A pillar of conservation

“Do you see that elk painting?” my husband, Nat, recently whispered to me at an art museum while my daughter, Ivy, weaved around us. “The painting itself is beautiful, but the anatomy of the animal is all off. It is distracting.” He was right; and even though that painting was centuries old and the artist was probably painting from memory or even a verbal description, it’s too-large eyes and stag-like features made it barely recognizable as the North American species.


In my career as a website/graphic designer, I frequently tell people, good design is design that you don’t notice, and the same often goes for inaccuracies in artwork. One tends to notice immediately when something is off, and it pulls our attention away from the rest of the work. It fails to relay the message the visual representation is attempting to present. When trying to depict animals or people accuracy is important to the entirety of the work. In my experience, people also tend to purchase and/or enjoy artwork that comes across as genuine, or touches on a personal emotion or experience. As a contemporary wildlife artist, it is vital to create art that is true and respectful to my subject and audience. 


While I was working on my minor in drawing at the University of Wyoming, I never could initially quite land on a subject that attracted my obsession like many of my fellow students. I drew buildings, still lives, and I tried plein air but the Wyoming wind blew my canvas into the dirt too many times to be remotely successful. Kudos to anyone who can make that work here.


I studied abroad for a semester in France and visited museums, copying works of the masters. While the Impressionists helped me inject color and movement into my work, nothing held my interest long enough. However, finally when I took a life drawing class, my attention was grabbed. Trying to depict something that was actually alive aligned with the sense of beauty and movement I preferred. Once that slowly combined with my lifelong love of the outdoors, I found my oeuvre and began drawing local wildlife in earnest with the techniques and media forms that I was exposed to in college.


I grew up in Wyoming and often hunted and fished with my dad and twin sister. I had the opportunity to get up close and personal with nature. In Yellowstone National Park one autumn morning we had a bull elk walk out of the mist and start bugling as we fly-fished on the Gibbon River. Outside Saratoga, a juvenile northern saw-whet owl perched on a branch and stared at me from a few feet away. On a fishing excursion a cow moose and her calf dove into the North Platte River next to me and my fishing guide, with a massive bull in hot pursuit. How’s that for inspiration?


After landing a fish on a dry fly, I tried to take the time to study and appreciate the colorful patterns on the Yellowstone cutthroat trout before releasing it. During hunting season I took pictures of an impressive buck pronghorn. Later on I used these trips as an opportunity for up-close wildlife research and documentation. Now I take photos of the wildlife I spot and later do sketches in my studio. I observe their habits and habitats, and snap pictures of the light at different times of day. I mix colors in alcohol ink or oil paint to get the shade of sagebrush in the sunset exactly right. I use these materials for reference when creating my compositions and working on my paintings and drawings. As I have grown as an artist I have moved farther away from realism, but still strongly believe in being true to your subject and observations.


I often work with oil paint on canvas, but I’m becoming best known for mixed-media drawings and collages on mylar — a semi-translucent, smooth, plastic, paper-like material. My most common subjects are buffalo, pronghorn, trout or fly patterns. I believe for wildlife art that is impressionistic, surreal, or abstract you need to know the rules before you can break them. Growing up I constantly practiced drawing while looking at pictures from issues of National Geographic. I started using — and still frequently use —  Wyoming Wildlife to sketch or as a reference material. I always have a stack in my art studio, and encourage my daughter to draw from them.


Understanding anatomy and movement comes with considerable practice, and understanding the skeletal and musculature structures of the creature you are attempting to depict is essential. Helping my dad butcher mule deer and pronghorn was a great advantage in this. For every finished piece I can’t tell you the number of full sketch books it took to get there. Once you have that understanding I believe changes can be consciously made that enhance the attributes of animals. You can stretch a deer’s legs, if you do it properly. You can highlight a wolf's eyes, if it doesn’t look like Wile E. Coyote. You can saturate the blue and purple undertones of a bison’s wooly fur. I often choose to fade parts of the animals into the background, or have water swirling over and around trout, as if it is a blue, viscous fluid. Colors can be intentionally saturated, altered or made monotone. Details and pops of white are used to highlight parts of the piece and draw your eye to that area. Backgrounds can be merely a suggestion. Then, I often hide small, detailed pencil and charcoal sketches in the backgrounds of my mylar drawings. To me everything is about composition, contrast and color schemes. 


Wildlife art also has a deeper purpose than personal aesthetics. As author Richard Louv said, “We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know and we cannot know what we do not see.” I found a deep connection in depicting what I know and cherish, and art captures my emotions for others to share. It fosters the love of nature and the intrinsic beauty of wildlife from a personal perspective.


Experience leads to understanding. When we love something, we want to protect and preserve it for future generations. As hunters and anglers are often the pillar of conservation, as Louv said, so too, are artists. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has often understood this philosophy, through conservation stamp artwork contests that support wildlife artists and their accuracy. The contests and awards are an excellent way for artists and the public to connect. They encourage both amateurs and professionals alike, and provide an avenue for art to be seen. I, too, hope to provide an opportunity for my audience to know, appreciate, and keep a little piece of the beautiful creatures and their environment in which we are fortunate enough to live and play.

— Molly Box (McCarty) not only is an artist, but she also is the webmaster for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Photographer Info
Molly Box

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