At the natural history museum: the fine line between nature and art

I was this morning at the Naturkundemuseum in Berlin, and I admired once again the skull of the T-rex Tristan Otto. It was displayed under a set of lights that made a fascinating play of light and shadows on the dark fossilised bones.

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While I was drawing, many people of all ages ran to the display and stood in awe, observed it from different angles, took pictures, then moved forward for the visit. It is definitely a magnificient finding from a scientific viewpoint, as well as a visually appealing object. My mind first identified as a dinosaur skull, therefore as the remain of an animal who lived millions of years ago, when the Earth looked much different, there was no man, but the oceans and trees and reptiles and insects and all life, and the moon and sun above; but with time, while drawing, I started to see it as a sculpture, as a piece of art, as a monument to the exquisite art of chiseling, glorified by light – up to the extreme of flattening it onto paper, as an interesting set of shapes, lines, angles, proportions – abstract, essential, distilled.

These two viewpoints are valid for any other specimen in the exhibition, and for me, for everything I can see.ย  I sometimes stop and marvel over an accidental composition on my way home, or a ray of light. I went to the museum to see Tristan Otto, and I enjoyed the whole visit, but did I enjoy it only because it was carefully organised, cleverly connected, and artfully displayed, or because it had value in itself? Did I admire the most colourful animals because they are artistically pleasant? They did not come to life with the purpose to be ambassadors of the beauty of wildlife, but they can still be considered as such: through their beauty, they can awaken our admiration and make us want to protect them from threats and extinction. I feel a bit uneasy with this thought, however, because I’m afraid that what is not beautiful, or not attractively presented, does not get that much attention. I understand that attractive presentation is an essential feature of many human creations and activities, but I feel uneasy applying it to everything, especially to what has no power in improving its appearance.

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Dog-sitting: on responsibility and needs

My dog-sitting is getting more and more interesting, as I am getting better in understanding what is happening in the communication and interaction with the little dog I’m taking care of.

(Warning! Long post ahead. Have a funny dog picture!)

Daisy flieg!

One thing I read in Karin Actun’s book is that we can map dogs’ roles as “higher status” and “lower status”. She doesn’t identify a pyramid hierarchy because she observed that dogs interact only in pairs (themselves and another dog), so there is no “boss” of the whole pack, but rather a dog who shows its higher status to any other dog in one-on-one encounters. Her explanation is more complete but I hope this summary is good enough.

The important thing that she underlines is that “high status” doesn’t mean “I can use my force against you, I can make you comply to what I want”. It’s more about “I can use space and resources as I need, and if you are in the way you will make room for me”.ย  But not only that: the crucial part for me comes now. So far I thought of authority just like this: someone who can decide something I can’t contradict. But her observations on dogs brought another important point: who has a high status has also the responsibility to make sure the ones with lower status have their needs met. A good example is parenting: parents and other individuals who take care of younger ones should make sure that these have food, water, rest, protection, play, challenges and so on. If they don’t, their authority is hollow and dangerous for the younger ones, and it’s better that they start to take care of themselves on their own – most likely against the will of the authority.

In my case, as dog-sitter I am responsible for the dog if I make sure he gets food, fresh water, movement, interesting activities, interaction with other dogs, cleaning and brushing, and that I notice when something is wrong and he could be ill. I could not claim respect or obedience if I forget about one or more of these things. That would be the reason for the dog to think: “She is not noticing that I have this need! I must take care of that myself. I will not listen to what she tells me about it, because my needs could not be met and it would be the worst thing ever.” and… he would be right!

I notice quite clearly when he needs movement and fun, as he prompts me to throw his favourite ball by pushing it towards me with his nose and barking at me. I almost see him saying: “I really need to move! I really need to play with you because I was so bored this morning all alone at home!” and I can’t tell him to be quiet in that precise moment, because I see that the need is strong and that he wants to make sure I get it. I’m almost sad that he is telling it so strongly, as if I could not understand. I could work on making myself respected by starting with making clear that it’s my decision when he can run and jump, but it implies that I know when he has played enough, and I have no experience of that. What I’m doing is to give him many chances to satisfy his needs, so that he knows I am actually taking care of them, and in some occasions I decide otherwise – and he will likely be fine with that. I am new to dog-sitting so I need to learn to take responsibility in steps.

I started practising this when we go out for a walk and he needs/wants to sniff and mark at almost every tree. What he used to do is to run as far ahead as the leash allowed, then stop square at some interesting scent and refuse to move on until he was done. I was first pulled by him, then I was pulling him and forcing him to go on – and it was becoming unpleasant for both. What I do now is to be the first to walk towards a nice tree or bush, and stop there for a bit. I make sure to stop in a lot of places, because I am not so good in picking the ones with nice scents! I now see him following me, come to the tree, sniff around intently, marking, and then look at me as to say “Where do you want to go next?”. Sometimes I pick an uninteresting tree and he just looks at me like “We can go on, pick another one” – but he doesn’t rush ahead anymore, he is more relaxed now that he doesn’t have to take care of the sniffing all on his own and even against me.

While focusing on the interest in scents I got the bonus effect that he follows me more often than he walks ahead of me, and he doesn’t pull that much on the leash either. He is even OK when I tell him to go on when he finds a nice scent on his own, he just trots towards me when I call him because he likely trusts that I will give him another occasion soon. I could have got there by using force or punishment, but I would have ignored the need of inspecting scents that is important to him, and I would have given the message that I don’t care about them. I would have become a strong but awful boss!

At this point I am talking of needs as a whole and I don’t know if some are true needs or just habits, whims or anything else. My point now is to show him that I can take care of his basic needs, that I want to listen to him and his requests, and manage them for him. I am learning too! I can’t expect the dramatic changes that an experienced dog owner would obtain in this situation. It’s not even my goal. What I need is to sample as much information as possible and make sure I learn a little bit at every step, while not hurting the dog in the process.

Book recommendation: “Der Zoo der Anderen” by Jan Mohnhaupt

Source: Hanser Literaturverlag

Here is another book I recently read, and that I wish to review here in English despite it being written in German. The journalist Jan Mohnhaupt has written a detailed report of what happened to the two Berlin zoos during the Cold War, that I found captivating and moving. I have been to both the Zoo and the Tierpark, but at the time with only a vague idea of their history – I am even more curious to come back after this read, to see the animals, trees and enclosures not only as themselves in the present time, but also as traces of a complex past. The interesting side of this book is that the story of the zoos and of the people who managed them and worked there sounded to me as a net of complex, but understandable, human stories, about people who showed the highest dedication to the cause of wildlife, but also had to play smart on the Cold War chess board and to deal with personal life obstacles.

I also have the feeling to be a little more Berliner, with this new piece of local knowledge. I still oscillate between feeling “local” or “foreign” in this city, and I oddly feel close to the most beloved animals in the zoo: adopted by the visitors as true citizens, but forever (hopelessly?) foreign, as members of an exotic species.

Panda bear Bao Bao – source: Berlin Zoo website

I warmly recommend this book to whom has a good German level, and I hope it will be translated to English soon!

Drawing update: goats, sheep and lions’ noses

Here are a few studies I made this week: the first is about goats and sheep. I found a book of livestock breeds and decided to draw some of them. I found out that some sheep look like goats and vice versa, but chose to draw rather typical breeds to practice proportions and textures. Well, I tried… the sheep with black head and legs is a bit off, the back too high, maybe the head too large. I think I didn’t work on the proportions long enough, as I wanted to draw the details of the wool (and I find it came out great!)… Next time I also want to draw more horns, as the goats’ horns in particular have a peculiar section and therefore make funny spirals that look different at every angle. Sheep horns make more regular spirals.

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The second set of sketches is about lions’ noses. In the library I found a great photography book on big cats (Raubkatzen: wild und faszinierend) and could easily examine quite small details. I decided to make a kind of plot and position noses according to the angles of the head:

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Next time (next species in my list will likely be another big cat, or the fox) I will make a plot with axes meeting in the center of the page, so that I can draw noses pointing to the left or pointing upwards. There are otherwise too many pictures I couldn’t use, or had to mirror during drawing (and it’s really too difficult for me now).

That’s it! Stay tuned for more updates ๐Ÿ™‚

Drawing update: mammal heads and faces, seals, horse muzzles

Some time ago I watched John Muir Law’s lesson on drawing mammal heads and faces, sketched along and took notes:

Along the lesson John gives ideas for drawing tasks that make you practice what he explained, for example “draw 10 heads and faces of the species of your choice within a week of the lesson”, “draw 10 ears of the species of your choice”. I was a bit cold about this kind of homework, but I discovered that it made me observe better, and remember the concepts better too.

As first homework I chose to draw heads of two seal species: grey seal and harbour seal. I found a book in the library, “Robben an Nord- und Ostseekรผste”, that presents the two species, and features high-quality pictures. There was an extra challenge, as the description of many pictures did not mention the species, and this made me observe them with even more attention. I drew seal portraits on two pages, one for each species.

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Grey seals
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Harbour seals

Another homework I picked was “draw 10 noses of a species of your choice”. I chose horses, first because they are my favourite animal, and second because I have never drawn decent horse muzzles. I first thought that ten muzzles would be too much, that I would get tired after the first five. On the contrary, after the first attempts I noticed that I was nailing increasingly more details, seeing more in three dimensions, and getting the proportions and shades right. My favourite muzzle is the ninth, from the picture of an Arab horse.

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For the next tasks I have found a book about foxes, with a lot of pictures! I’ll keep you posted on the drawings I’ll make – spoiler alert: one homework is “draw one page of a species’ ears” ๐Ÿ™‚

Copying a print from artist A Ge

Last week I accompanied a friend to their class of Chinese for beginners, and I decided to draw something while listening to them. On Wikipedia I looked for Chinese art, and stumbled upon A Ge, a contemporary Chinese artist (Wikipedia page, homepage). I picked this print of a child holding a dove, with a few more doves around on the ground, and took nearly one hour to draw half of it. I finished it during the second lesson I attended, and this is the result:

Copy of a print from artist A Ge

I like it, even if the pen I used was rather large, and many details were lost in copying. I took half of the total time to sketch the proportions with a pencil, and I am satisfied with the result ๐Ÿ™‚ It is true that when I switched to the black pen, my focus was on details, so I had to rely blindly on the pencil lines.

Any comments on how to experiment further? I’d love to hear from you!

Lesson about gesture drawing

Today I watched John Muir Law’s workshop about gesture sketching, that focused on the preparation phase of a drawing: getting proportions right, identifying useful reference lines, blocking shapes, all before diving into details. It put together a lot of tips and gave many occasions to test these by copying from pictures. It is quite useful to learn to put the sketch together rather quickly, for the cases when the subject is an animal that moves fast.

Here is the sheet of paper that I filled while watching the video (notes both in English and Italian, as the video was in English but I write faster in Italian!):

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