Karla Sanders
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Portrait of Yellowstone

 

Portrait of Yellowstone

Digital illustration / painting, 24” x 36”

Digital illustration / painting, 24” x 36”

 
 

A painted landscape is always more beautiful than a real one, because there’s more there. Everything is more sensual, and one takes refuge in its beauty. And man needs spiritual expression and nourishing. It’s why even in the prehistoric era, people would scrawl pictures of bison on the walls of caves. Man needs music, literature, and painting – all those oases of perfection that make up art – to compensate for the rudeness and materialism of life.

- Botero

Have you ever gazed into the eye of a bison?

If you have, you might have felt a quiet sadness gazing back at you, a watchful eye that seems to hold answers to questions we don’t even know to ask. Or maybe what we see in her slow gaze is a projection of our own deep feelings, joys and sorrows. It’s difficult to look away unaffected, untouched by the quiet wisdom that seems to radiate from this massive creature. It’s difficult not to fall in love with the graceful movements of an animal whose form leads one to wonder, how can such a heavy being move so delicately? It’s difficult to look at a mighty bull resting in the field and not feel humbled by his presence.

And yet, the bison continue to suffer under our hands.

Between November 2014 and June 2015, 735 wild bison were killed under pressure from a livestock industry that covets its economic gain from the human craving of cow flesh. When wild bison stray from the artificial boundaries of a park in their natural cycle of wandering, they pose a threat to special interests.

For fear of transmitting brucellosis to cattle, wild bison who may carry the disease are routinely monitored, managed and slaughtered by our government agencies. The ironic part is that this disease was originally introduced to the wild by domesticated cows. These are the last truly wild bison in the world, and the population is kept under 4,500. Their role as keystone species is quite significant in ecosystem restoration.

Photo credit: Andres Quintero

Photo credit: Andres Quintero

Our National Mammal once ranged in the millions but was massacred down to a handful by 1905. They were killed for their hides, and marksmen would shoot the lead cows in the belly to immobilize them so they couldn’t lead the rest of the herd away from danger. Then all the adults were shot one by one. Sometimes up to 250 adults were killed in one stand, leaving the bawling calves behind. Hides were stripped and bodies left to rot.

I learned about all of this while visiting a shop in West Yellowstone, June 2016, where a couple of displays were set up to tell the story.

The work of the Buffalo Field Campaign inspired me, and in the months that followed I created several bison pieces which eventually led to this piece.

We often see animals as a whole, never having the opportunity to study them closely. This is an intimate study, a portrait to honor one life as artists have honored people with portraits for centuries.

There is something beautiful in the lone bison standing beneath a sky so vast. The landscape illustration is this vista, inspired by the colors of the West. The textures and shapes of the landscape merge into the bison, implying they are one of the same. It’s an empathetic imagining, one that sees bison as animals with souls.

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Photo credits: Andres Quintero

Photo credits: Andres Quintero

TECHNIQUES

I painted this work using modern digital techniques, borrowing from the many years I studied painting with a brush and oils, acrylics and watercolors. I labored stroke by stroke with a small brush so I could become fully absorbed in the spirit, story and soul of the work. It was a long and rhythmic process, almost mathematical at times.

PROCESS IS EVERYTHING

The compositions begin with long periods of observation, followed by color studies to understand the forms. I illustrate with music to influence the visual flow, hoping to transmit melody into these pieces. As an amateur pianist, I feel the significance of each string and use this as a metaphor for the individual lines forming the underpainting of the entire composition. The final touches are textures digitally painted to add the organic quality of our natural world. Our world, after all, is gritty, rough, varied, and complex.

The Steps:

  • The first phase was to study the animals in person from different points in Yellowstone, Wind Cave, and Badlands National Parks between June and July 2016

  • I studied the photographs taken in the park

  • Followed by hand sketches

  • I illustrated in Illustrator and Photoshop 

This piece has a special place in my heart, as it is also a memory from a park where I began to understand my vocation as an illustrator. 

More than anything, I wanted to compose something musical and sensual, to represent wind flowing through dusty fur, or the night sky of the milky way West, to craft a gaze that follows you, to make forms that are mysterious and evoke questions. They represent the bison, yet they should speak to your heart and do more than present an animal to your eyes.

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MY GOAL IS THAT YOU WALK AWAY FROM THESE WITH QUESTIONS OF YOUR OWN

This is the map of an animal I have had the honor of studying up close through a lens and from afar. I’ve watched calves dance, run, and struggle to swim across rivers. I’ve seen pine tree branches lodged in the horns of these foreboding creatures. I’ve watched the grumpy grandpa loners roll in fields, and younger bulls fight. I’ve witnessed a mother begin to charge a group of photographers, only to stop short and turn away after putting her admirers in their place. I’ve seen the bison rut and laid awake to the sound of their ancient calls, half in fear and half in awe. These animals move so slowly but can quickly demonstrate the agility of a swift predator.

A great inspiration is this quote by artist Fernando Botero:

A painted landscape is always more beautiful than a real one, because there’s more there. Everything is more sensual, and one takes refuge in its beauty. And man needs spiritual expression and nourishing. It’s why even in the prehistoric era, people would scrawl pictures of bison on the walls of caves. Man needs music, literature, and painting – all those oases of perfection that make up art – to compensate for the rudeness and materialism of life.

This is my way of honoring the wild bison, of elevating them above the rudeness and materialism of life, to commemorate these souls for eternity.

This project is dedicated to the Buffalo Field Campaign.