Painting the Painted Dog: Planning an Impactful Field Expedition for Awareness & Education

Alison Nicholls - AFC
January 29, 2011 share
Artists for Conservation

In 2007 I was awarded AFC's 5th Flag Expedition Fellowship and had the amazing experience of spending 6 weeks at the Painted Dog Conservation project (PDC) in Zimbabwe, tracking and sketching highly endangered African wild dogs (known as Painted Dogs in Zimbabwe). The main objectives of my project were to raise awareness of this unique and persecuted species and to raise funds for their conservation.

Since my return I have received many questions - was it dangerous, how many dogs did I see etc, but until now I have not been asked to write about how I planned the project and how I created the resulting education and awareness program.

My expedition dates were August 29 to October 12, 2007, but this was essentially just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I actually began working on my "Painting the Painted Dogs" project in September 2006 and officially ended in December 2008, although as recently as November 2010 I lectured about the expedition.

For a project of this duration it is essential to have a thorough plan in order to maximize the potential and impact of the project. Having understanding friends and family, who won't mind that every conversation you have over the next two years will involve references to unusual places or species, is also helpful ;)

My project plan (the rest of the proverbial iceberg) consisted of the following: a traveling exhibition visiting five venues in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey; a lecture series culminating with a joint lecture at the Explorer's Club in Manhattan with Dr. Rasmussen, founder and director of PDC; and local, regional and national publicity both in print and online.

As a result of the expedition I created a set of wildlife art drawing cards which illustrate how to use circles and other simple shapes to create sketches of animals. These are now being used at the PDC Children's Bushcamp and by several other African conservation projects to raise awareness of wildlife among local school children. I still donate 25% from the sale of original painted dog paintings to PDC. In addition, in 2011 I will be helping PDC to create more awareness of the dogs by arranging a lecture for Dr. Rasmussen at Audubon Greenwich in Connecticut. In short, my support of PDC is ongoing.

My project also generated several unexpected consequences. I now receive clippings or email links from everyone whenever an item on painted dogs appears online or in the press. My friends tell me they correct other people's often mistaken beliefs about painted dogs and predators in general (we've had several children/coyote incidents in the area this summer so these conversations have taken on a new relevance). A video I took in Zimbabwe of an elephant calf rescue has appeared on the Animal Planet TV channel. And, on the lighter side, I also receive the occasional phone-call from someone who thinks they saw a painted dog in the woods nearby!

For any artist contemplating a similar project I have a few pointers:

First: You need to sit down and honestly decide if you are prepared to spend at least two years of your life working on one project. Assuming you decide to go ahead, you need to define your project objectives in detail and start planning your post-expedition events, ensuring that they mesh with your objectives and reach your chosen audience. All of this needs to happen before your expedition, so that once you are in the field you know exactly which sketches, photos, video, interviews etc. you will need to allow you to best illustrate your trip and maximize the educational awareness programs on your return. There is nothing worse than getting back to the studio and wishing you had taken that short side-trip or snapped a certain photo which would draw the whole project together afterwards. I brought back a wire snare I found in the bush on patrol with the PDC Anti-Poaching Unit and despite my concerns at taking it through Victoria Falls, Johannesburg and New York airports, it has proved invaluable in my lectures.

Second: Having crafted your thorough plan, you now get to actually go on the expedition. Remember to pack your sense of humor, plenty of Imodium and trail mix (I may have overindulged in this item and there are certain brands I still don't want to eat three years later!).

Third: A vital part of my expedition was the Flag Expedition Journal from AFC. I tried to plan pages in advance, knowing I would want to include maps and weekly sightings as well as my daily sketches and notes. The creation of the journal has led to significant changes in the way I now sketch in the bush. Instead of using both sides of the paper and taking a general sketchbook to allow plenty of handwritten notes, I now sketch on watercolor paper, one side only and try to make each page self-contained so I can remove it and display it as part of an exhibition. I also found a wonderful pale grey pen to use for my handwritten notes - it looks like pencil but doesn't smudge.

Fourth: One thing I would certainly recommend is to travel with a partner (my husband thinks this is an excellent idea - as long as it's him!). Juggling a sketchbook, camera and video camera on your own is not easy. The moral support comes in handy too, especially when you are exhausted. At the end of each day in Zimbabwe I was so tired that even the genet noisily hunting bats in the roof above my head didn't keep me awake!

So would I do it all again? Absolutely. In July 2011, I'm visiting the African People & Wildlife Fund conservation project in Tanzania to see how they work with the local Maasai communities to reduce conflict with large predators. This time I'll be traveling with a different brand of trail mix!

Stay tuned for an in-depth look at how I am using my "Ensnared" watercolor to create awareness and education around the issue of poaching in Zimbabwe...

For more information about Alison please visit her AFC website:

For more information about Alison's AFC Flag Expedition, please visit her AFC Flag Expedition website.

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