Painting the CARACAL


Emily: Peggy McNamara is a fixture in the halls and behind the scenes at the Field Museum She’s doing research of the artistic nature Peggy’s the museum’s only artist in residence and has been studying drawing and painting the specimens on display and in the collections for the past 35 years. Some of you might not know this but the whole reason I got into Natural History Museums in the first place was because of art. My internship at the Philip Bell Wright Zoological Museum in Montana was for art credits. And I spent my last semester of college drawing and painting specimens in the museum That’s how I first fell in love with science and nature and the same goes for Peggy, too. So this episode is pretty special. Peggy came down to The Brain Scoop studio, so she and I could make some art together. Emily: So, Peggy, I guess just to get chatting while we’re sitting here drawing our beautiful caracal You’ve been an artist here at the Field Museum for a number of years. Peggy: A long time Yeah Peggy: I came in my twenties because everything held still and there was free parking in front I thought maybe by osmosis it would make me a better and I sort of believe that Looking at well made things putting him down carefully Isn’t that what scientists do? (Emily: Yeah) And then they get an idea. And I think my whole drawing method is, revolves around having enough time and I crawl from here to here to here to here. Well. That’s a luxury Then I curl down here, and it’s all wrong then I curl down here I mean the tenth time through its right. Emily: So when you hold your pencil up and I kind of I do this too. Sometimes I feel like I’m faking it, sometimes I feel like it works. What are you looking for? Peggy: I’m holding like if I’m holding right. Where is the tip of his ear here? Where does it begin? (Emily: Yeah) So I hold my pencil and close one eye, and it’s right above here now this I wouldn’t just go: Oh, that’s down Again, where’s that point and it’s right above his eye here, and how far over, and then It’s MapQuest. You know, when we have kids in the museum, if you could put a piece of tracing paper around the glass and you gave him a pen and they didn’t move they could draw it perfectly. (Emily: Yeah) That’s all we’re doing. Emily: You’ve got an eraser there too. Peggy: I always have it and I first day a class I give every one one (Emily: Yeah), and say it’s the most important tool that will ever use. Emily: more important than the pencil. Peggy: Yes. I think editing, knowing when you’re wrong and changing it, everybody does it in writing, everybody does it in a lot of things. I don’t know why they think you supposed to have the drawing right first time through. Emily: So when you start painting. Peggy: I just did it putting, like, big simple. And you know he is, you know, we’re desperate for something, so any place I can think of sticking another, like there. Emily: You just went for it just with the blue. Peggy: there Peggy: Sort of the compliment of the yellow, but I can figure this part of his body is in shadow and this is the whole watercolor thing If I try to work it (Emily: hmm-hmm) like if you naggy somebody (Emily: Yeah) They’ll never do it. So the only way to get him to work is to let him dry and do the next layer the only way you get into trouble is forcing it too quickly. Emily: This is the part that I like (Peggy: Yes, of course) it’s like you’re you can be like a chemist I start by putting a really annoyingly bright color down in the background, and then I usually go over it later But I’m just gonna put yellow on it. Peggy: Yes, there you go Emily: It’s why not? Peggy: Is the weirdest long body isn’t it? Emily: Yeah. It’s a big noodle. It’s like a very giant hairy sausage. Peggy: And then I try to I don’t want any color to feel left out so.. Emily: Like they talk to one another? Peggy: Yeah like oh, she likes you better than me. So I try to get everybody on there And then I can always bring it back to something dull. Emily: So when you look at something like this you don’t just see brown and yellow and tan. Peggy: Right, I am using lots of blues and and I always am including the complement, so they’ll be violet. Emily: Aren’t you ever afraid that something’s gonna turn out looking like Lisa Frank? Peggy: I, I, have enough bad ones, Emily, it doesn’t bother me I don’t know how you get the good ones unless you accept a few bad ones, right? Emily: Yeah Peggy: Its all that what I do. Emily: That’s a pretty good lesson no matter what you do. Peggy: Yes. Emily: so how did you end up in the bird division after painting figures? Peggy: Yeah So you know how so much as instincts like right now your instincts are telling you what to do. Not some law that you learnt in school, right? Emily: Sure Peggy: So how does one improve their instincts? So my theory is you look at perfectly made things and then maybe It’ll internalize or something. Emily: Birds, then, you, what’s what’s perfect about birds? Peggy: Oh, they’re not they’re surprising. Don’t you think? Emily: Yeah. Well, they’re fun. Peggy: Yeah, their colors, just like, it doesn’t make any sense half the time. It’s like wow it’s like all the hair now Finally people’s hair is like it’s like birds. I guess uh someone today was great great pink hair, I thought, finally fun hair Emily: So do you have colors in mind when you start going? Peggy: You know (Emily: about this) I put out the primaries and secondaries so there’s a red and a green a purple and a yellow and orange and a blue (Emilly: hmm-hmm) and then everything that they’re all transparent. (Emily: Yeah) so that’s like dating it’s nothing as permanent (Emily: Wait) yeah, no cadmium or anything that’s after I’m committed. Emily: I feel like that my cadmiums, my cadmium yellows, and my cadmium reds are like my my go to I just started by putting cadmium yellow in the background. Peggy: But you can cover up on acrylic easier. Emily: That’s true. Peggy: So I do that, but all those kinds of routines (Emily: Mm-hmm) I even hate saying when I am in class cause someone will think they have to do that. Emily: They’ll be like, Oh. Peggy said I should. Peggy: Yeah, which you know get your own you can develop your own thing. I mean it’s hard to take off a cadmium. Emily: My art teacher kind of told me to is that a line Isn’t really like a line when you see the edge of something that there’s there’s no lines in nature Everything has some sort of shape or contour so when it comes to making the lines, you’re just on the painting you’re just taking a different value of color and filling in the rest of it. What did they call that technique? That’s not the sfumato. Peggy: Yes. Emily: I remembered. Peggy: Very impressive that you just came up with that word Peggy: You know I’m putting white in my cat’s eyes, and he’s gonna. Just it’s like waking him up Like, Hi. I’m alive. Emily: Man, this is a sort of painting I could spend a really long time on in And still feel like I’m not getting anywhere. I think it’s just cuz he’s got this big noodle body. Peggy: It’s because he’s all yellow. Emily: That, that as well. Peggy: Yes, it’s his fault, Emily. Emily: And then if I was really gonna gonna do this like finish it I I’d do a lot of the texture with the palette knives. Whoo. Here we go. Things have been crazy now. Now he looks like he’s like running out of a prairie fire or something. That’s fun. There we go. Tada. Peggy, what’s one thing that you wish people knew or appreciated about art? Peggy: I think there’s much more talent out there that ever gets awakened (Emily: Yeah) I think they get discouraged because they see end product whereas in school, you know, you start you’re in first grade you go to basketball, and you play all summer And you know but somehow this they think they gotta come ready made (Emily: Yeah) with an idea and ability and it’s just if it works as a meditation for you, then you’re supposed to be doing it, I think. Emily: Yeah, there’s um there’s no judgment here. Peggy: Yeah, and who says, nowadays, what’s good and that you know. Emily: why not just make a thing (Peggy: right, right) and enjoy it. Peggy: Make a thing. Emily: Yeah, I like that. Emily: Congratulations. yours, I’m, this is beautiful This is amazing that you could complete that in, in just a short amount of time, feel like you’re really captured Peggy: Well, I think (Emily: some of the animal) I did okay, I would never yeah I never spent a day it’s always five days. This composition worked after all that in the beginning. Emily: Yeah, do you think so? Peggy: Yeah. I don’t, I think his body was not interesting. Emily: Yeah, cuz he’s got this kind of the noodle body and then kind of the noodles up here. Peggy: Yeah, you needed more time (Emily: Yeah) to his texture. Emily: to develop the noodles a little bit more. Peggy: Noddle development. Emily: This is really where all the fun was happening up in the face. (Peggy: Yeah). I can’t say that I love this blue now that I’m looking at it But you know what you know always go back and redo it. Peggy: Yes, you can nothing is final in art. Emily: Yeah. Peggy: Praise. It still has brains on it

23 Replies to “Painting the CARACAL”

  1. Peggy just keeps casually dropping wisdom. She sounds like a zen master—but way more relatable.

  2. Thank you for another great video, Emily! As mentioned before, opening the barriers between art and science will make it much more interesting and meaningful for everyone. Thanks, you're an inspiration.

  3. I'm training for scientific illustration myself, and its always wonderful to see people merge science and art. At the core of both art and science is just the act of paying extreme attention to something. Artists may rely heavily on visual cues alone, but the form and function of something can sometimes best be conveyed after being filtered through the mind of an artist. Which is so beautiful if you ask me. Great stuff here.

  4. At the beginning of this video I paused it and told my daughter that even though I think I had a lot of art talent, I never bothered to develop skill because of what Peggy said toward the end – that I thought I needed to be GREAT from the beginning or I had no talent. Which is odd, because my dad was a professional musician and made a really big point between the difference between talent and skill my whole life.

    Peggy is amazing.

    BTW, Peggy – I just dyed my pink hair aqua and purple. <3

  5. This was very casual and quietly encouraging for any student. There was a nice flow back and forth. I hope you both had a good time, because I would definatly tune in for a part two.

  6. Peggy is amazing, and this was one of my most favorite Brain Scoop episodes of all time. Right up there with necropsies.

  7. I love her so much! I would love to see a series where she leads mini art classes where she has various researchers, curators, scientists of different departments paint and draw the things they study!!

  8. Emily, where did you get that fantástic Captain Planet t-shirt? I love your videos and all the joy and spirit you put into it, but that t-shirt is just a hero! (gonna take pollution down to zero…*sing*)

  9. I’m such a visual person which has sort of kept me from science, but studying how animals and humans work for art always makes drawing so much more interesting!

  10. i feel terrible asking this and i'm not trying to be rude but like it's really a question for me… in the age of technology where we could very quickly take reliable pictures of these specimens that can be stored easily what is the point of a museum spending it's limited budget on having a resident artist that creates paintings of these animals?

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