A Trip to the Zoo

An ostrich patrols the fenceline at the Utica Zoo.

Well, it certainly has been awhile, hasn’t it?

In mid-November, my 83 year old mom fell, fracturing a vertebra in her neck. The weeks that followed have been a blur of hospitalization, in-patient physical therapy, helping/giving moral support to my dad (now 92), and multiple interactions with the health care system: bloodwork, x-rays, and follow-up visits with doctors. As an only child, all of this “assisting” falls on me, though remarkably Dad is still Mom’s primary caregiver, but I’ve been busy, to say the least. She has improved tremendously, helped in no small part by taking her off several medications (with the doctor’s blessing) and so things finally seem to be smoothing out now.

Off to the Zoo

And that brings me to my first art “adventure” in many months: a trip to the zoo! The nearby city of Utica, New York (population 62,000 and change) is home to the Utica Zoo, a small regional zoo nestled on 80 acres of wooded parkland inside the city limits.

Why visit the zoo? Well, I’ve wanted to do a painting with a red fox in it for some time but I really don’t have any reference material of my own to speak of. I’ve glimpsed wild foxes (both red and gray) several times, but have had no opportunity to photograph them. The Utica Zoo’s website said they have a red fox in residence in their Children’s Zoo area, and with the day’s milder temperatures it seemed like a good time. Plus, since it’s January, the fox’s coat was sure to be thick and plush.

So, bundled against the chill and armed with my camera, off I went. Admission was modest ($4.25) and as you might imagine, I pretty much had the place to myself. The nice lady at the entrance gave me a map, and it quickly became obvious that I wouldn’t have time to see everything, so I focused on looking for my fox.

Red fox at the Utica Zoo.

The red fox, up high on his little “observation deck”.

Red Fox (No, not the guy in the TV show!)

The fox – a single male, as far as I could tell – perked up when I approached. I found him in his jungle-gym-y pen complete with a ladder to an upper level deck and catwalks. To get pictures, I had to manually focus on him, because the autofocus only wanted to take sharp pictures of the fence mesh. He had a lovely thick coat, but seemed a bit chubby, no doubt due to his sedentary lifestyle (a common problem with humans and zoo residents alike). I had half expected the fox to be curled up with his nose buried in his tail, sleeping. Instead, he was quite active, going up and down his ladder a couple times, stretching, nibbling on some food, and drinking out of his water bucket. I took a number of photos that will help if and when I can start a painting, but alas I’m still going to have to look for other reference, particularly video of wild foxes.

Lunch with the California Sea Lions

California sea lion swimming at the Utica Zoo.

The female California sea lion, swimming in their heated pool.

I also happened to be there in time to catch the 12:30 feeding of the California sea lions. Although their pool seemed a bit cramped for such large animals (the male weighs about 500 lbs.; the female is about half that), I was glad to see their meal was combined with interaction with their “keeper”. (Is that the correct term?) There was a nice give-and-take of hand signals and simple responses, followed by fish rewards.

California sea lion at the Utica Zoo.

The male sea lion orders lunch!

It was a very positive communication that reminded me of my dog obedience days and was much better, in my opinion, than the keeper simply dumping fish in the water and walking away. And, I noticed, each animal was fed separately – the male went into their shelter, while the female was fed first; then he came back out and had his meal. Everybody got their fair share of fish and attention, with no stealing or intimidation.

The Orphan and the Bad Boy

As is so often the case with animals in captivity, these two sea lions reside at the zoo because they can no longer live in the wild. The female was found as a day-old pup on a California beach, abandoned by her mother for reasons unknown. Wildlife officials took her in but she became too habituated to people to safely be released as an adult.

Likewise, the male, born in Oregon, became a bit of a rogue as a young adult, crossing highways and invading suburban backyards. He was captured twice, tagged and released into safer areas, but found his way back to the ‘burbs. The third time was the charm: some kids found him in their yard, thought he was cute and let him into the house. Their mom discovered him in her living room after she returned home from grocery shopping! At that point, it was clear to officials that this guy was also much too comfortable around humans to live safely as a “wild” sea lion.

The audience included a couple of moms with preschoolers in tow, and they commented on how smart and responsive the sea lions are. And that’s true, but I sometimes fear the the flip side: folks with no real knowledge of the natural world could easily conclude that wild sea lions might be just as friendly toward people as these two were. Having caught a glimpse of their teeth, I don’t think I’d want to make that assumption!

Aaaand, a World-Record Watering Can

World-record giant watering can at the Utica Zoo.

The Utica Zoo’s giant watering can. It’s 15-1/2 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, According to the Guiness Book of World Records, it’s the largest watering can in the world.

There is another section of the zoo that I’m particularly interested in seeing, but it was some distance from the Children’s Zoo and the map indicated that the path is more of a rough trail. I wasn’t sure what I’d be getting into with snow on the ground, so I figured I’d save that for another day – maybe in late March or early April when the snow is gone but before the animals start blowing their winter coats. According to the map, there’s a Canada lynx, Arctic fox and snowy owl in residence there.

Before leaving, I also got to see the famous (and somewhat infamous) giant watering can! Fifteen years ago, Utica’s mayor was, shall we say, rather eccentric. Not long before he abruptly resigned his position, he ordered a $6000, one-ton copper watering can “to inspire and encourage Growing a More Beautiful City”. If memory serves, the thing arrived at city hall on the back of a flatbed truck. With the mayor gone, nobody knew what to do with it, so it was delivered to the zoo. It now looms over a nice little landscaped area at the Children’s Zoo, where it apparently “waters” the pond during warm weather.

Hey folks! November Doe is now available as a FINE ART PRINT – from the original oil painting – on archival paper, canvas and more, starting at less than $20. Order today – it’s simple, safe and secure!

Whitetail doe in ferns

November Doe, original oil on canvas, 14″ x 18″

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Signature Memberships

Society of Animal Artists Artists for Conservation

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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