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!

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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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Footsteps in the forest

Last Sunday we went for a walk in the Tegeler Forst, near Tegel Lake in the north-west of Berlin. The weather was a bit cold and damp, but the walk was very pleasant. We met several other hikers, including a man walking his two cats ๐Ÿ™‚

We didn’t see many animals, except birds; but we saw many footprints in the soft mud of the trail:

The first paw print is very likely from one of the cats we saw – a wild cat is much less likely. The two following hoof prints are from deer, either young red deer or roe deer. The fourth paw print could be from a raccoon, that has been introduced in Germany a century ago and that I already observed in the city last year. The last two paw prints are likely from a dog and a fox. I think that the last one is a fox, because there is free space between the palmar pad and the toe pads.

Any experienced eye can say more? Let me/us know in the comments ๐Ÿ™‚

On disappearing while observing

At the last concert I attended as audience member, I happened to think about my love for observing. I loved to be for once in the audience instead of on the stage; to have the privilege to be still, to receive music without the need to interact with the musicians, except by clapping and cheering after each piece. The moment I loved most was after the concert when I stood near the stage, looking at the drummers packing up their gear: concentrated, efficient, relaxed after the show. I didn’t feel the need to interact with them, it would have been an interruption, even if I approached the stage with the wish to greet one of them. After a while he noticed me and walked over for a quick greeting, then had to come back to his instruments. I felt like a birdwatcher, briefly approached by a curious bird. I then wondered how I could ask (or even pretend) attention and recognition, when I feel so blessed as I get little or none of it. Maybe it’s because this is how I make sure to get sincere attention, instead of artificially-induced positive feedback.

I thought that attending a concert is one of the many setups where I am not the centre of attention, and not even an active participant in a communication. I felt the same positive sensations when I was observing wildlife during my university studies, and I realise that it was the strongest reason for me to enter the wildlife management field: this ability to disappear from the eyes of the animals, while working behind the scenes for their well-being. Well, sometimes they did notice me, like “Gina”, a female red deer rescue, who loved human attention, especially when it came in form of food ๐Ÿ™‚

La Gina

I felt a similar heartfelt call when I met Maria Montessori’s concept of observation and her way of enabling children to learn by themselves, by stimulating their curiosity rather than actively keeping their attention on activities designed by myself. Even my friends sometimes make me the wonderful present of their spontaneous life, free from interactions with me. With my closest friends I notice that we have communication phases and observation phases, and we found our way to stay near each other with the possibility, but without the obligation, to interact. I feel it is a true mark of respectful closeness.

I have even experimented this mindset by standing near an intersection for several traffic light cycles. For ten minutes, the traffic lights lost for me the usual meaning of “Wait! Walk!” and my attention moved to the approaching cars, bikes and pedestrians. I watched how impatient each of them was, how some people scanned the surroundings while waiting and others kept their attention on the traffic lights; how some children on bikes negotiated the intersection with careful attention; how few people noticed me while others didn’t. At the orchestra’s rehearsals, it happens that I have significant gaps in my notes, or I plainly have nothing to play for a whole piece: wonderful! Time to disappear and observe! Time to watch other musicians and better understand which parts are hard for each instrument; time to better hear each one of them in the sum of sounds; time to enjoy their concentrated faces.

I sometimes think there is something odd in my fascination for this kind of disappearance. At the same time I find very healthy to practice invisibility and experience the world without being the centre of it, at least for a little while.

Any of you made similar experiences? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.