Monday, October 29, 2012

Dynastes Quest revisited in Watercolor

This blog is about a watercolor that will be a belated birthday present. It's late because first the painting had to be painted and now it's delayed again by Hurricane Sandy because the recipient lives in Brooklyn.

It was commissioned by a friend of the little family whom I took on a beetle excursion this summer. The watercolor is meant as a lasting memento of that trip. The idea was an Arizona landscape with the mom and the two boys. As the people would be small, they would be recognizable more by their shape and body language than by their exactly portraied features. So the mom would be lovingly protective, the older boy growing more independent and adventerous at 7 and the younger, 5, still a little more clinging to mom (in fact, that only happened after we tired him out for three days plus jet lag).
There was a problem: The friend hadn't been part of the Arizona tour. To him Arizona is full of desert vistas with great saguaros. Somewhere in this wide landscape, he wanted the mother and the two kids depicted as they were searching for the elousive Dynastes granti.
Dynastes, however, does not like the desert heat, nor does this beetle live anywhere close to saguaros. I'm sure that the two bright kids are very awear of those ecological preferences and would not have accepted any artistic licence in that regard.
The brightly lit gas station on the Apache Reservation where we actually collected most of our beetles (on private property where we were allowed to hunt for bugs) was anything but picturesque.

A prettier place that the kids really enjoyed was the creek behind the KuBo cabin in Madera Canyon, and Dynastes beetles can actually be found there. I took some nice reference photos, and I photoshopped the people into position. But while the jumble of rocks and bone-white sycamore trunks could have made a great, nearly abstract painting, it just seemed too monochrome and stark as a backdrop for a happy little scene with children. I may still develop it into a painting one day.

Where the canyon opens into the grassland, the light is friendlier and there is more color. I did a loose scetch to explore that option. But just at that time I recieved another email from my client, saying how much he liked one of my landscape paintings that featured saguaros and agaves backed by a rocky slope with lots of maroon and purple ...I realized then that my creek scene really didn' t have anything 'typically Arizonan' for him.

I had a few photos of our little group posing on an overlook over the majestic beauty of Salt River Canyon. But it had been rainig there, the kids were tired, and we never climbed down to a more intimate setting within the canyon (a new bridge makes access much more difficult than it used to be).

From Salt River Crossing the road zigzags up to the Colorado River Plateau. Here it is bordered by fields of wild sunflowers, and creeks and rivers cut deeply into red and pink sandstone. These riparian areas are the real home of the Dynastes beetles. Scars in the bark of young ash trees tell of adult beetles who visit the trees for their juice. Dynastes grubbs spend years of feeding and growing in the mulch under oaks and sycamores along the creeks. Since we didn't stop to take any photos there, I dug through my reference files of photos and plein air paintings that I've done over the years in that area. The one above is from 1994 from a horseback trip with an Apache rancher.

For the final version of  this commission I now combined mom, kids, beetle, red rocks, cacti, ash trees and the mountain ranges of the Salt River Canyon to compose a painting that has much more of a narrative than my current work usually does. Can you find the beetle? I hope my clients are going to like it!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The south side of the Santa Catalinas

I just finished a watercolor commission of the Catalina Mountains. My clients spend the winters in SaddleBrook and summers in Germany, isn't that a perfect arrangement? But one of them grew up in Tucson looking up at the ever-changing south side of the Catalinas, where morning glow is chased by cloud shadows or by color bleaching southern glare until the evening light models the relief again in strong warm contrasts. I know the view well, I lived for 7 years in the foothills at River Road. So I was going to capture some of that on a full sheet of watercolor paper, that's 21 in by 30 in. 

Since I had all summer, I waited for a monsoon afternoon with dramatic clouds. One late August afternoon the sky looked perfect and I raced from my home on the west side of Interstate 10 to Campbell Ave. north of Sunrise. The clouds weren't so great there, but their shadows still brought the mountains alive and gave good contrast to Finger Rock - and I knew that that formation was important to my clients.

I took a series of photos and painted a quick plein air sketch on dry paper (10 by 14 in). There is no detail in it, but it captures colors and atmosphere that I wanted to reproduce on the big studio piece.  Luckily, as a painter I can just ignore any houses and developments that have sprung up in the foothills since my client was a child there.
I usually compose my landscape paintings with detailed foreground vegetation and some optical path leading the eye into the depth. But this time I had been asked to emphasize the mountain shape. Even the format of the painting was originally planned to be much more horizontal than my 'golden cut' shaped piece of paper. With this in mind I decided to just stick to the horizontal band of foothill vegetation, mostly saguaros, that I had actually seen while sketching. 

I like to combine wet in wet with wet on dry techniques in my watercolors.  So after penciling in very loose outlines I took a garden hose to my sheet of paper and soaked it, then slid it on a smooth wet board (no stretching). As soon as the wet sheen had disappeared I began flooding in blues for the sky. The sky is lightest closest to the horizon, so I had the board tilted slightly towards the top to make the pigment flow towards the zenith. As the drying progressed I laid down a warm pink orange wash for the mountain. This would give them warm glow of the afternoon light, and it would also tone down any distant green areas. It's tempting to use earth pigments for a landscape painting. But they lack the transparency that I need when I add several layers of paint and they tend to create mud. So I use only highly transparent, staining Thalos and Quinacridones. The disadvantage of these pigments: once on the paper they will stay put. Lifting and scrubbing is hardly possible.
At this point the drying paper had to be taped down with masking tape. It would still warp slightly, but that is the nature of an original watercolor.

As I was going to define the characteristic skyline of the Catalinas next, I had to let the painting dry thoroughly first. Anyway, layering can only be done over a dry under-painting. The trick is then to not disturb the dry layers while still smoothly blending the new ones.
I tend to work all over the painting, establishing some darks while preserving my lightest lights. It helps me to get the midtones right without going back too often.
This painting would be dominated by cool colors, greens and blues. The warm colors of some bare, sun-exposed rock needed to serve as a counterbalance. Also, I fondly remember my first visit to Tucson, when my host was driving me north on Campbell in the afternoon and I asked him whether there was red rock like in Sedona up there...he said no, just  Alpine glow on granit...but the impression staid with me.

I had followed pretty much the shadow pattern that I saw in my reference photos, but at one point I realized that the shadows were giving a concave appearance to the mesa on the left that weakened  the impression of massiveness that I wanted to achieve. It's a myth that watercolors cannot be changed at all. The shadows were painted mostly in non-staining cobalt blue, so the could be partly lifted with the help of a toothbrush. Simultaneously a disruptive hard edge became a lost one (soft).

My clients liked their painting. They found that the careful layering of transparent colors produces a stained glass effect that is hard to show in these photographs, nearly an iridescence that changes the colors depending on the viewpoint. They also like the  high contrast that makes Finger Rock the slightly unusual center of intrest. I all my other paintings I soften the mountain edge to make the mountains recede. But the effect of the high contrast is not unrealistic. When the Souther Pacific railway hired painters to introduce tourists to western landscapes, their paintings were rejected by eastern art critiques for their lack of atmospheric perspective. The reason for this lack is of course Arizona's low humidity. It's a dry heat, even during the monsoon months.

I'll take part in an outdoor art show at St. Phillip's Plaza on October 20 and 21. Please come and visit!
Find more of my winter shows by clicking here

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Audubon Trip to Brown Canyon, Baboquivari Mountains

Brown Canyon is part of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (of Arizona, not Argentina) It is close to Baboquivari, the sacred mountain of the Tohono O'odham. Access is limited to small guided tours. As a volunteer guide for the Tucson Audubon Society, I offered a Brown Canyon tour to witness the last peak of Arizona insect populations for the year 2012.

The recent rains had washed ruts into the road, so we had to use high clearance vehicles. Just a week before the overgrown catclaws and wait-a-minute bushes had been cleared off the paths by the fire department. It was so much greener than during my last visit in April! The creek was running and there were a few standing pools.

Filigree Skimmer • Pseudoleon superbus
We had hoped for many Dragonflies but only a few Filligree and Flame Skimmers were cruizing along the creek. I did get my first Filigree shot where the wing and eye pattern actually show up in front of the background.
Puddle party, photo by Ned Harris
The diversity and abundance of butterflies made up for that lack of dragons. Puddle parties like this one form when males land in the mud to collect minerals that they need to be fit for sex. If a few are sitting others will join as experiments with dummies showed. We found mostly species of pieridae in those groups (Tailed and Sleepy Orange, Mexican Yellow, Sulphur sp.).

Arizona Powdered Skipper Systasea zampa and Arizona Metalmark Calephelis arizonensis Photos Ned Harris

Empress Leilia and Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa leilia and celtis), Variegated and Gulf Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia, Agraulis vanillae) 1 and 4 by Ned Harris
As usual, territorial Empress Leilia  were defending little stretches of the path, but surprisingly there were also Hackberry Emperors basking on the rocky ground. Both their caterpillars feed on different species of Hackberry bushes.
Immaculate fresh Gulf Fritillaries and Variegated Fritillaries indicated that their food plant, probably Passion Vine, was aso close by.

Euptoieta claudia caterpillar
We found a Variegated Fritillary Caterpillar on Cucumber (Marah gilensis). Does it actually feed on it? It was fully grown, probably ready to pupate, a state when caterpillars may wander off their host plants.

Tiny Checkerspot (Dymasia dymas) and two views of the rare Elf (Microtia elva) Photos 1 and 3 by Ned Harris
Tiny Checkerspots danced around in abundance,  also several of the similarly sized Elfs that I had never seen before, but that are reported from all over SE Arizona this year. The foodplant is unknown and my Kaufman field guide doesn't even show a distribution map. Another Mexican alien!

Bordered Patch and caterpillars (Chlosyne lacinia)
A couple of weeks ago Bordered Patches made up the majority of butterflies in many SE Arizona locations. This time we didn't see many adults, but clumps of their caterpillars on asteracean leaves.

Larvae and fresh adults of the leaf beetle Zygogramma arizonica shared the same plants. (Stick Seed?). Every species of Asteracea seems to have its own distinct Zygogramma species, that appears only during a specific window of the plants annual life cycle, usually just before flower buds are formed. By now I can go through my files and very reliably predict where and when to find the more common Arizona species.

Chihuahuan Toad, Horse and Plains Lubber, Photos by Ned Harris
The place was hopping with Orthoptera. We found all three Lubbers that could be expected, several species of Spurthroats, several band-winged and several species of slant-faced grasshoppers.

Arphia pseudonietana
Red-winged Arphia stood out visually and acoustically - I wished I could record their flashing, noisy display flights. But on the ground, and in photos, they are just drab black-brown. I saw an interesting color variant with a cream colored pronotum but it escaped under a cat-claw acacia.

Chauliognathus misellus, C. profundus and C. levisi
Many Soldier Beetles were visiting composit flowers. I watched at least 5 species feeding on pollen and finding mating partners.

 Green female Stagmomantis limbata, Ground Mantis (Litaneutria minor),  Yersin's Ground Mantis (Yersiniops sophronicum)
With so many bugs, predators are never far behind: there were three kinds of Mantids: Big pregnant female Stagmomantis limbata whose brown oothekas will hang in the branches of trees and bushes until hundreds of youngsters emerge next spring. Nearly invisible ground mantids slipping around among the grasses, and higher up on flowers the equally small Yersin's Ground  Mantis with its diabolical face. This one was a first for me!

Brightly colored big Jumping Spiders, a Green Lynx with egg sack, a still unidentified Orbweaver and well-camouflaged crab spiders were competing with the mantids. A Tarantula stalked elegantly over grasses and around human feet (click to see the video).

Desert Cotton, Gossypium thuberi with: Boll Weevil Anthonomus grandis thurberiae, Shield Bug Sphyrocoris obliquus, Dark Flower Scarabs Euphoria sepulcralis rufina, Flee Beetle Disonycha glabrata, Longhorn Tragidion densiventre 
Rich insect-life surprised me on Wild Cotton plants. The bugs were chewing  through the skin of fresh green bolls and licking the sweet juices. This was the same community that I usually expect on the sap-leaking branches of Deser Broom: Wasps, Scarabs, the fulgorid Poblicia, Long-horned beetles, Flee Beetles, Leaf-footed and Shield Bugs....

Wasp Mantidfly Climaciella brunnea and Paper Wasp Polistes comanchus navajoe
The most common paper wasps had a bold imitator: a wasp-mantisfly, a stingless predator in the netwing family (Neuroptera). The larvae  are parasitoids of spiders.

Anthonomus grandis thurberiae and  Toposcopus wrightii
Some beetles were mating on the cotton plant: our native boll-weevil Anthonomus grandis thurberiae whose larvae will develop in  cotton bolls, but only in those of the wild species, and Wedge-shaped Beetles Toposcopus wrightii whose larvae will probably grow up as brood parasites of hymenoptera.

Green Rat Snake (Senticolis triaspis) ans Sonoran Whipsnake (Masticophis bilineatus) Images from Amphibians and Reptilians in Arizona, TC Brennan, AT Holycross, Arizona Game and Fish Department 2009 (publisher)
Reptiles were still active as well. Many juvenile lizards were working on their fat reserves for the winter. Close to the creek I watched a Sonoran Whip Snake disappear too quickly to alert the group. Doug Evans was the only one lucky (or quiet) enough to get to see a Green Ratsnake.

Ours was the best group I could have hoped for for this special adventure. Everyone who signed up was a naturalist and photographer with a lot of expertise. Fred Heath, Doug Mullins, and Brian McKnight are butterfly experts, Doris and Doug Evans and Inda Gregonis are longtime ASDM docents and birders, Ned Harris leads Catalina Mts. trips for the Sabino Canyon Naturalists during the summer and is the best raptor photographer I know. Jean Thomas, the volunteer guide of the Buenos Aires Preserve and keeper of the access code was our gracious and understanding chaperone. Thanks everyone!