animal week: the african white backed vulture

Or as the Zoo’s website calls him: Vulture, African White Backed.  In this shot, he is looking right at you, which is hard to catch.  Vultures have magnificent profiles, and they always seem to give you their best side.

Vultures are common characters in popular culture.  They sometimes act as harbingers of death, darkness and destruction, or personifications of ugliness– neither of which I think is fair.  Vultures are nature’s recycling team, and I always think they look sort of majestic and thoughtful, like they have seen everything come and go and end up rotting on the ground and have gone beyond cynicism into the realm of deep philosophy.  More positively, a pair of vultures are a common “Greek chorus”,  especially in Westerns, watching the story unfold and commenting on the goings on  and the personalities of the characters.  I always like to see a vulture in a story.

And they have magnificent wings.  Even if you don’t share my fondness for vultures, you may need to draw feathered wings sometime, and a vulture reference may be just what you need.  This African white backed vulture will always be here to help you with his dark primary/flight feathers and light colored secondaries.  He’s like a living wing chart.

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animal week: the amur tiger

An Amur (or Siberian) Tiger on a rainy summer day in the American Midwest.  This guy spent most of the time we spent in the Rosebrough Tiger Passage (a deluxe and stimulating state of the art tiger habitat) napping in a fenced in bridge directly over our heads.  But he did wake up briefly to check out his visitors with his tongue out, and I was able to get a couple of quick portraits.

These photographs illustrate some of the problems of making your own photo references of animals that are dangerous to your health.  Normally, I prefer to take my own references whenever I can, because I think the sustained “looking” that is (at least for me) part of photography helps me when I am drawing from those pictures.  They aren’t just “pictures”, but reminders of the actual experience of being near the animal.

But fellow creatures like tigers are usually either far away behind deep moats, or close at hand behind fencing.  Close at hand is better for looking and experiencing– this tiger was well out of arms’ reach (probably wisely) but he was close enough that we could smell him and hear him huff.  I think I’d generally prefer a better experience for both of us and put up with an image behind chain link, but I admit that  better tiger pictures probably come from the more traditional exhibit behind a moat.  (At least if you have a reasonably long lens.  I’m very lucky that Pentax offers a very good “zoo tele” at a reasonable price.)

This kind of exhibit does offer some opportunities for fairly close close-ups– the shot below was cropped horizontally but not vertically– I was able to fill the frame with tiger.  You can even see the color of his eyes.  (A greenish hazel– who knew?)

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animal week: the persian onager

Onagers are wild asses once found throughout the Middle East. Along with the takhi horse of Mongolia and surrounding regions, they always represent to me the essence of the primitive horse (or more properly primitive equine) that has always occupied the corners of my mind.   Buff colored, with pale snouts and stripes, these are the animals from which the modern horse and donkey were bred.  The modern onager itself can be tamed and ridden, and they may have been domesticated in ancient Persia, where they appear in art pulling chariots.

Using these primitives instead of modern equines in an otherwise contemporary story adds a touch of the mysterious, a whiff of alternate history.  Or similar animals might be tamed and eventually domesticated by colonists in a science fiction setting for an oddly familiar echo of Earth, just slightly out of phase.

Look at this head, so ancient and wise, and yet filled with good humor, and possibly a touch of the rascal.  This creature would make a great character in a comic, either as a wild animal or as a domesticated (or partially tamed) companion to a human or humanoid, past, present, or future. I took a lot of photographs of this guy.

Read more about the Persian onager and the efforts to preserve it here.

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eagle, in the rain, through the willows, at the wolf lodge

Spent last Friday at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo photographing the denizens.  So this week is Animal Week here at the blog, with lots of animal portraits, fun animal facts, and thoughts about animal characters in comics.  (For photo geeks, all images were taken with the faithful Pentax K-5iis and the 55-300mm zoom, which we call the Zoo Lens for a reason.  Further details on request.

We begin as the day began, which was with threatening rain that started pour just as we arrived at the Wolf Lodge observation area.  While other zoo goers hung around the lodge and played solitaire on their phones and fed raisins to their kids,  I found this bald eagle perched in the rain among some willow trees, in an enclosure where I could photograph him from a dry place indoors.  (Look closely at the second image to see an interesting view of this hunter’s powerful eye.)

It doesn’t surprise me that the water beaded up on his feathers, keeping him dry, and that he didn’t seem troubled by the rain.  These are fishing eagles and spend a lot of their time in wet places.  Like most eagles (most birds, really), he persistently kept his back to the camera.

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new fountain pen

I recently added this TWSBI Eco (turquoise, with a 1.1 stub nib) to my collection.  It joins a lime green B nib and two black ones with EF nibs, which have pretty much replaced my old Rotrings as the scritchy-scratchy pens of choice.  If you haven’t figured it out, I’m really liking these Ecos, with their light, sturdy, easy to grip bodies, huge ink capacities (they are piston filled) and smooth, high quality steel nibs.  They seem to start a little sluggish when it comes to ink flow, but loosen up as they break in.  This stub, like most stubs, tends to be rather dry when working over pencil, but really seems to come into its own working freehand with no underdrawing.   I can see a lot of ad lib shading, fills and plant forms in its future, and of course it will be great for small, showy lettering.  Here’s a sample sketchbook page where I put my new TWSBI through its paces on the day it arrived.  The original is 7 x 10 inches in size.

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possum adventure: illustrated!

We had a Possum Adventure very early yesterday morning. It was about quarter after one, and I turned on the floodlights and let the dire corgi out the kitchen door.  (The old corgi, now a certified Ancient One, has been sleeping through Last Call for some months.)

There was an almighty squawk and he took off like the proverbial bat, in full hunting mode, only to stop short about a foot from the fence in the corner of the yard.  This is unusual for the dire corgi, who when chasing squirrels and rabbits has more passion than skill and often runs right into the chain link fence.  There was something different going on, and I was pretty sure what it was.

There was a pale shape in the shrubbery right in the corner.  The dire corgi approached it cautiously, sniffing and backing away.  When I called him, he came back to the house immediately, quietly, with no fuss. This was one spooked little dog.

After I got him in his crate, I went outside with the big flashlight.

As, I had suspected, the pale shape was an enormous possum, curled up partly on its back, mouth gaping open and filled with teeth, little paws clenched, long tail limp in the grass, apparently completely dead.  This was a sight (and probably a smell) to terrify any town corgi.

I did the usual thing: turned out the lights and waited  half an hour.  When I went back outside to check, our marsupial neighbor had recovered and (presumably) toddled off to return to their possum business.

This will never stop being cool.

(The drawing of the possum “playing dead” is based on my memory of the incident, helped out with some images I found on the internet.  I don’t have either the camera gear or the presence of mind necessary to take reference photos of surprising incidents taking place in the middle of the night!)

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movie time at the cinemark: atomic blonde

My moviegoing companion told me, at the end of  Atomic Blonde, that he was expecting an action movie in the James Bond vein, and was surprised by receiving a Cold War spy thriller instead.  This is as good a description of the experience as any.  Not only is Atomic Blonde a Cold War spy thriller, it may be the last Cold War spy thriller, taking place as it does at the moment of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Nothing about this film is a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the Cold War spy thriller as a genre– it is a perfectly conventional example, except, perhaps, that the beautiful, bruised, violent and morally ambiguous hero is a woman.  If any of this review ends up below a cut, it will be for the sake of managing screen space, rather than any fear of spoiling the plot.  You know the plot of this one, point by point, already. Continue reading

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fifty superheroes: number eighteen

Great power comes in small packages– watch out for Micro-Kaiju!  He’s a giant monster in a compact form factor: if you trip over him, you may never get up.

His design is a tribute to that classic low budget movie monster costume, made out of the furry body of a gorilla suit and a high tech head that resembles a cardboard box/tinfoil robot or a fishbowl space helmet. The idea that he is super small just kind of came to me after I saw his compact proportions.  I’m not a hundred percent sure how big he actually is, but he’s smaller than even the smallest adult human– perhaps a foot or two tall, the size of a large toy.  Maybe he hides in plain sight in his human companion’s toy collection– or on the counter at the comic book store.

For extra fun I imagine he’s as strong as a regular sized kaiju, though probably not as heavy.  And yes, the physics of Micro-Kaiju is hand-wavy physics, so maybe his story has a fantasy element.  But isn’t that true of all classic tales of giant monsters?

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in the catbird seat, or the mystery bird uncovered

It all started earlier this summer when I saw an unfamiliar grey bird under the bird feeder in my next door neighbors’ front yard.  Now, I have been living in this house for 27 years this week, and have been watching the birds in this neighborhood for even longer, and (possibly rather smugly) I assumed that I knew every one of them by his or her first name by this point.

But not so much, apparently.  My first quick impression of this new guy was that it was a mockingbird, but it didn’t seem quite big enough and it didn’t show the distinctive white flashes under its wings when it took off.   This was definitely going to bug me until I figured it out.

Then the Mystery Bird started turning up in our backyard. (We don’t feed, but we have some nice overgrown shrubbery that makes good shelter for avian types.)  I was motivated to get out the bird books and narrowed the mystery down to a couple of options, but never got a good enough look to pick up any of the identification points.  It was its cry that gave the Mystery Bird away.

I heard a cat yelling, looked up and saw the Mystery Bird standing on the back fence looking straight at me.  Slate grey, slender, about the size of a robin or a little bigger, dark eye and a dark cap, and making a noise like a cat yelling– it’s a Grey Catbird, a relative of the mockingbirds and thrashers who winter in the South, near the Atlantic coast, and summer all through the Midwest.  The sound is completely distinctive– I am now pretty sure we have had Grey Catbirds for the past few summers and I just heard them and assumed they were cats.

So the next goal was to take a photograph of the former Mystery Bird, who was now hanging around in the yard a lot of the time, perching either on the fence or in the tops of the bushes and making a combination of cat noises, a kind of creaky, chunk, chunk sound, and various chirps and whistles.  (He actually stayed out there and meowed at me yesterday morning while I was hanging out the wash.  Even the dogs don’t bother him much.)

Here is the first photograph I took of the former Mystery Bird: this past Saturday afternoon, from inside the house, through the kitchen window, subject in motion, camera probably in motion, window none too clean– a real grab shot. Even sharpened, it’s pretty crummy. But hey, it proves the catbird does exist!

But later that afternoon, the catbird posed very nicely on the back fence, giving an identification even the Audubon Society would approve.  So here’s a major transformation, in a matter of a couple of weeks: from Mystery Bird to Our Backyard Pal, The Catbird.

Read more about the Grey Catbird, its appearance and habits, here.

And yes, this is the famous catbird from the common American English phrase “in the catbird seat” meaning to be in a comfortable, superior or advantageous position.  This expression comes from the catbird’s native territory in the Southern United States, and refers to the catbird’s habit of perching in the highest part of a thicket to sing for its mate.  I can report that Our Backyard Pal, the Catbird does exactly that, displaying its catalog of cat and bird noises from the tops of the big forsythia and the tall burning bush next to the garage.

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a soft pencil girl

I sat down this morning to pencil the drawing of the day. Couldn’t find my favorite aluminum bodied Rotring mechanical pencil in The Many Coffee Cups of Doom and Art Supplies, so I pulled a little plastic one out at random.  Now, I always draw with a hard pencil, usually a 2H, but this one had a soft lead it in it, an HB or even an F. No idea where it came from; I can only assume it is not my pencil and ended up in my Coffee Cup of Doom and Art Supplies by mistake.  (The other alternative is that it is a new pencil and I unwrapped it and put it in the CCODAAS without replacing the lead first.)

And I just sort of went with it and drew this hexapod girl holding a giant pencil.  (Why?  There is no “why”– there is only drawing.)  I can’t tell you how long it has been since I have drawn with a soft pencil, and it it was actually sort of fun.

I’ll probably never ink this drawing, so it doesn’t count as a drawing of the day, and it will be a pain in the neck in the sketchbook for the duration, rubbing graphite over anything it touches.  But I like it anyway.  It is presented to you in its original, uncorrected form, straight from a 48 bit color scan, complete with off white paper, random smears and eraser crumbs.

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