plein air at zoo atlanta

i was out walking the dogs with jim at the end of may, and ran into dawn kinney martin, an artist i knew from way back in the days of cafe tu tu tango.  she told me she would be up at the zoo the first week of june, doing a plein air paint out as a fund raiser for the zoo.  i got all excited, and got the name of the person to call at the zoo – the fabulous julia knox (we’re related by name, sort of).  so i ran home, and you know how it is when you’re trying to get hold of someone with an office – they’re never there, they never answer their phone, and they never get back to you.  but i had a weekend to make it happen, so i hounded her, and finally she gave me this nice polite email about how they were full up for this year, but i could apply for next year’s event starting in december.  i took it well.  i wrote back that there was sure to be at least one no-show, and i live in the neighborhood and could be down there in ten minutes.  well, an hour and a half to run off and get supplies.

so she called me on tuesday, and i scampered down there.  i knew before i even arrived that i wanted to paint the flamingos.  they’re so colorful.  they’re the first things you see when you get inside the zoo, and tho you never stop to look at them on the way out (because fatigue), it’s so nice to stop and contemplate the colors.  plus, they don’t move, so i could make my first painting a still life.

so to speak.

after putting all my stuff in the ‘green room’ (it’s kind of brownish gray), in the round education building up on the hill, the one with the living roof, i was driven down to the front gate by an intern – they’re so bright and chipper, and all of them are from way north fulton county, so this is a really special internship – they all complain of the traffic (welcome to adulthood in atlanta).

i sat in front of the flamingos for about two hours.  it was around 1 when i got there, i picked the deepest shade right next to the railing separating us from them, sat and watched them for awhile to find a grouping of them that didn’t seem likely to move for awhile, and then got out my canvas and my graphite stick and started sketching.  once i had the sketch in, i took a reference photo of what i was going to paint, because even tho they’re remarkably unlifelike creatures, they do move around because there’s a lot of them, and they are sociable.  they squabble some.  they preen, they flap their wings (not often), they poke at the water listlessly (as if there might be food there – the water smells like chlorine and bird poop).  mostly they sleep.

so in two hours i had my reintroduction to speed painting, which is what i did at tango.  and what’s more, speed painting in acrylic, which dries as soon as it comes out of the tube.  i mixed paint a lot.  can i please say how difficult it is to get that brownish green of the water in a beam of sunlight?


i took a new canvas out with me next morning.  i got there around 9, and wandered around the zoo all morning, looking at the animals, the landscape, the visitors, the light.  then i really wasn’t in the mood to paint after that, wanting lunch and a nap, but i forced myself to stay and start a painting.  i stopped back by the green room for a stash of water and snacks so i would have something to keep me going (i forgot to bring lunch), and then got another intern to take me up to the orangutan towers.

the orangutans were mainly sleeping in the afternoon shade, but the habitat was very nice and green, with the platform and cement tree, the woods behind, and the tourists in front.  i sat on the benches behind the viewing area, about 30 feet from the railing, and painting the habitat for a couple of hours, sitting in the shade, ignoring the hundreds of people who came by to see the orangutans.  i was struck by how many times the same conversations were repeated by different families or couples stopping by.  it was like in venice, when every single tourist would stop on a particular spot on a particular bridge, and swing their cameras up to take the same exact photo of the same place from the same angle and the same spot.  something compelling in the composition of that scene.  i too had stopped and take my picture, and so i did the same thing at the zoo, and painted as if i was a bump on a log, witnessing sort of half-abstractedly the buzzing of the constant stream of tourists in and out of the space.  like a time lapse photo.

please note that what you’re seeing here is the finished painting, in all cases.  when i took them home after the two hour session of painting on the scene, they were simple, roughed in, needing a lot of work, and lacking all sorts of details – like the orangutans, and the tourists.  all that got put in during the week that we had to finish our work before the auction.


so that was wednesday.  on thursday morning i got here right after the place opened, because they let the staff in at 8, but the tourists didn’t get let in until 9:30, so that was a whole bunch of time in which to paint absolutely unimpeded.  nobody looking, nobody asking, nobody talking, nobody taking selfies with you.

so i staked out the carousel.  i could always see it when i was sitting in the car taking a break from painting.  the lights moved around and around, and i knew what it was.  so i had the little intern drop me off in the kids’ playplace, where they have a wetland full of turtles, and wallabys, and a petting zoo, and a climbing wall.  i liked the carousel.  it was recently done, in 1999, i think, and it’s becoming a little worn, but it’s got old fashioned charm, and features a lot of the zoo animals.  so i walked all around, selected the view of willie b’s rump, and stood against the railing to draw and start to paint.

it’s a really challenging painting, because of all the angles and straight lines, which take a certain level of concentration – meditation – to be able to get it right.  so i struggled with it for my two hours, but in the end got all the white space of the canvas covered, which i consider to be the end of the first act.  and then it was 9:30, and the kids arrived, and ACK the carousel started moving, so i stopped painting, grabbed my camera and took some photos, mostly blurry, but i got these kids in these poses on some other animal entirely, and slapped them in when i was done messing around with the background.


then, after lunch, or instead of lunch, or something, i got a volunteer to drive me – they’re older, and sometimes they live around the neighborhood.  we went the back way, around the staff parking lots, and the backs of the buildings, including the restaurants and the reptile house.  we drove around the back of the new reptile house, which is truly spectacular from the outside – like a ufo landed in grant park, all steel and glass.  i felt so privileged to be behind the scenes in the zoo – like the time i got a private tour around the back bits of the aquarium.

i stopped at the alligator habitat.  i had been there the day before, scoping out things.  the inside of the new slimy scaly spectacular ( i think the intern insisted on calling it) is a masterwork of decoration.  the rock walls, the desert habitats, the cement tree limbs, everything was done with an artistry that made the exhibits look pale.  i even got to talk to one of the guys who worked on teh walls, imbedding cast fossils into the rock surface.  brilliant.

the reason i stopped at the alligator habitat was not the alligators.  it was the habitat.  a great swimming pool of an enclosure, a pair or three alligators wallowing on the shallow rock, and the tourists, each and every one of them, bending over double to look under the water level to see them lying there.  it was priceless.  i just had to paint a row of tourist butts.

but first i had to paint the habitat, so i sat on a cement bench with fossils in it, laid my paints and all around me, and painted for two hours, putting in the rocks and the water, leaving most of the other details later.  the sky didn’t get painted in until i saw a photograph jim took the following day, under different conditions.  it was only on reviewing the photos that i discovered that the sky was blue outside the building, so i painted it in much later.  the same thing for the people.


the next day, friday, i was totally undecided what to paint.  i found out talking to other painters that this was pretty much the case with most of them.  they wandered around until inspiration hit them.

there were 40 some painters there, doing all sorts of work, and they were spread around the zoo in the most unlikely places, as well as the places you’d imagine – in front of the pandas, the lions, the elephants, the giraffes.  they were doing all kinds of work, some working on panels they’d pretreated with a texture or a color or some embellishment.  some worked from photos, even tho they were working outside (a kind of stretch of the definition of plein air), some took photos and went away to paint in the studio.  whatever.  julia, who ran the event, said up front that she wasn’t there to police us as artists, and if we could produce it, we could call it art.  so we were free to let the place and the animals inspire us, and it was a really creative week, and lots of fun, and everybody met a bunch of other artists, not all of them local.

it’s a small world.

anyway, i ended up in the early morning shade in front of the elephant enclosure, and spent the morning painting it.  the elephants soon moved off, and were in fact not seen again, which concerned quite a few tourists, who told their kids that the elephants were probably still asleep.  i’d heard someone who sounded like they knew state that this was elephant spa day and they were having their toenails done.  i ventured this to several particularly worried tourists, and it seemed to help.


that afternoon, i had time to start one more painting, and unwisely, perhaps, picked the meerkat.  i thought they were so interesting, i wanted to have the experience of sitting in front of their habitat for a couple of hours, absorbing their activity.  that’s what was so interesting about doing all this live painting.  i got to sit and watch animals the way i don’t get to do in life.  i usually work from photos.  i don’t get a chance to experience the wandering and attentions of animals on their own.  the tourists came and went, and i sat and studied the various animals i painted (except for the alligators – i never saw them while i was sitting there).  it was very good to do that, and i’m looking forward to the privilege of time alone with wildlife, even tho of course i’m not alone and they’re not wild.  you know what i’m talking about.

so i painted the meerkats.  this one girl would climb up on a planter and look around, stock still except for her head, which turned here and there quickly, then froze up and stared until something else caught her attention.  i got her to look right at me for the reference photo, and then spent the rest of my time sketching in her surroundings, and drawing her basic body shape and attitude, because she stayed that way for five minutes at a time.

the only trouble with this was that i was sitting in full sun, in the early afternoon, without a hat, without any shade at all.  my paints dried the moment i squeezed them out, my metal butcher tray that i was using for a palette was too hot to touch (i had it resting on my knees anyway), i couldn’t see the colors properly because of the glare, and the meerkats had all gone into the other enclosure which was turned away from the sun.



so i went home with everything.  and spent the next week fixing them, finishing them, in some cases redrawing them according to the reference photo.  and on saturday they had a big party at the zoo, and a silent auction, and all that.  we went, but that’s another story.  one i probably won’t get around to telling…


marie’s fountain – choices

there is in the life of every painting, a time when real, lasting choices have to be made, and there’s no going back from there.  in this case, it’s time to completely ruin its value as a watercolor by gluing it down to a board and putting a coat of varnish over it.

ooh, anathema, you cry.  intense discomfort, anxiety and fear overcome you.  why, it’s just wrong.

yeah, well.  tough.

you may notice that the photos accompanying this blog post aren’t of the marie’s fountain painting.  that’s because i found it necessary to perform a couple of experiments before taking the final steps quite so irrevocably.   bear with me.

i was thinking about it this afternoon – the first time i’d been able to spend any time in the studio for about a week.  jim and i had cut the panel a couple of days ago, and i was standing around downstairs waiting for a couple of coats of black gesso to dry on it.  i was putting on a couple of layers of black, and then i was mixing up some burnt umber and ultramarine blue and put it on over that, to enrich the black.  and then since we didn’t have any green earth acrylic mixed up, i took some matte medium and a couple of knives-full of terre verte pigment (and some chrome green, which is opaque), and mixed it up as a final glaze.  this went on streaky, because i am lousy at mixing, and don’t really care.  i actually liked the streaks, so i made sure to use up all the green acrylic mix painting the edges where it might actually show once the paper was down.

but i hate acrylic.  it’s so dead.  it smells funny.  it’s lifeless and dull.  yuk.  this is the part i like the least, the coating out and sticking on part.  i’m not yet comfortable with it, and the plasticity, the fakeness of the medium really bothers me.  like using some sort of fiberglass that you just know is breaking down your liver.  (this is me who chooses to breathe hot orange oil fumes instead of doing encaustic the ‘right’ way by overheating beeswax and ventilating my studio with a vacuum attachment over my nose.  selective squeamishness.)

i was actually thinking – why not use wax to stick the painting down and varnish it?  marie’s husband keeps bees, after all, and would appreciate a topcoat of shiny, fragrant beeswax over the painting.  wouldn’t he?  i was in the midst of talking to jim about this when i thought, well, i need to experiment with this one before i decide.

i’d just been regarding the 8″ strip i’d torn off of the thumbs-up-diner painting i’m trying to finish now.  i was looking at it sitting on top of the trashcan and thinking what a shame it was that i was fixing to crumple up this fine watercolor paper and toss it in the garbage.  i should use the back of it, or something.

so i snatched up the paper, found a piece of hardboard (masonite, in this case quite literally, even tho they haven’t made masonite in years – that’s how old our stock of panels is), and got out the acrylic matte medium and the jar of beeswax and orange oil.

if i were going to mount a painting, i’d use a lot more care than this.  but i was actually happy for the excuse to rip up paper and slap acrylic on it and smoosh it down with my fingers and coat it with ooky acrylic medium with my fingers.  it was gooky, i had to use a paper towel, and i got acrylic medium all over my palette knife.

i guess it’s time to explain the picture above.  the top half of the photo shows strips of paper towel marked with black where i had been coating out the panel.  on top of this in the right hand corner is a bunch of torn-up strips of watercolor paper.  the section on top is the continuation of the torn up piece on the bottom left.  you can see the edges of the unpainted framed picture, and the shirt on some guy’s back.

the bottom half of the photo shows the board, which is coated out with gray acrylic gesso.  on the right is the top part of the painting strip, the ceiling with the yellow clock and a light fixture hanging beside it.  that’s the part i glued down with acrylic using my fingers and a lot of goop.  the left side looks cloudy, and that’s because it has a fresh coat of wax over it.  i carved some out of the jar with my palette knife, scraped it over the back of the painting and then put it down and took a brayer to it (a rubber roller to press out the air bubbles).  then i carved out some more wax and smeared it on the surface, and tried my damnedest to smooth it out with my fingers, but since i never took the time to thin the wax out to a workable consistency, i deserved the way it soaped up and flaked.  it reminded me of the way wax acts when you whip it for funky candle effects.

the first thing i noticed was that nothing i was doing to the watercolor paper was causing the least little bit of running.  when you put something wet down onto watercolor, you expect the colors to run.  but there was no movement at all from putting sloppy acrylic down, and no movement under the wax either.  perhaps gum arabic doesn’t react with wax, fine, but acrylic is water-based and you’d think watercolor would move right away.  but, like i said, nothing.  perhaps it’s because this painting is so old.  gum arabic hardens more with time, and some of the watercolors i’ve had sitting out on the palette for fifteen years or so just won’t dissolve up anymore.  so maybe that’s it.

the second thing i noticed was that i should have used bleached beeswax.  you can see the difference in the whites.  the torn edges of the piece on the right are white white, and so is the face of the clock and the light fixture.  on the left hand piece, the whites are yellowed.  it’s not a whole lot, but it’s significant.

on this second picture, you can see the results.  just not very well.

the third thing i noticed was that it takes so much longer to put on and burn in a coat of wax than it does to slap a coat of acrylic on both sides and smoosh it down.  the right side, the side i used the acrylic on, was down, stuck, and dried in a matter of minutes.  but it showed brushstrokes, or in this case, fingermarks.  there’s no reason to have brushstrokes on a watercolor.  aesthetically it’s kind of offensive.  that’s been the trouble with the two watercolors i’ve mounted and varnished so far.  the varnishes i’ve used have been put on with a brush, and it has left brushstrokes.  the answer to this is to thin the acrylic way down and use an atomizer to apply it.  but i haven’t done that yet, partly out of fear of violating the manufacturer’s directions on the uv topcoat i’ve been using (which in general call for way more than is necessary just so you have to go out and buy more).

it took a good half an hour to burn in the wax on the left piece of paper.  i use a heat lamp, so burning in is always tedious, slow but sure, and i had to go back several times to melt out drips and lumps.  i was worried about scorching the paper most of all.  this is because when i did an encaustic on top of canvas mounted on board, i ended up scorching the cotton of the canvas.  and watercolor paper is made of cotton.  but tho the paper absorbed some of the wax in spots, it didn’t scorch the paper, or change the colors.

the funny thing was that the wax melted gast or slow, according to the underlying color.  (i totally expect this in encaustic, where the pigment is mixed in with the wax which you then melt.  but this was a finished watercolor and dry as a bone, and i didn’t expect dried pigment to have a similar effect.  tho, because it’s all a matter of albedo, it’s obvious that it should have.  it just surprised me, and seemed even more pronounced than when i’m just burning in pigmented wax.)  where there was black, as in the area near the roof, around the frame, and the guy’s hair, the wax melted the fastest and it seemed the watercolor would run because it was molten everywhere there was black, and still translucent yellow wax everywhere else.  but tho the wax was molten, the underlying granularity of the black was accentuated but didn’t go anywhere.

when wax is molten, it’s clear.  you can see right down into it, and everything looks just as wet and intense as it can.  when the wax cools, it becomes translucent again, and you lose some of the wetness, the clarity, the depth.  it retains enough of these properties to be intriguing as hell, but the only one who sees the clarity and depth is the artist.  the viewer never sees this, and it’s a pity, because this is wax at its most magical.

there was one place where the wax holding the painting onto the board melted, and ran out underneath the paper, which began to lift off.  but while it was still molten i stuck it down with a finger, and it stayed just fine.  once it hardened, i could see that the yellowness was much abated, but still obvious, the colors were a bit muted but not at all runny, and the surface of the paper wasn’t entirely even and i would have to go back and cover spots with the necessary re-melting and all the trouble it can be to keep the melt lines smooth.  else that or scrape it with a razor blade.

because i still wasn’t sure about the non-running part of all this, i took that piece of paper that had the continuation of the picture frame and the guy’s shirt, ripped that in half, and dunked the top strip into a basin of water for five seconds.  you can see above that nothing ran at all, even after dunking, and this isn’t usual, so it must be the age of the painting.  which means i’m going to have to seal my freshly painted watercolor surface before i even glue it down to the board.

what have i decided to do?  i don’t know yet.  jim is pretty strong on the idea that i should mount it with acrylic, since it’s more permanent than wax, which might slip a little on a hot day, tho it would have to be over 100 inside the house, and we’re the only fools who’d stand for that (and our encaustics are fine, thanks).  and he’s pretty insistent that i coat out the surface with acrylic before putting anything on top, just in case.   all the tiny details and sharp-focussed work i did on marie’s fountain, it shouldn’t be ruined by a careless top coat.  and i agree with that.

so tomorrow the testing i have to do is to go back to the right side of the board and put a coat of wax over the acrylic-coated paper, burn that in, and see what it looks like.  if i like the look of the wax on top of the acrylic, then i can proceed with it on the real painting.  and if not, then i can continue to refine the acrylic coating until i’m happy with the no-brushstrokes look i’m aiming for.  and then i can put it all together.  but i really need to think about doing it in wax.  it’s so appropriate.