Subject + Environment: Creating Wildlife Art Class

I recently completed the class “Subject + Environment: Creating Wildlife Art” at Rhodes Island School of Design (RISD) and wanted to share my project. This was a fun class. It met six times, eighteen hours total. We chose a mounted specimen (not live) to first sketch, then paint in a media of our choosing. We worked on this for the entire class. The first step was selecting a specimen. RISD’s Natural Science Laboratory is rich in stuffed and mounted specimens. There were several to chose from, including an otter, several birds, and a corn snake coiled around a branch. I chose this red fox, Vulpes vulpes, in part due to his striking pose. I call him Reginald:

The first step was making a sketch of Reginald. In a preliminary sketch you don’t necessarily want to capture every nuance and strand of fur, rather you want to get an over “feel” for the subject. This means studying its anatomy, proportion and perspective, and areas of light and dark. Here’s the result, 17 inches by 14 inches, graphite sticks, B to 6B: (The words to his right are idea notes for a background, more on this.)

Next I considered what media (materials) to use. Initially I wanted to use watercolor pencils, thinking it’d be ideal to detail Reginald’s fur. But time constraints prevented that, colored pencils are notoriously slow. Watercolors seemed a good second choice, it’d help give him a fluid look.

After that it was time to compose the piece. I definitely wanted to keep the log he was perched on and show him in a realistic setting. Red foxes are quite rangy, living in woods, fields, plains and even cities, so I had a lot to work with. I settled on an abstract forest scene, kept simple so not to distract from Reginald.

Time to begin the final piece. I transferred an outline of the preliminary sketch to the watercolor paper. Then I “painted” the fox with masking fluid. This is liquid latex rubber that dries to become waterproof, a paint barrier. With it I could paint all over without worrying about Reginald getting colored. Watercolor only flows to wet areas of the paper, so I painted plain water on the top half then played with green paint.

The fun thing with watercolors is you can splash it on, then tilt the paper (taped to a board) all about to create free-flowing scenes. Repeated coats of green yielded this: (Amusing, the masking fluid dries to same light green as glow-in-the-dark stickers, making Reginald look slightly radioactive.)

More work on the background. Remember the notes written in the preliminary sketch? They referred to backgrounds of other wildlife art I saw in reference books. I used as inspiration a background from a piece showing a Bengal Tiger chasing prey through a river, in India. There were dense clumps of tall vegetation on the riverbank that added an interesting effect. I applied additional coats of varying saturation to flesh out trees.

Next I added my own vegetation clumps, tweaking the color and texture to make it suitable for New England woods.

Finally it was time to paint Reginald. I used the same mask technique described above to paint large areas of colors, tilting the piece to help blend colors. At one point I tilted too much and some red watercolor paint dribbled to an area that was supposed to be white. Oops. Fortunately I had some white acrylic paint, I used it to hide the mistake. (While watercolor is rather transparent, acrylic is completely opaque, covering anything under it.) Then with a smaller brush I added highlights, such as the tufts of his fur sticking out. The result:

Admittedly the piece is quite rough, crude even, showing my quite modest skills. But it was a fun class where I learned a great deal, and that’s what important. And I got an A.