Celebrating art and natural history

Everyone would love to draw or doodle. If you master the art, every boring class or meeting can suddenly become that much more interesting. However, it’ll be better if you draw or sketch for the love of it, for you can create something you’ll cherish for a long time to come. SugSketch0002Apart from playing book cricket in classes or doodling during meetings, I enjoyed sketching. Of course, I hadn’t mastered it, I would only copy the masters. Bill Waterson, for example – as a tribute to the master, this one hung on my cubicle wall. The scan looks a bit yellowed, and sure enough, indicates that this is an “antique” artwork 😉

It was more fun to draw animals, though, but my sketches were mostly those of bears (Barney Bear), pigs(Porky Pig), Looney Tunes or stuffed tigers

SugSketch0003Apart from a postal course in art from Santhanu’s Chitra Vidyalayam, I didn’t dabble much with sketching, other than the occasional doodling while dawdling. Things changed, when I began watching birds. We learnt from experts and ornithologists; a common point everybody mentioned was to draw. Watch the birds, draw what you see, note down the details. Obviously, you may not be able to replicate the bird, but you can definitely observe its posture, the colors on its head, wings and beak, whether it walks or hops and a hundred other things that a bird can do. So there I was, back into sketching. My sketches were horrible, but that didn’t matter at all, because all that mattered was the learning.

This year, National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru (NGMA) was celebrating art & natural history, on the occasion of World Environment Day. It was a three-day event with two 20150606_110529workshops, a film festival and a conversation on animal illustrations in India. I was thrilled, because one of the workshops was for adults. Finally! I would get jealous of the kids who get to learn nature journaling from Sangeetha Kadur and Shilpa of Greenscraps – both very fine nature and wildlife artists and wonderful teachers, but who haven’t yet agreed to many of our requests to conduct workshops for adults 😉 At NGMA, there was a two-part workshop on scientific drawing of animals conducted by Ms. Tatiana Petrova. She is a Russian wildlife artist and 20150606_110800ornithologist, who recently completed her dissertation on the history of ornithological illustrations of Indian birds in lithographs of XIX century.

A few of her works were on display at the NGMA library.  Shyamal L and MB Krishna guided some of us through the display which ranged from watercolors and woodcuts to lithographs and oil pastels. Later, Shilpa explained what goes into making some of them, and that was an eye-opener. The cats, birds, geckos – mind-blowing art. I was glad I didn’t miss the event.


During the workshop, she took us along the timeline of the history of art in the natural world – from imaginary creatures and crude drawings to precise representations, art in nature and wildlife has come a long way. She told us about the very same techniques that our mentors had taught us earlier, of how to draw the key features and a bit of the habitat, while on the field. Additionally, she introduced us to “schemes” – more like skeletal line drawings for insects/animals/birds – on top of which one can develop the final sketch.


My incomplete sketches from the workshop: bird anatomy scheme, bird expressions and Khaleej Pheasant (while watching a video clip)

She said, most people make the mistake of drawing the legs from the belly, or the tail seems to be “growing” out of the wrong place. There were important points that she drove home – like the joints on the limbs which make for a much better sketch – simple techniques, simple because she made them look so but points which we would otherwise fail to note.

Day two involved an exercise of sketching while watching videos of animals and birds in action. Wow, doing a simple copy itself was a big task and this seemed impossible!


Marmots from my A4 pages – drawn while watching a video clip played in a loop

But she gave us a few tips and tricks. More than the sketching experiment, I enjoyed watching her in action. She was fast, observing even the smallest details and producing art of the finest nature. Later, some of us (participants) exchanged “notes” and it was great fun to admire each other’s art 😉

The event ended with the ‘Drawn to the Wild: A Conversation on Animal Illustrations in India’ by  Shyamal and Tatiana. It was a journey they took us along, bringing to us the art that we don’t normally get to see. I am not qualified to even go ga-ga over Shyamal’s research and knowledge, but all I can say is that if you haven’t heard him yet, you really haven’t done the right thing. During the talk, Shyamal and Tatiana discussed many images, one of which was the one below. Note the Sarus Crane in the middle – I am mentioning this in particular, because two of our upcoming posts relate to cranes – Demoiselle and Sarus. Stay craned!


Melchior de Hondecoeter Birds in a Park 1680″ by Melchior d’Hondecoeter – Art Renewal Center – description. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


Further reading:

The art of bark

_MG_5512Look at the bark of a redwood, and you see moss. If you peer beneath the bits and pieces of the moss, you’ll see toads, small insects, a whole host of life that prospers in that miniature environment. A lumberman will look at a forest and see so many board feet of lumber. I see a living city. — Sylvia Earle

Meet the female Ornamental Tree Trunk Spider, one of many such residents of a living city. You can easily miss this little beauty, which can be well camouflaged against the bark it rests on. Interestingly, the “living city” is a bunch of dead cells! The outer bark is the layer protecting the inner tissues and the living parts within a tree.

Hatched eggs on the bark of a tree

Every bark is so different from the other. For example, the rough texture of the Crocodile Bark tree (Saaj or Matti or Sadar) is helping the Monitor Lizard stay put.

I had once gocrocodileBarkne on a survey inside the forest along with a guide who is a Jenu Kuruba tribal and an expert on trees. He told me how the Matti stores water inside and how they would collect it, to quench their thirst in summers! The bark has a characteristic pattern, in case you are still wondering how the tree gets its name. It is a fascinating pattern, one of my favorites and hence, gets to the top of my list of the art of bark.

guggulWhile an entire tree is magnificent, every part of it is even more magical, like the bark, which presents art in its patterns. I observe it as a pastime, or when we are waiting for something else. While waiting for a tiny bird to come back to its tree-home, a bark design caught my eye in Gir forest. Our guide identified it as the Guggul tree. Its gummy resin (gum guggulu) is commonly used during Poojas. They typically use it over hot coal, similar to how we use Sambrani. Wiki says Guggul is over-harvested, to the extent of getting an entry in the IUCN Red List.  While we were in Bidar, we saw Boswellia serrata belonging to the same fragrant family as that of Guggul. I touched the tree and my fingers stuck to each other, because of the fragrant resin (used in Dhoopa).
I continued my queries to our pan-chewing guide.
Which tree is this one, bhaiyya? The texture is quite similar to that of the Crocodile Bark tree, but this one is slimmer 🙂tendu
Oh, this is the Tendu tree. They use the leaves of the Tendu to make beedi. The langurs and the deer feed on the berries which taste very much like the chikoo.” Yummy! I quickly took a couple of images of Tendu, also known as Coromandel Ebony or East Indian Ebony (Diospyros melanoxylon). I uploaded it on our Flickr page with a CC-by-nc-sa license, as usual. An indie game developer found it, when trying to find some reference pics for tree texture! He embedded a cropped and heavily edited version of this image inside a game,  which took part in an online “game jam” organized by the Oculus VR company and IndieCade. Can you spot the Tendu in this video of the game being played: youtu.be/kQ6yBjmRGJQ ?
Our Tendu went gaming 🙂 But that wasn’t all. Sasan Gir, Gujarat, had more in store for us. It was a joy to just sit in the forest and listen to the silence. But we were snapped out of our reverie. It was a scream; a teak tree’s scream. The pattern reminded us of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”. The expression, the positioning of the eyes, the hands, the mouth – all eerily similar. Was the teak speaking for all other trees ?
teardropOver time, more patterns have caught my eye. While in Bharatpur, it was my turn to scream, “STOP!” The rickshaw driver and guide were stunned, as I ran back to take a picture. Our guide ran behind me, thinking I had seen something rare. Well, I did. I saw a teardrop pattern on the bark of a Babool tree. Or maybe it looks like something else also. I am sure he had teardrops in his eyes, kicking himself for running after me, and trying to figure out whether I had gone nuts 😉
A tree at Lepakshi seemed to yoshow the sign of the horns; Rock and Roll or The Devil’s Horns or maybe just the finger.
There is all this and much more in just a bark. You only need to see. You might see abstract art of the bark or you might see a living city.


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