How I Start a Wildlife Painting

When people talk to me about my artwork, I’m invariably asked the following questions; What are you painting now? How long does it take to paint one of your paintings? How do you do, what you do? What materials do you use? Which paints, which Brushes? And the list goes on…..

For myself, when accomplishing one of my wildlife paintings, it has to start with some inspiration, some idea, some image that prompts me to start thinking in terms of an image in a frame, As well as devoting the type of time that I will have to commit in order to complete a full painting. This inspiration will have to be great enough to carry me through the potential weeks of painting….through the highs and lows of process, that will inevitably happen. Robert Kuhn, a fabulous wildlife artist (now deceased) used to say that the most important thing an artist can learn was “when to get off of a bad idea” and this holds true with any inspiration and how well it actually translate into a painting…. More recently, for the sake of my subject matters and inspirations, I’ve attempted to have three requisite genre’s present , those being “western”, “wildlife” and “unique scenes, or elements”, all of which separately have their own following….and admirers.

In obtaining my wildlife art inspirations, ideas, I spend a great deal researching, traveling and photographing what I find to be unique items and scenes. To this end, as much as possible, I use my own photographic reference, combining anywhere from three or four images, to as many as ten, to complete the majority of the reference required for a painting. Knowing full well that at times, looking for inspiration can be as unfulfilling as panning for gold, and that in most instances inspiration will occur spontaneously, opposed to being the result if a conscious search.

Painting and Supplies
As mentioned, I only transfer and paint one element of the composition at a time, this allows me to remain fully concentrated on the intricacies of that single piece. When finished to my satisfaction, I’ll go onto the next element. Without question, as I add elements, I’ll have to go back and adjust the lighting, color and or contrast on an earlier section, to insure that the components read properly against each other. With the Tapedero’s painting I started with the small, silver concho belt that supports the Tapedero’s. I normally start with a smaller item, this allows me to get a feel for the painting, so to speak a rhythm …..For this process, I want to start smaller than larger, in case I have a change of heart about my approach.

Insofar as doing the materials and doing the actual painting, I have a ritual and set grouping of supplies and elements in and around where I paint. For a palette I use a 10” coated paper plate (not Styrofoam) you can buy them at the supermarket in bulk…once I’ve I selected my palette of colors, I have the tubes set in order on a nearby window ledge and I always place them in the same order on the palette. I use Liquitex Basic Acrylics, although less expensive than the top of the line Liquitex and although they purportedly don’t have the same pigment content, I’ve found that the Basic pigments still do just fine. I always keep a wide range of “good” brushes on hand, good means a sable brush that “points” well. I keep the plastic tubes over the tips (from when they were purchased) I want them retain their shapes as long as possible, work with anything from a 00 to size 10 brushes. I work on a large wooden articulated easel, that I can adjust to if need be, place a painting surface in a flat position. I also have a large painting light (with both warm, cool bulbs to simulate daylight) A roll of paper towels, and a cotton work glove with the finer tips cut out of them (the glove will inhibit the transfer of oil from my hand to the painting. Although it appears that my painting area can become “messy” at times, I always know where things are and can find them without too much of a hassle….one of the most important aspects of my creative process is to be comfortable in my work space….which is something that only I can ascertain….I just want to be comfortable, because I’ll be spending a lot of time in this area.

My Painting Surface
I normally work on 1/8” masonite , that I cover with Golden’s Gesso. On a larger piece (like the size of the size of this work-in-progress example, approximately 19” X 30”) I’ll use a standard 2” paint brush that one might use painting the trim on a house to apply the Gesso. I paint the Gesso on the surface using strokes in random directions, always keeping the surface wet and fluid. If you try and paint the Gesso after it’s started to dry, it will gather and leave and objectionable surface. I generally will lay down a minimum of three coats. I leave the surface natural, allowing the brush strokes to remain (some people sand these down, I choose not to), personally I feel that they add personality to the final piece. From time to time, I’ll also use a heavier build up gesso, using a smaller brush (1/2”, 3/4”) I’ll make smaller, more dabbing types of strokes that will leave a heavier build-up. I generally do this on smaller paintings where I’m not going to try and obtain a high degree of detail…trying to paint detail on an irregular surface can be detrimental to your mental health.

(Two images of surfaces, one smooth, one rough)

Transferring The Image(s)
On my computer, I’ll combine all of the photographic elements, and then print the composite out full size. I then measure out a grid (anywhere from ½” to 1” squares) and rule, with pen, over the composite photograph. I do a duplicate grid in pencil on a piece of frosted acetate, matching the grid that’s been ruled on the photograph. Along the top, bottom and each side of the grid I number the rows, so that they correspond with the number at the other end of the row, allowing me to easily find an area on the grid….

To that end, I use grid this for final size, proportion and transfer of elements onto the gesso. One of the more important reasons for my using this process….Opposed to some artists, I never draw the full painting onto my painting surface, I choose to do small elements, or small paintings within the full painting. This allows me to concentrate on a specific area without getting lost in the totality of the painting….and if I want to start an area that’s free from the area that I’ve been working on, the grid allows me to do that and still stay consistent with the proportions and distances within the composition. This is a technique that was used by the old masters when transferring their sketches and rough art to larger canvases and walls (in the case of murals), although generally they were enlarging their images.

Once I’ve selected an element I’ll draw it out first on sketch paper, then onto acetate and transfer it by tracing over acetate drawing and a rubbed graphite sheet…..I never want to transfer a heavy, or dark line, they can be difficult to eradicate when painting….after I’ve transferred the element, I cover the drawing with a light, diluted coat of acrylic gel, this will allow me to work over the drawing without disturbing or removing the drawing….