Beauty in the Beast

Olga M. Miller lives in the western mountains of Maine, where the beautiful scenery and wildlife inspire her work. And she certainly shows an aptitude for depicting her inspiration. That’s an important factor with any area of specialization, but, as Jan Martin McGuire explains in “Where the Wild Things Are” on page 40, it’s especially true with wildlife. The audience drawn to this material is generally very well informed about the factual aspects as well as the more elusive sense of connection with the natural surroundings. Such viewers are hard to fool in either case.

Miller’s painting King of the Cutdown exhibits a firm grasp of the more basic requirements, along with a convincing handling of the oil medium. In particular, I appreciate the artist’s fine management of the low-growing brush in the immediate foreground of the painting. The various plants and dry twigs are shown as a cohesive mass, yet she’s also able to convey the delicacy of each individual element. The same is true of the distant hillside and its trees: That sort of structure and content can easily slip into excessively tight rendering and become eye traps for the viewer.

The intent here is, obviously, to have the viewer discover the bull moose, not to have the setting steal the show. And it works—to some extent. I feel that the overall painting could be much improved if the artist pushes even further to add more life to this wildlife art.

Art Principles At Work
I suspect that Miller and I share some similar experience, that of tramping fields and forests and facing chance encounters with various kinds of wildlife. When the subject is as close as is indicated here, such a meeting would be quite a surprise (for both human and beast). Yet I don’t feel that sensation here. There are two possible ways to fix this incongruity: to set the animal in motion, or to create a sense of undetected discovery for the viewer. Working on issues of composition and the animal’s pose will help either cause.

Avoiding a too-static composition. We certainly have no trouble locating the center of attention here. If anything, for me, it’s a bit too easy, and that’s a compositional problem. The two foreground tree trunks have neither a beginning nor an end in the margins of the painting so they visually hem in the moose—creating the sense that he couldn’t move at all, even if he wanted to. The animal’s rump and his antlers both attach themselves to the trees, left and right, restricting his movement even more. The painting thus becomes rather static, which violates the freedom that should be implicit in the telling of a wildlife story.

In my sketch, I’ve tried to correct this by dealing with the two tree trunks (which, by the way, show some of the most beautifully painted birch bark I’ve seen). The fact that the two trunks exit from the top and bottom of the picture robs the viewer of a knowledge of where they exist in space; they feel like prison bars. So I’ve added more trees and varied their growth locations. I feel this greatly enhances the sense of space in the picture, especially in the use of the one trunk cutting across the moose’s body. There’s now no doubt as to the spatial arrangement in the locale.

Telling a story through compelling viewer interaction. The presentation of the moose—looking calmly at the viewer—in King of the Cutdown is more akin to a zoo experience. As an artist, you must become something of a theatrical presenter. Animals in the wild, faced with confrontation, are generally quick to respond with fear or aggression. In either case, movement is prompted. The alternative is to present the animal as if it’s unaware of the viewer’s presence. In that case, it’s wise to tuck the creature into surroundings so concealing that the viewer has to look for a bit before he or she actually “discovers” the wildlife. For this painting, that would also mean that the moose should be looking away from the viewer.

I think the best use of this kind of painting is to make the viewer feel like a real participant in the depicted event. In my sketch, that prompted me to set the moose in motion, moving away from the encounter. That would be a likely reaction, unless, of course, it’s rutting season. In that case, the viewer had better be in motion—a good time to quit the country.

Lessons Learned
Miller is a fine painter, and I appreciate her style of not rendering every line of fur and eyelash in excruciating detail. A little more thought as to the staging of her wildlife situations will create a 100-percent improvement in aesthetic quality.

About the Artist
Olga M. Miller of Byron, Maine, is a third-generation artist who received much of her training from her father and grandfather. Her work has won several awards, including top honors in the 2002 Maine Sportsman’s Show Wildlife Art Competition and the 2002 Maine Migratory Waterfowl Stamp Contest.

Joanne Moore is managing editor for The Artist’s Magazine.

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