Archive for April, 2010

Photographing wildlife as subjects

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

One evening recently, I watched a great egret preening his feathers, drawing the long filaments of his plumage through his bill and allowing them to drift slowly back down, one by one, to ripple individually in the breeze.  The setting sun glowed through his wafting tail and glazed one shoulder and his neck to emphasize his sinuous lines.  I longed to depict it in watercolor.  Unfortunately, I was too far away to see much detail in the bird, and my memory banks do not retain information as well as they once did, so I decided to use my camera to record the moment for later painting.

Great Egret Preening

Grabbing my digital camera, and opening the back door as quietly as possible, I glided across the lanai and hid behind a palm.

But the bird had become aware of my presence.  The moment was lost.  The egret turned and watched warily, standing as still as I, and even more patiently, to be sure that I represented no threat.  He posed gracefully as I zoomed the camera in on him; he contorted his neck, turned this way and that, and continued to watch me out of the corner of his eye while I recorded shot after shot.  But he did not resume his preening, and I was unable to capture the pose that had initially caught my eye.

Such are the vagaries of wildlife photography.  Ideally, you can catch a prize shot, with light from the right direction, the animal turned at a perfect angle, and everything falling into place.  More often, however, the sun slips behind a cloud, the animal is startled or turns away at the critical moment, your camera’s response is too slow, your battery dies, or your memory card reads “full.”  It happens.  Sometimes things simply don’t work out.  You work with the shots you get and do the best you can.

It’s at those times I realize how dependent I’ve become on photography as an artistic tool.  I take it as a warning that I’m getting lazy and allowing my drawing skills to atrophy.  As an artist, I feel I shouldn’t have to rely on photography as more than a dispensable tool I have at my disposal.  But the fact is that I do find it indispensable.

I don’t intend to take up hunting or start collecting taxidermy to provide myself with easy-to-study subject matter.  I’d rather risk the missed photos and keep my eyes open and camera at hand. I may never get that elusive “perfect shot.” But in the meantime, I’ll enjoy the vitality of the wildlife around me.  Even if I don’t capture it in my camera or successfully reproduce it in watercolor, the experience will have touched me in some way.

Sleeping on it

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Most of the time when I “complete” a painting, I feel pretty excited about my accomplishment.  But I can’t really consider it finished at all until I’ve “slept on it” for awhile.  “Getting Acquainted” (#090502) is a case in point.  Here is the finished product (so far).

Getting Acquainted (revised)

But before giving myself time to carefully evaluate it, I was content with poor value contrast, as you can see below, merely because the likenesses to my daughter and new grandson were good.

Getting Acquainted (before revision)

Some of the spontaneity of brush strokes was lost in the touchup, but I’m convinced that the overall painting was improved by the revisions.  In any case, I learned something in the process.

During the time the bulk of the painting is being undertaken, I usually focus too closely on details to regard the overall composition with a very critical eye.  I almost invariably find that my work can be improved if I take time to distance myself from it and then look at it again with fresh eyes.

That’s why I try to give a painting several days’ rest before evaluating it for touch-up.  Perhaps I can add a greater sense of depth, or the perspective needs to be adjusted.  Sometimes a touch of color will enrich a “flat” area, an area of contrast needs to be exaggerated, or a highlight needs to be brought out.  In this case, the background needed to be lightened behind the profiles, the whiteness of my daughter’s teeth needed to be toned down, and deep shadows needed to be strengthened.

When I’ve given the painting a rest, and my mind something else to think about, a piece I had once been satisfied with might suddenly appear to me like a product of “the morning after the night before.”  Or I realize that a piece I had considered unsalvageable isn’t so bad after all.  In either case I take brush in hand again and do some corrective work.  In this case, I experienced both ends of the spectrum.  The painting sat, flat and unsatisfying to me, for over a year.  When I picked it up again and held a mat against it, I liked it for the first time.  But I became too eager.  It took just a single night more to reveal to me why it had been unsatisfying before and how I could improve it.

I hate to admit it, but some paintings require several touch-up and sleep-on-it sessions. (Amazingly enough, they rarely get wrinkled from all my nocturnal mental gyrations.)  In the long run, with a little tenderness and judicious tweaking (and maybe even a shot of eye-glass cleaner), we both usually come out looking better than before.

What is your background?

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

In order to feature the two figures in “The Challenge,” I decided to minimize the background, which, in the reference photograph, was a rather busy room.  I tried the same composition using both a dark (#090704) and a light (#090706) background.  The resulting difference was dramatic.  (This item is categorized under The School of Oops not because it was a mistake but because I learned a great lesson from my experimentation.  You’re invited to comment on the “lab” results.)

The Challenge 1

The dark background draws attention to the playing board, lit by a glaring, bare bulb almost directly overhead, which also fades the players’ features into shadow.  Focus is on the board and the impending move.  The question posed is “Who…or what… is challenging whom?”

The Challenge 2

The light background, on the other hand, draws attention to the two players, rather than to the board, and suggests a higher level of ambient light that reflects more color into the players’ faces.  The play here is only a moment away from that in the other version as the player in blue now contemplates the board.  Is he reassessing the position into which he’s just placed his opponent, or is he evaluating his own predicament?

Not only does the background I chose for each version affect how the viewer interprets the scene, but it affected my own approach and response to the subject matter as I painted.  My treatment of the details in the two versions is somewhat different, partly because of the tone set by the different backgrounds.

I would be interested to hear comments regarding your preference of the two versions and why you feel about each the way you do.

Fooling with flowers

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

A white flower can fool you!

I’ve always been intrigued by the form of flowers.  I remember, as a child, studying a daffodil and being awed to discover that the golden trumpet and the crowning petals were all of a single piece, blending seamlessly from one to the other.  But wholly aside from form, color can also provide an interesting study.

Plant forms and colors still fascinate me:  the almost endless array of greens in the early spring; the golds and purples of autumn; petals of diaphanous fragility or succulent solidity; the innumerable textures of deciduous bark and the intricate woven appearance of a palm trunk; leaf shapes—round to bladelike; stems—woody to fibrous; and seed pods of too many shapes, colors, and sizes to list.  I continue to be attracted to textures revealed by light rippling across a surface, delicacy disclosed when light glows through a leaf or petal, and unfurling layers differentiated by color, texture, and shape.

100302 Mega Magnolia

Mega Magnolia

It still surprises me that an apparently monochromatic flower can harbor so many variations of tone, reflect so many different hues from its surroundings, and still be seen by some viewers as simply “white.”  Don’t be fooled.  I used both blue and yellow ochre, as well as a touch of orange at the petal tips, to model the “Mega Magnolia” (#100302) shown here.

You might want to compare it with the various other white flowers shown in the Botanicals Gallery to see the range of colors found in the “white” blossoms represented there.