While I’m not a big fan of the season, I love winter colours, the blues, greys and whites. Seems like I’m on a bit of a snow kick right now.
I’m proficient with a camera but have no designs on working as a professional photographer or even being a serious hobbyist. I love taking photos, but only because it’s the first step in painting my whimsical wildlife. Images a pro would toss in the trash can still work well for reference. If the photo shows the necessary details, I can ignore any flaws, artifacts, lighting and exposure issues.
I prefer to take my own reference, but it’s not always possible, especially when the animals aren’t all that local. My Humpback Whale and Sea Turtle paintings come to mind. Thankfully, I’ve known several generous photographer friends willing to share their beautiful photos. If I tried to list them all, I would forget somebody and wouldn’t want hurt feelings. Hopefully, I adequately conveyed my gratitude to them at the time and in the blog posts accompanying any new painting.
I could buy stock photos for reference, and I’ve done so before. But if I’m going to use somebody else’s photos for reference, I prefer to have a connection with the person who took them. It often makes for a better story, and I have a lot of respect for artists who have skills I don’t, especially wildlife photographers.
I spend many long hours painting, obsessing over little hairs on a grizzly bear’s ears or the challenging horn texture on a bighorn sheep, but I’m in a comfortable office while doing it. I haven’t the patience, time, or funds to travel long distances to remote locations with a ton of expensive gear, only to sit in a blind for days, waiting for any animal to come down a trail, hoping to get that perfect shot.
And since wildlife doesn’t punch a clock, they often don’t get the shot. I admire those folks and their commitment.
For most of these artists, the experience and pursuit are often as important as the photos, but I’ve always been more of a destination guy. I don’t even like road trips.
My friend David duChemin is a talented and skilled photographer. He’s been on multiple trips to northern Manitoba to take photos of polar bears. I don’t remember if I had asked or if he volunteered, but he once offered some of those photos for reference.
When I ask to use reference pics, I’m okay with receiving a No, which has happened a few times. I also expect to pay for the exchange, in cash or trade, and am prepared that I might not be able to afford the asking price, which has also happened. Photographers work hard for their craft and deserve compensation. Even with that perspective, I always feel a little weird about asking, wondering if I’m crossing a line, especially with friends.
But I wanted to paint another polar bear, so I swallowed my pride a couple of weeks ago and asked David if the offer was still good. He not only replied right away, but within a few hours, I had a large collection of his photos to download.
I hadn’t planned on using them for a month or more, so I asked early, wary of implying any rush. I was surprised to get them so quickly. I loved looking through the photos because they are all beautiful shots. Rather than try to anticipate what I wanted and create unnecessary work, David just uploaded a bunch and let me decide. Most of them wouldn’t be suitable for reference, but quite a few gave me what I needed. The photos inspired me, so I started this painting the next day and completed it this past Sunday.
If you’d like to see some of David’s polar bear shots, here are two posts (first and second) where he shares some of them. He’s also an excellent writer, so look around his site and enjoy his photography and stories. He casts a wide net with his subjects and themes, but it should come as no shock that I’m partial to his wildlife images, especially the bears. David has taken several trips to hard-to-reach locations all over the Pacific coast and interior to capture glimpses of bears in their natural habitats.
David underwent a surgical procedure earlier this summer, and I drew this cartoon for him. He’s recovering well and will undoubtedly be back in bear country soon. I’m happy with how this polar bear painting turned out, and I look forward to the day I can repay David for his generosity.
Because of the whimsical nature of my work, with an almost caricature quality to the animals, and that I don’t often paint landscapes or detailed backgrounds in my pieces, my paintings rarely look the same as the photos I use for reference. I’m not looking to replicate a picture; I just need to see the details, where the shadows and highlights fall in the anatomy, and what the fur texture looks like. I can’t paint my version of wildlife unless I know what the reality looks like.
That said, I like to take my own photos whenever possible because there have been countless times where the photo has inspired the painting. It might be a hint of an expression I can exaggerate, the way the light hits fur or feathers, or the personality I see in the actual animal that I can develop in the painted version.
But for those times I haven’t been able to take my own reference, I’m grateful for so many photographer friends who have helped bring some of my paintings to life. You know who you are.
One of the challenges with a square format painting is that I need to crop it for my standard 11”x14” print, either vertical or horizontal. I tried both layouts, and vertical was the clear winner. Of course, you can always order the original square format as a canvas or metal print. Drop me a line for more details.