Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sasquatch Ptarmigan Safari

One of the reoccurring meta-lessons is that you can do art, you should do art everywhere, anywhere. Artists more than most folks tend to hole up in a creative comfort zone where it's safe to do their thing, and while this incubative studio instinct doesn't ever get old for me, it can and does get a little ingrown. It's the flip side of getting in the groove - ruts are familiar places to be, and they can stretch out forever. Years in my case.
Being immersed in different situations and exposed to new surroundings can often be the requisite jump-start into fresh and interesting work; just like getting ideas & inspiration one needs periodic realignments.

On that note, the class is shifting around to other locales, and in conjunction with the critter spot-illustration assignments and a renewed focus on observation and field-sketching plus experimentation with pen & ink techniques, we spent the first of two sessions at the UAF Museum of the North. For the first hour of class the exhibit areas are technically closed to the public, and so I usually reserve a classroom that is available so as to do a demonstration and have students warm up on the bag of assorted plush beavers I've somehow accumulated over the years...

Shown above is the quick & dirty demo using one of the specimens provided by the museum staff, a willow ptarmigan. This is the official Alaskan state bird, and is also without a doubt one of the absolutely stupidest creatures to survive in the wild. Symbolism aside, as a model it represents a common issue with many northern lifeforms, that of being mostly white. So many animals up here are white; ptarmigan, arctic fox, arctic hare, polar bear, snowy owl, bankers, lawyers, doctors. This presents a unique challenge when drawing with pen & ink, and it necessitates reminding them of the skills they already have picked up using other media, like rendering toilet paper with charcoal or copying the works of Fred Machetanz, for example.

Then for the remainder of the class it's off to explore the exhibition areas. Given that we only have an hour and a half left, there isn't a lot of time to waste, and the students have a suggested "hit list" of objects to harvest. Then they are tasked with working up at least two of their pencil roughs in their sketchbooks with ink: one experimenting with the dip pens + India ink and the other using instead their set of pigment markers (ex: Microns or Pitt Artist Pens). Not only does this homework get them comfortable with the tools needed to complete the upcoming assignment, it will inevitably have the side-benefit of calling into sharp focus just exactly what they will need to do better on the next trip, as learning to acquire observational skills while taking these "visual notes" is and will be more and more crucial training for the weeks ahead.

And yeah, I slightly exaggerated the relative size of the ptarmigan's claws after commenting on just how big they actually are during the demo. Just slightly off-panel is the steaming, bloody carcass of a poor moose which this bird has just slaughtered. Woe to the unwary outdoorsman who is lulled into complacency while out in the Alaskan wilderness. My running commentaries often lead to some pretty bizarre stories unfolding in tangent with close examination and studying of the subject matter. In other words, I tend to talk shit even while drawing it.

"Art at the college level is sheltered. It's about ideas, pushing the boundaries and it is fun. Making a living making art requires a whole new set of values and strategies."
- Judith D'Agostino

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