Killin’ it with Robert Bateman

Robert Bateman's Powerpoint presentation

Robert Bateman talks about an early example of his work.

A huge highlight of the opening weekend of the 55th Annual Members’ Exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists (SAA) was the Saturday workshop presentation by Canadian artist and naturalist, Robert Bateman. Credit for this remarkable opportunity goes to Jan Martin McGuire, SAA Board Member and a long-time friend of Bateman. He’s been her mentor since she was a young artist and, over the years, they have formed a mutual admiration society.

Following a short general membership meeting, our day with Robert Bateman began. We were treated to a Powerpoint career overview, presented by the man himself. You know how, when the word “Powerpoint” comes up, eyes usually roll? Well, not this time. At the age of 85, the artist has a lifetime’s worth of fascinating and often humorous stories to tell, so the narration and images were anything but dull.

Clyfford Still's 1957-D, NO. 1, oil on canvas

Believe it or not, many of Robert Bateman’s realistic wildlife pieces are inspired by paintings like this one by Clyfford Still (1904-1980). 1957-D, NO. 1, oil on canvas, collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

"Little minds are interested in the extraordinary; great minds in the commonplace".

Loved this!

The Importance of Reference Material
After lunch, we met briefly in the parking lot of the Marriot, while the artist talked about how he goes about gathering reference materials. He said he had no idea what he was going to paint for us, but he’d brought an assortment of bird reference (on his tablet) and then looked for suitable habitat outside the hotel. He shot some detail pictures of one of the white pines, thinking it might work with an owl.

Robert Bateman discusses his reference-gathering thought processes in the parking lot of the Marriott.

Robert Bateman discusses his reference-gathering thought processes in the parking lot of the Marriott.

Then we walked over to the other side of the building to a semi-wild buffer area that separated the parking lot from a nearby divided highway, where a stand of phragmites caught his eye. Phragmites are an invasive species in wetland areas the world over, so the idea here was to use the reeds as a background for a demo of a Great blue heron.

One interesting tip he shared was to include some object of a known size – he used his folded glasses – in your reference shots as an aid in determining correct size relationships when incorporating birds or animals into the scene later.

Bateman always uses multiple photos as reference, sometimes as many as fifty for a single painting, because he hates what he calls “cooked up” work – that is, inauthentic images where much is clearly “made up” out of the artist’s imagination. Paintings that are concocted in this way simply don’t have the verisimilitude that is the hallmark of quality wildlife art. He’s not a slave to the reference, however; never copying a single photo, he refers to the collected information to ensure his depictions of nature are authentic.

Robert Bateman discusses the importance of keeping a sketchbook.

One of Bateman’s many sketchbooks.

Back inside, Bateman showed us an example of one of his many sketchbooks. He later passed it around so we could leaf through it. Many of us took photos of our favorite pages.
Two pages from Bateman's sketchbook.

Two more pages from Bateman's sketchbook.

On to the demo!
Bateman’s emphasis was on the thought process involved in the development of a painting, so the actual demo only took about an hour and focused on the starting block-in. After some back and forth, he finally settled on the phragmites-with-heron idea and did a lot of thinking out loud as he jumped into the painting process. Although he didn’t do it this time, he said he usually does some compositional thumbnails to play with different options before starting in.

Working on a piece of acrylic gessoed hardboard with acrylic paints, and with his two references visible – the heron on his tablet and the phragmites on the main screen – he began by blocking in some directional lines to indicate the reeds.

Reference photo of the phragmites taken outside the hotel.

Reference photo of the phragmites taken outside the hotel on the big screen.

Using a neutral gray-green, values are blocked in quickly in a series of steps.

Basic block-in of shapes on the painting.

Basic block-in of shapes; heron reference on the tablet. Note the composition; the artist hates what he calls “fried eggs” – paintings with the subject just plopped down in visual center.

Reeds and bird are blocked in.

Reeds are scrubbed in and the first indications of back, or rim lighting appear on the heron. He hates front lighting, preferring side- or back-lighting.

Developing light and dark 3-D forms.

Highlights are developed, and vegetation is indicated in front of the bird to help integrate it into the setting.

At this point, Bateman decided it was time to “kill it”. That’s his term for using a transparent glaze (either light or dark; he had both mixed up in small jars, ready to use) to unify and neutralize the elements, helping to create that first hint of mystery that is characteristic of his work. In this case, he used the light, milky glaze, pouring a small amount on a piece of damp foam rubber (the kind you stuff furniture cushions with) and patting it on evenly all over the painting.

The painting after Bateman "killed" it (knocked back the contrast), with a light milky glaze.

The painting after Bateman “killed” it (knocked back the contrast), with a light milky glaze.

After the glaze dried, he increases the contrast again – punching up the darks and the highlights.

Punching up the darks and lights after the milk glaze

Restating the darks (especially around the heron’s neck) and lights after “killing” the painting with the light milky glaze.

By this time, it was 5:30 in the afternoon, so the demo ended. But to finish the painting, he would continue working in a similar manner, refining, adding texture of fur or feathers, building color, lights and darks, and occasionally “re-killing” it all with the transparent glazes, and then reworking it all again.

Great Blue Heron in the Rain

One of Robert Bateman’s finished heron paintings. This is Great Blue Heron in the Rain (2003). Acrylic, 18″ x 30″.

Bateman said he really can’t say how long it takes him to finish any one painting, because he usually has five or ten in various stages of development and he rotates among them. Eventually – it could take weeks, months or sometimes, years – his paintings are completed.

If you’ve enjoyed this overview of his process and his work, check out the many books on his art. You can also view a selection of his work on his website.

The 55th Annual Members’ Exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists, Art and the Animal, will be on display at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown, New York through October 25, 2015.


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