An aside today as I wanted to make some observations regarding a question posted, to the blog, a couple of days ago by a visiting fellow artist from Spain. He asked if I would kindly give him my opinion about this question, " Do you think a work created from direct observation in the animal´s natural environment is better than a work created from a picture taken by the author of the work himself? " The gentleman also noted that, " This question has sometimes come up in discussions . . . and I think that photography techniques shouldn´t be underestimated as a means to get good works of art. "
I thought about his query for a bit and then emailed a response back to him, privately, later that day. As I have thought about this over the last couple of days, I thought it might be beneficial to post a bit of what I said to him as this certainly is a question that has come up quite often when chatting with artist friends and others over many years. It seems to be a 'hot topic' to many and I wanted to offer my personal feelings about it.
I began my response to him this way . . . " If you've been reading my blog postings for any length of time, you have already realized that I make use of photographic reference a great deal of the time. But, that is not to say that I don't also spend a great amount of time in personal observation and field study . . . "
I have always felt that photography is just one of many tools that an artist can use to further his or her understanding of a subject, but its use does not, at the same time, necessarily eliminate the importance of first hand, personal study of a subject, whatever it may be, within its own natural surroundings.
I went on in my email response to say . . . " When I first started out as a wildlife artist, it was only after I had returned from Africa on the first of many subsequent visits to that continent over the following 28 years. Previous to that experience, I had not had the desire to work with animals as my major subject matter and had been a very abstract painter in my youth. Upon my return from that first African experience, I was so overwhelmed with all aspects of that almost month long trip that I realized, rather quickly, that my creative soul was telling me something and I had to make an effort to follow through on those emotions. Thus began my venture into making art with animals as subjects and initially, in particular, animals in the environment that I had just experienced so deeply and emotionally in Africa. "
Of course, the photographs that I had taken on that first trip through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania were the basic sources of my artistic inspiration for those first, tentative forays into becoming an animal artist, but not the lone sources. The physical experience of being on African soil, observing, making notes of the variations in landscape, trees and environment, and distinctly being able to recall sounds and smells and sights and other nuances of such a new experience for me, played a huge roll in my desire to make art that would first, expand upon my personal memories and encounters, and second, allow me to show others how that experience had changed me in ways that not having been there, could not have.
I certainly could have made use of zoo animal reference, had I been desirous of using African animals as subjects for my work, and perhaps done a descent job of portraying them, but by not having had the advantage of standing at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro or experiencing, firsthand, the utter vastness of the Serengeti, I feel the depths to which I could have delved both emotionally and creatively within my art, would have been diminished. And then too, the motivation to draw elephants and lions and gazelles might never have happened had I not had such a life changing experience on that first adventure in Africa.
This is all certainly not to say that there aren't many fine artists whose work I respect and who do wonderful and evocative works based solely upon captive animals, but for me, the physical aspect of sitting and watching the interactions among a herd of elephant in the wild for an hour or more, not only does wonderful things for my personal well being, but offers so much more insight and inspiration for future works of art. Of course there have been subjects, for example colobus monkeys, that I have not had such close up observations of in the wild nor usable reference material to later pull from, and in cases like that, observation, photography and study at a zoo has always been helpful to me. But again here, having driven through the actual environments in which colobus live in the wild, offered great background information and 'location knowledge' from which I can always establish accurate compositions.
Times spent in field observation in the western states of the US, the coast of Maine and several extended trips across the Canadian Rockies have helped to continue to broaden my subject files with photographs of moose and elk and bighorn sheep and the all important landscapes in which they reside, as well as sketches and notations of specific environmental elements. All of these 'tools' combine to form strong reference material to be pulled from for years to come.
As I continued on in my email response, I spoke of more recent times since my move to Maryland and how having been once established here . . . " in the rural farm and agricultural area of central Maryland, I rather quickly became excited about the new environment in which I had dropped myself, " and how . . . " prior to locating myself right in the heart of cattle farms, neither the thought of nor the inspiration of using cows as a subject for my work would have ever entered my mind. Having just spent the last twenty or more years of my studio time doing works with lion, moose, elephants and mountain goats as the major thrust of my work, I was rather astounded at how quickly the domestic life just outside my windows became so important an inspiration to me as an artist. " And it was, again, a matter of combining daily drives out into the farm lands near my home and spending time just sitting and watching cows move, making notations of their body structure and anatomical features and photographing the animals in all sorts of poses and gestures that enabled me, I feel, to finally have the understanding to add cows and horses and sheep and chickens and such, to my artistic vocabulary.
So for me, personally, there are many 'tools' I utilize to build an understanding of and basis for using a particular animal as a subject for a work. Photographs are just one of the many ways in which I develop a level of comfort in tackling new subjects. My recent week long stay in Florida enabled me to spend a great deal of time watching, sketching, studying, photographing and ultimately feeling comfortable about possibly drawing any number of bird species with which I had no major experiences before. And then too, there was the aspect of discovering an entirely new landscape and environment within which I could find new inspirations as an artist which, had I simply looked at images in a book or on the Internet, I would not have felt the all important 'kick' of personal emotion that I find so important as a creative soul.
To this end, my personal reference photographs are just that, starting points or material to be referred to, considered, altered, adjusted or intermixed to suit my compositional ideas. In general, a work or idea will develop, for me, out of a personal experience in the field and once a sort of basic composition comes to mind, I then try and figure out what sort of subject or subjects will best suit that balanced assemblage of ideas. Photographic reference allows me to dig through all sorts of possible gestures and movements, contrasts of light and shadow, expressions and overlapping arrangements. The photo reference does not dictate how things will be, it just facilitates the building up of my compositional concept. In the end, my compositions are a blending of direct observation, an emotional response or impact and sketched and/or photographic notations; one form of these reference 'tools' being no more important to me than any other.
I personally feel each artist is different as to their own needs and leanings in a creative way and they have to pursue those self-important goals as they must. To make a general statement that relaying solely on gathering and working from photographs as a means of reference and insight might be seen as too much of a crutch or lacking in 'truth' to some, cannot I feel, be a completely accurate statement. Conversely, to say that one can only be 'truthful' or a work of art to be 'better' when working directly in the field and from personal observation, is just as inaccurate to my way of seeking those personal artistic goals. It has always made sense to me that these several ways of attaining reference, understanding and knowledge of a subject complement one another and by combining all means of study, gives one the strongest and most all encompassing knowledge base from which to produce a pleasing, accurate work of art.