"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" Francis Bacon 1561-1626

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: A Potter Wasp's Pot

If you were of a whimsical turn of mind you could be forgiven for imagining that this delicate tiny mud pot, carefully cradled in the apex of the these leaves, was the work of some fairie hand. Having celebrated the work of the gall wasp a couple of days ago, I am now delighted to bring to your attention the clever potter wasp.

Here is a super picture of a potting wasp doing an excellent job ....(I can think of many potters I know who would give their eye teeth to have 4 arms... 2 never seem quite enough somehow).
This of course is to be the nest for the wasp grub. (if you are a caterpillar lover you do not want to know how they are fed)
The image is from a great website about Australian Insects, "Brisbane Spiders and Insects" here . There is step by step guide to the techniques of the potter wasp too but most humans, without the benefit of antennae and 6 legs, will find it tricky .

I seem to be having a bit of a run on lovely natural structures at the moment, but when you take the time to look at the natural world, it is no wonder that designers, architects and engineers turn again and again to nature for inspiration and an elegant solution to a practical problem.

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Potter Wasp Pot


Leaf of the Day: Crown Flower

Today's drawing is a study of the very beautiful Crown Flower, calotropis gigantea, or giant milkweed. After a day of frustrating computer, phone and general technological horrors it was lovely to sit down and look at the exquisite structure of this flower which has waited patiently in the fridge for 4 days. Actually these little flowers are rather good at surviving as they are one of the flowers used for Hawaiian Leis and were said to be amongst the favourite flowers of Queen Liliuokalani who was the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian islands.


Another Hawaii beauty from www.dakinedecor.com

Asclepias are named after Asklepios, the god of medicine in ancient Greece who professed to be able to raise the dead. It's not entirely clear if he did this with Milkweeds as some are extremely toxic!
The God Hades, fearing an alarming loss of souls for his underworld kingdom, persuaded Zeus kill Asklepios. To cut a long and complicated story short, involving snakes, cyclops, Apollo and a host of other luminaries, Zeus eventually regretted his actions and immortalised Asklepios in the starry constellation known as the "serpent-bearer," hence the serpent twined round the staff which is still the symbol of the medical profession.



The "design" of this flower is just beautiful, as is Rene Binet's famous design for the entrance to the World Exposition in Paris, 1900. Binet had based his design on a drawing from the bologist Ernst Haeckel’s wonderful "Art Forms in Nature" which I am sure I will be returning to very soon.


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Crown Flower


Sunday, 27 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: Leu Garden Sketches: the trials of greens

Leu Gazebo Sketches.
These sketches were done over a few days at Leu Gardens..
(when I had finally found somewhere I was comfortable painting! As I said before, I have nothing but admiration for plein air painters) The next part of the course will be looking at mixing, and applying greens to botanical subjects so going out into the middle of lots of greens seemed like a good starting point. Also, as the pre-photo painter had to do, one should be able to produce a reasonable studio painting from information gathered from on-site sketches, without using photos at all, so this was another thought in the back of my mind for this week.

Initially I looked at tonal value. I have always found it very hard to convince students of the value of tonal sketches and I am sometimes lazy in doing them myself but they are so helpful.

This is the first tiny sketch I made as I went round the garden just looking at things I liked.










The next three were done two days later when I decided to concentrate on this view. The first two were done at different times of the day with different shadows on the gazebo and trees.


Morning

Early afternoon



Gazebo detail












The next few are colour studies. The first is my very first sketch of this view before I decided to use this for my greens trials. None are finished work and none are entirely successful but are useful to me. Occasionally an odd passer-by, no doubt eager to see a watercolour masterpiece, cast an uncomprehending eye over what I was doing. I just tried to explain that these are practise exercises ..like doing scales on the piano, a bit obsessive, a bit tedious, not really for public consumption but good for the practitioner ( I hope). I do seem to have some trouble in ever getting to the grand performance but that is not my concern at the moment.

The sketches vary in colour and tone but were very good for observing and mixing greens mostly from blues and yellows but with viridian too because I just love that colour... not a very strict scientific decision but hey.



1st Sketch, Monday

Matching greens












This one took a long time as I mixed and sampled each green to match what was in front of me, before putting it down. Although I say it myself it is a fairly accurate colour sketch. (I should have used better paper. It was just in my thin 70 lb sketch book paper )

These next three are just different colour ways with different green mixes.






















Taking all these together now and applying some colour theory I should be able to come up with a reasonable watercolour sketch without having to resort to photos. I will have a go this week.


Other Sketches
I did find another view I liked and, inevitably, some more trees..










This is my favourite!

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: Gouty Galls and Leonardo's Ink

A couple of days ago I was talking to Pedro about the lovely bluey black Iron Gall Ink which I had with me that day. It is made by Blots "carefully blended to a medieval recipe" which I am sure still involves oak galls and I am very interested in these odd but curiously attractive little objects.
Iron Gall ink was the most important ink in written history. Leonardo's notes, Bach's compositions, Rembrandt and Van Gogh's drawings, the USA Constitution and the Dead Sea Scrolls were all recorded in iron gall ink. The particular property which made it invaluable was its permanence, the earlier carbon-based ink could be easily rubbed off parchments, but iron gall ink reacts with collagen in the parchment and so etches itself into the surface.
This was very useful for important documents which needed to be tamper proof but it fell out of use when paper became a more available. It has a nasty habit of destroying paper and some old manuscripts have to be "read" through the holes left where the ink has eaten its way though the paper completely.
To make the ink, oak galls are crushed to obtain gallotannic acid. This is then mixed with water and iron sulphate and then when gum arabic is added as a suspension agent, you have iron gall ink.

Here are two beautiful Leonardo botanical studies.





Later that day Pedro returned with some wonderful galls he had seen on the live oak here. I had drawn some oak galls last year in Spain which I found growing on the cork oaks in Andalucia. The cork oak galls are round like little sputniks or old fashioned bombs and I think are mealy oak galls, but this one from the live oak is a stem gall and rejoices in the evocative name "gouty" gall

Galls have names as odd as their looks. There are, jumping, wool sower, gouty, horned, and rolly poly galls and and more, and their formation is as intriguing as their names. They are the "work" of single tiny dedicated wasps whose lava produce plant growth-regulating chemicals which react with the plant tissue to stimulate tissue growth of the plant. The resulting galls can be all shapes and sizes, and provide food and shelter for the developing young grub.
The whole subject of galls is fascinating and there is another complicated relationship with other insects who attach themselves to the wasp lava and benefit from the shelter of the gall..Maybe that is why the one I drew today has other holes. I have some more research to do and some more drawings to make this time in iron gall ink of course. I just managed this one today which is like little waving alien.

I had another half day at Leu today and did couple more colour studies along with chatting to an ornithologist about the woodpeckers and watching the lizards and listening to the cardinals and more nice time wasting. I have not had time to photograph the sketches but that is my job for tomorrow.

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Oak Galls, Gouty and Mealy





Friday, 25 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: Florida Anise and a glimpse of Audubon

Today I spent a couple of hours at Leu Gardens making a colour note sketch of the Gazebo to follow on from the tonal sketch I did yesterday. I laboriously mixed the greens as accurately as I could which means stopping and starting, looking and mixing, trying the colour out and then putting it in the right place. It took me an hour and a half. The result is not a good painting at all but a record of some accurate greens in approximately accurate places. It's a good exercise for mixing greens but you would probably not want to paint a " picture " exactly like this. I will return tomorrow to try one more, slightly bigger study and then post the results tomorrow.

The woodpecker was high up in the adjoining tree again, the noise is incredible. I found out its pecking speed is 20 times a second and to prevent it scrambling its brains it has a specially reinforced skull with cross bracing bones. I am not sure exactly which woodpecker this is as it was too high to see properly, but it was tiny and black and white so maybe its the downy woodpecker. Here is a lovely Audubon engraving. I have not yet written about wonderful wonderful Audubon yet. It was love at first sight when I saw his work many years ago. I started buying art books as soon as I had my first job and remember agonising about buying a lovely Country Life book of his work in the early 1970´s. I bought it of course. Now here in Florida the works are even more resonant as I am seeing the same birds in the same locations. There is so much I want to say about Audubon that it will have to be quite a few posts.

My leaf for today is from the beautiful Florida Anise. illicium floridanum
This is from the same family as the the spice, star anise. ilicium verum but this one is not edible at all and can be poisonous if eaten in quantities.
You can see why I liked the leaf. In fact there are several variegated types at the gardens. The leaves are very attractive, evergreen and when crushed, they emit the characteristic aniseed smell.

Here is my photo of one of the little flowers which have a strange appearance, like small spidery stars and are often hidden amongst the leaves, but the oddest thing is that apparently they smell of live fish..( I am not quite sure what that smells like.) I now have to go and find it tomorrow.

Yes I have, just briefly, returned to the coloured pencils.. it seemed a shame not to put some colour into this study..

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Florida Anise


Thursday, 24 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: Ramie, Wrapping for Mummies and much more.

I have great admiration for habitual plein air painters. There are so many problems that arise when you are drawing or painting away from the house. Just getting your kit sorted for one, and every painter needs a slightly different set of essentials depending on how and what they want to paint. Then there is the weather, getting to your chosen spot, finding a comfortable place to sit/stand and, here in Florida of course, every tiny biting thing that can attack you will, with relish etc etc etc.
Today I almost got the kit right, but as it was my plan was to make tonal sketches of the gazebo at different times of the day, I needed the sun.. it was cloudy.. off and on..and windy ( blowy paper, hard cycling). But I did get a couple of sketches done and the gardens were tranquil today.

In the cloudy times I wandered around and found this beautifully shaped leaf from a shrubby low lying plant. The label says Boemeria Nivea Ramie. I am sure that is what it is but I cannot find a reference to one with these deeply divided leaves. However it is definitely of the species which are from the nettle family. Like nettles these are hairy, but not stinging.
This pretty plant turns out to be a very important and ancient source of natural fibres,which are called "bast". Other bast producing plants are jute, hemp, and flax and the fibres are used for innumerable different products from fabrics and car body parts to backing for fire hoses.
Rami was known for its fibres in China for many centuries and they have been found in outer shrouds of Egyptian Mummy cloths from around 5000-3300 BC. During the complicated wrapping process "spells" were recited which were formulas which the deceased should have learnt by heart during his life. The formulas were for the re-animating the body once the passage to the other world was completed and for warding off evil. I read that the fibres seem to contain an anti bacterial element which made it ideal for the process of mummification.. amazing!
It does have medicinal properties, as I am finding do most plants, many seeming to fall into the category of "purgative" but little rami seems to be able to help with many maladies including, the ominously unspecified "women's complaints". Maybe a little judicious application of tincture of Ramie might just help the forlorn 34 A cup into a happy and fulfilled 38 DD, as I also note it is excellent for fattening pigs. (This is a joke, please do not try this at home.. but if you do have fun)

The vein structure of this leaf is wonderful, I haven't time or energy to make a full study but this just records the parts that interested me.
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Ramie


Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: Plains Tickseed

This is my third attempt to get this little flower back to the house unwilted. This one is on its last legs and, as I am drawing it at 8.00pm, I know how it feels, but it deserves to immortalised. I had sketched it down at the gardens today in situ. It's so pretty and delicate with lovely yellows and russet browns and this is another one I will have to pay more attention to when I get round to colour studies more seriously. The Plains tickseed, coreopsis tinctoria — so called because the seeds look like bugs.(the translation from the Greek koris specifies bed bugs in fact), tintoria because this little plant was a well known source of a bright yellow dye. Below are the on-site colour sketch and a quick pencil study.

My second trip to Leu Gardens was not very productive in terms of drawings. I am not an habitual plein air artist and am easily distracted by what is going on around me, squirrels, woodpeckers, lizards etc, also this seems to be the time of the school outing, so I spent more time trying to find a quiet spot than actually doing anything.

It is sometimes very hard to decide what to paint given a free hand and so many possibilities, but time and time again I am drawn to the trees so I returned to gazebo view which I found on Monday and have decided to try to concentrate my efforts here. The gazebo is quite a plain little white pavilion but I like the aspect and the huge surrounding trees, so have I will make a few studies and see what I can do, without resorting to any photographs at all. So far, since starting the blog, I have managed to resist. I have nothing against using photographs as an aid, and as an illustrator it was absolutely necessary (a quick trip from the UKto India to sketch a Baobab for a 3 day deadline is a bit impractical). But working without them means that you get a different result and you have to look much harder which is partly the reason for doing the course, to return to more careful observation and just draw without even thinking of finished work. That can come later.
So I intend to take a step by step approach from pencil sketch to tonal sketch and colour note drawings, see how they turn out and (maybe) post the results. However today I spent a bit more time just looking at the greens and watching the light change on the trees..and the squirrels gamboling and the woodpeckers pecking ..I hope tomorrow I will find them less charming (in the literal sense of the word) and be able to concentrate better..
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Plains Tickseed





Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: Yaupon Holly, and a liquor that sorts the men from the boys

Today I have started a week of sketching at Leu Gardens. I spent quite a long time just looking at the colours and mixing up appropriate greens and I did manage a couple of sketches which I will post later this week. Last week I was looking for Yaupon Holly in the garden, which I assumed was going to be something like an English Holly. It is, in fact nothing like an English Holly. It has tiny pretty leaves and they are not prickly! With directions from Tony and Cecil I found two trees. One a pretty weeping variety, which was covered with pretty orangy red berries and the other one, the native yaupon tree.
I have been curious to see this tree after reading about the Black drink in the book I have borrowed from the library about Jacques Le Moyne the 16th century artist and adventurer who I mentioned in an earlier post here .
Le Moyne arrived in Florida in 1562 with a French expedition and started recording the lives of the Native Americans. Things didn't go too well for these early settlers who were ousted by the Spanish after 2 years and Le Moyne had to flee for his life after most of his companions were killed by Spanish forces. His original drawings were lost in a fire but when he arrived in England he was commissioned by Walter Raleigh and collaborated with an engraver Theodore de Bray to produce a series of extraordinary illustrations recording the lives of the Timucua tribe of Indians in northeast Florida. The legitimacy of Le Moyne's hand in the works is now questioned but they remain some of the very first images of the New World and its people to be circulated in Europe.

The particular reason for his mention in this post is that in one engraving "An Indian Chief in Council", a circle of men are gathered round and being handed a liquid to drink from shells . The drink is the "Black Drink", made from the Yaupon Holly..the Latin name is Ilex Vomitoria which should alert you to some of its properties!
The Timucua people had a ceremony in which, to prepare for hunting trips and other important tribal matters, the highly caffeinated cassina tea, brewed from the leaves of the Yaupon Holly was served. The caffeine content was so high that it induced vomiting in many and it was thought that the ability to hold your drink, and your stomach, showed you were fit and able to withstand the rigors of hunt or battle. In lesser quantity, and strength cassina was served as a drink of friendship and alliance..allegedly. Caffeine was a prized commodity and yaupon holly was traded as was tobacco... I wonder if Good Queen Bess ever sipped a afternoon cuppa of Ilex Vomitoria?.. if so I bet she held up well.

Vomiting top right and top left!


This image is from the University of South Florida's excellent website "Exploring Florida" here. It shows all the engravings and beautiful details too.

The figures in this slice of Indian life looks quite odd to us now but De Bray, not having seen the Timucua people himself, was basing his idea of the human form on contemporary 16th century European painting and, of course, the fashionable body shape of the day, so all are well muscled-up, the girls draped languidly around their boiling cauldrons while the chaps are assuming artistic and classical stances even when being sick. I think the reality was somewhat different.

The whole set of engravings are completely fascinating and sometimes rather greusome..but well worth a look.
This, then, is the innocent looking little Yaupon Holly. Should I feel myself flagging tomorrow I might consider chewing on a leaf or two...it might well improve the drawing.

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Yaupon Holly


Monday, 21 April 2008

Sunday Owl

Some things just go together don't they? I went for a cycle ride today to get some fresh air after spending all day on my other blog. I decided to go to Kraft Gardens for a look around and on the way back cycled through the cemetery just near the golf course here in Winter Park. They are always tranquil places and it's interesting seeing little glimpses of other's histories. It's a nice place to end your days if the raining of miss-hit golf balls doesn't disturb your slumber and who could ask for a more appropriate companion there than this lovely owl. Owls and graveyards do seem to go together. I am not a wildlife photographer by any means but it stayed still long enough for this picture. It's a barred owl.. a big owl, 2ft tall with a 4 ft wingspan. They are common here but a first for me. It flapped slowly by, skimming the headstones in front of me, to then take roost in this tree. A very lovely sight.


Sunday, 20 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: The Rock Strangling Fig

Today I have returned to sorting out the paints and looking at pigments, so every possible surface is covered with paint in tubes, and paint in pans and little square painted samples of all of them, with notes on transparency, staining, granulation etc. It's a long and absorbing job and shows how completely misleading the names of paints can be as regards their pigments. Pigments are a fascinating subject in themselves and I have spent hours reading and looking and trying to commit some of the unpronounceable chemical names to memory. My charts have sub charts and all my notes have foot notes.

However I had to draw this nice leaf today before it shrivelled up. So here are a couple of quick studies of a Rock Fig leaf, ficus palmeri. The rock fig is one of the Strangler Figs and this leaf has a beautiful vein structure, with thick red raised veins in the centre turning to cream towards the edges, set against the dark green of the leaf blade.

Strangler figs, as their name implies, can be less than kind to their hosts. They start life as epiphytes high up on the branches of host trees from where they send out roots which encircle the host's trunk and eventually reach the ground. These roots then enlarge and squeeze the host tree's trunk while the upper branches overshadow it and take all its light. The host may eventually host die and rot, leaving a hollow giant fig tree. Where no trees are available they will still feel an imperative to strangle something, so in a desert situation they are reduced to the slightly less productive occupation of strangling rocks... hence the Rock Fig.
In desert areas of California the roots of the Rock Fig unite to coat the vertical rock faces and are described as resembling strange wooden lava flows or tumbling like pale frozen waterfalls over the cliffs. These particular leaves are beautiful but the roots of the strangler figs are by far their most interesting feature. Next week I hope to spend 5 days week drawing outside at the Gardens and will have chance for some great strangler root studies.

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Rock Fig




Saturday, 19 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: Surinam Cherry

There has been little time for drawing today as I have been out all day. On the way to Leu Gardens I stopped by the Orlando Art Museum and spent far too long there. Because I am thinking about the colour green I wanted to see how some other painters approach this tricky colour and its only really possible to understand if you see original paintings.
The Norman Rockwell exhibition is still showing and they have a good selection of classic and modern paintings. Rockwell actually uses very little "green" at all. Only viridian really which seems to be the main one and occurs in many of his works, subdued with ochres or with white added and then set against cream and brilliant red, two or three of the paintings there had this similar colour scheme. It was very interesting to look at an exhibition with just one colour in mind.
I also went to do a bit of quick sketching in the African and South American culture galleries where they have some great Pre-Columbian ceramics and beautiful African beadwork.

On to Leu gardens where things are now beginning to look familiar, now I know landmarks and some of the plants and instead of it all being a blur of green, I can spot individuals. Today I also met the head gardener and now have official permission to take a leaf or two here and there to draw. It's marvellous as I am getting very jaded with the mall borders and the apartment block gardens. However I am now faced with so much choice I don't know where to start.
I found my friend Pedro again and this time he took me to see another amazing edible that grows in the Gardens. The Surinam or Barbados Cherry eugenia uniflora is a large shrubby tree and at the moment it is covered with small berries that look like little Chinese lanterns. They are in different degrees of ripeness and you should really only eat the reddest ones which are the sweetest. They have a strange flavour which is difficult to describe, sweet but tangy. Apparently they are jam packed with vitamin C. Lots more things are now in bloom including huge magnolias, brilliant yellow trumpet trees and the stunning coral trees, amongst which is the interesting "naked coral tree" which is just begging to be in a post along with the Roxburg fig tree whose huge leaves would cover almost every inch of even the most modest Adam and Eve!

If all this wasn't enough see and do today I called at the supermarket on the way home and have found some really cool fruit and veg to draw....
Here are a couple of sketches of the cherry.
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Surinam Cherry








Friday, 18 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: "Ferns in Space" The Resurrection Fern

These three little fern fronds are from the Resurrection Fern, pleopeltis polypodioides..two words I intend to use constantly at the next Winter Park cocktail party. These pretty little ferns can be seen dancing along the lower limbs of the great oaks and making lacy collars round the bases of the palms. They are as synonymous with visions of the 'old south' as Spanish moss and Vivien Lee.
Their name comes from their amazing ability to go without water, it has been calculated they could survive for as much as 100 years, during which time they will curl up tightly and appear to be dead. Then, come that longed for shower, they burst into life again, the fronds reabsorb water, slowly regain their bright green colour, and uncurl, unrolling each leaflet to return to their original shape. This near perfect adaptation enables them to survive the hottest of Florida summers.
They are small, only up to 6 inches in height and grow from a central creeping root which threads itself along the tree bark. On old trees they form dense mats and you would think the branches would collapse under the weight but these little ferns are a light as a feather.

These particular ferns belong to the air plant family, strange and fascinating plants which, (when not glued onto horrible bits of resin "sculpture" in the UK and condemned to dust) attach themselves to to other plants, taking their nutrients from the air and from water that collects on the outer surface of bark.
In 1997 this little fern became the first "fern in space" aboard the shuttle, as part of an experiment to see if it would resurrect in space..today I hear they can grow marigolds in moon dust.

These are, as you can see, in their un-resurrected state but the one on the left is beginning to uncurl and its lower leaves are beginning to straighten out. They are from the little cycad I had drawn before here in my post "Dinosaur Food" but I do have my own small piece of resurrection fern which Pedro gave me.
Following his strict instructions I have tied it to a rock with raffia and the rock sits in a dish of water so it is watered by osmosis. I have to stop myself wanting to spray it constantly, as to see the fronds curled up is not what a caring gardener feels a plant should look like. Happily it is rewarding my restraint with some tiny new curly fronds. It's a little darling.

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Resurrection Fern


Thursday, 17 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: The Curious Ear Tree Pod

The magnificent Guanacaste tree is the symbol of Costa Rica where spent I two extremely wet but interesting months a couple of years ago. They are huge stately trees which grow in the province of Guanacaste where they cast wide and welcome shade for the cattle in the rich pasture lands which border the Pacific coast. The botanic name is enterolobium cyclocarpum and the name Guanacaste is from a Spanish translation of a local Indian word "cauhnacaztli" meaning "place of the ear tree”.

Guanacaste Tree and Seeds










The pods, as you can see, are beautifully curled like ears and when dry, rattle nicely with the dry seeds inside. They are tough and dark brown and the seeds are very hard, like little stones. I can't imagine how they ever manage to germinate. I would have thought a steam roller would be necessary to crack the outer casing. There seems to be some idea that the natural browsers of these pods have died out.
The 3 local trees are quite small and the seeds I have are smaller and not so pretty as the big Guanacaste seeds above, that are used for jewellery in Central and South America. Waynes Word site on all things botanical had an excellent page on botanical jewellery here

My drawing today is just a pencil study and some sketches of the ear pod. (The line under the pod is the top of my sketchbook..I balance small things there while I am drawing them as I did the tea seed pod)












As a postscript, I am sure the flags will be at half mast today at the Magic Kingdom here, marking the death of Ollie Johnston, last of the Nine Old Men from the heyday of Disney animation. He worked as an animation director on those beautiful early films (Bambi, Fantasia, Pinocchio and Snow White) where the animation is superb, and the mixture of supreme drawing skills and sensitive characterisation brought us endearing and wholly believable speaking animals. According to the obituaries one of Ollie Johnston' s key contributions was his skill in transferring the warmth and subtleties of human emotion to the characters.
Disney artists' drawings are always wonderful, here is a lovely sheet of concept drawings for one of the hares in Bambi. They are such good examples of observation and the understanding of form and how the simplest change of a line can effect the expression on a face, human or animal. I will be returning to these inspirational artists soon.
















This and much more from the website, Animation Archive here

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Ear Tree Pod