Researching for art: Learning about a subject before you paint it

Gallup Dancer, watercolor, KG Taylor for New Mexico Magazine

I made this illustration for New Mexico Magazine the year I lived in Santa Fe. My art director, Mary Sweeney, sent me over to the state library a few blocks away, (small town) and I had access to the historical photograph section and was able to get prints to use for my piece about the annual event in Gallup, with this young dancer as the subject. Having this authentic photo inspired me in a big way. It was before we had the internet, and the photographs in the library seemed unquestionably authentic. (Don’t always know the source when researching on the web.)

Now, many years later, I’m researching the Arapahoe tribe for a second painting. Here’s my first painting, below, Chief Niwot’s Encampment at the Creek, which I posted a bit earlier. My subject is the Arapahoe teepee villages and their beautiful, chosen camps in the our area. I think people love to live in lovely places that nature provides. Inspiration to paint… again!

I’ve spent lots of time seeing the landscape of the Front Range, Boulder and Jefferson Counties. Now I am imagining, for my second painting… the villages as they camped for a season, in a different place, another of their temporary homes, just as well enjoyed. If you live in Colorado, you can see why camping on the Front Range would be a lovely home.

Detail, Chief Niwot Encampment at the Creek, painting, 2012, Karen Gillis Taylor

My next stop will be the Colorado History Museum and maybe the Denver Public Library, which I know has a section for photography. I’ve been there too.

Here’s my tip: artists have access to the “special” sections of our libraries and museums. You need to provide a good reason, and follow their rules, but we get to see some really amazing real photo prints that you just will never find on the web unless you go there in person. There is no match for seeing the real print in person, in a real place that treasures these things. And librarians are so often wonderful people with their own passion they bring to us all.

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