Imagine a summer of plein air painting, the warm breezes caressing your face, the lulling buzz of insects serenading your afternoon, and the wild landscape holding you rapt with its potential for rendering. Such is the charmed life of Alex Warnick, a wildlife artist based in Indiana (and featured on this blog), who recently completed an artist's residency at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge near where she lives.
Despite the romance of a summer outdoors creating art, it was work for Alex. "This was my first field residency," she says. "My goal was to kick myself out of my studio and sketch from life." And in doing so, she committed herself to producing original work during the 6 months of the residency, ending with a series of paintings based on the experience to coincide with the refuge's 50th anniversary in September 2016.
Alex and I chatted on the phone in late August, when she was nearing the end of her residency. Had she met her personal goals? Had she produced work for show? What did she learn from it? And what comes next?
Q: How did you learn about this residency?
Alex Warnick: I set it up myself. It's very special to me; I went there as a kid with my dad. I simply went to the refuge administration and asked them if I could set this up. Refuges do not do residencies as often as the National Parks do, for instance. But they liked the timing of my inquiry and decided to tie it in with the 50th Anniversary of this refuge.
I worked with them to determine the length of the residency, and I liked the idea of an extended residency of 6 months, ending with a show coinciding with the celebration.
Q: What was the arrangement you made for your time there? Did you live on site?
AW: No, I live close enough that I drove there every day. Some residencies give you a stipend or a free place to live onsite. I did have a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission for this residency, so it was funded, but not by the refuge. The timing worked out great. The residency ran from March through September, 2016.
This was my first residency, and I was excited to get going. There are others now that I want to apply to.
Q: What was your routine during the 6 months of residency?
AW: I worked one day each week at the refuge for 5 to 8 hours depending on the day and the weather. My gear in the field consisted of the scope, binoculars, a camera, sketchbook and stool. I'd hike around, looking for specific birds, whether they were nesting or in migration, and plant myself in one spot and work. I watched the seasons change, the flora change, and the different birds come through.
During the rest of the week, I'd look through my sketchbook and find an image then use that as a springboard to build on sketching during the following visit. My goal was to improve my skill sketching, drawing birds from life. You feel like you've digressed, getting used to being terrible in the field, to enjoy it even so. It's frustrating in the beginning. But field sketches are so important. There is no one to imitate, no time to think or be fancy. It's how your hand comes out.
I wanted to create a series of paintings based on this experience; not just paint from a photo taken by someone else. Have that true "from the field to the studio" painting experience.
Q: What do your sketchbooks look like?
AW: I included a lot of notes in the sketchbooks; what's happening at the time, what time of day it was, the temperature, color notes, highlights of the things I wanted to remember, so I don't pass over it in the future.
I noted what flowers were blooming, what type of environment I was in, ideas for a painting later, questions for myself like, why did I sketch it? My thoughts are functional and scientific. I capture mannerisms, poses, as well as environmental sketches.
Q: Being solitary during your field work, did you feel safe?
AW: Yes, at Muscatatuck, I did feel safe. It's a smaller refuge, with an auto tour route, and I didn't wander too far off it, staying within sight of a passing car. The refuge is also very familiar to me from my time spent there as a little girl. I do feel nervous in places that are less familiar and less public. This is the first time I ventured out by myself, and I picked a pretty safe spot. But I foresee this safety issue to be a problem with future residencies. I'll be thinking, Oh wait, is that going to be OK? Should I get my sister to come with me? it's going to be an issue doing more field work in natural areas. Maybe I'll get a Rottweiler to come with me!
Q: How did you use your field sketches in the studio?
AW: I use the sketches as a guide for the outline of the bird (in the studio) and try to fill in as many details from my sketchbook, before using guides for finer points, or photos, if my environment doesn't look right. Out in the field, you may or may not get paid, but it's where you improve the most.
Someday I want to be so good and familiar with field work to be able to execute the whole thing in the field. Lars Jonsson and John Busby are two artists whose field work really inspires me. This residency reinforced the importance of time in the field. It's going to be important for me to have things set up while it's still a new thing for me--to have that structure set up.
Q: Describe the show at the end of your residency.
AW: My show went great, and hung for two weeks (September 16 to 30). The day of the Anniversary celebration, I wasn't able to stand around my paintings too long before I headed out to do a sketching demo, and that's where I remained for most of the day.
As part of the 50th anniversary celebration, the refuge has a "Passport to Nature" activity where people traveled to different portions of the refuge and got a stamp on their "passport" on arrival. I was at the nature sketching station painting Wood Ducks. But for my short time present with the paintings, they seemed to be very well received!
It was fun for people to identify each bird in each painting and see where on the refuge it was labeled they were found. Many identified seeing the same birds in the same places I had.
Q: What does the rest of your year look like? And beyond that?
AW: For the rest of the year, it's commissions. I save up the last months of the year to complete the commission I get from private clients. People contact me to paint certain birds throughout the year, but I don't start them until October. Some I have to turn down,as if I take on too many, that's all I'd be doing.
My background is in scientific illustration style, but I'm trying to explore the fine art style. most of my private clients want that hyper realistic style. I do try stick to this schedule, in order to have time the rest of the year to try new things, like this residency or travel.
For the first two months of 2017, I have nothing scheduled. I'll use that time to work with new materials, and go out in the field as much as possible, even though it is winter.
My big project next year will be preparing for a solo show in June. If I can get a grant, I hope to travel to Trinidad and Tobago, and will base my paintings on that trip. If I don't get the grant, my bird subjects are up in the air, maybe local. I'll know by December if I get the grant, and the travel would be in February or March. I plan to submit my work to some juried shows next year too. And I have my eye on some new galleries.
Marketing myself and chasing creative opportunities doesn't come naturally to me. I really have to stretch out of my comfort zone. At some point I just say, this is as good as I have, and try to sell the work. It's like a game, getting things to work out, projecting a future for myself, how long I need to paint something to make a certain amount. I try to be disciplined.
Q: And what has this residency inspired?
AW: I want to continue to get out more in the field, and that includes getting more residencies which will allow for that field work. The National parks system has tons of residencies if you're an artist for nature. I have a list and apply to way more than I could ever do. There are quite a few national parks I would love to explore in Arizona and Florida, in particular.
And I still love to go birding. I bird every weekend but it's different than sketching in the field. I had to tell myself to separate birding and field sketching or neither would be enjoyable!