In this edition, I interview my friend and colleague Carl Ramm. He shares photos of his work, and I include a link to his safety advice for artists in bear country.
Carl Ramm moved to Alaska in 1983. He and his wife Susan live in King Salmon, AK,
where Susan works for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2014 Carl spent time at Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, as an artist in residence. He returned the next two seasons to help with the interpretation program on the falls platform. In 2017 he worked as part of the camp’s bear management team.
Bears at Brooks Camp
Carl, what motivates your work?
At its core, my work springs from love of the natural world and fine art. Both have been part of who I am for as long as I can remember.
When and how did natural history capture your imagination?
Besides just getting out and exploring nature, it first came through fossil hunting and reading paleontology books. Alabama in the late 60s and 70s was a fantastic place for fossil hunting, and the illustrations in some of the paleontology books then were as good as anything that has ever been done.
How has life in remote parts of Alaska shaped your artwork?
It has sharpened my commitment and given me enough ideas for paintings to last me for decades.
Sketch of Blue Mountain, Alaska Peninsula
What media do you use in the field and in the studio?
These days it’s just oil and watercolor, graphite and ink for almost all of my work.
Pine Cone Study, Oak Creek Canyon, AZ
Who inspires you artistically?
So many wonderful artists I’ve learned from and been inspired by! Among them, Jay Matternes, James Perry Wilson , and William T. Cooper. If I want to enjoy some fine art, I usually look at the woodblock prints of Kawase Hasui and Yoshida Hiroshi and, in something of an odd contrast, the paintings of the Flemish Primitives.
Does your work belongs to a specific tradition?
I deeply identify with the diorama and mural painters of the golden age of natural history museums during the mid-20th century, and also of the natural history monographs of the previous two centuries. Unfortunately, that golden age shows no signs of returning in anything like its former magnificence in my lifetime.
Lots of people are doing natural history art, some of it is very good, and there has even been a mini-rebirth with dioramas. Nonetheless, there was a magisterial quality to the best of the older work . . . Whether or not I will be able to create work of that order, certainly it won’t be for a long time, but I cannot shake the aspiration. . .
Justin was a Baird’s Tapir at the Louisiana Purchase Zoo in Monroe, LA. I did a lot of sketching at that zoo in 2012, and Justin was one of my favorites. In my experience, being a regular and serious sketcher at a zoo, be it over a week or a year, not only makes it possible to get to know some of the animals . . . it can also open doors to the world behind the exhibits.
How do your small sculptures of animals fit into your overall work?
Mostly in the traditional way that painters have used maquettes, as a means of working out the form and lighting for a figure for which you can’t find (or afford…) a live model.
A maquette of a Pacific walrus, sculpted in polymer clay and painted in oil. I am now creating a new one, since I have changed the location . . . to a walrus haul-out here on the peninsula that has a black sand beach and no rocks . . . It was still a fun and valuable project though, and what I learned while making it will save me a great deal of time with the next maquette.
Do you rely on photos at all?
About fifteen years ago something happened with the way I saw realist art. In all kinds of paintings that I had thought almost perfect, I now saw the characteristic optical distortions of photography. I also came to see how being closely wedded to photography narrowed the themes available to artists. So I decided to give everything I had to avoiding it by getting some degree of competence with sketching and painting in the field. It’s been great fun.
I also collect specimens as much as I legally and ethically can.
Measured Studies of Hummingbirds
I use photos only at the end of the painting process, just as an accuracy check. That way the poses and perspective are already worked out and unified. This makes it virtually impossible for the drawing to align with any photo I might refer to, so there is almost no chance of copying photographic distortions or of being enslaved to photography to work out the composition.
This is the preparatory drawing for a painting I want to finish this winter in watercolor and gouache. I used the two sketches of the creek below (Oak Creek near Sedona) in putting together the background.
While I saw at least one black phoebe while doing these sketches, the most memorable birds in the neighborhood that morning were the noisy and gregarious acorn woodpeckers.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in doing natural history illustration?
For those with aspirations similar to mine, there are a couple of things I would suggest.
The first is to get a solid foundation in backcountry skills and safety, as well as general fitness. Nothing heroic or fancy, just solid basics. Once you have them, hold on with ferocity. They will open countless doors of experience and inspiration that would otherwise remain closed.
The second is to treat the camera as a useful tool but also the most dangerous one available to you. Use with extreme caution. With some paintings it took me twenty years to notice the distortions that come from copying photos, but now I can’t escape seeing them. I think we all aspire to having our work live up to close attention for generations to come.
It’s hard to know when to stop doing field sketches. It never feels like my understanding of the natural world is adequate to what I’d like to portray. That said, I hope to make many, many more sketches of spruce in new-fallen snow. . . they are just so captivating to sketch.
Tell me about your bear sketches.
I made almost all of my bear sketches at Brooks Camp in 2014. I’ve been there in July and September every year since, but my work with interpretation and bear management has not left me a lot of energy for sketching bears. . . Also, in 2014 it was still normal to be on the falls platform in the evenings in July with relatively few visitors and no waiting list, but I’m sad to say this is no longer the case. Nonetheless. I’ve learned so much about bears and their ways that the experience has been worth it.
2014 Brooks Camp Bear Sketches
What are your safety practices in the field?
The most important principle in my experience, by far. . . is something I’ve had to learn the hard way and with more repetition than I care to admit: Stay aware of the overall situation—don’t give in to tunnel vision! If I end up early on the obituary page, it will probably be because I spaced out on this one.
It’s wonderful to get into a trance-like state with our work while in the studio or on a viewing platform, but on the ground in the backcountry it’s a luxury we can’t afford. Not only in relation to large wildlife but also with the weather, time of day, hydration, etc.. Stay relaxed and have fun, but never let go of your awareness of the broader situation in the field.
Go here https://www.timplowden.co.uk/bear-safety/ to read Carl’s series of 3 excellent articles about Bear Safety for Artists. The articles are on on the website of photographer Tim Plowden, who provides fabulous shots of bears as illustrations.
Many thanks to Carl Ramm for sharing his time, photos, and valuable experience in this edition of the journal. Please comment below, he and I would both enjoy hearing from you. Let’s discuss these topics further.