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Rockhopper Penguin Totem

This ornery looking fellow is a Rockhopper Penguin, the latest Totem in the series and one of my more challenging paintings to date.  While I usually have a lot of fun with these, this one was a roller coaster of frustration.

The main reason I added this animal to the series at this point is because the Calgary Zoo had expressed interest.  With their recent addition of The Penguin Plunge habitat to their facility, penguins are a pretty big deal in Calgary this year.  While they have already taken a chance on my Wolf and Moose paintings, I’d like to have more of my Totems for sale at the zoo, so the decision to  paint a penguin right now was a commercial one.  I sent the finished image to my contact at the zoo this morning within a short time of finishing it, and it was well received.  They’ve already ordered a significant number of prints in a variety of sizes, so they should be available at their retail outlet soon.  Right outside The Penguin Plunge.

So why was this so frustrating?  Honestly, with the exception of the Ostrich Totem, I find birds incredibly difficult to paint.  Perhaps it’s because their body structure is so different from mammals, a beak instead of a mouth, usually only one eye visible instead of two, also that they’re very stiff looking…honestly I don’t know what it is.  It wasn’t the detail, because the feathers were a lot of work, but not difficult to paint, just time consuming.  When I’m working on a painting, I start at low-resolution, then as more and more detail gets painted in, I’ll bump up the resolution until it’s around 18″X24″ at 300ppi.  When it gets to this point, the painting is really close to being finished, it’s just a matter of painting in a lot of tiny details.  With this penguin, however, I was trying to fix structural issues at full size, something I would rarely do.  But I’d painted so much detail in a lot of places that didn’t need to be fixed, so I couldn’t go backwards without losing that.

My wife Shonna is not an artist, but she has this uncanny knack of looking at a painting I’m working on and instantly seeing what’s wrong with it.  It’s very annoying, but also very helpful.  When I ask her opinion, I brace myself for what I know is coming, because there is always something.   With this penguin, she saw more than a few problems.  The eye wasn’t in the right place, the yellow feathers didn’t look right, the beak was shaped wrong.  It was brutal.

All of these issues were addressed and repainted, adding at least another five or six hours to a piece I’d already been working on for many more than that.  The personality didn’t even seem to show up until the last few hours, which is very unusual.  So while there’s nothing more I could do to this painting to improve it, I had a hard time ‘feeling’ it while I was doing the work.  There were still times when I was really enjoying myself, but not as much as I normally do.  The Bighorn Sheep Totem was like this as well, and while I love that painting now, I didn’t immediately after I’d finished it.

So what did I learn?  Well, sometimes you just have to plow through and git ‘er done, even when you’re not feeling it.  The finished painting may feel a little different to me at the moment, but anyone buying it doesn’t know the frustrating back story (unless they read it here), so it now stands on its own merit.  It’ll either be popular or it won’t, and time will tell.  Also, I took most of the reference photos myself, and they were average.  For the pose and general features, however, they were good enough.  For the fine details,  I decided to go and buy some stock photos.  After reading their licensing agreement that permits this usage for work like mine, I’ll be doing that more often.  Some great closeup detail reference on stock photo sites, and reasonably priced, too.  This is going to make future paintings a little easier for me.

While I’ve been working on commissions the last little while, turns out this is the first Totem I’ve added to the series since the Cougar in January.  I’ve got a couple of other painting projects up next, but I’m hoping to have another Totem done before the end of the summer.  And no, it’s not a bird.

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