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The Mind and Practise of Michael Felber

Arctic Father - 22.5” x 30”, colored pencil on paper

Since the beginning of the new year I have had the pleasure of engaging in a regular exchange of emails with London-born artist, Michael Felber. Felber now resides in Port Townsend, Washington, just on the coast, north-east of the Olympic National Park. After an engaging and vibrant career Felber has an impressive oeuvre, with a personal fascination to animals and nature. His works have been exhibited across the world and are consistently praised for Felber’s attention to detail and exquisite treatment of animals facial expressions. With this in mind, I would like to share with you an insight into the extraordinary mind and practise of Michael Felber.

Lorna: In your artist’s statement you assert; “I compose my drawings to bring the viewer close enough to get to know the animal as an individual.” What first inspired you to delve in and consider the conscious mind of the animal kingdom? And when engaging with these animals in the wild how do you manage to get so close — in particular to Bears? And have you ever found yourself landed in a difficult situation out in the wild?

Michael: I find almost everything in nature to be interesting and the closer we look, the more intriguing it gets, but I find animals and insects to be the most fascinating. When I go hiking in the woods, I tend to sneak around quietly in order to see more animals. Sometimes if you just sit down quietly in the woods and wait, the animals eventually start coming out, and if there aren't any large animals available, there are usually some attractive beetles, so I bring a magnifying glass. Coming upon a bear or another animal in the woods is a delightful, exciting and possibly profound experience, and I don't understand how anyone could relate to that animal without considering their intelligence and emotions.

One thing that I'm good at is drawing the specific expression on an animal's face. I work at this, and sometimes push it too far. Once a bear I was drawing ended up looking like he had a smile - so I had to back track a bit. I use multiple photos as reference for each drawing, and lately most of my work has been with coastal brown bears and polar bears. When you look at many photos of one bear, you can see their expressions change.

I took many photos of a female brown bear as she walked by, which I used for my painting called Young Mother. Most of the photos were not very interesting, but in one photo she appeared to look very emotional. I could see that she was thinking about something, and I found this photo to be the most compelling to work with in order to depict the expression of her temperament and psyche in my painting.

Bears are one of the most intelligent and emotional animals, and their personalities vary a great deal, which makes them so intriguing to me. Some bears are gentle and some are thieves, some goofy, some smart, some mean, some are easy going and some can be nervous and tense. I have been to Katmai National Park, in the Alaska Peninsula, seven times to observe and photograph the coastal brown bears that thrive there. I didn't have any previous experience with these bears, so I went on guided trips, and was fortunate to be guided by two very knowledgeable wildlife biologists, Brad Josephs and Buck Wilde, who taught me a great deal about the bears of Katmai.

Unlike the inland grizzly bears, the coastal brown bears in Alaska and British Columbia have evolved along with the concentrated food source of rivers of salmon. These bears have learned the ability to communicate with body language in order to tolerate being close to each other while catching salmon to eat. We can read the bears' body language and use it ourselves to communicate with them. This is how we can get pretty close to the brown bears without stressing them out. We use the bears' body language to communicate that we are not a threat to them or a food source, so they relax, and then we can also relax, and the bears see that we have relaxed. So then they are aware of us but not concerned, and free to focus on catching salmon. This is how we manage to spend many pleasant hours hanging out on the riverbanks together in Katmai. I have seen a bear stress out another bear many times during my visits, but although our bear viewing groups have seen many tumultuous interactions between the bears, we have never found ourselves in a dangerous situation. These coastal brown bears seem very tolerant of people who behave in ways that they understand. The bear biologists that I work with have told me that that the inland grizzly bears have very different behaviours, since without the availability of salmon, they had no reason to tolerate other bears who are competing for their food. The inland bears are more solitary and tend to be grumpier, but I have no first hand experience with those bears.

It’s always possible to come across an unexpectedly nasty bear or a bear in pain or with some other problem, so although we don't carry guns, we carry hand held flares in case a bear charges, but I have never seen this happen and have never had to light a flare. I use an 80 - 400 mm. zoom lens, so I don't need to get close to the bears, but often they walk by 20 feet away from where we are sitting, and I can get a full frame head shot at that distance.

Once when we were watching three female bears in a shallow river, I had my knees in the edge of the river watching a mother bear fishing about 40 feet away. I couldn't back up because there was a bluff right behind me. We had been there about an hour when suddenly two salmon started spawning 2 feet from my knees. I knew immediately what was going to happen next. I looked at the bear and she was focused on the salmon in front of me. I noticed that she was looking at the salmon, not at me and that her ears were forward, so she was not stressed. She immediately ran up to those salmon and stopped about 4 feet in front of me, and gave me a look - sort of a damn tourist look. I'll never forget that look. She respected my personal space and therefore let the salmon go. This happened so fast that I could not have even gotten up, but the best thing was to just stay there on my knees in a submissive posture - the bear could read this - and the situation diffused immediately and everyone stayed relaxed, but it certainly did get my attention.

Young Mother, 11” x 14”, oil painting on linen

How does conservation and the environment come into your work?

An artist's subject is something that he has decided to think about at length. Animals and our environment are very important to me. When someone looks at my drawing of a polar bear, they will think about polar bears, and perhaps also think about the environmental problems of these wonderful bears, so just getting people to think about the animals helps people to relate to them.

The bears that I draw are not just any generalised bear. They are very specific bears with scars and thoughts and memories and problems and children of their own. I use the words mother, father, and grandfather in my titles to get people to think about these animals as having a life of their own that has nothing to do with people.

I photographed the polar bear on Gyldenoyane Island in Wallenberg fjord, in Svalbard, and noticed that he had a number fourteen painted on his rump. I contacted Jon Aars, at the Norwegian Polar Institute, who told me that he had tagged this bear three months before I saw him, and that he was a healthy eleven year old male, who had been seen with a female. That is why I called my drawing Arctic Father. He had traveled at least 44 sea miles between our sightings.

In regards to my Grandfather drawing, Native Americans and Canadians address the brown bears as "grandfather" as a sign of respect, and this dominant male bear was a grandfather as well. I hope that my drawings will encourage more people to respect animals, and help them survive.

Interacting with these beautiful animals is endlessly fascinating. Part of the reason I draw them is because they are so beautiful and I just love to look at them. By bringing the viewer up very close to the animal, close enough to read the animal's expression, my drawings encourage an intimate relationship to develop with a specific animal. I know that many people are unable to visit these bears themselves, so my drawings may help them think about and perhaps to understand and relate to these animals in some way. Once at the opening of a show that included my Carpenter Bee drawing, a fellow told me that seeing my insect drawings made it harder for him to step on a bug. I view that as a success.

As many other artists do, I have given my drawings and posters to a number of environmental groups to help them raise money, and I will continue to do this. I worked with Brad Josephs to write an essay about the bear in my Grandfather drawing (see my website), which helps people understand this bear's story and life, his thoughts and memories, and some of the problems that he faces in surviving. I have given my Grandfather poster and story to many school children. Helping people and children to understand an individual bear's thoughts and problems will contribute to more people helping to save the bears' environment, which is the same environment in which most of the other animals live.

Your use of medium is exquisite! What process do you use to effectively imitate reality through medium? How has your training in traditional craft practises such as printing and etching informed your current work? Finally, your works in animation, informed by your time with the Flintstones T.V. show and you work on The Plague Dogs, lay the ground for your detailed illustrative works. Why did you decide to move to illustration over animation?

I started my art career making etchings and eventually became a master printer in Bob Blackburn's intaglio workshop in New York in the early 1970's. Some of the presses that I was using were over a hundred years old, and I still have an etching press that is over 150 years old. As I worked, I remember thinking about the other people who had done the same things that I was doing hundreds of years ago, and that I was a part of that history.

Although printing etchings was my living for many years, one of the things that I didn't like about it was all of the processing and technical work that was necessary to make the print after you have made your drawing on the plate and etched it. I really wanted to draw more, and I knew that I needed the practice to be able to draw more skilfully. Since we didn't use gloves or have adequate ventilation in those days, I developed a case of chemically induced toxic hepatitis. I needed to detoxify my body and I became fearful of the chemicals that I had been using, and I needed a break from printmaking.

My work had become somewhat cartoony, and I knew some animators, so in 1979 I went back to school and learned animation. I needed to make a living and I was a little burned out on the politics of the art world, so drawing cartoons for a living seemed just right. For the next four years I drew cartoon characters full time. I made thousands of pencil drawings, working on The Flintstones television show and The Plague Dogs, which was one of the last animated feature films to be drawn completely by hand before computer animation. All that practice drawing was just what I needed. When the film was completed I was surprised to find that my drawing had improved a great deal. If you spend a lot of time drawing, your drawing will improve, no matter what you draw. A big part of drawing well is just eye hand coordination, and it takes practice just like playing a musical instrument. When we were laid off at the end of the movie project, some of the animators went to work for Atari making animated video games, but I had no interest in drawing on a computer so I went into illustration and back to my pencils and the art world.

The etchings that I made in the past started as line etchings and the drawings that I make now also start out as pencil line drawings. These traditional media have always worked well for me. I like working on paper with pencils and on linen with oil paint and brushes. Pencils are incredibly sensitive tools that respond to pressure, the angle used, and direction of line in very expressive ways. If these media had not been sensitive enough, I would have looked for another medium, but they worked for me so I stayed with them. Although I use traditional media, my artwork does have a modern look.

Line quality is very important to me, and I generally go over every line and shaded area in my drawings more than once. The first time I work to get the line or shading in the right place, and after more of the drawing is completed, I go back to balance the weight of every area and to make sure that every line is smooth and even. In Arctic Father I drew over almost every line and area at least four times. I know that this is nuts, but I can't help it. If something doesn't look quite right, it makes me uncomfortable until I fix it.

Generally I blow up the size of my reference photos to the point where everything is somewhat fuzzy. In the photo for Arctic Father I could see where every tuft of fur was, but I couldn’t see any of the details in it. Since I know more or less what a tuft of bear fur should look like, I then just draw what I expect to see there, or what I want to be there. I really just make up most of what you see in my drawings. I use the structure and position of the animal in the photograph, and I draw what is there, but I put in more details than are visible. Usually a little blur in the photo will suggest a way to draw that tuft of fur. As I work, I move back to see if what I have drawn looks right and make sure that nothing pops out or recedes too much. Sometimes I change little things just to have fun with them or to make the animal in the drawing read more powerfully. For example I might take some dirt off the bear, or clean up some drool, or make some tufts longer just because it's more beautiful.

Two years after photographing the big male bear in Grandfather, and having worked on my drawing, we were back in Katmai observing a big male bear and wondering if it was the same one. With my binoculars I could see the scar on his nose, which I remembered from my drawing, so I could make a positive identification. Drawing an animal enables you to learn so much about them that you really become visually intimate with that animal.

When my drawings are unfinished they look like drawings, but when I have completed them it is hard for people to see them as anything but the animal depicted. Some people tell me that my drawings look like photographs, but I don't think that they look anything like photographs. They may appear to imitate reality, but it is a reality that has been tweaked by my choices. I tend to push the different elements around a bit, emphasizing some things and diminishing others. This gives the drawing more clarity and depth, or a feeling of heightened reality. For example in Young Mother, I lightened up certain hairs and tufts of fur to bring them forward and darkened other tufts or areas to make them recede. When I was working on Grandfather, a museum curator was visiting us and I showed him my drawing. My blown up reference photo was pinned to my desk above it. He said that my drawing made the photo look dead. He was right. I had actually gone much farther than the photo. At a certain point I don't look at the photo very much, as I'm really just in my own world of my drawing. When I look at my old reference photo now and compare it to that drawing, the photo is so unclear that I find it hard to understand how I ever managed to end up with my drawing looking so accurate.

Photos taken by Darryl Schmidt

You can see more of Michael's work on his website:

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