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Patricia Savage

Demystifying How Artists Work

As artists, we encounter lots of questions about how we go about doing a painting. We get the feeling that people feel it is some magical process, beyond their simple understanding. I want to try to demystify the process, bring you into our world and help you see the single-minded dedication in producing a final painting. So, I asked some of my friends, Carel Brest Van Kempen and Terry Miller, both wildlife artists, Allison Schroeer, a scientific illustrator; Bente Starke King, a botanical artist and myself, a nature artist, to send me slides that exemplified how they worked. To help you understand how we plan a painting, what we are thinking about as we do it, the time investment we put into our work, who has influenced us to make us better painters, the diverse kinds of materials we use to produce our work, and why we choose to go with that particular medium. I also contacted the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology which sent me slides of Fuertes' work starting from rough sketches to the finished paintings.

Hunting Bunting

Hunting Bunting. (Painted by Patricia Savage). Pastel on archival pastel paper. Snow Bunting, Plectrophenax nivalis. We saw our first bunting on St. Paul's Island. This bunting is hunting seeds. I, however, was hunting for Snow Buntings.
Click image for a larger view.

Terry Miller

I met Terry Miller several years ago at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin, and greatly admired his drawings and his great technical skill. Terry is a wildlife artist who knew he was an artist since he was little and thought everyone else around him was too. In his junior year of high school in the late 60's, his art teacher told him he had talent and should pursue art as a career. Following high school he attended the New Jersey Newark School of Fine Art, a state sponsored degree program, which had low tuition, good teachers, good credentials, and no math classes. During this period, influenced by Picasso and the Cubists, he painted abstractly--as he says, "a lot of very weird stuff." He wouldn't send me any slides of that period! A lot of what he was doing was not what the teachers liked. His teachers, and more importantly, himself, were never satisfied or in love with what he was painting. After earning his art degree, he worked as an architectural draftsman in N.Y. On a trip to Africa in 1972, he took photographs and, for fun, tried to sketch what he was seeing. That trip changed his life and his art. After coming home, he began doing small sketches in pencil, primarily for himself, and not for anyone else. His friends saw them and admired them. So he started working more and learning how to control the medium. Terry loves working in pencil and never tires of his chosen technique. He feels gratified to have found a satisfying technique.

Terry works for 8 to 9 hours a day and each of his drawings takes 7 to 8 days. Initially when he first began drawing, he was more dependent on photographs he had taken to trigger images of a painting. Now he can close his eyes and all kinds of ideas flow through. Once he has an idea for a drawing, he goes to his morgue (filing cabinets filled with photographs and magazine photos), and his field sketches to find a source that will come close enough to his concept. He then begins preliminary sketches, modifying the animals in his source photographs to more closely match his idea.

Terry regularly travels to Africa with a group of artists who respect and admire each other's work. Traveling with a group of artists provides plenty of opportunities for exchanges of ideas and technical tips. He has been helped and influenced by Lindsay Scott, Bob Kuhn, and Robert Bateman. Terry works on 4-ply Bristol board and regular graphite lead pencils between 7B and 6H.

Carel Brest Van Kempen

I met Carel Brest Van Kempen at the same show I met Terry. He's a wonderful character as well as a wonderful artist. As a child, wanting to be Audubon, he began hiking with a sketchbook in hand. In 5th grade, Carel invented a project for himself to paint all the various plumages of the NA Birds of Prey. He got many done, but being only 10, he was a bit over his head. Totally fascinated with water and what goes on under the water, he spent a great deal of time frustrating his Mom with mud for clothes and even tried to build a submarine, but again, he was literally a bit over his head.

Two different times Carel gave college a shot, both times on scholarships to major in biology, but he quit both times, not being gifted academically. He toyed with the idea of being an artist but his parents discouraged it because it is difficult to make a living as an artist. During these years he wandered though jobs a great deal and kept painting. But in 1989, at the age of 30, he had great success getting into art shows and decided to commit himself to art. Now he goes all over the world to find his images, He has traveled to several countries in Central and South America, to the Canary Islands and Southeast Asia, traveling by himself through parts of Africa, when some of us thought he was nuts to do so.

Watching and learning about animals has always fascinated Carel. He wants to paint things that he would like to see. Each painting is a speculation of what could happen. Being frustrated that he couldn't get under the water's surface and take a look around, he has taken 50 rolls of film of just the water's surface. These photos help him see how light, plants, and animals move and live in and on the water. To help get all these different elements scientifically correct, he uses books, magazines, illustrations, and many field guides. He uses field guides tremendously. When Carel needs extra detail, he will visit the local Natural Science Museum and use study skins or go to a zoo. Carel usually starts with a concept then does a rough drawing, tightening it gradually until he has the sketch mostly planned.

Carel's paintings begin with a concept in mind. Unlike Terry, who goes to his photo files first, Carel begins pulling references after he has the rough drawing tightened up. He has found that if he starts with references, he is too bound by the position of the animals in the photograph.

Carel works mostly in acrylics because it is what he does best. He also works in oil, watercolor, pen and ink, and ink washes. Currently he is trying to figure out oils because he can get much looser with oils. Right now his oil paintings are what he considers student paintings; he is learning how and nobody gets to see them. Carel works on Strathmore cold press illustration board because it has good absorbency and tooth. He uses mostly round sable watercolor brushes. Details come from Winsor& Newton rigger craft brush, which he buys in bulk, at $3 a piece. This brush has very long bristles, which can be loaded with paint, and because it's synthetic, it wears out fast. He goes through several of these brushes in each painting. Carel doesn't count how many weeks or months it takes to do one painting. Basically, he can get 1 square inch completed in 1 1/2 hours.

Allison Schroeer

Allison Schroeer is the Senior Biological Illustrator at Carolina Biological Supply. She has a bachelor's degree in Plant Science from Cornell University and a master's in Forest Ecology from the University of Georgia. Allison and I got to know each other through the local chapter of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. Growing up, Allison loved both science and art. In high school, she decided to major in biology, to try to have a positive effect on the natural world. At that time, she had not thought about art as a viable job option and didn't know about scientific illustration. It wasn't until halfway through college at Cornell that she realized that someone had to draw the illustrations in her science book. So, during her senior year, Allison did an independent study of botanical illustration to learn more about that kind of art. During the process, she fell in love with the hand-colored etchings in Victorian books.

After college, she interned at Duke University's Horticulture Department and received another intern position at Bailey Hortorium at Cornell. At this time, Allison was introduced to other scientific illustrators and scientists who convinced her that she could succeed in combining both illustration and science as her career choice. Bente Startke King, one of those illustrators, counseled Allison that another advanced degree in science would be advisable for additional credibility. She was accepted by the University of Georgia and earned a master's in Forest Ecology.

Scientific illustration to the untrained eye often has a monotonous technical look to it. When asked if her illustrations look different from others, she quickly and indignantly told me that each artist cannot help but have a unique approach. Every artist's work will look different in style and layout.

Three-quarters of Allison's work is done on the computer. She also works with technical pens in black and white on Bristol, some scratchboard, carbon dust, and Winsor & Newton watercolor with Prismacolor colored pencil layered on top. One illustration can take from a few hours to a week, depending on level of complexity. The length of time is totally dependent on its purpose and audience who views.

Bente Starke King

Bente Starke King is a botanical artist whose work I have followed for several years. Bente always wanted to be an artist and has always drawn. Along with collecting and pressing wildflowers as a child, she was also drawing pretty ladies with long eyelashes and high heels. For a while she wanted to be a fashion designer. As a teenager she changed her mind again and decided to become an architect. Her mother refused because, in Sweden, where she spent several years, architects were required to put in a year as a layperson and her mother did not want a young lady to be sitting on scaffolding with all those single men. Since Mom held the purse strings… Bente went on to receive degrees in commercial art and scientific illustration instead.

Twenty years ago, Bente got a master's degree in Natural Resources Conservation at Cornell and being interested in environmental issues, she became an environmental planner for the city of Rochester, N. Y., for two years. While there, she found out about a position opening up at Bailey Hortorium for a botanical illustrator. She thinks it is absolutely terrific to get paid for doing something you love.

When she was at Cornell, Bente worked exclusively in pen and ink. Scientists want the least expensive art and, therefore, she primarily worked from pressed herbarium specimens (which are not very inspiring to work from).

When Bente retired, time allowed her to spend more time doing paintings of plants in watercolor and colored pencil. She doesn't like to work from photographs because photos inherently have dark areas that can't be seen into. A living plant can be turned for different views. When working with a live plant, she finds she develops a personal relationship with it that shows up in her pieces in very subtle ways. Bente wants to find the soul of every plant and to do that she tries to bring out what inspired and attracted her to that particular plant. Wildflowers are her greatest love and, she believes, bring out her best work.

Patricia Savage

The first thing that I consciously remember drawing is Flipper. After that I spent years drawing horses, dogs, cats, large cats, wolves, elephants, and white-tailed deer from National Geographic photographs. Being a perfectionist, I easily became frustrated with not being able to draw what I was seeing, so I would quit drawing for a while, but always went back. In high school, my eyes, hand, and ability began catching up with what my perception of what a drawing should be. My high school art teacher loved my work (and therefore I loved her), and encouraged me to keep drawing.


Sofa Bed

Sofa Bed. (Painted by Patricia Savage). Pastel on archival pastel paper. Steller Sea Lions, Eumetopia jubatus. Steller Sea Lions are more agile than they appear. They clamber up tumbled, broken rock with greater ease than I can muster. These loungers we found in the Chiswells.
Click image for a larger view.

In 1976 I attended Western Carolina University, up in our North Carolina mountains. For the first time I was able to compare myself with other aspiring artists and realized with complete shock, and a very secret delight, that I was better than a lot of them. I graduated with a degree in art education. However, while doing my student teaching, I discovered that I didn't like teaching in the public schools; so I went and got another degree in Commercial Graphics. I worked for several years as an illustrator, then for several more years laying out ads for a local newspaper, rising to the position of Assistant Art Director.

In 1985, I decided to get over my fear of color. Foolishly I began with a full 22" x 29" sheet of Arches cold press watercolor paper. It took me a full year to finish that painting. In 1989, my husband, William Kimler, suggested I stop working and start painting full time; who could resist? Eventually, I discovered the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators and was juried into the Society of Animal Artists. Three years ago, wanting a new look to my work, I learned how to use pastels and, at the beginning of 2000, I taught myself oils and egg tempera. These two techniques have opened up all kinds of new stylistic challenges, greatly enlarged the effects that I can achieve and the subject matter that I can tackle.

Sun on Fire

Sun on Fire (Painted by Patricia Savage). Oil on linen. Fireweed. Epilobium angustifolium. I love painting sunlight. Shadows and light create abstract patterns that shift with the blowing wind. Painted more in the tradition of classical oil paintings, I used thin, dark washes of Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Umber, and Viridian.
Click image for a larger view.

I have never painted anything other than nature. It has always pulled me and drawn me to paint it. Primarily I use photography, magazine photographs, and books to plan and paint from. Anywhere from 1 to 60 source images can go into one painting. Usually I get my ideas from what I am seeing. Sometimes I have an idea and I will spend however many months or years it takes to get the photography. I paint anywhere from 4 to 10 hours a day depending on how much detail I am doing. The more detail, the more tense my body becomes, limiting the time I can spend with a particular piece.

Frozen Blue

Frozen Blue (Painted by Patricia Savage). Oil on linen. Looking deeply into the wondrous blue of a glacier, for whatever reason, makes me feel that I am facing death. The blue draws my soul, calling to me seductively to dissolve my core, which would be my death.
Click image for a larger view.



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