“A home without books is a body without soul.” Marcus Tullius Cicero
Oxygen, food, water, sleep, shelter. These are the five basic needs for human survival, and these are the fundamental characteristics of our species, and of many others. It is the way we have adapted and expanded upon these basic needs that has enabled us to evolve and flourish as a species. But over millennia these needs have seen huge changes, and have become some of the defining features of our species. We have turned food into an art form and an indulgence which is becoming a disease, we dedicate whole rooms in our houses and hours upon hours for sleep, doing something that very few other species do; we make beds, we sleep in them, and we mate in them.
Most animals survive with little or no shelter, but humans have taken this need further than perhaps almost any other species. Most animals will seek shelter during a torrential rainstorm; whether it is simply huddling together in a herd, gathering under a tree or, as our great ape cousins do, making a rudimentary umbrella out of broad leaves. But there is a vast difference between needing shelter and desiring a home.
What does home mean? Is home a basic human instinct, to build a shelter to protect oneself from the elements? Is it a den where one can raise offspring in safety away from predators? Is home a means to show off one’s wealth or status? Is home simply a feeling?
And what of about our animal relatives?
Why is it that sometimes we feel at home, and sometimes we don’t? What is homesickness, and is the concept of a home changing?
I’ll be exploring these quandaries in a couple of blog posts to follow. I want to look at the definition of home by looking at what the word means to humans across the globe, and also looking at non-human animals, to gleam the origin, the root of this domineering human need. And of course, at the end of this exploration in words, there will be an exploration in paint!
As a child, and I confess even as an adult, it is the work of people such as David Attenborough and Jane Goodall that warm my south, and inspire me to believe that there is good in this world, and we are making positive steps towards change.
In the face of climate change, globalisation, war and overpopulation, animals are under greater threat than ever before. However, in 2017 we are in a better position than ever to protect and conserve them. Conservation has never been easier than it is in the 21st Century: we have social media, email, worldwide broadcasting and many other forms of media to share stories of struggling species, but also to share success stories and to encourage people and communities to work together.
For me, art is just an extension of this means to spread the word of conservation and its importance. David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey and Peter Singer (to name just a few) each have their own unique platform, presenting to use conservation not necessarily through heart-wrenching images of suffering or tragic tales of failure, but through provoking in us a sense of awe, wonder and hope.
For me, art is conservation, Through paintings of rare and unique animal species and presenting them at exhibitions, showcasing them online and turning them into wonderful stationery and household products, wildlife is taking centre stage in a medium previously reserved for landscapes or religion. Beautiful paintings, just like those of Franz Marc, or those that I myself am painting, give us a unique insight into the world, and encourage us to care.
Through the promotion and sales of such paintings, we can also actively participate in conservation projects, through donating a percentage of sales and commissions to worthy conservation projects. It is your choice. This is why I paint, to inspire, to conserve.
This week, I thought I’d delve into some detail about the painting that took up my easel for the last five months; for me, a marathon of a painting. I’m always fascinated to learn how other artists work, what inspires them, the materials and techniques that they use, so I thought I’d share some of mine.
Starting with the initial watercolour sketch:
A lot of you have heard about that kakapo; its unique evolution, its quirky behaviour, mating habits, and of course, the threats currently facing it. There are few paintings of kakapo, and the majority of them are fairly traditional. I wanted to capture a different side to this remarkable bird that is something between an owl and a parrot, both in habit and appearance. Colour was going to be the primary motivation for these piece, using rich, bold hues and blocks of colour to set the scene, much as I did in my previous ‘Solutrean’ paintings.
Oh, and it had to be big.
(I apologise as some photos were taken in natural light so there’s some glare from the wet paint etc)
When it comes to transferring a drawing from paper onto canvas, there are several methods I use; whether it’s tracing onto the canvas from an inked drawing, or creating a scaled-up sketch using the grid method. This time, I was feeling confident. No pencil in sight, I grabbed a watery acrylic mix and sketched the basic outline of the bird, some feather details and a few wisps of background.
The underpainting; a thin mix of cadmium yellow light oil paint, and a touch of orange, I knew would be crucial to holding it all together later on.
Next I started from the outside, in, getting in the darks of the background which will help bring the bird forward, and give the feeling that he is trudging through the dark undergrowth. I love that burnt orange. I experimented with a few hints of feathers too.
After a month, I’ve darkened up the darks and increased the tones, but haven’t made much progress on the kakapo himself. It was important to have a solid framework behind it, before I started fussing over the bird too much.
There comes a point in a painting which I call the hurdle; the critical point where perhaps you might have got lost from your initial sketch, and perhaps started throwing paint down in an over-eager anticipation of the finished piece. The photo above is where I reached this critical point. I wasn’t happy with the green; even though it is a fair representation of the light kakapo green, but it somehow, didn’t fit. Lots of standing, staring, taking photographs, and generally, taking a step back from the painting helped me through this tricky transition stage.
You learn a lot about painting whilst you’re painting, and I’ve learned that mistakes can be a good thing. As you can see from the previous photo to this one, the kakapo has transformed. The white line running through the birds centre was originally a dark brown branch, but it was too dead centre, and taking up too much of a focus. But I wasn’t concerned at this stage. I started thinking of the kakapo more in terms of shapes, and bringing it back in harmony with the background.
Almost three months since I started, here is the latest in progress shot. As you can see, that heavy branch in the middle has gone and the kakapo has started to gain some feathering in the tail. Now to work on the branch at his feet, refine the body, and bring in some darks back into the background.
You can have the best plan in the world, but sometimes, paintings just evolve all by themselves. I made sketches, notes, colour maps and had a clear idea in my head, but it turned out a little different. However, I am thrilled with the transformation. The kakapo has a special place in my heart, and now, so does its painting.
Five months in the making and featuring New Zealand’s endangered kakapo, this is much more than just a painting to me. This is what I strive for, why I paint for what I love, and why you should love the natural world too.