Good wildlife art portrays animals and their habitat with sensitivity and accuracy, and you can’t do this without becoming familiar with your subjects. This means spending almost as much time studying the creatures and their surroundings as you do painting them. And while there’s no shortage of good wildlife photography in books, magazines and videos, depending on such sources will not only limit your work, but also expose you to the risk of plagiarism. There’s no substitute for studying your subjects personally.
My ideas usually come from thumbnail sketches in search of a fresh position or action, and a way to fit this into an interesting landscape composition. I sketch on graph paper, which helps to keep subjects level and aids in informal perspective, and if I want to enlarge the drawing I can so do easily, square by square. I transfer the drawing onto a prepared hardboard panel using graphite tracing paper, beginning with the outermost parts of the scene, then working inward toward the subject, which I save for last.
Realistically depicting such things as fur and hide is a matter of coming up with convincing textures. The color can change drastically with the light, but it has to look like you could sink your fingers into it. This is where my combinations of opaque and transparent applications becomes so important. I primarily use Chromacolours, an acrylic paint made from base resins, and when painting fur I usually progress from renderings in pencil and transparent paint to transparent washes of color to both opaque applications for the lighter areas and transparent mixtures for the shadows. But for just about any wildlife subject, my process is a matter of establishing texture first, then adding color and bringing out the highlights and shadows.
Ross Merrill is chief of conservation for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.