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Yuma The Florida Panther

Updated: 3 days ago

In December of 2023 I began working on another large Florida Panther watercolor painting!

This piece is about 4 feet wide and 3 feet tall (36x42) and each plant and animal species is painted more or less to scale. It took several months to complete, and was finished in May 2024.


Species depicted:


Animal Species: Florida panther (Jim Damaske), burrowing owls (Ben Jiang), gopher tortoise (Charles Livio), apple snails, and tufted titmouse.


Butterfly Species: Zebra longwing, monarch, painted lady, checkered skipper, duskywing skippers, and grey hairstreak.


Plant Species: yaupon, bidens alba, sunshine mimosa, thin paspalum, tickseed, lakeside sunflower, milkweed, fogfruit, St. Augustine grass, thin paspalum, Florida pellitory and Virginia pepperweed.


Inspiration


This piece follows the same vein as the last large panther painting. I hope it inspires people to love panthers and their local native species and advocate for their protection. (As I write this, the Kingston development in Lee County threatens panther habitat) Like the last painting, this panther is also surrounded by animals and plants that can be found within it's range.


Florida panthers are sometimes referred to as umbrella species, because by protecting the panther's wide range you also end up protecting all the other plants and animals that live there. In art, this means that I have a wide berth in what plants and animals I can include around it! I've enjoyed paining owls, a tortoise and wildflowers around this panther.


I also explored the idea that painting well-known Florida panthers with more obscure and smaller species can allow the viewer to meet the image on different levels both physically and philosophically. The panther appeals to a wide audience, is "accessible", and meets people where they are at. Physically, it's the thing you see first from a distance. As you move closer the smaller species can be observed. The panther acts like the extroverted friend, introducing you to the smaller, less-known species.


Process - Image use


What sets this apart from the other panther painting, is that the composition is constructed around a single photograph. It's like a "portrait" of a single, real animal, instead of an imaginary animal constructed from many different ideas and references. I came across the Florida panther image In 2019 in an article about the MCORES tolls roads from the Tampa Bay Times. I wasn't able to reach the photographer at the time, Jim Damaske, so I moved on to create Florida Panther in Big Cypress that year instead! The image of the young panther stuck with me though, and then in 2023 I figured out how to reach the owner of the image and purchased a license to use it in this painting. The young panther in the image is named Yuma. He was rescued and lived briefly at the Naples Zoo in 2014.


Other photo references in this piece, used with permission, include the burrowing owls from Ben Jiang, and the gopher tortoise from Charles Livio. The native herbaceous plants at the bottom of the painting use my images repurposed from the Plant Portrait series that were taken with the help of Bound by Beauty and Steve Woodmansee, and photographed in Miami Dade County parks.


Process - Philosophical questions


The decision to use mostly existing photos to construct this image was also part of my own personal contemplation of AI art, and the philosophical questions that it poses. I dislike a lot of things about how AI art is being developed currently, particularly the exploitative way it uses other's art to build and train it, the huge amount of electricity that is needed to operate it, the way it obfuscates its original source material, and the generally restrictive and isolating experience of creating art by doing nothing but pressing buttons on your computer.


I decided to experiment with how far in the opposite direction I could go with this piece. Some questions I thought about were: what does it look like to be as intentional as possible about reference material? What would it look like to prioritize connection, sustainability and community over short term results? If AI art could one day create illustrations of native species for education at the push of a button, what would be the benefits and the drawbacks? What is my contribution beyond making beautiful or useful images? What contribution does my art have, beyond being beautiful or useful?


I'm not sure if I succeeded in answering all these questions just yet, but I like how this resulting piece feels a whole lot like a "portrait". I also used far fewer references. The composition of the painting itself became more informed by the small number of references, than by my own vision. I really enjoyed the process of figuring out how to fit these pieces together like a puzzle. It reminded me of the other work I enjoy; collaborative projects and commissions. Those projects often involve a lot of dialogue with others, a lot of learning and re-drawing, and an end result that can't be attributed to one single person in it's entirety. Although this piece is not a literal collaboration, I think it's interesting that it still has that philosophical flavor for me, and how even in my self-directed work I'm still thinking about things from a collaborative angle.


Process - planning and painting


This piece started with several sketches exploring the features of the panther and its relationship with the plants. When I had decided on the overall composition I did an 8x10" watercolor sketch:



I then stretched the watercolor paper onto a sturdy MDF board, which involves wetting and stapling down the paper. Once dry, I transferred the sketch onto the paper.


I began the painting by applying masking fluid over the plants that overlap the panther. Masking fluid acts as a barrier preventing some areas from absorbing paint. Not having to paint around leaves allowed me to build up consistent layers and details in the fur. Then I added a green background wash to the top of the piece. Then I removed the masking fluid and began a lengthy process of painting leaves, flowers and animals.


Check out the process and detail shots below! Click to enlarge.



I developed an over-use injury in my right shoulder half way through the plants, and had to slow down for a while to figure out what I was doing wrong ergonomically. The issue was that I was painting with my hand above my shoulder for too-long periods of time (apparently that puts a lot of pressure on your shoulder). Also, being on my phone for long periods of time was affecting my back and neck. I reduced my phone usage (no candy crush for me :c ), did regular exercises for that area of my body (that I had learned in physical therapy last year), and started using a homemade art maul stick to help support my arm as it healed (seen here).


Slowly but surely, I worked up the details in the herbaceous plants and flowers.


Process - Printing and framing

I finished painting in May and took it to a large format scanner at Prints Giclee Shop, in Miami, to get it digitized. I then used the digital images to make prints! For this piece, I decided to offer it as a limited edition of 30 in both a large and a small size. Available here: https://www.kimheise.com/product-page/yuma-the-florida-panther-print


The original is currently in the process of getting framed at Custom Photo Images in Boca. (it should be finished at the end of July, I'll post a picture then!)


Details: Click to enlarge.




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