Minnesota State Fair Prep—#7: Sketching Animals (or People) at the Fair

August 18, 2009

050829CCow Left: Sketch of a cow from my 2005 State Fair Journal. Pen sketch with gouache wash on prepainted 8 x 8 inch square cards made of 300 lb. hot press watercolor paper. This cow was in the birthing barn and I stood on bleachers to look down into its pen.

This post continues the Minnesota State Fair Prep Series begun on August 12.

Everyone who knows me knows that the big draw for me about the State Fair (no pun intended) is the way you can get up close and personal with the animals and sketch them. There are huge barns filled with pens and stalls, each filled with animals competing to be the best in their category.

Everyone who knows me also knows I’m a carnivore (just take me out for barbequed ribs if you want to understand what this means). Yes I am sketching animals that I eat. I don’t have a problem with this. If you do, please stop reading and come back to my blog on another day. (Some of my friends are vegetarians. I was a vegetarian for 18 months once. It isn’t going to happen again. I deal with my carnivore nature and my love of animals by asking questions and by supporting humane farming practices.)

I have a great deal of respect for Minnesota farmers. They work hard, in difficult situations, to create a living for their families, supply quality food for the country’s citizens, and deal with the vagaries and risks of farm life. I have had wonderful conversations with farmers about how they work, how they raise animals and crops. When I am at the Fair and talking to them I believe my role is to listen and learn. In all the years I have been going to the Fair I have never met a farmer who didn’t respect his animals. I have been privileged to hear stories about families who have farmed for generations.

What you also need to understand is that for many animals the Fair is what is called a "terminal show." After the animals are judged in whatever class they are entered in, most are loaded into trucks and taken away to be slaughtered and processed, right then. There is no trip back to the farm.

You need to understand this because it will help you to understand what you see at the Fair: strapping 18-year-old boys crying or trying to bluff it out while the cow they raised and cared for is led away; families huddled around a pre-teen exhibitor, comforting her; elderly farmers shuffling away from the judging ring, kicking the hay bits from their paths. Sure, there are animals that win their class and are valuable as breeding stock because of those successes, but this isn’t so for all of them. Be observant and respectful when sketching animals at the Fair.

And be patient. The animals won’t stand still—they are watching and waiting for their owners to bring them their next meal and will move as soon as they see it coming. The farmers have to get their animals groomed for the ring, so you just might start a sketch only to find that animal is being led away before you’re even close to finishing. Go with it. It’s part of the fun of sketching at the Fair.

050902HChickens Left: Sketches of chickens from my 2005 State Fair Journal. Pen sketch on prepainted 8 x 8 inch square cards made of 300 lb. hot press watercolor paper. With fast moving subjects I will often fill several cards with gesture sketches that will help me later when I return to the studio to paint. I used the thumbnail sketch at the bottom right of this journal card to paint a chicken portrait.

The following is a list of recommendations for people who want to sketch animals (and even people) at the Minnesota State Fair.

The most important recommendation I have is that you should not try to sketch at the Fair if you are in charge of the safety of young children. You’re the parent, you can decide how young is young (maturity levels, all that)—all I want to point out is the obvious—watch your child in the crowd. You can easily be separated. When you are sketching your attention is not where it should be if you're a parent. Don't believe for a moment you can do both: sketch and protect your child. If you want to go to the Fair with your child take a non-sketching adult with you to watch your child, or be that non-sketching adult yourself, while you encourage your child to sketch.

1. Remember that you are a guest and the animals are there for a purpose and may depart before you finish your sketch. Read the judging schedule and plan your sketching time appropriately. Watch out for farmers coming and going to get animals and stay out of their way.

Fair09shorn Left: This is a journal sketch from my 2003 State Fair Journal. (5 x 7 inch 300 lb. watercolor paper; prepainted; watersoluble ink sketch.) Here’s an example of a second attempt to capture an animal that was moving because her owner came up with food. If you look in the animal's neck you can see ears going up and down from the first sketch which was done with the card held horizontally. What always interested me about this animal was the knobby head and propeller blade ears. So I simply changed my orientation and got in the neck and chest too.

2. Keep alert to the crowd around you and to the needs of the exhibiting farmers (as mentioned in item 1). And at the same time minimize your impact by keeping track of your tools. Curious animals would love to chew a pen or lick paint from a palette. Don't endanger the animals with negligent behavior. Pick something up the moment you drop it—don't finish your sketch. Another animal might be quicker than you are.

3. Enter a barn and walk around a bit getting a feel for the situation and animals present. Look for animals that are resting. If they look relaxed they probably won’t have a show for awhile or farmers would be prepping them. Look for animals in pens where you can stand close and out of the line of traffic. In all the barns there are main avenues of traffic, but there are also side “alleys” of stalls and pens. Go into one of those areas and you’ll have less foot traffic bumping and jostling you. Even so you may encounter rude crowd members. I was once accosted by a family group of 6, all wearing fire engine red shirts so that they could easily identify each other in the crowd. I was off the beaten path, quietly drawing a cow. They ran up to where I was and started POKING my cow. I was just about to tell them to stop it when the cow stood up and they lost interest in the cow and moved on. A barn full of cows and they picked the one I was sketching. That doesn’t even bother me as much as the fact that they were poking the cow and thinking it was OK to poke the cow. Farmers expect city folk to want to touch their animals, and these animals are mostly comfortable with human contact (never touch any horse without the owner present!) but poking a cow because it is lying down, comfortable and content, and you want to see it get up—well that’s just plain stupid; in fact it’s so stupid I guess that explains why the family members were wearing matching shirts. But I digress. You get the idea. Even if you get out of the line of traffic don’t expect to be left alone.

4. When you select your first animal to sketch I recommend that you do some warm-up gesture sketches to get going. After that you can start in on each new animal sketch in your normal drawing fashion. I tend to focus on the eyes and build out from there, though sometimes what captures my attention is the negative space around the animal, especially goats.

NOTE: I also recommend that you write down the date and time on all your page spreads or journal cards. For a bound journal the time isn’t crucial because chances are you’re working in a chronological order through the pages. Even so, having the time you were sketching something will help you remember other aspects of your day, and also help you learn about your own rhythms. If you sketch on journal cards, dating and timing your cards will be an essential part of keeping them in order when you finish your visit (or visits). You might not think it matters to you now, but it may, it gives you more insight into your process. It only takes a second to write down the date and time before you flip to the next card.

5. Take frequent breaks. I like to sketch for about 3 hours straight, one sketch after the other. This means that I’ll sketch something, and then walk around looking for the next animal to sketch. I count that as my break. But every so often I do walk outside to clear my head from hay and barn smells (I’m allergic to hay and the dander of many animals.) It’s good to focus your eyes on something distant every few minutes, to avoid eye strain, and also to maintain awareness of your surroundings.

6. Take time to jot down the things that you overhear at the Fair. People say the oddest things. Some  people have a complete lack of understanding of animal husbandry; other folks are unsure how to explain animal behavior to their children; other people are having arguments about unrelated items. Just listen.

7. If a farmer is standing nearby, and asks to see your drawing, say yes. Be prepared to hear him say, “That doesn’t look like much,” (especially if your drawings of salt water taffy look like dead chickens! —see the comments on Sunday's part #5 post). Then just suck it up and keep working. Sometimes I will say, “I’m not quite finished, can I show you in a minute?” because I know that until I add a few more bits it won’t look like anything. But the main thing is don’t be coy about your sketching. Show it the farmer. It’s the polite thing to do, and it’s good practice for sketching out and interacting with people. (If they really like the drawing and want it because it actually looks like one of their animals—well in my case it’s part of my journal so I can’t really break up the set. I explain that and tell them I’m happy to send them a color print if they give me their postal address. I’ve never had anyone unhappy with this suggestion.)

8. Be prepared to talk to young farm kids about their animals, the shows, even whether they draw or not. Encourage them to draw.

StF0723 Left: For this journal card from my 2007 State Fair Journal I was interested in getting the gesture of the rooster’s body (right) the negative space between his legs (bottom left) and the colors in his feathers (top left). All of these details are helpful to me later when I work on paintings.

9. Don’t worry about getting “finished sketches.” Enjoy the process and fill cards or pages with gesture drawings and partially completed “bits." Use the time with the animals to make notes about colors or coat or other details you observe.

10. Don’t expect to sit down in the barns. You can carry a collapsible stool with you, but be careful where you set it. When the pigs are going off to be shown it’s a bit of a rush down the alleys! Be prepared to get out of the way fast.

11. Embrace odd angles and interesting croppings. These sketches often tell you the most new information about the animal because you are forcing yourself to draw what you see, not what you think the animal should look like.

StF0718 Right: Cow, seen from the back of the head. From my 2007 State Fair Journal. This is what I mean by odd angles. What attracted me about this cow was the interesting shape of her neck and head, as she chewed her cud and her cheeks when back and forth from side to side. And then of course there was the loveliness that is her ears.

12. Don’t eat fair food before you sketch. I talked about this in earlier posts. I think it’s important to get some solid work done before you mess with your body chemistry.

13. Expect young children and their accompanying adults to push into and past you to get a closer view of the animal you’re sketching. It’s your fault—your presence sketching has designated this as an attraction, something must be going on. Kids often can’t help themselves, and to judge by the behavior of their parents they also weren’t trained to behave politely—it is so soothing to just not care about this and let them interrupt and disrupt you. It’s the Fair, everyone wants to see everything. Don’t let someone’s rudeness deflect you from your own enjoyment. Not caring about these interruptions is also a wonderful exercise in letting go.

14. When walking in the barns watch where you step. Get it?

15. When deciding where to stand in the barns before starting a sketch, look at your feet and see what you are standing on. Get it? (In particular avoid standing near any washing stands where hoses are used for cleaning animals and floors.)

16. Put your most frequently used tools in your pocket so you can get them out quickly, seamlessly, without opening your pack and dropping all your belongs on the barn floor? Get it?

17. I tend to walk into the Fair, stand at the entrance of the Swine Barn, and get out 2 different nib types of Staedtler Pigment liners, my Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, and 3 journal cards. I put these items in my pocket with a $5.00 bill for later treats. I put on my inside glasses and put away my sunglasses. I put a small watercolor or gouache palette, a paper towel, and a Niji Waterbrush in my tools pocket if I’m going to work with pigments. If I want to take any photographs while I’m in the barn I will also put my small digital camera in another pocket where I don’t inadvertently reach for tools and drop the camera. (Typically I don’t take photos during the morning when I’m sketching because I’m too focused on sketching. Later in the afternoon when I’m on my walk out and have met my sketching “quota” I may sketch, stop and take some photos, sketch—it’s more relaxed then.) I keep the three journal cards in my hand until I’ve completed all three and then I put them all into my pack and take out three more. If I paint on a journal card I hold that card top most in the stack and walk around until I find another animal to sketch, at which time the paint is typically dry (it's hot in the barns). Since I tend to do about three sketches per barn and then move on to another barn it means I’m putting away and pulling out cards, outside, between the barns, and the opportunity to drop them on the barn floor is minimized. If you work with a bound journal you’ll have it out the whole time in your hand.

18. If you touch the animals be sure to wash your hands at the provided cleaning stations at the barn entrances. I tend to not touch any animals until my end-of-day-return through the barn around 4 p.m.

19. If you are in the poultry barn know that there is about 2 feet of space between the rows of cages. This means that people are always trying to pass you. You need to make yourself FLAT. If you cannot do this (because you haven’t mastered the appropriate Ninja technique, or you have a huge backpack or you have no spatial sense) sketch only on the ENDS OF THE AISLES. This is the only possibility for you. I’m sorry, that’s just a fact. And even then people will sigh and huff and make a big deal about squeezing by you. Just smile, and say, “Don’t you just love this beautiful rooster?” They’ll think you’re addled and leave you alone. And few people can resist a smile—which of course will be genuine because you’re sketching and having the time of your life!

20. Here it is, besides watching your children, this is the most important tip of the day. When you are in the poultry barn and you are looking at the birds, eye to eye (because the crates are on stands), there will be a moment when the bird cocks its head and looks dead-on at you, squints, and takes a micro step forward. I think military and martial arts strategists call this the feint. (This is like that episode of Magnum, P.I. where Magnum squats in the graveyard face to face with the killer, watching his eyes, with only a nano second to respond.) Now it the time to step BACK, because the next motion that bird will make is to flick its head down into its water supply and fling that spray right at you. Typically I don’t mind this at all because I have glasses on and my eyes are protected, but I know a lot of novice bird sketchers are really freaked out about this. Heck. It’s a game to some of the birds; to others it’s more.  Some species of geese and ducks can really drench you with a quick swipe. Chickens and turkeys seem to only manage splatters. Where this really matters is if they get your journal. Ink might run, paint might splotch up. I say, go with it, and be grateful for the “help” from the fowl. But I’m warning you, because it’s only fair that I do.

21. If you sketch outside (and there are some animals that will be outside for you to sketch) do so from a shaded position. The sun, even on an overcast day, really can drain you. If your goal is to sketch people you'll typically be able to find some shade near crowded lines or food and rest spots—ample subjects, somewhat stationary, to choose from for your drawing needs.

22. When you think you can’t draw another animal, draw another animal, see the sheep sketch which follows. Sometimes we do our best work when we push ourselves beyond our limits, even when we are walking out of the Fair, full of Fair food…

StF0732 Left: Ewe sketched as I was leaving the barn after a full day at the Fair. I was tired and spotted this ewe sitting quietly. It was quiet in the barn as Fair goers and exhibitors were mostly off eating dinner. I knew I was tired, but I found my focus and this is my favorite sketch from the year. Even if the sketch had gone badly I would have still come out ahead—pushing the boundaries of my focus, stretching. As it is I have memories of some wonderful moments with this ewe. In addition, the prepainted background of this card worked serendipitously with her shorn body. When we push ourselves we also leave openings for such happenings.

23. Even if you don't write times on your journal pages, take a moment to note down your arrival and departure times. It's fun to recall exactly (and sometimes things can be a blur you've been working so hard) how long your visit lasted, how many sketches you got done during that time, the average time per sketch—all those statistical bits that are interesting.

24. Go in with a positive attitude, expecting to meet extraordinary people and animals, and hoping only for the opportunity to observe and learn. You’ll come back with a whole lot more, and you’ll love every page of your journal because it will tell you something about how you were at that moment, when you hit your peak, when you ate one too many corn dogs, when you really connected with your inner artist and the animals (or people) in front of you. It’s a wonderful feeling; it satiates the soul. It will teach you how to live in the present moment. It will make you think seriously about your life and about the choices you make in life.

For me sketching animals (and people, and rides, and machinery—whatever) at the Minnesota State Fair is like the Olympics of sketching out. It requires concentration because of the crowds and distractions, but it also provides so many gifts in subject matter that you would have to be the most nonobservant person on the planet to not find some possibility calling to your eye. That’s the easy part. Together the difficulties and the abundance make it a great training ground. If you can sketch at the Fair you can sketch out in public anywhere, any time. That’s something worth practicing. That’s worth experiencing, year after year after year. I hope you take advantage of this opportunity and sketch at the 2009 Minnesota State Fair.

  1. Reply

    Great post Roz – read every word. People that aren’t intimidated to sketch out around people fascinate me. I get so nervous when I’m going to be around people that may stop and look at my work. The times I’ve gotten the courage up to paint out around people it hasn’t been nearly has bad as I thought it would be – people don’t tend to stop and talk to you as much as I thought they would and they are generally much nicer than I thought they would be too. This was a lot of fun to read and encouraging! I may have to take a trip to our local zoo and try this out. You mentioned sending farmers a print -what process do you use to do prints to send them?

    • Roz
    • August 18, 2009

    Thanks Sandi, I’m glad I’m convincing you to give it another go. The zoo would be a good place to go. Just go for a two-hour trip. Go at your most productive and fresh time of the day. Don’t have coffee or chocolate before you go (as they will make you more nervous). Go with the idea that you are just going to jot down what you see. Walk around to some favorite animal that is pretty much going to remain visible (i.e., can’t walk out of your view), do some gesture sketches to warm up and then settle in and do a longer more detailed sketch—remembering to breath.

    Then go next week for another two hours, and so on. It will get easier and easier and soon it will seem very natural to you.

    When I send farmers a print of their animals I am sending a digital print. I come home and scan the page or journal card, then print it out on my color printer which has archival inks. They get something that looks almost exactly like the original (I don’t print on watercolor paper, but on lustre so there is a surface difference), but it’s clear, crisp, and will last. If they bother to ask I think it’s a simple way for me to say thank you for providing the models.

    • Roz
    • August 18, 2009

    Nita, I ONLY prepaint full sheets (22 x 30 inches) and then cut them up. Sorry this wasn’t clear. Someone asked about this last night at the Collective meeting and I said I would post something about this later in the week (probably Thursday or Friday). If you paint on the whole card you don’t get fussy with the background and when you cut it up everything looks MARVELOUS!

    You go right a head and try it: You’ll love it!

    • Nita
    • August 18, 2009

    I did love it! I started with rather careful strokes and blotches. By the end (of 6 full sheets) my inner Jackson Pollack had come out and I was flinging paint with abandon.

    One may be a keeper as a painting. Otherwise, I’ll be paring them down into background cards.

  2. Reply

    Great advice Roz! I may take a painting buddy with me too – that way I won’t feel like I’m the center of attention if someone comes over to look at our stuff. Also, great tip about not drinking coffee – hadn’t thought of that before. I’ve not had much luck with scanners – would you mind sharing what brand you have and maybe the printer too? Thanks for taking the time for all the advice! I really enjoy your blog and I’m glad you post so much!

    • Roz
    • August 18, 2009

    Fantastic Nita! Six full sheets! That will be a lot of cards!

    • Roz
    • August 18, 2009

    Sandi, my scanner, once state of the art, is scheduled for replacement, but it’s still doing its job and I will replace it with the same brand: Epson. I just haven’t done any research on which model that will be yet.

    I’d look at whatever Epson has on offer in your price range. I needed the highest native resolution I could get, the ability to scan transparencies and slides, and the ability to get quality scans quickly that I could use in my design work. And of course something that would work with my Mac. Make a list of what you need and then go shopping. Epson makes great products.

    I use an Epson R2880 color printer right now and love it. It will print up to 13 inches wide and then take rolls of several feet (I think 45 feet! but I never print things that long so…). It can also take thick paper and substrates with an additional straight-“paper” path. And the inks are archival, rated at 200 years I think. It also has a really nice range in the blues and purples because of the way it breaks down its inks (9 of them I think). I paint a lot in this range so that was also a consideration for me when I compared other Epson printers to my list of needs.

    Good luck with your shopping.

  3. Reply

    Roz, you are a wealth of knowledge. I really appreciate you taking the time to respond to my (many) questions :)! Thank you too for sharing your scanner and printer brands. I keep hearing Epson over and over so I’m going to have to look into that. It’s really great to have another watercolor artist to ask questions too.

    • Roz
    • August 20, 2009

    Sandi, I’m glad I can help. I hope your search for the new scanner and printer go well.

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