Painting with the Turacos

Stephen Quinn
December 5, 2010 share
Artists for Conservation

November 29 - The next morning dawned clear and FREEZING! Though I had lent my long johns to Julie and my polar fleece vest to Molly, they still were cold through the night and didn't sleep well. They were both sleeping singly in larger tents, while Jeff and I were in my smaller tent with down bags. Plus, in celebrating our finding the diorama site last night, we were all crammed into Julies tent while it rained and spilled an entire bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon on the floor of her tent. Her tent floor, sleeping mattress was a bit damp and muddy by the time we all retired.

As the expedition played out, we were camping 2 extra nights and working for 3 additional days. Food and water were running low . Each day included exhausting (due to the altitude) hiking, which, though we found we were never very hungry, we did consume lots of water to rehydrate. We were beginning to run short of water.

After breakfast (sardines, peanut butter, and crackers) we struck out early to take advantage of the clear morning. As the day progresses in the Virungas, the air heats, the forest breathes and vapor pours up into the sky to create mists and clouds. Often by afternoon the volcanoes are covered by clouds. I had to get up there to get painting while the sky was clear. We were pushing the pace up Karisimbi to get started on a full day of painting and we made it in record time. I did, however, take a tumble on my way up and fell on my leg, which made it difficult to stand on and paint all day.

I set up my field easel and panoramic frame with two side by side 24" X 12" canvas panels. Early on, I decided to use acrylic paints as, it is difficult to travel by air  with flammable solvents and, also, drying, packing and traveling with wet oiled canvases is not an option when such and ambitious schedule and rigorous transport.

Miraculously, the weather held perfectly for the day. Nyrongongo and Nyamlagira were billowing smoke and steam in the morning light in all their glory. The light direction and clouds and mists did impact a bit during the afternoon but overall we were blest with very good painting weather. I painted for a full 6 hours and photo documented the scene thoroughly. William R. Leigh took two weeks to complete his sketch. He slept in his tent at the site and jumped out at the same time each day. I only wish I had two weeks to do my work.

I started with a toned underpainting of burnt umber and sienna, the dominant color of the soil or open ground in the surrounding landscape. my palette is simple and was passed down from one diorama painter to another at the museum. Three blues (ultra m., cobalt, and thalo), three reds (cad. red medium, red oxide, and alizarin crimson), three yellows (yellow ochre, cad. yellow med., and cad. yellow light), and three browns (burnt sienna, burnt umber and raw umber) and, of course, titanium white. With this palette you can mix your own black (black out of a tube just doesn't occur in nature) and  green (you'll be able to mix any green you'll need with the blues and yellows in the pallet and be more likely to reflect the abundant variety of greens in nature). Each primary color group can be greyed and reduced in chroma by it's complimentary primary group. It's a pallete that's been proven over years of experimentation and trial.

In working up the landscape I typically complete the underpainting, then work in the sky and work from the distant landscape up into the foreground. I like to use a little liquid flat medium to facilitate color mixing, glazing and scumbling.

Once completed I felt a great sense of exhilaration and happiness knowing that we had successfully completed our mission. We had relocated Carl Akeley's graves site and found, for the first time, since Akeley's party were here in 1926, the Mountain Gorilla Diorama site. We took GPS coordinates and marked the altitude, longitude and latitude of the site and named it officially as "AMNH Akeley Mountain Gorilla Diorama Site - AFC, 2010". Before heading down the mountain and back to camp, we took photos of the team holding the sponsoring organizations flags - Artists for Conservation Foundation, The American Museum of Natural History, and the Explorer's Club.

As we returned to camp, it started to rain and, though we were intending to celebrate with a special feast (sardines, peanut butter, and crackers), we were so tired that we fell into out tents exhausted and fell immediately to sleep without eating. It rained and sleeted all night and was extremely cold once again, but my little tent held and kept us snug and warm. Jeff lent Julie his tarp for additional warmth and insulation.


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