With each animal I paint, there’s something unique about the experience. Sometimes it will be an especially challenging feature or the pose might not work the way I had imagined. While I find a way to overcome it and always learn something new, some of these paintings end up being a lot more fun than others. Lemme tell ya, a few have felt like downright work. Tough life, I know.
The challenge on this Snow Leopard was finishing it, primarily because it’s some of the most enjoyment I’ve ever had from a painting. I don’t even know why, but it was just fun, especially when the personality showed up. That experience is often as subtle as a sigh, but this time, it practically announced itself, as if throwing open a door. It was cool. I stopped painting when it happened and enjoyed the moment. That’s happened before, but I don’t remember the last time, so it’s a rare occurrence.
One of the reasons this painting hit home with me is that I hadn’t planned it. With some of the other animals I’ve done, I’ve thought about it and deliberately gone looking for reference, either from shots I’ve taken, requests to photographer friends, or stock photos. I may hang on to some of those pics for a while, but in the back of my mind, I still know I’m eventually going to paint that animal.
To my best recollection, I’ve never once had the forethought that I’d be painting a snow leopard.
This past September, I had an exceptional day at The Calgary Zoo. In addition to getting more meerkat photos, which are always fun, the hippos were out of the pool and seemed to be having a good time while one of the keepers sprayed water at them. They were opening their mouths, had bright eyes and after three years of trying, I finally got the reference photos I needed for my upcoming Hippo Totem. That would have been enough to qualify as a good day. I would have walked to my car and drove back to Canmore with a feeling of accomplishment.
But with time to kill and space still on the camera cards, I wandered around to the other enclosures, looking for opportunities. It had been raining, so the zoo wasn’t very busy. The red pandas weren’t around, but they just had a kid, so they were probably up all night. The wild boars were out, but they were covered in mud and I just couldn’t get any decent shots, and I was about to call it a day.
On my walk back, I saw that Karesh, the resident snow leopard had just been fed and he was lively. Bounding around his enclosure, playing in the wet grass, suddenly I was snapping shot after shot, ones I wouldn’t normally expect to get. He was practically posing, often within feet of the glass wall separating us. Then he’d look right at me and I could see in his face the Totem I wanted to paint. I might have giggled. I’m not proud.
I usually go through my photos the same day I take them, weeding out the bad ones quickly so I don’t procrastinate and end up with thousands of photos I’ll never use. Even after being really picky with the shots, I still ended up with a few dozen good ones and at least twenty I could paint from. The hardest part of this painting was choosing which ones not to use.
Given the choice, I would have started painting this one right away, but we were in the midst of a federal election with plenty of editorial cartoons to draw, I had three commissions pending, a Gorilla Totem half-finished and a Panda Totem that had to be done before the end of the year as I had promised it to The Toronto Zoo. The Snow Leopard had to wait, but it was worth it. I’m glad this was my first painting of 2016, as it starts my artistic year off on a high.
This truly was a joy to paint and I kept nitpicking it, convinced I could make it just a little better if I only spent another hour on it, which would no doubt stretch out to two, then three, then four hours. I recently heard somebody say something quite fitting regarding creative pursuits, a lesson I’ve been forcing myself to learn. Better done than perfect. So, I had to call it.
I’m pleased with this painting and grateful for the experience. From start to finish, it reminded me that right here, right now, this is the work I want to do more than anything else, and while I’ve hit my stride, my best work is still yet to come.
And very soon, I still get to paint that Hippo.
This was painted in Adobe Photoshop CC on both a Wacom Cintiq 13HD and 24HD display. Photos were only used for reference. If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form. Thanks!