Saturday, September 28, 2013

On the Depiction of Animals

"Gift at my Doorstep", Oil on Linen

The cat who lives next door to me likes to put dead animals on my doorstep from time to time and brought me this one. Dear Reader, I painted him. I'm happier to see a  rodent there than the remains of hummingbirds, but she catches those also. Cats are tireless, relentless predators, rather like furry Terminators. They're not just cuddlesome; they contain a history of the snarling fanged Thing that brought terror to our ancestors and made them huddle together around fires at night, nervously playing Sudoku.

I initially thought that this was a mouse, but it's more likely that it's a baby pack rat, which are all over Arizona like chopped onions in salsa. I don't always bring dead things into my house, by the way; I'll often spend a couple of hours painting or drawing it outside.

Many representational artists like to paint the natural world and will eagerly accept any fresh roadkill to examine an animal in the privacy of their studios. This is one reason why you should think twice about visiting an artist's studio. (May I just remark, en passant, that fish are the worst thing to have in your studio? I have had a fish liquefy in two days. Liquefy, as in, turn into a dripping jello with bones inside the skin. I have new respect for those Dutch still life artists.)

Goldfish are not bad, though:

"Simple Fish", Charcoal and Pastel on Paper

"Black Moor", Charcoal and Pastel on Paper

But there are a number of artists who seem to restrict themselves to painting animals solely from photos. Everything, from bugling elks to charging cape buffalo to fluffy puppies, is rendered with photographic accuracy, or artfully blurred and arranged, all done from fabulous photos, apparently. The resulting paintings are often filled with vitality, power, great design, grace, intelligence and everything else that makes a wonderful painting, depending upon the skill and intent of the artist.

I have no problem with working from photos but I'm always surprised by the artists who paint animals who are also repelled by dead animals, or think that an artist is somehow treating an animal with disrespect when you look at their bodies for a very long time as you draw or paint them. Hmmm. What is less respectful, 1. looking at a beautiful being for hours and hours, marveling at its extraordinary structure and moved to sadness, possibly to tears, by being in its presence; or 2. taking a few photos of an animal in action and running home to make a nice happy painting, after a bit of Photoshop blurring and lassoing?

(And artists, how do you explain having that human skull in your studio, if you find death so disrespectful, hmmm? Not your own human skull, silly, the other one, grinning jauntily on your still life shelf.)

Since animals are so active, personally I think it's best to work both ways: from "life" (meaning, from death, as the case may be) and from photos. The very best animal artists really understand how an animal moves, rests, how the legs are constructed, etc.

You can also paint or draw animals that are visiting your back yard, hanging around the park or in cages, or otherwise holding still, but this is obviously a little trickier, since wild animals seldom hold still for you. They do stand or lie around on occasion and you can sketch them. It's helpful to have an enclosed area so they don't run away from you. An animal in a zoo might go to one location for a while, then to another, so you can have two sketches going at the same time, depending on where he is at the time. (I call this "common ground non-narrative sequential art" - I'll write about this later and then come back and link to it here. Maybe by then I can discover a better term for what I'm trying to say.)

I've done this often; for example, this baby citrus rat got stuck in a convenient location and I drew him, poor little guy. I am not authorized to disclose the location. The same rat, in five different poses.

"Baby Rat", Graphite on Paper

I think the real issue is that nobody wants to see, and maybe not to buy, a painting that reminds them of death. This, I can maybe understand. If nobody wants to buy a painting about death, then, why would you bother to paint or draw anything with dead things in it? To which I respond:

How do you know what life looks like if you don't know what death looks like? What does it mean to breathe and then not have breath, is there a visual difference?

How do you know what movement looks like if you don't know what stillness looks like? Is photographic stillness real stillness? Is photographic movement real movement?

How do you know how the surface of an animal feels if you haven't touched the animal? How close do you need to be? What does presence mean to you, anyway, does it mean.... being present with something right near you? What does it mean to be near something, anyway?

Your art can be all about life, design, movement, color 'n light and bringing happy feelings to others. That is wonderful. But there is also room in art for another, maybe deeper truth that can only be found in the total-immersion system of looking it all in the face, including the end-of-all-movement condition which is death - which quite shockingly is in fact, NOT the end of all movement, matter just goes from one form to the next, a process which - and we are getting morbid and icky again here - includes movement, actually an alarming amount of movement and which probably would involve the linkage of another scary video if I had the time to go and find one.

I won't do that to you, don't worry! I found a cute 'n happy video to end this up for you. The puppy is listening to what is on the owner's computer:

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