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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Zoo Art

Mandrill in the Jungle, 1909, Henri Rousseau
Copyright, Jim Lane
Everyone's a critic.
The next time you run up against the ages-old malady known as "artists' block" or perhaps "blank page syndrome," a phrase I coined in my book, Art THINK (available at right), try packing up your portable easel, camp stool, and art supplies, then heading out for a day at your local zoo. Or if your not the Plein-air type, just grab your camera and do the same. Although most artists don't think about it much, a zoo is a treasure trove of exciting, exotic, and challenging painting content. One of the most famous wildlife artists in the history of French art, Henri Rousseau, got most of his inspiration for paintings such as Mandrill in the Jungle (above), dating from 1909, from picture postcards, the Paris zoo, and various private menageries. Even a quick look, despite the title, confirms the fact he obviously never visited a jungle.

"Hold real still, someone is drawing us."
What? Not another giraffe!
This one is by Eric Sweet.
I suppose some of the best wildlife artists today do, or have, at least once, visited the jungle environment from which to paint. But, let's face it, most, like Rousseau, haven't. And if they're hung up on painting outdoors, that pretty much leaves zoos as the only affordable choice. Moreover zoo's welcome even rank amateurs brave enough, and dedicated enough, to set up their portable studios where they can sketch and/or paint their modern-day menageries up-close and personal, so to speak. It also turns the artists into a free tourist attraction. With potential buyers watching their every move, the artists may even get a feel for what the animal must endure every day.

Howard, the Brevard Zoo Rhinoceros, Jeanette Drake
When it comes to animals, most artists have their favorites. The only problem revolves around the fact that the list of common favorites is too short and...well, too common. Everyone likes the big cats. Zebras offer a multitude of design possibilities. Likewise, elephants and monkeys are a perennial favorite. Although these are also favorite of buyers, they offer limited possibilities for novelty or exceptional creativity. Next time you visit a zoo, consider painting (or photographing) a rhinoceros. It's not sleek and pretty, but it's also not overexposed or tiresome (above).

"The tower" was never intended as a zoo, and eventually
became quite inadequate (not to mention, smelly). Yet it wasn't

until the 1830 that a new zoo was built in Regent's Park.
It might surprise most people to realize that there's really nothing new about using zoos as a means of studying, drawing, and painting wildlife. What may be the first zoo in modern times dates back to the early 13th century when three boatloads of wild animals arrived from Normandy as a gift to England's King John. We don't know what kind of animals they were but it set something of a precedent. For better or worse, such offerings came to be seen as worthy gifts from one reigning monarch to another. England's Henry III got a lion as a wedding gift in 1235, followed by a polar bear from the King of Norway in 1252. Though quite valuable and much appreciated at the time, the dilemma which arose entailed what to do with the damned things. The king came up with a typically British response, "Lock'em up in the Tower of London." Thus, over the course of the next few centuries, the Tower Royal Menagerie (with all its animal abuse horror stories) came into being.

The Ladies At The Zoo, Rome, 1883, Daniel Hernandez
As artists began frequenting zoos to observe their wildlife subject matter from the safety, comfort, and convenience outside the requisite cages and enclosures, they also came to realize that zoos were ideal places to observe and record human life as well, as seen in Daniel Hernandez's 1883 Ladies at the Zoo (above) as they hurry past the lion's cage only to pause and look back over their shoulders at the beastly king.

Puma at the St. Louis Zoo, Tony Hurt
Beyond that, quite apart from watching all manner of human and animal life, painting or photographing what they see, few artists realize that zoos are ideal places for drawing and painting landscapes. Zoos today, even the smaller ones, are often set amid carefully landscape gardens with colorful artists' attractions such as the waterfall (below) at the St. Louis Zoo. Such easily accessible sites are also idea for painting the same landscape features in different seasons. Some of the larger zoos are, in fact, set inside such city park venues. Thus a day at the zoo becomes a "walk in the park."

Notice the importance of carefully framing landscape shots as seen in the poorly cropped lower photo. The pool at the base is quite as important as the waterfall itself. Compare the two photos in this regard.
As fascinating as zoo animals can be, the artist
should always be aware of human interactions.


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