Looking to paint an accurate landscape, the artist places the tree right here, the boulder just so, the wildflowers in exactly this place. Of course, the composition might be different depending upon where the artist sets up an easel, and the time of day or time of year may affect the colors and shadows (and if that tree has leaves). Still, anyone else standing at that vantage point is likely to recognize the pictorial image. However, if we take a step or two away from accuracy as a criterion, allowing for artistic license -- move the boulder closer to the wildflowers, for instance, or throw in something red -- the resulting artwork might even be viewed as better. Who is going to fault Monet if he placed those haystacks too close together?
But, let's step back to accuracy: "I had an argument with a fellow once about the eye color of a mockingbird," said Melanie Fain, a wildlife artist in Boerne, Texas who had this exchange in her booth at an art fair. "A golden color is what I saw when I painted it, but maybe mockingbirds in Austin look different than those in San Antonio." More likely the case, however, "he wanted to catch me doing something wrong."
She shouldn't take it personally. All artists who focus on wildlife, historical and nautical scenes are confronted on a regular basis by people who are knowledgeable in these fields -- outdoorsmen, hunters, birders, Civil War reenacters, military historians (or military buffs), yachtsman and boating enthusiasts -- looking for mistakes. "People test me all the time," said Jan Martin McGuire, a wildlife artist in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
"I once did a painting of a meadowlark sitting on a metal fence in a western setting, and a man came up to me and asked if that was an eastern meadowlark or a western meadowlark. I told him that the only difference between the eastern and western meadowlark is the song they sing and, otherwise, there was no difference in their plumage. He just walked away."
John Warr, a painter in Scottsboro, Alabama, said that he knows all about how disputatious wildlife enthusiasts can be ("I call them feather-counters"), but they are nothing compared to Civil War buffs, his other subject area. "Civil War collectors are so much pickier, and they point out things more, especially in weapons." A sharp-eyed observer noticed in one of his paintings that the cannon balls being used by Confederates were actually Union balls. Confederates are his stock-in-trade, largely because he shows and sells his paintings and the print editions made from them at shows throughout the South. "I haven't found many Union collectors. It's the romantic lost cause." For him, "the good thing about painting Confederate soldiers is that they wore and used equipment that they found; it was a mismatch of everything," allowing Warr to use historically appropriate shoes, hats, clothing and guns but not ones that were actually known to have been used in one battle or another. Federal soldiers, on the other hand, "had government issue," which makes painting them perhaps easier if less interesting.
With Confederate Civil War generals, on the other hand, there is no room for improvisation, and artists better know their minutiae. For example, Nathan Bedford Forrest was left-handed, which affected where he carried his sword. John Hunt Morgan never wore a general's jacket into battle, because Union snipers took aim at opposing generals in order to put their regiments into disarray. Details are everything in this realm: A particular general wore a specific coat, but only at this battle and another coat at a different engagement. Confederate flags were often homemade, while northern volunteer regiments made their own flags; the canteens, haversacks, horse tack, hats, uniforms, artillery, guns of all types -- the specifics are endless and everything. The process of learning what questions to ask and where to find answers turns artists into historians.
How to research is not taught in studio art classes, but it is a needed acquired skill for artists in the accuracy trade. Melanie Fain has thousands of photographs (hers and other people's) in a filing cabinet and close to a hundred birds in her freezer; when needed, she will take a bird out, thaw it partially in order "spread a wing out and see the colors of the feathers and how long the feathers are." Jan McGuire has "a whole library" of books on African wildlife that she has bought, and she has traveled to Africa more than a dozen times to photograph animals that she may later paint. "Guides in Africa know me and what I want, and they help me position my camera."
McGuire spends almost as much time researching her subjects as she takes in the studio actually doing the painting. "Going traveling, doing the research is the fun part," she said. "Standing in front of my easel is the work." Even when she finds the animal in the wild or the ideal photograph, she knows that no one creature can represent the entire species. Zoos, which she visits periodically, may have a certain big cat, but "the muscle tone isn't the same for a tiger in a zoo, and they get a big belly. You can't paint the tiger you see there and call it 'Serengeti King.'"
Research takes many forms. Fain has a bird call App on her iPhone, which helps attract ducks that she photographs in the wild and occasionally shoots with her gun, providing her with food for thought and food for dinner. Many artists use Internet search engines to find images of what they seek, and they also take their own photographs, lots of them, enough to fill whole rooms. William Beebe, a marine artist in Williamsburg, Virginia, travels to marinas to take one photograph after another -- broad images and detail shots -- of ships and boats that might be used in a painting, and these photographs are from all different angles, "because you never know from what vantage point someone commissioning a painting is going to want to see the boat." Once, he was challenged by someone on the position of a rudder handle in a painting of a schooner, "but I had worked from a photograph, and I know I got it right and the other fellow didn't." Artists cannot use photographs too slavishly, however, because the shadow on a sail in one photograph may be out of sync with the light source in the painting, the action on the water inconsonant with the direction of the wind. Beebe recalled seeing another artist's painting of a schooner in which the flags were flapping in the same direction as the boat was heading, a mistake he attributed to piecing together different photographs without paying attention to the fact the flags on sailing ships usually are blowing back.
John Warr learned about John Hunt Morgan's jackets from the John Hunt Morgan Society (an informal group composed of descendants and others) and about Nathan Bedford Forrest's left-handedness from a local history buff lawyer who had done an undergraduate thesis on the Confederate general. Finding out whom to ask is key, and they are not the usual suspects; university academics may be well-versed in the politics of the Civil War, and they may know a multitude of anecdotes about certain military or political figures, but not necessarily the kinds of information that help an artist paint an accurate picture of what someone who might have been there would have seen: the crops grown in that field, the weather that day, the length of so-and-so's sleeves, the flag a specific regiment was carrying that day, how tall this person was, how far apart lines of troops marched, the percentage of soldiers that wore no uniform at all, was that house in the distance painted that color (or painted at all). The problem of painting for Civil War reenactors is that an artist is required to become like them.
For a painting titled "Minnesota Forward," Dale Gallon, a painter who lives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, developed a sense of what a Minnesota regiment at the battle of Gettysburg looked like and did from reading four contemporaneous accounts -- letters and diaries -- by soldiers in the outfit. "All four accounts are different, and one of them I didn't trust, because the man who wrote it was actually 50 miles away from the battlefield at the time," he said (that bit of information itself required some research). "I read them all and kind of distilled what I think actually happened, basing a picture on that." There is considerable ambiguity in trying to tell the story of what took place from these writings, three of which were penned within a few days of the fighting while the other was set down almost 50 years later. Even those written soon after the battle had little perspective to offer. "Their adrenaline's up, there's confusion, smoke and dead bodies everywhere." Gallon has to glean from all this what these soldiers were doing and, especially, what they looked like doing it.
Every painting that relies on accuracy in its broad lines and details has a problem, and sometimes a lot of problems, that has to be solved. "I go to experts, maybe a university professor here, maybe a local historian there to get answers," said Mort Kunstler of Oyster Bay, New York, a painter of historical scenes.
"Tell me who the experts are, and I go to these people, but a lot of the time -- and, maybe, most of the time -- no one really knows the answer to a question, so you have to go with what's probable. For instance, I'll visit some place where there is a house that stood at the time of some event I'm painting. The house is still there, but what kind of roofing was on that house back then? Was it wood shingle or copper? No one knows, so I have to go with what was most typical for houses there at the time."
In another example, the height of certain Civil War generals may be known, "or people estimate after the fact, based on what others said of them or where they came up to on a horse. Phil Sheridan was a little guy, maybe 5'2", while Stonewall Jackson was considered tall, maybe 6'. That was very tall at the time. For other people, you have to fill in the blanks and just give them an average height, which historians tell me was around 5'7" at the time."
All the detective work, the attention to detail and facts, may obscure the artist's other important goal -- to create an interesting picture. Beebe noted that schooners have "a tremendous number of lines, and there are a lot of connection points where ropes meet a pulley. It can take away from the painting if you have to put in every rope and every cleat." For that reason, he tends to depict these ships at a distance, requiring less detail and making the overall painting "more appealing to the eye."
It is a difficult balancing act. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," Keats wrote, but the poet clearly sided with beauty over facts. More prosaically, James Dietz, a Seattle, Washington painter of military scenes from more recent wars ("I have scrupulously tried to avoid the Civil War"), said that "if you try to be true to life, you'll create a terrible painting. Those who slavishly copy every rivet on a jet fighter produce really boring paintings." Producing an interesting composition may require him to compress things that were further apart into a small space, or it may mean leaving something out in order to focus the viewer's attention. That is not to say that he neglects fact-finding and research; he consults a battery of military know-it-alls ("Monday morning academics") around the country and, when commissioned to do a painting for a regiment, asks for uniforms and weaponry to be brought to him, as well as sends preliminary sketches for approval. "There was one time, I was pretty far along on a painting, and someone from a regiment said 'We didn't have those sights on our rifles. How difficult is it to change that?'" He made the change (a bit grudgingly). His intention, however, is to capture the mood of an event if not the event in every detail. "If the composition is right, it brings people in," he said. "If the color is right, it makes the painting exciting. If I've done my job as an artist correctly, soldiers will forgive small mistakes."