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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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