Oblivious (7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Oblivious (7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

This was a fun painting to work on, but portions of it were difficult because it was out of my usual comfort zone. Loosening up is hard for me. 

I was doodling in my sketchbook during my daughter’s piano lesson, trying to come up with some totally made-up deep sea creatures. The first critter I created looked a bit grumpy. Though it possessed some elements I liked, on the whole it didn’t quite work.
I sketched a second version that I really liked, this time with its mouth wide open. In the end it looked a bit like a great white shark crossed with an angler fish. There was something about that dopey, smiling face that clicked. After reworking it and adding a few more fish, I thought the image was starting to tell a little bit of a story.

The most fun aspect of painting this image was making the super-saturated background. Because of my medical illustration background, I tend to be very literal. For this to work visually, I had to throw a lot of that out the window and concentrate on having fun. The image is mostly lit from the point light source of the angerfish’s lamp. That made for some difficult painting. Logically, most of the scene would be in dark shadows or invisible, but I chose to render a tiny bit of ambient light so you could see more of the surroundings. I’m sure that at such a depth real fish are totally devoid of coloration, but to have the little guys show up I chose some bright, crazy colors.


Cotton-top Tamarin: Throwback Thursday

Cotton-top Tamarin (1x14 inch Transparent Watercolor on Winsor and Newton 140lb NCP Paper)

Cotton-top Tamarin (10×14-inch Transparent Watercolor on Winsor and Newton 140lb NCP Paper)

I did this painting a while back. It’s based on photos taken at the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Michigan. Aside from being unbelievably beautiful, cotton-top tamarins are interesting animals. These tiny primates have highly developed communication skills and exhibit many fascinating social behaviors. For example, groups of monkeys cooperatively raise the young, with only the dominant pair breeding. In addition  

The crazy white puff of fluff atop each monkey’s head gave rise, perhaps obviously, to their English common name. In German they are called Lisztaffe, or List’s Monkey, because their “hairdo” resembles that of Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt. Google up a photo of Franz (or “Fliszt” if you’re a Victor Borge fan) and see if you agree. Cruel perhaps, but I hate to admit, accurate. Honestly, I’m not sure who is being insulted here. Now I have a mental image of one of these dashing monkeys in a tux playing “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” on a tiny piano. Maybe I could switch that out with an image of Mr. Liszt swinging on some vines? Nah.

This painting was a real challenge in transparent watercolor. Any white you see is the white of the paper, so painting around the white fur of each face required incredible attention to detail. That being said, the thing that made this painting work, for me, was the pattern of vines breaking up the page and receding into the background.

Hairy Woodpecker Pencil Sketch p75

Hairy Woodpecker Pencil Sketch

Hairy Woodpecker Pencil Sketch

Its been a while since I’ve posted a plain old sketch. This is one of the Hairy Woodpeckers that frequents our suet feeders.

We’ve been fortunate to have Hairy Woodpeckers regularly visit our suet feeders for the last few years. As an added treat over the past two summers they’ve even bred nearby. We’ve never located the cavity, but they fly off to the woods to our east carrying huge wads of suet for their young. Eventually the young birds came in to gorge on the suet. In previous summers we’d stop feeding suet for fear that it would go bad, but now we know there’s enough bird traffic to eat everything before the suet goes rancid. It’s fun to see how many birds use it.

Hairy Woodpeckers definitely look like Downy Woodpeckers on steroids, with a bit of Pinocchio in their beaks. They seem absolutely massive by comparison. Although smaller than Red-bellied Woodpeckers in general, their sizes overlap. 

Woodpeckers have their annoying moments, I suppose. One summer when I was a teenager a Downy Woodpecker decided the stack vent from our plumbing was the ideal drumming post. After a steaming hot and humid night of attempting to sleep, I was finally getting some shuteye when I was awakened by what sounded like an AK-47 going off in my ear. After orienting myself for a minute I thought, who is on the roof or in the attic with a hammer? Shoving a steaming hot pillow over my head did nothing but raise my core temperature—and my temper with it. I stomped out the front door to see what craziness was going on, only to find a tiny woodpecker incessantly beating his beak against the metal pipe with all his might. After a few moments of wondering if a quick misting with the hose might prompt him to stop, my anger was replaced by an odd sort of respect for the guy. After thumbing through some bird books at home, I realized that he was merely drumming loudly to attract the ladies. He continued the deafening serenade every morning for a week or two.

Since then I’ve seen woodpeckers pounding on gutters and other parts of houses that serve to amplify their efforts more than a log. Strangely, this always reminds me of my grandfather. No, he didn’t hang from the house pecking the gutters and vent stacks… well, at least not while I was looking. My grandpa Frank was continually telling stories. A favorite of his went as follows:

“I was walking through the city the other day and heard this whump, whump, whump sound, so I decided to investigate. I went around a corner and came across a guy beating his head against a brick wall. I stopped him and asked,‘Why are you beating your head against the wall?’ He looked at me with his purple, swollen forehead and replied,‘Because it feels so good when I stop!’” 

I think of the fool in Grandpa Frank’s story and the industrious, determined Downy Woodpecker beating his head against the pipe on our roof, and I’m not sure which individual I am more like. There are goals I’ve set for myself that make me feel as if I’m beating my head against the wall, and like the woodpecker, I’m not really seeing any tangible results. I guess there are benefits to thinking like a woodpecker. Don’t quit, but don’t expect to move the pipe, either. Just try to enjoy the work and hope something good comes from it… and that no one sprays you with a hose to get you to stop!


Catch Me If You Can! (7×10-inch Transparent Watercolor)

Catch Me if You Can! (7x10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Catch Me if You Can! (7×10 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

More Crazy Fish Caricatures in Transparent Watercolor

Not for Dinner! (5x7 inch Transparent Watercfolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

NOT for Dinner!  (Anguilla sociopathica) 5×7-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper

Wormy Lips (5x7 inch Transparent Watercfolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Wormy Lips (Mucinex aquatica) 5×7-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper

Well, I had enough fun painting the previous fish that I thought I’d do a few more. These are a 180º from the day job, medical illustration work. With that, every artery, muscle, tendon and bone has to be in just the perfect place, or you will hear about it. On top of that you have to please art directors and committees, which can seem like an uphill battle at times. There is little room for artistic freedom. When I’m painting birds there is a similar quest for accuracy and detail. Fortunately, in the bird paintings there are opportunities for making artistic images within those constraints.

These quick paintings allow me to go a little nuts and just have fun. The wild, loose backgrounds are fun to paint, and coming up with outrageous fish is entertaining. With these, the anatomy is right when I say it is. It’s hard for me to stop putting in detail, but I’m trying not to work these paintings to death. It takes a surprising amount of practice to make a successful loose, splashy background.