Rothko Project 5 – Creation of Color Field Studies in the style of Rothko

October 1, 2014

I always start each painting with an objective:   In this case my objective was to use a layering technique to manipulate light energy and pigments in such a way that they “play” with the way our brains perceive light energy (color), creating both a sensation of floating depth and influencing emotional moods.  In these paintings, the colors (or more correctly: the light energies) themselves are the subject matter of the paintings.

After careful in-person study of the museum Rothkos in St. Louis and Chicago, and a review of color theory explained brilliantly in Michael Wilcox’s excellent book “Blue & Yellow Don’t Make Green.” I was ready to create my own color field studies in the style of Rothko.

Following my previous analysis (see earlier blogs) of Rothko’s color compositions – relative to their relationship in the “color wheel,” I decided to create one harmonious color scheme designed to evoke a pleasant and relaxed emotive response and a modified triadic color scheme replacing one of the triadic colors with a neutral (white) to evoke a more vibrant and intense emotive response.  Colors were carefully selected and layered according to how they would influence light energy according to the color theory principles outlined by Wilcox – along with the potential emotive effect of the color scheme chosen.

I used approximately 8-9 layers to create these (I will use more clear coat layers in my final large paintings if the client approves these studies.)  I chronicled the progress of each layer so I could show someone exactly how and why I added each layer should they be interested.

Naturally, these are better experience in person.

Here they are:

Color Field Harmonious 1

Harmonious Color Field Study 1

Color scheme relational plot












Colors used: Indian Yellow, Lemon Yellow, Titanium White, Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Lemon, Cadmium Red Deep

Color Field Modified Triadic 1

Modified Triadic Color Field Study 1





Color Scheme Relational Plot

Colors used: Magenta, White, Cadmium Red Light, Dioxazine Purple, Cobalt Blue, Pyrrol Red, Cadmium Red Deep, Ultramarine Blue, Indian Yellow.

Articulating the Value of Art in Protecting Our Natural World

July 23, 2014

As a signature member of the Artists For Conservation Foundation, I find myself explaining at times the connection between art and nature.  What I think is often assumed, but never articulated, is the value of art  in protecting our natural world.  In short, I believe that value is in the unique communication which art provides us.  Let me try to explain why and how that is…

The advantage of art over words

There is an ancient story told about the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu who began his teachings one day with the following dictum: “Those who know do not say; those who say do not know.” The young monks sat in bewildered confusion eagerly awaiting explanation, at which point the master asked them a question: “Which of you knows the fragrance of a rose?” At that point every monk in attendance raised his hand. Lao-tzu then queried: “Now which of you can put what you know into words?” Every hand in the room slowly and silently dropped.  The story is often told to illustrate the wisdom gained only by experience, but I tell it here because it also speaks volumes as to the limits of verbal communication.

Art, in a manner that words cannot, gives us a unique ability to stimulate awareness about, and appreciation for, the value and beauty of our natural world. Why is that? Well part of the answer is found in the concept and “purpose” of art itself. I explain the value of art as follows: If math teaches us how to think logically, and english verbal communication skills, and the sciences to develop our understanding of how things work, then what does art teach us? I believe that art teaches us how to perceive, interpret and appreciate our world. It increases our empathy, observation and intuition. In a sense, it connects the spiritual with the temporal. It can also have the effect of connecting emotions with purpose.

Art allows us to reawaken people to what is valuable to them

What one considers “valuable” is found in the thoughts, emotions, experiences and needs of that person.  While we can’t address a person’s physical needs with art (except perhaps by using it to raise money), art does allow us to reawaken some of those other thoughts, emotions and experiences and bring them to the surface.    Words are often inadequate because they too often simply devolve into labels, and it has been said in the course of human discussions, that “the moment a label is applied, understanding stops.”  Simply look to our modern american politics for an example of that:  “treehugger” and “science denier” put a quick end to what might have been a meaningful conversation.   Yet, I believe that all of us have a shared value of how we act as stewards of the planet on which we live.  Art communicates another way – by reminding all of us of shared truths, without labels or preconceptions.  Illustrating the beauty and miracle of this earth places it higher in the collective consciousness.

To illustrate my point, let me offer a famous quote from Krishnamurti which is relevant: “The day you teach the child the name of a bird, the child will never see that bird again.” We all entered this world as innocent awe-inspired children, filled with wonder as we witnessed for the very first time the flitting colorful creature we may now know as a finch. But as we aged and grew in experiences over time, our brains categorize and labeled, and our natural joy and curiosity slowly dissipated, as did our original appreciation of the miracle of the bird above us. Sad but true, it all slowly becomes taken for granted – except for the nature artist, who seeks it out and attempts to shine a big bright spotlight on it through his or her work.

I was reminder of this a couple months back as I witnessed the annual dropping of the maple seeds in my yard. This is what I facebooked: “So I’m watching the maple seeds helicopter down to the ground in my backyard today and I think to myself: what an awesome idea – a seed with one wing that is so perfectly balanced that it rotates squarely on its axis at such a speed that it floats gently down on the available air pressure creating perfect opposing vortexes for lift. And what’s weird is that the silver maple came up with the exact same idea as the red maple? Go figure. Who says miracles don’t happen every day…”
Of the many amusing responses I received, this one stood out: “Rob, are you willing to take on Sweet Gum Balls?” The comment was a joke, but it illustrates the evolution in all of us from childish wonder to adult practical reality.

Unfortunately, these adult practical realities can sometimes cloud our vision, numb our senses and influence our decisions. This clouded vision creates an environment where the natural wonders of our planet become mundane and conversations about their protection, either predictably entrenched or simply lost in “the clutter” – as advertising execs like to say.  The “unique communication” art provides, allows us to reawaken the senses of viewers to rediscover the beauty of our natural world, and in doing so reconsider prioritizing its value.

How so?

When people say my work is beautiful, I realize that it is not my work that is beautiful, for my work is simply a depiction of one moment of reality. What is beautiful is the moment of awareness which the viewer experiences through viewing my artwork. The recognition of beauty is within the viewer, not my painting. I have done nothing but remove for the moment the concepts and labels through which we all process our world. My artwork simply returns the viewer to that moment of childhood, where the stark singular focus allows the viewer for a moment to shed their concepts and labels and simply view the beautiful reality with the same wonder they had as a child.  If I am really successful, they actually “feel” or experience beauty. Like most artists, I do this quite intentionally – directing the viewer’s eyes and perceptions using a wide range of tools including such things as composition, color saturations, lighting, physical proxemics, non-verbal communication and many others, to deliberately influence the perceptions of the viewer. But ultimately the viewer is the one who determines how it is perceived.

I know that everyone’s perceptions will be different. The reason is that people perceive both people and things not as the thing exists, but as THEY exist. Two people can look at the same thing and see quite different things. All I hope to reach are the people who appreciate the value of our natural world, but have “fallen asleep” over the course of their busy lives – and to reawaken them to the “saucer eyed” child they used to be. It is up to them to take it from there.

I started with a story, so let me end with one. On a cross country flight I was sitting by the window with my young daughter asleep next to me on my shoulder. As I looked out the window, I was struck by the incredible beauty of the landscape unfolding below me as we cruised over the Rockies near sunset. I nudged her awake with the following words: “Pssst Adeline, wake up! I want to show you something……”

And that simply describes what I hope to do with my art.

Rob Dreyer, AFC is a signature member of the Artists For Conservation Foundation. The Artists for Conservation Foundation (AFC) is a non-profit, international organization dedicated to the celebration and preservation of the natural world. Based in Vancouver, Canada, the Foundation represents the world’s leading collective of artists focused on nature and wildlife, with a membership spanning five continents and twenty-seven countries. The organization’s mission is to support wildlife and habitat conservation, biodiversity, sustainability and environmental education through art that celebrates our natural heritage. 50% of the sale of the original and prints of “Keeper of the Congo” will be donated to support the work of The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.

(c) copyright 2014

5. – Losing the Mojo – Blooming Artist Project

April 28, 2014

Well it has been an entire month since my last entry  - sorry about that, but I found myself waylaid by a number of pressing work related priorities and then seemed to have lost a bit of my “mojo” on my wolf.  Now, the interesting thing is that “losing my mojo” is a good thing and a quite instructive part, I believe, to the Blooming Artist Project.  “Mojo,” for those of you that are unfamiliar with the term, is that power, that may seem magical, that allows someone to be very effective, successful, etc. (at least according to Merriam-Webster).   Unbeknownst to most, I usually lose my mojo at some point with most of the paintings I do.  It drives my wife crazy and she now simply tunes me out when I come in from the studio in frustration.  She knows that in a little while I’ll come back in whistling, leaving her to wonder what happened to my sour mood.  My response is usually “the magic happened.” By that I mean that somehow I worked through the problem and what moments before was a discouraging failure is now a satisfying success.  The interesting thing is that I rarely take credit for “the magic” because it IS “magic.” I’ve had friends tell me that it’s that thing people call “artistic genius – or inspiration.”  I don’t think it’s either of those things.  Instead I believe it is the often heard definition of  “luck” – where ”preparation meets opportunity.”

I follow Robert Bateman’s facebook page (and encourage you to do so too).  Mr. Bateman is a very well known and accomplished wildlife artist and fellow AFC member.  Here is how he explained it. “I am always working on 5-10 paintings at once.  What happens is I get discouraged and don’t know what to do next. I always like a painting when I start it or else I wouldn’t start it – in fact they always look best before I start! Then I get to work on it and it starts going downhill and I don’t know why. It is the same as writers block. If I knew why I didn’t like it I would fix it – because I know how to fix things. Rather than sitting around in despair, I start a new one and I feel better. By the time the 5th one is looking horrible then the 1st one doesn’t look so bad anymore. So I leap frog along.”

I think that is an honest description of what happens to most artists who work hard at their artwork and who seek in each piece to accomplish a certain objective.  But remember what I said above about the definition of “luck.” The “magic” can only happen if you prepare yourself with the tools/skills/knowledge/etc. to employ when you finally recognize the opportunity in your work to do something really beautiful, impactful or satisfying.   A thought or direction will finally come to mind, you utilize the tools you have in your arsenal to execute that idea, and your painting suddenly goes up another level.  Make no mistake – painting well is hard work – just like anything else. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy your work but I never consider it “relaxation” – at least not with anything that I would expect to sell.   The point is to keep working until you surprise yourself.  My bison painting “Morning in the Foothills,” is a great example. I just kept working and working on the nose until it suddenly became”wet” and came off the canvas and breathed on me. I remember thinking “Wow! How did I just do that? Don’t touch it!.”  The magic happened.

So here is the current version of my wolf (almost finished).


Notice I dropped the rocks off to the right, developed the moss on the rocks and had quite a bit of fun experimenting and creating a starkly  luminous & ethereal background.  I’m not sure the magic happened, but I did get back my mojo.  (by the way, for those who follow me on facebook, you already know that l completed about 5 paintings along with my Rhino in the meantime. The Rhino had previously been sitting as a line drawing and gray underpainting for six months in a corner of my studio gathering dust until I rediscovered why I started it in the first place – as Bateman said – you just leapfrog along.)    

Madi – I know you are reading these blogs.   I want to ask you to do something. You “finished” your companion wolf painting about a month ago. I now want you to go back to it with fresh eyes and see if you can make any “magic” happen.  My most common critique of a student’s work is that they stopped too soon. Push yourself further….. Remember it is just paint so don’t worry about “ruining” anything.

AFC 2014 Juried Exhibit Entries

April 18, 2014

Following are the four works that I entered in the AFC’s annual juried art exhibit, The Art of Conservation 2014.

The AFC exhibit is the world’s top conservation-themed art exhibit and sale. Last year I was honored to be juried into the live gallery exhibit and tour with “Keeper of the Congo” and the virtual exhibit with “Hiding in the Himalayas.” I am hoping to once again be juried into the traveling exhibit, which opens at Grouse Mountain Resort in Vancouver in September then travels to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona and to Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Wish me luck!

Barn Owl in the Old Barn

Grevy & the Bee Eaters



4. Creating Realistic Rocks – Blooming Artist

March 24, 2014

I’ve been promising to do a blog on how I create realistic rocks – Madi’s project finally gives me an excuse.  I share a few of these techniques in the hope that other artists can use them to create works that they are proud of. 

I love painting rocks. Why?  Because they are often beautiful, but also because they are the ultimate artistic exercise in form and texture.    They also allow a great deal of freedom compositionally. You can shift and change them easily to frame your subject or direct the viewer’s eye.

Here are the stages:

1.       Form

2.       Textural Depth

3.       Surface Textures/Color

4.       Detail Enhancements   

Form -   Rocks are pure form.  Artistically they are like the boxes and vases you drew in your first drawing class. I start with a line drawing and then work up the illusion of three dimensions by shading. Like all shading, a constant awareness of your light source(s) is critical. Be also acutely aware of your three dimensional planes upon which your rock structure is built.  My most important point here however, is just because they appear structurally simple – they are not. Do not think you can just make rocks up without some visual reference.   That’s how people create UNrealistic rocks – by not giving rocks the respect they deserve.  Like anything else you need to carefully study the patterns and processes in which Mother Nature created them or your viewer will notice. They form in very specific ways, generally aligning themselves in a general direction with specific recognizable patterns of erosion or disintegration.  The people at NASA look carefully at the images of rocks on other planets to determine similarities with rock formations that exist here on earth. That provides them empirical information. Similarly, the brain of your viewer is already wired to sense the natural and the unnatural.    So use a visual reference and carefully study the pattern and form of it, before beginning your work.

Line drawing and initial shading

Textural Depth – After creating the general rock forms I move to step two which is creating what I call textural depth.  Unlike what I said in step 1, rocks are NOT like the boxes and vases you drew in your first drawing class. They have subtle surface changes and shallows and ridges and cracks and facets and all kinds of other neat little structural idiosyncrasies.  This is where it gets fun – mix up your brushwork.  Again, use your reference and make sure you are creating an illusion that will be perceived as natural to the viewer.  Here is a close up of how my rocks looked at the end of this stage:   

Surface Textures/Color – All rocks have a surface texture and creating the illusion of texture is a matter if technique.  The technique I use for this painting came from my days of doing murals. I used this same technique to create elaborate stone work in a mural I once did in a Catholic church. The priest told me after the first service that two elderly woman parishioners came up to the alter after mass to settle an argument they had been having all during the mass and during his sermon.  One insisted the stone work was real three dimensional stones, the other an illusion.  The priest and I both had a laugh.

This technique takes two separate shades of color and a terry cloth rag.  You can use any natural colors that appear in your stone. Here I am looking for a gray found in the rocks of the northwoods, so am using a cool (ultramarine blue) and a warm (raw umber) that will result in a blended gray tone.  The pictures speak for themselves.  Lay the colors on separated and blot off with the terry cloth, creating texture and blending the colors as you go.  “Cultured Stone” is quite popular in construction today and the fake concrete stones are remarkably real looking. Next time you are standing outside a “stone” walmart facade or sitting by a modern constructed “stone” fireplace – study how the stone fakers use blends of colors to create realism. Sorry the pictures here didn’t quite pick up the texture detail that resulted, but you get the idea. It’s a critical step which makes all the difference.

Another technique I’ll use with granite (not shown here) is a splatter technique flicking my thumb across a stiff brush (messy, hard to control but effective). Often I’ll simply take a spotter brush and go to town – it doesn’t take as long as you think.

Detail Enhancement – Finally, I add detail enhancements if I wish and where appropriate.  Here you can start to see where I am laying in some algae/moss (dry brushed in with permanent sap green) where there may be moisture dripping through the rock and some lichen patches (terre verte & white) where the rocks may receive occasional daylight. These visual clues start to build for the viewer a location, climate and ambiance which they can identify with, and which becomes part of the reality of the “encounter” I am trying to create for them with the wolf.  I am not finished here but will probably comes back towards the end of the painting and add more details and enhancements as I feel the painting needs it.

Next- Layering up the fur

3. Blooming Artist – Creating the Underpainting

March 4, 2014

Hopefully Madi is now following along as I try to explain how I create a painting.  The lesson this week is the importance of learning how to draw.  By “underpainting” I really mean “drawing” a monochromatic version of the painting to create the line and form necessary to layer on our color and textures.  Drawing is everything!  I had a talented but newer wildlife artist ask me the other day if I thought she had the ability to do wildlife art.  My response was simple: “Of course you do! IF you can draw!” (she could and had some wonderful examples of that talent).

It is simply not possible to do representational or realistic type paintings without highly developed drawing skills. There are many fabulous artists in other areas of art where drawing is not quite as critical, so don’t despair if you’re still working on that talent – there are fabulous colorists, designers, web, graphical, mixed media and mechanical artists these days – all doing great stuff.    But to do wildlife art (or portraits), you must have these strong drawing skills. 1. Line. 2. Form & Structure including Perspective. 3. Value Differentiation (shading/lighting) and 4. Anatomical Mechanics (movement).  I am not going into all of those right now so don’t worry. Instead let me tell you how I learned to draw.

1.I drew on my own, practicing endlessly (usually from National Geographic magazines as a kid). 2. I had a wonderful art teacher for four years in high school who taught me the correct way of doing things ( he wasn’t impressed when I tried to “express myself” – drawing is like everything else: do it right or don’t do it at all.) 3. I drew a LOT from live subjects (not photos and not still lifes) in college and beyond and 4. I drew hundreds of murals working large and quickly as an adult (little did I realize at the time the real value of this.) I finally got to the point where I could start at any point on the wall and draw the entire scene perfectly in proportion and perspective without any measurements or markers. The first time I did it I was amazed that it somehow magically came out of my brain, through my arm, and out my fingers. My point is this: if you have basic drawing skills which it appears Madi does, then they can be developed to a level which you won’t even believe through work, education and practice.   

My drawing course in a nutshell is this: with each drawing decision (remember the 1000 decisions?) ask yourself these three questions – 1. What is the direction of the line relative to a two-dimensional horizontal or vertical grid (up to the left, down to the right, etc.) 2. What is the shape of the line (straight, curved, s- shaped, arcing, etc). and 3. What is the length of the line (this is entirely dependent on the size of other relevant objects in your drawing and issues of perspective). There you have it, my 3-week drawing course in one paragraph.

Piece of cake, right?

So when I do an “underpainting,” I simply use a pencil or sometimes graphic paper (for speed) for simple stuff to simply mark the positions of major elements in the painting (gridding the canvas for complex scenes or patterns) then I get to work with a brush and paint. Mineral spirits is my eraser.  I have been drawing for fifty years though, a young drawer should spend a great deal of time working on and refining their drawing and then use a workable fixative to hold it in place.  For a younger artist working in acrylics, rather than try to duplicate what I show in my pictures, you would be better off doing a detailed drawing in pencil, then fixative and then shade with a thinned acrylic. Make sure to make corrections before the acrylic drys – which is fairly quick.  Don’t think you can fix a drawing later in the painting process – that will ALWAYS cause you trouble – make sure it is right before going on. I NEVER knowingly leave a mistake on my canvas when I stop for the day. Otherwise it is there the next day to haunt me forevermore.   When Madi did her wolf etching, she was using a subtractive technique, which is very unforgiving. I use a little bit of pencil and a lot of eraser. Pencils to me are a metaphor for life – there’s a reason they come with erasers: “You’re expected to make mistakes. The trick is to not run out of eraser before you run out of lead.”

Because I am drawing with a brush I make several passes adding depth and detail as I go.  Following are some pictures which illustrate the process.  Note that I blow up my reference photos to make the process easier. KInkos oversized b&w printer is cheap and well worth it for me to help improve accuracy. I used Sam’s Club to print a poster of my wolf so I can see every detail.

The bottom line is that by the end of the underpainting – the majority of line, form and structure of the painting is firmly established.  Because I paint in layers of transparent colors, any fundamental changes after the underpainting is in place, are difficult to make.  That being said – never “freak out” – it’s just paint, you can white it out and start over.

Because I love doing rocks and have developed certain techniques to make them look real, I’ll do the next blog on rocks – just because I can (it’s my blog I can do whatever I want unless my wife tells me otherwise) – even though they are unrelated to the “wolf” part of the painting.

Next: 4 – Creating Realistic Rocks

2. Blooming Artist – Gathering Wolf Reference Photos

February 24, 2014

Conceptionally,  I am trying to create a wolf painting inspired by Madi’s threatening (snarling) wolf etching.

However, my focus is in taking that inspiration and creating a more impactful & interactive  encounter with the viewer.  I always try to have an objective when I paint. I rarely paint “just to paint” hoping that something develops. Most of my paintings both in concept and compositionally are determined from the start – I always visualize what I hope the finished product to look like and go after that. Without an objective, your artwork will be lost. Remember what I said about a thousand decisions?  The objective helps you make those decisions. That’s not to say that the creative process ends before I touch paint on canvas – I let my paintings evolve as I go – but always within a framework of an objective I am hoping to achieve.  (btw, it is this seeking of an “objective” that also causes me to throw the canvas out the window in frustration several times during the creation of each work – a habit that tends to particularly irritate my wife who has to deal with me.)

I decided to set this painting up in such a way that the wolf was proximally higher than the viewer thus putting the viewer in a position of subordination.  When painting a human portrait of a powerful individual, I will sometimes utilize this technique of proximity. There is a reason that a judge sits up on the bench in a courtroom, presiding over the court – that proximal arrangement is understood by humans and will be felt by the viewer.  My canvas will be vertical (probably 1 x 3 – i.e. 3 units high, one unit wide) to achieve this proximal effect.

Wolf pack dynamics have been extensively researched with the pack organized along dominance/submissive lines. Here I want this wolf to be “Alpha” – intimidating the viewer into submission. Wolfs (and other Canids) also use direct eye contact as an indicator of dominance/submission – kind of like the game “made ya blink” we played as kids.   A dog trainer will tell you that eye contact with a dog is critical in training – eyes are a big thing with canids, so lets use them in this painting. In this “made you blink” game between painting and viewer, my wolf will win every time – such is the advantage of an inanimate two-dimensional image designed to trick the brain of the viewer.

The setting I will use is the Northwoods – as if the viewer were on a hike or in a canoe when  the encounter occurred.   If I can work in some morning or evening/weather  ambiance I will, but that is not critical to me at this point.  I will let that evolve as I paint.

So with that objective in mind I search the stock photo databases that I belong to, to find an image which I can license from the photographer for a derivative work. Respecting copyrights is extremely important and I try to be as careful as possible to always legally give credit and appropriate remuneration where it is due. Photographers work extremely hard and have developed considerable expertise (and expense) in acquiring their images and that always needs to be respected. The “derivative” use of an image can sometimes create some gray areas, but I always try to work in good faith with the image owner. Finding the right reference materials is often harder than creating the painting itself.

After quite a bit of searching I discovered and licensed this image which fits the bill.

Watermarked image licensed from fotolia

Now all I need to do is find the right rocks/logs etc which will elevate the wolf.  In creating the rocks/logs  I am conscious of creating site lines which will direct the viewer to where I want them to look within the painting (in this case directly into the wolves eyes.) After more searching and manipulating in my graphic image manipulation program (GIMP) I came up with the following digital mockup for my painting.*  This will provide the “bones” of the painting to which I can add layers of complexity if I choose.  I will be sharing this derivative mockup with Madi for her to follow along with the project if she wishes.

Next: 3. The Underpainting

1. Let the Blooming Artist Project begin!

February 20, 2014

So I finally meet my young protégé last night at The Clayton Fine Art Gallery..  All I knew about the artist of my companion work was that it was a 9th grader from Lindbergh High, but  clearly the artist of a snarling wolf had to be a guy. Guys like such things like wolves and power and danger and aggression. So imagine my surprise when a delightfully feminine young woman approached me and introduced herself as the creator of the wolf etching.  I asked her why she chose that subject to which she replied: “I guess I like wolves.”  Well I couldn’t argue with that – we all are drawn to subjects that we like.  But why the snarling wolf?  “Well, I find the teeth interesting!”   We were off to a good start.

Madi is a very talented young woman (artist AND musician) who is just beginning to discover the talents that reside within her.  Madi likes to draw, working mainly in pencil but hoping to graduate to painting. She asked for my advice regarding getting started with painting.   My advice was simple but surprising – don’t worry about color. Focus on line and form and values and the colors will find themselves.  Color is relative and I know many wonderful and successful wildlife (and other) artists that create beautiful works with very unnatural but beautifully bright colors. A green bear or a bright red cow can be stunning. Yet too many beginning painters get “freaked out” over colors – I know because I was one once.

As I tell students, every work of art is a product of a thousand decisions – some logical, some intuitive. Your hope is to get as many of those decisions right, but often there is no “right or wrong” answer – so go with what “feels” right.  That’s why they call it creative, and why each piece of artwork is unique.  However each decision will build on the last, so as long as you are diligent (not lazy or sloppy), the end result will be satisfying.

Madi is at the stage where she is simply focusing on her drawing and ability to replicate what she sees in her reference photographs.  I am no longer concerned with those things but focus instead on how to create impactful paintings that communicate in a visceral way with the viewer. To accomplish that requires a development of her senses way beyond the ability to draw. It requires an understanding of nonverbal communications that create an emotional  impact on the viewer.  It is my belief that great artists have a highly refined sense of empathy, observation  and intuition.

Let me explain that concept by way of a question: “why is art training important?” Math teaches us how to think logically, English to increase our communication skills, Science to develop our understanding of how things work.  But what does art teach us? I believe art’s instruction’s greatest value  is that it teaches us how we perceive and interpret our world. It increases our empathy, observation and intuition.   My first “art” teacher was my father who pulled me aside one day with a leaf and told me that if I wanted to see God, I need only to observe the wonderful beauty contained within the intricate patterns and order of the leaf’s structure – I did and it was incredible. Beauty is all around us and we only need to remove ourselves from the distractions of our iphones and ipods and develop our sense of observation. If you want to be a great artist – first develop your abilities to find, notice and appreciate beauty. It is all around you, yet so often taken for granted.

I could see that ability in Madi’s eyes, and she clearly understood what I was saying. My kind of protégé.

Using Madi’s wolf portrait as inspiration, I too will create a portrait of a threatening wolf.  In doing so I will employ my knowledge of non verbal cues which in this painting will involve 1.  body posture, 2. proxemics or special orientation and 3. eye connectivity. (there are many more – but not relevant to this particular painting.)  In doing so, I hope to create a human “encounter” with the wolf which creates in the viewer a visceral reaction that is compelling in the finished piece.   I should also say that composition (which I define as intelligently directing the viewer’s eye) is also critical – but that is a whole subject within itself.

Madi asked if there was a project she should work on while I am completing my painting. I told her that I would email her my compositional mockup of my photo references and she could create her own version of my painting. As I work my way through the painting and this blog, she can follow along – creating her own work of art in her own way. The dual gallery showing  in late May will allow us to learn from each other. Hopefully you can attend and meet this inspiring young artist.

Next: Developing Reference Materials.


Blooming Artist Project Introduction

February 19, 2014

The Blooming Artist Project is the brain child of Lindbergh school district educator Marilyn Callahan.

Marilyn outlines the project’s mission as follows:
Young artists gain so much from one-on-one interactions.  However, few students are fortunate enough to have a master artist in their lives to mentor their skills and support their ideas.  The Blooming Artists Project hopes to make this connection by promoting the following experiences:
•    Students will meet and talk with master artists, developing a dialog about personal expression, process, and inspiration.
•    Students will gain confidence in their work and find new avenues to pursue their creativity
•    Master artists will be challenged to communicate, interpret, and represent developing artistic expression.
•    Master artists will have a chance to influence the development of artistic passion in young artists.

I have been invited to participate as a “Master Artist’” mentoring a student based on one of the student’s works of art. I chose among several artworks submitted to me the portrait of a wolf which you see here.  I will also be creating a portrait of a wolf  – joining other student-master pairs from St. Louis for an exhibition of their companion pieces in late May at the Clayton Fine Art Gallery.

Tonight I meet the artist of this wolf portrait. All I know is that he or she is a 9th grade student in the Lindbergh school district who is part of “The Blooming Artists Project.” I also know, simply from looking at this work, that the student has exceptional talent that should be encouraged and developed.

I intend to blog the progress of my wolf painting so the student(s) can follow along and observe.  You are invited to follow the blog if you wish. Stay tuned for the blog posts on my facebook. If you’re not on my facebook – feel free to “friend” me.

I’m looking forward to the exercise and am hopeful I can bring some value to this “blooming artist.”  It is quite possible that I will gain more out of the exercise that he/she. I hope you will follow along.

Art & the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project

September 24, 2013

Some cool stuff is going on deep in the Congo…

When I originally composed and titled my work “Keeper of the Congo” – little did I know that the painting would soon introduce me to the real “Keepers of the Congo” – St. Louis based researchers doing fascinating work in the most remote area on earth – the pristine, untouched Goualougo Triangle of the Congo Basin.  Dr. Dave Morgan and Dr. Crickette Sanz are helping to conserve this last remaining “Eden” and the fauna that live there.

“Keeper of the Congo” begins its year long traveling exhibit raising awareness (and hopefully funding) for The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project this weekend in Vancouver.  We hope to leverage this artwork to help promote their interesting and important work.

Take a trip deep into the Congo by scrolling down and reading about this captivating area of planet earth and Dave and Crickette’s experiences and discoveries.

I also encourage you to read the Feb. 2010 feature story in The National Geographic about the GTAP:

You can also visit their site at this link:











Goualougo Triangle Ape Project Backgrounder

The Region

The Goualougo Triangle is an approximately 147-square-mile region (95,000-acres) on the southern end of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo. This region, which is extremely isolated and remains pristine and untouched, came into prominence during biologist Mike Fay’s 1999 Megatransect across Africa. (Fay hiked 2,000 miles across Africa to chronicle the wildlife he encountered as well as the need to preserve it.) The Goualougo Triangle and neighboringNouabalé-Ndoki National Park are so remote and inaccessible that they are one of the last places on Earth to remain virtually untouched by present day man. The nearest human settlement is Bomassa, a Bantu-Bangombe “pygmy” village of about 400 people approximately 30 miles away. Home to critically endangered chimpanzees, gorillas and other threatened species, it may be the most intact forested landscape in all of Africa. By studying this pristine place, scientists can gain a baseline for guiding conservation decisions across Africa. The same old-growth forest that inspires scientists is also extremely valuable to industrial logging interests, however. While the Goualougo Triangle and Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park are protected lands, nearby forests that provide resources to wildlife are being felled. The tension (competition?) between research and resource extraction has increased the urgency of studying the region’s diversity – and conservation advocacy to save it.


As timber extraction expanded into the neighboring region in 1999, Dr. Dave Morgan, co-director of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project through the zoo’s Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, began conducting a survey of the region’s mammals. He was joined shortly thereafter by research partner (and now wife) Dr. Crickette Sanz. When they arrived, the chimpanzees there had never seen a human– something that is somewhat of a marvel in the world today.

The Camp

Getting to the isolated field-research site involves a somewhat harrowing journey. From Chicago, you fly over the Atlantic to Paris; the next day features a jaunt to Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo. From there, you fly to Ouesso, where you embark upon a motorized dug out canoe boat trip to Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park headquarters. You transfer to a smaller canoe, paddle further into the jungle and finally step onto the shore at the park’s Mbeli Bai camp, where a six-hour hike into the protected wilderness area of the Goualougo Triangle awaits. All told, it is a 4-day journey to get to the camp from Chicago (and 5 days to get back home).  


The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project’s research team aims to minimize its low impact on the pristine landscape. Living quarters, labs, offices and a kitchen and dining area are constructed from tents, tarps, branches and mud bases. Following field protocols developed for this site, ll food and supplies are brought in by boat and on foot (with garbage (batteries, tins, plastics) carried out on foot to the park headquarters and disposed of on a regular basis. The camp infrastructure is extremely rustic, but the research employs some advanced technology. Solar panels provide green power to laptops, rechargeable batteries and research equipment. Dozens of wildlife camera “traps” are strategically placed around the forest to capture images and video of wildlife diversity and ape behavior for later analysis.


The Wildlife

In addition to critically endangered chimpanzees and gorillas, the forest is home to elephants, leopards, buffalo, crocodiles, electric fish and much, much more. The Congo Basin is one of the most biologically diverse rainforests on the planet.

Key Areas of Research:

Saving the ‘Lungs of the World’ — Weighing the Impact of Logging on the Ecosystem

The naivety of chimpanzees and gorillas in the region, and therefore lack of fear of people, has the capacity to put them at an even greater risk to poachers and human related diseases. Forestry operations, and the roads that are created to get loggers in and out of the forests, often go hand-in-hand with poaching and the illegal bush-meat trade. The conservation of apes depends upon the conservation of their forests. In the Congo Basin, only 10-15% of forests are legally protected either as national park or nature reserve.1


The forests of the Congo Basin span Central Africa and cover 2,548,540km2, of which around 598,440km2 (23.5 percent) are designated for production2. They contain extraordinary biodiversity that includes all Africa’s great ape species – gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos – as well as many other threatened plants and animals. The Basin also provides ecosystem services in the form of food, water and shelter to more than 75 million people, while the carbon sequestered by its forest cover means it is sometimes referred to as ‘the lungs of the world.’


Whilst the Goualougo Triangle and Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park are protected, the forests around them are allocated for multi-use activities with the primary extraction industry being timber exploitation. By monitoring the movement of at-risk chimpanzee and gorilla populations before, during and after logging and resources like trees important to them, the researchers are gathering information to improve sustainable logging practices, boosting conservation across Africa.

Most logging concessions where great apes live (throughout Africa and Asia) are not sustainably certified operations1. However, in Congo Basin there are several large Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) concessions with healthy populations of gorillas and chimpanzees1. The area involved (4.5 million hectares) is still a fraction of all logging concessions, but is increasing thanks to conservation advocacy, education and a growing demand for FSC certified products in Europe and the US1.


Americans are consumers of African hardwood

China, the European Union and the United States are some of the world’s largest consumers and importers of tropical hardwood. According to a study by the IUCN, nearly 10% of all logs imported from China come from Africa, with Republic of Congo supplying half of it3.

Products such as plywood, furniture and flooring are China’s major export earners. About 20% of Chinese plywood is exported to Asia, North America and Europe, and about 40% of solid flooring, mostly to North America and Europe3.


Conservationists and Logging Companies Work Together to Save Apes

Loggers and conservationists may seem like the most unlikely bedfellows, but Drs Morgan and Sanz have worked tirelessly to gain the trust and support of logging companies operating in Central Africa so that they can communicate and collaborate in order to ensure the most sustainable future for great apes in the region. Indeed, such partnerships are rare 

Dr. Morgan and Sanz, along with colleagues from Wildlife Conservation Society have been important proponents of sustainable logging practices, and have (literally) written the textbook on how logging companies can take basic steps to make their practices more sustainable. In an effort to initiate more effective conservation activities around the Nouable-Ndoki National Park, and agreement was signed in 1999 between WCS, Congolaise Industrielle du Bois (CIB), and the Congolese government’s Ministere de l’Economie Forestiere (MEF). This agreement aims at establishing management systems that ensure the long-term integrity of the forest ecosystem in

the context of commercial forest exploitation for the logging concessions. It resulted in the first FSC certified concession in all of Central Africa and where the GTAP focuses its forestry studies.

Sustainable logging remains a controversial topic and the GTAP is one of the few studies where quantifiable data is being collected in collaboration to address the benefits as well as adverse impacts of such exploitation. Logging companies adhering to certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) can be the catalyst for long-term survival of African great apes according to a recent report by Morgan, Sanz and colleagues4.

Great Apes and the FSC: Implementing ‘Ape Friendly’ Practices in Central Africa’s Logging Concessions, sets out clear guidance for range states, forestry managers and the FSC to help them strengthen current certification requirements to safeguard great apes in production forests. The guidelines center on upholding existing laws, educating logging workers, implementing staff health programs and monitoring threatened species in logging concessions.

Morgan says that collaboration between timber operators and conservationists could yield substantial benefits to apes. “Combining the timber operators’ detailed geo-referenced tree data with the wildlife monitoring expertise of the conservation community, for example, would be a significant step towards maintaining vital forest functions in production forests.

Between 2004-2012, the collaboration between Lincoln Park Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society surveyed an estimated 1,050 gorillas and 614 chimpanzees across the Goualougo Triangle study area. The research team also found that ape populations remained stable in the adjacent logging concession during timber extraction.

Reduced Impact Logging encompasses all forest harvesting operations from pre-harvest inventory and planning, tree selection, felling and extraction, to post-harvest assessments. Its benefits can include reduced soil disturbance and canopy loss; faster recovery; reduced wood waste, machine hours and injuries to workforce; and increased carbon retention.

Groundbreaking Discoveries about Ape Behavior 

Untouched by human influence, the Goualougo Triangle’s chimpanzees and gorillas provide a glimpse into rarely witnessed natural behaviors. Morgan and Sanz collaborate with a field team of Congolese researchers and assistants to track the apes as they move through the forest, recording how the animals interact with one another, manipulate tools and forage for food. Motion-sensitive “camera traps” provide behavioral footage of elusive animals from remote regions of the park while fecal samples are collected and analyzed to provide a window into their well-being.


One exciting finding: Goualougo researchers have seen the region’s chimpanzees display a novel tool-using behavior. The apes use a stout stick to “punch” holes in termite mounds—something unseen elsewhere—before “fishing” the insects out with a slender, herbaceous tool.


Researchers have long known that chimpanzees use tools. Jane Goodall’s pioneering research at Gombe National Park—another Lincoln Park Zoo research site—revealed that chimpanzees grass stalks or stems to “fish” termites from their mounds. But observations from the Goualougo Triangle revealed the unprecedented step of chimpanzees in which they “modify” their fishing probes in advance of using the tool. This modification improves the chimpanzees success rate by ten times and is one of the only examples by wild animals demonstrating an improved tool technology for collecting embedded food items. They also regularly use  as many as five tools for a single task – building an entire toolbox to get a job done. The animals may use a pointed stick to perforate a mound before using a slender tool to gather the insects that surface. At a beehive, they may use one tool to create an opening, another to enlarge the break and then a strip of bark or stick with a frayed end to gather honey. These types of discoveries enlighten researchers not only about unique cultural adaptations within chimpanzee communities, but provide a glimpse into the evolution of humans.

Origins of Malaria Discovered Thanks to Goualougo Triangle Ape Project

Tool-making is not the only breakthrough from the Goualougo Triangle. Fecal samples collected from the region’s western lowland gorillas contributed to pioneering findings on the origins of a particularly devastating strain of malaria responsible for 1 million human deaths every year. In Africa, a child dies every 45 seconds from malaria, according to the World Health Organization. Morgan and Sanz’s work in Goualougo Triangle helped unearth the origin of this devastating disease, which they learned originated in gorillas. Whilst this hasn’t stopped the disease epidemic, it has given the medical community vital information that will guide them one step closer to eradicating this deadly disease5 and highlights the importance of studies like the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.

Goualougo Triangle Ape Project Staff

David Morgan, Ph.D.

Research Fellow for the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society, Morgan is co-director of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project. His research interests include evaluating the effects of mechanized logging on apes, assessing the co-existence of gorillas and chimpanzees in lowland forests and evaluating spatial distribution and organization of neighboring chimpanzee communities.

Crickette Sanz, Ph.D.

Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis and adjunct scientist for Lincoln Park Zoo. Sanz is co-director of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project. Her research focuses on primate behavioral ecology, chimpanzee tool technology and great ape conservation.

Crepin Ayina

Senior Research Assistant and Transect Team Leader

A member of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project since 2005, Ayina leads field transect surveys in addition to other chimpanzee field work.

Sydney Ndolo

Senior Research Assistant and Staff Botanist

A member of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project since 2006, Ndolo oversees botanical surveys, identification of plant foods eaten by wild apes and the monitoring of the impact of seasonal variations on multiple chimpanzee communities.


Partners, Supporters and Collaborators:


Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, Lincoln Park Zoo

Congo Program,

Wildlife Conservation Society-Congo Program

Ministere de l’Economie Forestiere, Republic of Congo

Ministere de le Recherche Scientifique et Technologique, Republic of Congo

Great Ape Conservation Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Columbus Zoological Park

Arcus Foundation

National Geographic Society

Columbus Zoological Park

Minnesota Zoo



1.       Kreveld, Arnold van and Ingrid Roerhors. “Great Apes & Logging,” Worldwide Fund for Nature. Sept. 2009.


2.       “State of the World’s Forests 2011,” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 


3.       International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “Scoping Study of the China-Africa Trading Chain,” August 2009.


4.       Morgan, D., Sanz, C., Greer, D., Rayden, T., Maisels, F. & Williamson, E.A. (2013). Great Apes and FSC: Implementing ‘Ape Friendly’ Practices in Central Africa’s Logging Concessions. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group. 36 pp.


5.       5.     McNeil, Donald G. Jr. “A Finding on Malaria Comes from Humble Origins.” New York Times. Sept 27, 2010.