nominate form, Olympic, Vancouver, and Alaska sub-species. Marmots frequent rocky outcrops in mountainous regions, while Woodchucks prefer the lowlands.
A detail of the above painting. In the previous blog post I referred to the importance of paying attention to tonal values, (which I did'nt do with the trogon). I did keep tonal values in mind while planning this one. Notice how the marmot's head stands out being lighter in tone than the background rocks. Yet the background rocks are much lighter in tone than the dark markings on the marmot's face.
In the beginning I used to obsess about the surface detail of my subject. Getting fur to look like fur, and feathers to look like feathers was the big challenge. I just did not realize that the trick to gettong surface texture right lies in getting the underlying foundation right.
When you paint the tonal values in first, adding fur is simple and often takes few brush strokes to create the illusion of fur. It is crucially important to pull the whole thing together with washes and glazes that soften brush strokes and create harmony to the overall composition.
Since this is such a short blog post, I decided to play with some close crops of some photos of a Red-breasted Nuthatch that I photographed a few years ago.
The late afternoon light was so strong on my balcony that it was a challenge to get the exposure right. The effect looks like some of the works of the old European masters who often painted a subject lit only by one candle.
I quit feeding birds after a Black Bear climbed up to my balcony and stole all my bird seed. It is actually illegal to feed birds in the Summer months because it attracts bears to neighborhoods where they tend to get shot eventually.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Narina Trogon and Some Waxwings

Narina Trogon, 10x8"
This is my latest little painting, done in preparation for my upcoming trip to Uganda. I like to bring a few small paintings with me which I sell to fellow travellers, or trade for lodging at nice resorts. Narina Trogons were one of my favorite birds that I saw last Feb. in South Africa. I hope to get better photos in Uganda.
Whenever a painting is in the planning stages I know it's a good idea to work out tonal values ahead of time. Do I want the main focal point to stand out as a lighter subject set against a darker background or vice versa? Often I just cant make up my mind how it should look so I just wing it, and hope for the best. That was the case with this painting. Like with most paintings, it looks much better in life, than it does in the photo.

Just about the time I finished the trogon painting this morning I heard the sweet calls of Bohemian Waxwings out the back window. The day is heavily overcast today, so it's challenging to photograph darker birds set against a bright gray sky.
The photos just looked like dark silhouettes against the sky so I had to play with the brightness/contrast setting on my photo editing program to get any detail on the birds.
There were hundreds of these guys in the nieghborhood, but they were scattered too far apart to get good group shots. I dont know what kind of berries they were feeding on.
There was also a Robin out there calling but I could'nt spot it. That brings my list of birds so far this year up to 4 species seen, 3 species heard. That's winter in Alaska.
It started snowing shortly after these photos were taken.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mountain of Death

There is a big mountain that separates northern Costa Rica from the southern half of the country. Cerro de la Muerte, is called the Mountain of Death by wimpy Costa Ricans who are hyper sensitive to temperature changes. Many of them dont even own a long sleeved shirt, let alone a coat. Although it never even snows on the slopes of Cerro de la Muerte, it gets cold enough to kill people who are adapted to a tropical climate.
The mountain rises up through cloud forest to Paramo habitat above timberline. Paramo is like a tropical version of tundra. The view above overlooks the Pacific lowlands near Tarcoles and Carara. It is usually cloudy and rainy on the always cool mountain.
Sadly most of the slopes in Costa Rica have been cleared of their forests in order to create cow pasture.
Parts of Cerro de la Muerte are protected. Here are my friends Betty and Dick on the trail in Tapanti National Park. Tapanti is one very wet place. We were fortunate that it did'nt rain much on our visit to the park. It has typical cloud forest habitat.
Betty enjoys the scenery beside the Rio Macho in Tapanti.
A horse dreams of greener pastures, or maybe just sunnier pastures.

These dairy cows share the horse's sentiment. It's easy to get disoriented in this kind of fog.
Naturally the birds on Cerro de la Muerte are different species than those found in the lowlands. This is the highland thrush called a Sooty Robin. The name may have been changed to Sooty Thrush, I'm not sure. Mountain Robin is a duller version that shares the same habitat.
A tiny Black-capped Flycatcher hunts insects from it's vantage on a Rasberry plant.
Another characteristic bird of the cloud forest is the Black-billed Nightingale Thrush. It's song is very similar to a Hermit Thrush.
This is another view of a Black-billed Nightingale Thrush.
Although it's a terrible photo, I was thrilled to find this Red-faced Spinetail. It was building a huge nest out of living moss right above the trail in Tapanti NP.
Mirador de los Quetzales, also called Finca Eddie Serrano is the most reliable place I know of the see the Resplendant Quetzal. The quetzal is one of the world's most sought after species by serious birders. It has a bright red breast, but this bird would not let me photograph it from an angle that showed the breast. Quetzals are a relative of the trogons. My list of trogons includes.
Citreoline Trogon
Northern Violaceous Trogon
Amazonan Violaceous Trogon
Black-headed Trogon
Black-throated Trogon
Amazon White-tailed Trogon
Elegant Trogon
Slaty-tailed Trogon
Black-tailed Trogon
Masked Trogon
Baird's Trogon
Blue-crowned Trogon
Narina Trogon
and I heard the Orange-bellied Trogon calling but could not spot it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tarcoles and Carara

Tarcoles is most famous for it's huge crocadiles. Since I recently did a post about crocadiles, I wont include them here. The Tarcoles River is loaded with aquatic birds as well. The town of Tarcoles, next to the river, is right on the West Coast in central Costa Rica. Frankly the place is kind of seedy, and I did'nt feel safe in some parts of town. It's best to stay at one of the places outside of the main part of town.
This is a somewhat nocturnal, Bare-throated Tiger Heron. While I was taking this photo, a spectacular Sunbittern flew past and I missed it completely. Remember that these photos are 35mm slides, scanned into the computer. The original slides are in much sharper focus.
Just another Anhinga. I like the epiphites in the photo.
The only two owls that I have seen in Costa Rica were in Tarcoles. A ferruginous Pygmy Owl, and this Pacific Screech Owl. Tarcoles is right at the southern boundary of this owl's range.
The Riverside Wren is most notable for it's loud, complex, and beautiful song. This bird was busily building a nest right at the entrance to Carara National Park.
Carara is a postage stamp sized patch of primary forest next to Tarcoles, that contains a mixture of Northwestern and Southwestern Costa Rican birds. It draws many birders, and is a most worthy destination.

An Amieva suns itself in a patch of sunlight on the forest floor.

Carara is a good place to see forest skulkers like this male Chestnut-backed Antbird.
Carara is also an easy place to see Scarlet Macaws although this bird was photographed in Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Penninsula. It is also a good place to see, or at least hear, Three-wattled Bellbirds. They sound like someone striking a skillet with a wooden mallet.
At the main entrance to the park, Spiny-tailed Iguanas beg for handouts. They will take food right from your hands if you are a fool like me. I did not get bitten, at least not that time. This individual had a beautiful blue color on the front half of it's body.
Costa Rica is the place where I have seen the most colorful butterflies, by far. I dont know what this one is.
A Crimson Patch Longwing.
Another shy bird of the deep forest. This is a male Black-hooded Antshrike.
Other noteworthy birds we saw in Carara were,
Dusky Antbird
Black-faced Ant Thrush
Ruddy Quail Dove
Dotted-winged Antwren
Orange-collared Manakin
Turquoise-browed Motmot
Sulfer-rumped Flycatcher
Streaked Flycatcher
Blue-throated Goldentail
Mealy Parrot
Red-crowned Woodpecker
Black-crowned Tityra
Yellow-headed Cara cara
Short-tailed Hawk
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Orange-billed Sparrow
White-shouldered Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
and much more.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Dry Northwest

Northwestern Costa Rica has a different climate than either Southwestern, or Northeastern Costa Rica. It tends to be drier and often very windy. It reminds me very much of Western Mexico. The photo above is a view of Rincon de La Vieja National Park. The upper levels of the park are often enshrouded in clouds, and are much wetter than the lower slopes.
This photo shows the typical habitat of much of the park, and much of the Northwest. I was very disappointed by the paucity of birdlife that we saw during a half day visit to Rincon de la Vieja. We saw four birds. A Blue-crowned Motmot, a White-lored Gnatcatcher, a Summer Tanager, and a Broad-winged Hawk. We also saw some Spiny-tailed Iguanas, some Coatis, and an Agouti. There were many more birds and other wildlife just outside the park.

An Agouti is an aquatic, rabbit-sized rodent, like a small Capybara. They are common in many parts of Costa Rica.
A Spiny-tailed Iguana in the park. This is a female. They are also known as Ctenosaurs. The Costa Rican Ctenosaurs are much more colorful than Mexican individuals of the same species.
A magnificent male in Palo Verde National Park.
Common Iguanas are also easily found in the region.

The highlight of my trip to Palo Verde National Park was the sighting of this large Boa Constrictor at least 8ft long. One of my friends estimated it's length at 12ft. I know it was'nt that big.

Finding this snake was such a thrill, it's worth a second photo. It was crossing the road at dusk. I picked it up and put it on this tree branch to make it easier to photograph. It hissed loudly with open mouth, but never actually struck at me.

This is a House Gecko that shared my hotel room. House Geckos are a group of closely related species that occur in tropical regions throughout the world. They are so widespread, and dependant on human habitations, that no one is certain of their original habitat, or home range. They will keep you awake at night with their frequent chirping.

Groove-billed Anis are an abundant bird.
A specialty of the region, Rufous-naped Wren. They are one of the largest species of wren.
White-fronted Parrots are known in the pet trade as Spectacled Amazons. They range from Western Mexico to Northwestern Costa Rica. Many of the birds in the Northwest share a similar range and habitat preference.
Collared Aracaris and Keel-billed Toucans are the toucan species of the region. This aracari was nesting in the courtyard of our lodge. It's tail is bent because of the strong wind which blew day and night, day after day.
White-faced Capuchins are easy to spot both inside and outside the protected areas.
Howler Monkeys are also widespread. I have even seen them in towns.
Some of my favorite birds of Northwestern Costa Rica are,
White-throated Magpie Jay
Lesser Ground Cuckoo
Mangrove Cuckoo
Double-striped Thick-knee
Muscovy Duck
Crane Hawk
White-collared Swift
There were also many North American migrants like,
Wood Thrush
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Also many species I had previously seen in Mexico like,
White-collared Seedeater
Orange-fronted Parakeet
etc etc.