Have you ever wondered how you can create more wow factor in your wildlife art? In this article I will be discussing my creative process, from taking reference photos to composition tricks and realistic details.
In the past few years I have found that there are an abundance of wildlife artists who are struggling to create what they have in their minds eye. One of the keys for a great wildlife work starts with field work. With sketchbook in hand and camera at the ready it is time to get our reference material!
ON THE HUNT!
For gathering my reference material I make sure that I've got a powerful digital camera on hand to capture my vision. For many wildlife subjects you will need a camera with a strong optical zoom (around 300mm to 420mm is great), a sturdy tripod and plenty of patience.
The cameras I use and recommend are the Panasonic and the Fujifilm ultra zoom range of digital cameras. Both have powerful zoom capabilities, great lens and good sharp detail. A key when selecting a camera is to make sure that you get features that will be beneficial to the job at hand. Make sure that the camera has a manual zoom as this will eliminate it from locking on to a leaf in the foreground when your subject is out of focus in the background.
For my reference photos I venture out to my local zoos and wildlife parks. Melbourne Zoo is my favoured spot. I've spent so much time out there over my life that it is like a second home to me (apart from the fragrant smell of elephant poo!). When I arrive at the zoo I have a plan of action. If it's your first visit to the zoo see if you can get a map of the park form a website. This way you can get a feel for the area and know what animals are based where. Then you can decide what places are top priority. For me the first stops are always the lions, tigers, elephants and orangutans.
Many enclosures may be quite dark so when using your camera try to shoot at the fastest shutter speed you can to avoid blurry photos. Work with a tripod if you are going to be at a particular spot for a long time and make sure that you are comfortable. When you are set up study the animal, watch it's movements. For example a sumatran tiger prowling through it's environment has an amazing fluid motion to it. Making quick gestural sketches will help you translate element such as this when you return to the studio. Also taking small video clips in conjunction with your photos will be very benenficial.
Once you have gathered your reference material it's time to attack the easel.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRELIMINARY DRAWING
With any artwork doing a preliminary drawing will allow you to get to know your subject more intimately. It will help you find the animal's personality. Bringing that sense of self to your portrayal of the animal will ensure that it connects with your viewer.
The preliminary stage will also allow you to work through composition choices. Does the image have balance? Is the subject in the centre of the page? If so see if you can move it to create a more dynamic painting. I personally subscribe to the golden mean principle. By placing my focal point on the intersection of one of the thirds of the work I can create excitement in the image.
I also like to include backgrounds in my work, setting the scene to make it feel more genuine. Even merely suggesting the background (see Bulan for an example) can be used to great effect.
Study the colours and tones of the reference material. Are there colour compliment that can be used? Is the contrast strong enough? Remember that the preliminary stage is all about problem solving. By doing this now you will save yourself a great deal of grief on the final painting. The aim is to have painted the art in your head before it is even started.
DOES YOUR WORK HAVE A STORY OR A MESSAGE?
When working with wildlife I am always looking for a story to tell. Whether it is the dynamics of two lazy lions resting on the savannah or the baby elephant wandering through the dusty desert after his father I attempt to find something to say through the image. Subtlety is the best way to tackle this.
Look at the way I've used the soulful sad expression of the orangutan tell the story of her species threatened existence in the piece above.
GETTING STARTED ON THE FINISHED WORK
In order to portray an animal convincingly you need to make sure that you have a grasp on it's anatomy. For this reason I recommend that you do an accurate layout before getting to work. This will keep you in line with what you want to achieve.
For me the finished work takes 5 stages: Layout, Block in, Background, Animal and Refinement
For the layout stage I concentrate on the anatomy of the animal, it's placement in the scene and key features in the background. I do this using two pastel pencils, one light and one dark to map out the the shadows and highlights. I keep this tight and accurate as the success of my finished work depends on it.
The block in is done lightly using my pastel sticks to cover all areas of the paper. I use hatching at this point to begin the process of describing fur textures or skin. I should mention that paper choice is very important to making your life easier when using pastels. Choose a paper colour that can be used in the image either as a compliment or an undertone.
When doing the block in I will usually start with the background to set the scene for my star. I then start working on the animal, ignoring any markings such as spots or stripes as they can distract you at this early stage.
With the block in completed I move back to the background and build the textures and details to compliment the animal and describe the environment. Remember that this is a background and you don't want it to compete with your true subject. Keep things simple.
The time has come to get down to business. It's time to work on the animal. Starting with the eyes is generally a good idea as you can inject the personality of the animal early on before you get too carried away. Keep to your layout and reference sketches. By doing this you can include your personal experience from when you encountered the animal in your work. This will ensure that the work has spirit, soul and impact.