In both the fields of pastel drawing and wildlife art, Dawn Emerson is one of the best artists working today and a welcome voice of instruction and guidance when it comes to creating wildlife paintings. As a juror of art competitions, she shares what she looks for.
6) Put Drawing First
“Drawing to me is to me a way of experiencing the world,” Dawn says. “Seeing is a process of discovery. I strive to blend my love of eastern with western approaches to painting by combining ink with pastel. It is a fantastic journey.”
Artists with an interest in creating wildlife paintings can take heed of this focus and spend quality time observing their environment and recording it with any and all materials that call to them. In fact it might be your natural world and how you interpret it with your materials that could lead you to your next breakthrough in terms of your art materials.
5) Don’t Neglect Elements of Design
Dawn puts it plainly: “The bottom line for me is always composition and design.” Richness in creativity and diversity in subject matter will always cause her to pause, but it is those principles of design that can take an artwork from good to great.
With wildlife artwork, there is a lot to focus on and that can be overwhelming. Resources that can help you on your way include Dawn’s animal-centric Pastel Innovations. It’s a foray into the world of gesture and color and movement — all perfect for making wildlife paintings. For acrylic artists, we recommend Jerry Arnell’s Wildlife Scenes in Acrylic. Jerry guides you through his signature style with eight fun and easy painting demos.
4) Subject Can Come Second
Dawn often sees color, design, shape and texture before subject matter. In reference to a top prize she granted to artist Rose Edin’s painting, Beauty and the Beast, she says, “I loved the way the shapes and color attract the viewer, and THEN we discover the camels.”
Subject matter doesn’t have to dominate. Oftentimes a winning artwork is all about the way the subject matter is presented–not the thing being painted.
3) Take Care with Your Field of Vision
Wildlife paintings often include the natural environments that animals live in or a sense of the landscape and sky that are the animal’s habitat. But just as often artists take an almost portrait-like focus on their subject, going up close and shutting out all the extraneous details no matter how inspiring.
Whichever you choose, do so mindfully! Your composition will be stronger for it.
2) Create Multiples
It is so easy chase an icon across the surface on your canvas. Dawn recommends actively fighting against that tendency and to experiment with multiples when you are painting. “Try different compositions and approaches to the same subject rather than attempting a singular masterly reproduction of a photograph. Jurors often look for work that stands out as different and offers a unique interpretation.”
Many artists who create wildlife paintings go through thousands (yes, thousands!) of reference photos before settling on a few to pursue as they tackle a project. Don’t hem yourself in with just one point of view.
1) Balance It All
Wildlife paintings can be some of the most difficult to create because there are so many elements to consider. For Dawn, technique alone is not enough. You have to balance all the elements in your composition and all the skills you are trying to put forth. “Putting all the elements of design and composition together with creativity and technique—that’s the challenge!”
Dawn Emerson is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America and the Pastel Society of the West Coast. She has been a winner several times over in Pastel Journal’s Pastel 100 Competition. Mockingbird Gallery in Bend, Oregon represents her work. She is the author of several books and art education videos and has a BA in English and Art from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.