I was recently in a discussion with some other wildlife artists about the importance of observing wild animals in their natural habitat. Some believe you cannot paint or draw a good piece of art if you have not spent considerable time observing your animal subject in real life, in the wild.
The arguments were you can't paint from photos because they lie and distort. You can't paint from zoo animals because they are overfed, out of shape, and don't accurately represent their lean, fit, and war-torn wild counterparts.
While these arguments may have some validity, it doesn't mean an artist can't paint or draw good wildlife without observing an animal subject in its natural wild habitat.
How can I say this, some of you may think?
Well, how many artists who paint snow leopards, for example, have actually observed them in the wild? Even if you get the opportunity to travel to Tibet (which few artists probably do) the chances of seeing a snow leopard in the wild are extremely low. I'd bet money most artists who paint snow leopards have never seen one in the wild. They are most likely zoo or game farm animals. That doesn't mean the art can't be good. There are plenty of beautiful snow leopard works of art.
There are many other subjects of rare animals artist paint frequently that I have a hard time believing have been observed in the wild first-hand by that artist. White tigers, okapi, the red wolf. These are all animals I've seen in art, some by artists who argue observing animals in the wild is necessary. These animals can easily be seen in many zoos, but I seriously doubt these artists have painted them plein air from wild specimens. Not that they're making such claims. But they imply it's necessary, yet paint subjects they probably have never seen in the wild themselves.
I don't think the argument is valid. Or course it would be great if we could all spend lots of time watching and sketching animals in the wild. But the fact is, most of us can't. Not all of us have wildlife in our backyards. Not all of us can run off on African safaris. When I was working full time I never had time to go to Africa. Now that I'm not working, I don't have the money. Many artists are in the same boat. You either have time or money but rarely both. Does that mean you can't paint?
For those of us who are unable to spend much time, for whatever reason, observing animals in their natural habitat, I think zoo and refuge animals can still be very useful, despite what some may argue. I also think watching lots of documentaries helps. You just have to make a little extra effort bridging the gap between these artificial settings and the wild world. You can learn a lot about movement, anatomy, and behavior by watching these shows. Observing animals in real life in the zoo, then looking at how wild animals in documentaries differ in their leaner and more haggard look can give you a lot to go by.
And don't forget your pet. You can't learn everything about a wolf by watching your dog, but there are some similarities. The same is true for your cat, horse, and bird. Watching pets and farm animals, watching documentaries, visiting zoos and wildlife refuges, reading books, and researching online can do a lot to bridge the gap between you and the wilderness.