“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead Late last year, at the same time the Presidential election results shook the nation, the majestic Laysan albatross started returning to Kaua‘i. They dropped their spatula-like feet and touched […]
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.
The world is quite literally on our doorstep. Thanks to globalisation, immigration, airline travel and our amplified imagination, almost every corner of the world has been discovered, trampled on, and had a selfie taken with it.
Yet there are still places in the world that most of us have never heard of. Species we’ve never heard of; a habitat we never knew existed. What is even more surprising and sobering, is that some of these species could be gone before we even realise they were ever there.
A prime example is the saola, affectionately known as the Asian unicorn, an animal as legendary as its name implies. The saola is only as old as I am (in terms of its exposure, having only been discovered officially in 1992), but already it is facing severe pressures. Its evergreen forest habitat sits caged in from all sides, hemmed-in by the Annamite mountains, along the borders of Vietnam and Laos. The saola is unfortunate enough to be caught between two extremely industrialised and developing countries, and it faces habitat destruction, which people to exploit to hunt for food, traditional medicine and more.
“Only recently discovered, saola are already extremely threatened. At a time when species extinction on the planet has accelerated, we can work together to snatch this one back from the edge of extinction.”
Dr. Barney Long, WWF Asian species expert
No forest is too far away for us to ignore any longer.
The process of formulating a painting is fraut with difficulties.
What may seem to be a very simple relationship between colour, subject and form to an outsider, is often a complex web of decisions that you made, un-made, and didn’t make at all.
The above painting is at first glance a fairly straightforward piece, in composition and chromatically. There are only really two tones here, and the piece holds itself together thanks to this quiet harmony.
Nature works in harmony with itself; even though it doesn’t always seem to be the case. Raging savanna fires restore the balance of populations and fertilize the grass, the weak die so that the strong can survive. There is a delicate, complex web that unites all species, all habitats and all natural phenomena.
The harmony of nature is the theme I approach in painting. And New Zealand’s sparky, fat parrot the Kakapo is a perfect example of this. This unfortunate flightless parrot had evolved in perfect harmony with its natural forest habitat that was free of ground based, furry predators. But times change, and we, like the Kakapo, have to evolve with them or find a new harmony.
The purpose of this blog is for me to lay down some ideas for my next painting; figuring out what harmonies I need to figure out before I put paintbrush to canvas. It’s important for a painting to appear unified and effortless, whilst at the same time evoking a sense of a deeper meaning behind it (and I’m not talking the meaning behind a black square, either, I’m talking something real). How do I transform a subject, a topic that moves me, into a canvas that moves others?
Instead of looking at the finished painting as the goal, look at the whole process. An evolution in itself.
Rulers of the sky,
No vulture ever soared so high
As to see its own creation.
No butterfly ever flapped its wings
And changed the beating of our planet’s heart.
Rulers of the land,
Our footprints trampling the carbon
Out of stardust-turned fossils.
The lion never left so much waste
That the decomposers decomposed.
Rulers of the sea,
The humpback’s moonlight sonata
Drowned by hulls, by steel, by the sounds
That even silence cannot ignore.
Rulers of the cosmos,
The persieds streak through matter
To which we have no consequence
We are merely matter
That does not matter.
Against what we cannot contemplate,
Numbers to great, heat too hot,
Horizons that cannot be broken.
Looking up to the heavens we should realise
Only we can see this.
Looking down to our planet
Only we can save this.
I’ve visited many zoos around the world in my twenty five years on this planet, and I always looked forward to indulging in my love of nature in whatever small, humble way I could, land-locked in the centre of the UK or, more recently, relocated on a tiny Mediterranean island with virtually no native mammal species.
So during my recent trip to Madrid a day out to the city’s zoo was definitely on my to-do list. However, after my visit I found myself feeling unusually hollow and felt as though I had come to a new realisation since my last zoo experience eight years ago.
Zoos have moved on a great deal since 1828 when weird and wonderful animals were transported from across our colonies for our gawking eyes and our amusement. Facilities have improved, cages (or enclosures) have gotten bigger, and education, welfare and conservation have become a much higher priority. Zoos have allowed many people, me included, to learn about species that they would not have otherwise been able to see, and zoos inspire and intrigue us at all ages.
However, I left the city zoo feeling that this showcase of the natural world, as diverse and immersing as it was, was just a falsity. A portfolio of species in a context that simply does not exist in the wild. I struggle to see the benefits of zoos claiming conservation aims when they have managed to successfully breed a family of rare giant pandas, only to keep them confined to a relatively small and featureless enclosure with no possibility of ever introducing them into the wild to diversify its minuscule population.
I struggle to see the educational purposes of keeping (as far as I could see, at least) a lone wolf in an area not big enough for it to break into a run. This is not a typical or an accurate representation of the wolf in the wild. We all know that the wolf is a highly intelligent, social and transient species that roams vast areas and holds a huge territory with diverse habitat.
I struggle to see how children benefit from being held in front of a fence by their parents for a photo, when the child is not even old enough to know that he is a child. Or how older children can learn anything aboutanimals by banging on the glass screaming, or commenting (yet again) that they found Dory.
It’s problematic for me, one who wishes to indulge in nature as much as possible, and who craves contact with the natural world, to feel such apathy for this place. Whilst I am certain at least that the animals that I saw had their basic needs taken care of, behavioural, spacial, social and psychological restrictions are clearly felt. It definitely gave me some serious food for thought.
I’d love to know your opinions on this matter.
I always love reading about conservation success stories, they fill me with hope and the drive to continue painting, researching, and just generally getting involved in nature.
I find the kakapo’s heartwarming story particularly moving, partly because of my love of New Zealand and it’s stunning wildlife, partly because it shows just what we can achieve when we put our minds to it. A story of conservation and human dedication at its finest.
The kakapo might be world famous, but its current population would just about be enough to fill every seat in New Zealand’s parliament.
There are many reasons to admire the kakapo and want to save it, not only because it is one of the few, tough, island survivors from New Zealand’s era of great flightless birds, but because it is a prime example of evolution ‘gone wrong’. A squat, fat parrot that lives on the ground, sleeps during the day, can’t fly (but seems to have forgotten that it can’t) and makes a highly unusual low-frequency boom; very unlike our typical view of a chirpy, delicate parrot flitting around the trees in the sunshine.
The kakapo is unfortunately under threat due to its changing habitat. Since humans arrived, many flightless birds, marsupials and other species fell victim to humanity’s vices including their tasty appeal and easy capture for the cats and dogs that found their way onto the islands. The kakapo is no exception, now restricted to a few predator-free islands and living in a state of permanent intrusion, in the sense that humans are constantly monitoring their movements, their health, mating habits, breeding successes etc. But in this case, human interference is actually their salvation. And, thankfully, this year, the population of booming parrots are having a little baby boom.
If there’s hope for the world’s rarest parrot, there’s hope for every species.
Read. Watch. Learn. Get to know about these little stories; get involved.