On Art and Nature
The Parrotfish completes my four canvases depicting a coral reef for the Art Challenge show at the Village Gallery of Arts in May. This is one of my favorite fish families. Among the shallow reef fish, they grow to immense sizes, and have colorful patterns that remind me of Impressionist pastels.
Today I am posting the third canvas down, which I call the reef regulars. All three of these fish have been frequent companions in reefs where I often snorkel.
At the top is a member of the abundant, colorful Wrasse family. This is an adult Yellow-tailed Wrasse. Wrasses morph through distinctive pattern and color phases from juvenile to adult, and from female to male. The changes can be so pronounced that even the experts who classify them have sometimes mistaken their young as separate species.
On the left, near the coral, is a Spotted Boxfish. This fish family have bodies encased in protective armor, and can only move their eyes, mouths and fins. They navigate the reef successfully using just their fins for propulsion.
On the right is a Reef Triggerfish, the official State Fish of Hawaii. Notice how its eyes are positioned high and far back on its body. This allows the fish to dine on sea urchins without risking a poke in the eye.
My second canvas in the series of four is called Reef Beauties. It shows two Moorish Idols and one Ornate Butterfly Fish. I admire the Idols for the delicate way they move through the water like ballerinas with their flowing filament streamers. They share bold color patterns with the Butterfly Fish mainly bright white, black and yellow. These are not merely decorative. Common features, such as the vertical stripes that pass through their eyes, provide protection by confusing their predators. Many of the Butterfly family (although not the Ornate) have false eye-spots near their tails to further baffle their enemies.
The Village Gallery of Arts annual Art Challenge is now only two weeks away. All four paintings are finished and ready. I will post them one per day this week. I knew that I would run into some unexpected issues as I worked back and forth between them. This painting is the Green Sea Turtle, the uppermost canvas in the quartet. As I worked on the Sea Turtle, I found I needed to make adjustments to the background I had completed earlier if I wanted it to look like he was actually propelling himself through the water. I also added a Yellow Tang in the background, to give the water some depth. So here he is. More tomorrow.
First Stage in Painting "The Reef"
I am creating a four canvas set depicting a coral reef scene for Village Gallery of Arts annual Art Challenge. Any media is acceptable, but I decided to use oils. So I need to begin painting now to allow plenty of time for my work to dry before the May opening.
Because I must work on 6" x 6" canvases, I need to be mindful of keeping the design simple and avoiding clutter or too much detail.
My first step was sketching lots of "candidate fish" for the reef, and also filling a sketchbook with 6" x 6" sketches of possible arrangements of fish within each canvas. There are so many striking and fascinating fish to choose from. KISS.
When I got ready to move my drawings from ink sketches on paper to charcoal on canvas, I suddenly found that I needed to simplify the composition even more. So now the sea turtle paddles alone, taking up most of the top canvas. The two yellow tangs just beneath his flippers had to go. The other three canvases lost fish as well, going from five fish to three, or four to two.
After I finished my charcoal sketches, I happened upon a tee-shirt hidden in a closet that I had painted with acrylics over a decade ago, the year I lived in Hawaii. To my surprise, five of the fish on my tee shirt are to be included in "The Reef." The other two fish on the shirt are replaced by members of their same families, a butterfly fish and a wrasse. So there is a longtime, unconscious consistency to my choice of what to paint.
Next I filled in the ocean background around the silhouettes of fish and coral. This is to be a unifying factor indicating depth of the water and tying the canvases to each other. The hues range from pale turquoise, to medium turquoise, to cerulean blue to prussian blue. Each canvas shares a color from the canvas above (or below). Each canvas has two background tones which are blended at the edges and shaped to evoke the gently flowing movement of the water.
I want the canvases to dry completely before I start adding the details of the fish and the coral. They hang on the wall of my studio to dry as they will hang in the show. I think the colors are working to visually unite the four canvases. The fish are to be the stars, so I am keeping the background as minimal as possible. Because I'm planning to use some transparent layers, I will need to be prepared to go through some ugly duckling phases, before (I hope) morphing into a swan.
Unicorn Fish in Maui
The Village Gallery of Arts is an artist's cooperative that I joined this year in Portland, OR. Their annual fundraising show called the Art Challenge, which is held in May, sounded like fun. Each artist must create four 6" x 6" x 1.5" canvases that will be vertically hung as a group. They may use any media, but must have a common subject or theme.
What should be my theme? The requirement is that the four images be related - four fruit, four flowers, four birds, four paint tubes, etc. I enjoy nature and have long accompanied my husband on birding adventures around the globe. Bur at the moment I'm not feeling inspired to paint four toucans or four tanagers.
I am intrigued by the vertical display. I would like to make the vertical arrangement meaningful. I want the paintings to work together as a set, but also be able to individually stand on their own. All of a sudden inspiration struck. My theme should be a coral reef. Visually I could tie the images together through the many hues of the ocean from pale turquoise at the water's surface, to gradually deepening shades of blue until reaching the coral bed in the bottom canvas. And each individual canvas would feature one or more creatures I have personally seen swimming at the top, bottom, or in-between layers of coral reef.
I have enjoyed snorkeling while visiting the Florida Keys, Hawaii, Tahiti, the Great Barrier Reef, and Western Australia. But when we settled in Maui for a year, I took up fish-watching with the same gusto as bird-watching. I wanted to learn to identify the many families and over five hundred species of Hawaiian reef fish. I bought all the guides and books about fish I could find. I shot many photos with a succession of underwater cameras.
So I began to think about which fish to paint and where in my 4-canvas ocean to place them. The top canvas belongs to a green sea turtle. The last time I snorkeled, two summers ago, a sea turtle suddenly rose to the surface right beside me, and hung there a while, taking a deep breath before slowly gliding into the deep.
The bottom canvas belongs to a large, male Parrot Fish amongst some coral heads. He has a Cleaner Wrasse at his side. Parrot Fish eat algae and use their beaks to nibble at the coral. They excrete it as sand which helps build the beaches. I've often been able to hear them chomping on the reef when snorkeling nearby. Tiny Cleaner Wrasses have a symbiotic relationship with much larger fish such as parrotfish and groupers. They consume parasites from the gills and mouths of immense, often carnivorous, fish, who wait for their turn at the "cleaning station".
In between, on my two remaining canvases, I have many beautiful and interesting families of reef fish to consider. I have made dozens of sketches but have yet to narrow it down.
Having put this much thought into the Art Challenge, I did not want to be left out. On the first day of registration, I was in line even before the gallery opened. By the end of the day, all 90 spots were gone, with a growing waiting list. I feel lucky to be included in this year's event.
Blackwater Wildlife Refuge
I feel for everyone on the East Coast, especially my friends in Boston, who are still surrounded by mounds of snow higher than any I have ever seen in person. It is sunny here in Portland (Oregon, not Maine). Trees are covered in blossoms ranging from white to pink to crimson. Daffodils are everywhere. I finally have the energy and stamina to take an hour long walk, and next week I am planning an overnight visit to the Oregon Coast, where I hope to take brief hikes on the beach and eat fresh seafood by the docks.
Today I dropped off my oil painting "Blackwater Wildlife Refuge" for Village Gallery of Arts' March show. This painting was completed last year before I moved from Virginia to Oregon. I still don't have a studio fully set up yet, but I am making progress. The room in question has a beautiful view of open space parkland (including those trees in bloom). I also have a new easel. All I need is to rearrange a bit of heavy furniture and figure out how the windows open to ensure good airflow. There's just one more week until Daylight Savings Time. I hope Spring arrives soon for everyone else, too!
In a way, I am stuck right now. I moved to Oregon in mid-October, broke my leg a week later, and now almost four months later am beginning to limp around and be able to function. But the room that was to be my studio is still piled high with boxes from the move, and I don't yet have the stamina nor flexibility to be able to lift, sort, and organize my art materials or set up my easels. I can sit at my computer and write.
I've been thinking about another time I was stuck. I was taking an advanced watercolor class, where students brought whatever painting each was working on, and our teacher made the rounds giving us individual advice. My painting was an attempt to recapture a scene I had witnessed in Yellowstone National Park of Sandhill Cranes stretching their wings and resting in a wetlands. The painting took up a full watercolor sheet. Three cranes were spread along a sandbar surrounded by a vast marshy area. I liked how my cranes were turning out, but hated the background. It was too distracting and too dark. I had failed to capture the essence of the scene I remembered, and could not see any way to salvage the painting.
My watercolor teacher suggested that I take water and a stiff brush and scrub out the background, then repaint it after it dried. I got as far as scrubbing out the background. My cranes were still there, and I still liked them. But I was never able to decide what to do next with the background. I just saved it for years - I did like the cranes - as I worked on new pieces. Several years later I was participating in a show where I could include some bin work. I looked at my cranes again, and realized that, by cropping the image, with the focus on just two of the cranes, I no longer needed to do anything more. The scrubbed out background behind the cranes had a luminosity that perfectly complemented the birds. I matted it for the show and it sold!
Sometimes all it takes to become unstuck is time and a new perspective. I am trying to be patient and make good use of my time, knowing that each day my leg improves a bit. I keep reminding myself that by spring, I should be strong enough to take my easel outside for a plein air painting.
I have not had much time to paint in the last year and a half when we lived in Virginia. We moved to Oregon in October, and a week later I fell, breaking my femur. I returned from the hospital to my new home at 6:30 PM on Halloween, with my new hospital bed set up in the living room, just in time for the parade of costumed neighborhood children. They poked their heads in the doorway, wished me well, and departed with candy. Some eight weeks later, I'm healing well, but still have limited activity. What a good time to resume my blog posts, while I recuperate.
My new house has a lovely upstairs room with views of playing fields and walking paths between tall trees. This will be a studio, designed to be converted to a guest bedroom when visitors arrive. Right now it is a jumble. This was the one room not yet unpacked when I fell. So there are piles of canvases, boxes of files, three disassembled easels, and everything we hadn't yet found a place for.
After my most recent trips to the Amazonian rainforest, many ideas have swirled through my head, and I have begun work on one, only to drop it and start another. I must have half a dozen studies or larger paintings, started and abandoned. I would love to paint the view from the canopy of a tall rainforest tree. So much of the forest life takes place 300 feet above the forest floor where the trees flower and fruit in the sunlight. Another icon of the Amazon is the oxbow lake - formed when an Amazon tributary shifts course and leaves behind a deeper section that remains as a lake. Giant otters and tiny caiman ply the waters. The oddball hoatzin builds her nest overhanging the waters. Macaws and parrots are among the most colorful and long-lived rainforest inhabitants. The spectacle of hundreds or thousands gathered at a mineral lick is unforgettable. Yet another engaging event is watching a mixed flock of tanagers mingle in a fruiting tree as they pass through the forest. One favorite tree reminded me of an ocean, with billowing waves of green leaves, delicate sprigs of berries like ocean spray, and the tanagers as colorfully-clad tiny surfers balanced atop the crest of each wave. And at each cloud forest lodge, profusions of tropical flowers and vines attracted fleets of iridescent hummingbirds and clouds of brilliant butterflies. Where to begin?
I have been reading David Attenborough's book The Life of Plants. He writes about how hummingbirds are found only in the Americas and seem to have evolved in tandem with the American nectar-producing plants. Nowhere are hummingbirds more abundant than the tropics, where plants bloom year-round. What intrigued me most about Attenborough's book was that he told the story from the plant's point of view. As hummingbirds developed the rapid wingbeat that allows them to hover in place, the plants adapted to offer them elongated bell flowers that other birds and insects could not easily access. The plant's goal is pollination, so it helps if one bird species prefers them and seeks out their plant species rather than wasting their pollen by spreading it to unrelated plants. Each flower provides only a small amount of nectar, encouraging the hummingbird to flit from one plant to the next and then the next, again promoting pollination. Thus, over time, these affinities become reinforced.
One of the Brazilian Samba Schools that competes each Carnival in the Sambadrome in Rio De Janeiro is called Beija Flor, which is the Brazilian term for hummingbird. It literally translates as Kiss the Flowers. Everywhere in Peru and Ecuador we saw hummingbirds and butterflies "kissing" the flowers.
I've been exploring some of these ideas on some small canvases. And so far, the only one I like is this small portrait of a Wire-Crested Thorn-tail. It is based on a photo by my birding trip colleague Judy Adams, and a few of my own reference photos. I love the silhouette of this hummingbird and wanted to include a butterfly without detracting from the focus on the bird. I have far grander images in mind, but need to patiently work step by step toward achieving them. While I get frustrated at my progress, I have faith that I will eventually pull together a representation of the visions dancing through my mind.
A young orangutan in Borneo
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace at age 90. In celebration of his contributions to our knowledge of the natural world, I have just read "The Malay Archipelago", a 531 page narrative of his travels from Borneo to Papua-New Guinea, first published in 1869. It is still a riveting travel-adventure book. Sir David Attenborough has called Wallace the "most admirable character in the history of science."
Wallace, through his study of the variations in species, formulated a theory of evolution at about the same time as Charles Darwin. The two men could not have been more different. Darwin was well-educated and a member of the upper-class. He was never much of a field naturalist--most of his work was painstakingly conducted in his study at home. Wallace left school at fourteen and financed his natural history trips through collecting specimens which he sent back to Europe. Today, Darwin is universally known, Wallace barely acknowledged.
On one of his voyages, while recovering from a bout of malaria, Wallace wrote a manuscript "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type" and sent it to Darwin for his opinion. Without that impetus, Darwin might have continued to dither over his evidence and perhaps may never have dared to publish his treatise on natural selection.
Wallace also originated the field of bio-geography. The Wallace line, which meanders through the Indonesian island chain, documents a geographic split between the fauna of Asia and that of Australia.
As an aside, it astounds me that in the space of 100 years since Wallace's death, we have gone from a human population of less than 2 billion to over 7 billion. In Wallace's time world travel was the province of a few hardy adventurers. Today the wild places that Wallace documented are rapidly disappearing and the natural resources that sustain us all are under increasing stress!