Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, September 03, 2007


See you back here in late October!

Sunday, September 02, 2007


This weekend will mark the opening of one of the most prominent annual exhibitions of animal art. The thirty-second annual Birds In Art opens to the public on September 8th at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI, and will run through November 11th. A smaller selection of works from the show will tour the United States afterwards. The Wausau venue will feature several pieces by this year's Master Artist, Walter Matia, along with flatwork and sculpture from about 100 artists, including my painting, Crash-barrier Waltzer. Last year I posted about my painting technique--now the opening of Birds in Art gives me an excuse to review my process of developing a composition.
The painting began with a visualization of a deer antler leaned against a guard-rail, its owner unseen, as a Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) perches on it, anticipating its next meal, its long, curved train echoing the shapes of the antler tines. I began by quickly sketching numerous versions of the bird, slowly refining its position. At this stage, I prefer to eschew reference materials. Above is a page of these early thumbnail sketches.

Next, I found a suitably interesting guard-rail. I had access to several different designs of these structures, and had to pick one that would work well in the design and still be recognizable as a guard-rail. I considered using one with bold back-and-white bars painted on it, but preliminary value sketches suggested it would overpower the subject. I settled on a section of weathered and beaten old rail where two members were bolted together and anchored to a concrete post, and took some photographs with a portable deer rack.
With the help of these photos, I sketched my protagonist's perch.
Taking my cues from the early thumbnail sketches, I sketched the position of my subject...
...and traced it onto the guard-rail/antler.
Using a big road-killed rooster magpie for reference, I began to redraw the subject, correcting the proportions and anatomy...
...by step. Click on the finished sketch above and note how unlike a magpie it is. At this point, I was really worried by how much it looked like a jay, instead. It seemed there was more than just a lack of blackness involved here.
I photocopied the finished drawing, and quickly colored in the subject, which immediately changed it from a jay to a magpie. Reassured, I was now ready to trace the whole thing onto illustration board and break out the paints.The finished painting. All that's left at this point is to rip-off a title from an old Jethro Tull song and take it to the framer.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


In 1998, biologist Karen Lips was surprised to find quantities of dead frogs in her study area in Panama. Since frog corpses don’t last long in the jungle, she presumed that what she saw was just a microcosm of what was actually happening. Inspection of the dead amphibians revealed that they had all been attacked by a fungus of the family Chytridae, which was christened Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (“Bd”). Members of this fungal family normally subsist on decaying organic matter. Bd was the first one known to attack living vertebrates. Within a year, researchers had isolated Bd from dead frogs of several species in Australia, as well as in the United States, Costa Rica, and even a number of zoos. It was also found in preserved specimens of Arroyo Toads (Bufo microscaphus californicus) from a 1991 California die-off. By the time Bd was discovered, herpetologists were well aware of a worldwide frog decline, and figuring out just how the fungus fit into this picture became a priority.

Over the ensuing decade, Bd has been confirmed as an important piece of the mystery of global frog decline. It has been isolated from many more frog species, most notably members of the splendid Neotropical toad genus Atelopus, which is undergoing a catastrophic crash at the moment. Several species have probably gone extinct in the past few years.

The oldest known Bd specimens came from an African Clawed Frog or “Platanna” (Xenopus laevius) collected in 1938, just as human pregnancy tests using Platannas were being accepted as the most effective available, beginning a huge increase in the global exportation of the species. Today these frogs are found in many alien waters; a couple of years ago, I nearly caught one in southern California. It has been posited that the Bd fungus originated as a stable endemic infection in Africa, and was spread worldwide upon the skins of laboratory Platannas.

A number of recent frog extinctions have been attributed to Bd. Early this year, an international cooperative project was launched to move populations of threatened frog species into zoos to protect them from chytridiomycosis, as Bd infection is called. Much has been learned in the last few years, but many questions remain. I, for one, am still not convinced that chytridiomycosis is not merely a secondary infection that exploits animals weakened by some other agent.

Now is the time for a comprehensive symposium, where the latest information can be discussed by diverse parties interested in the problem, and that is just what PARC (Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation) is offering on November 5-7, in Tempe, Arizona. The stated objective is to:

●Review what we know about Bd
●Assess scientific priorities and management needs
●Identify actions to limit the spread and impact

Anyone who cares about amphibians should attend this conference. Participation is
welcomed from scientists, fish and wildlife managers, policymakers, veterinarians, and any others working in the field of conservation, as well as representatives from the bait, biological supply, frog farming, and pet industries, zoos and aquaria, non-governmental organizations, and foundations and other funding agencies.

For more information and to register, visit the conference homepage.
upper: SOUTHERN LEOPARD FROG & TRICOLORED HERON (2000) acrylic 13.5" x 9"
second: DUELLMAN'S POISON FROG (1999) acrylic 7" x 7"
third: RETICULATED GLASS FROG (1999) acrylic 7" x 7"
lower: BLUE-LEGGED TREEFROG (1998) acrylic 7" x 7"