By Bob Bahr
In March 2017, SKBer James Coe joined a group of artists from several nations to paint and go birding in Israel and Jordan. Coe was participating in the Artists For Nature project “Bringing the Dead Sea to Life Through Art and Music,” a collaboration involving Israeli, Jordanian, European, and American artists with the goal of raising awareness about the fragile ecosystem surrounding the Dead Sea, which straddles Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.
“They’ve been around for about 25 years and they pick projects where there’s an endangered species and drop in with a crew of field artists and other artistic folks,” says Coe. “It’s a big project that includes teaching, art, music, and publicity around an endangered habitat,” says Coe. “In the end, it generates media, sales from artwork, exhibits, books—and years of attention on a particular place. It’s a good cause.”
Coe’s plein air landscapes from the trip are wonderful, and these studies and his reference photos are bearing additional fruit in the studio these days. Coe is a highly skilled painter of birds, but he’s equally enthusiastic about plein air painting. The Israel trip scratched both itches, but not equally.
“It was designed to be a 50-50 split of painting and viewing wildlife for photos,” says Coe, “but it was over scheduled and over-planned. We went to a lot of spots, so it was more about observation. It didn’t work out quite as well for me–my own personal experience was one of running into a lot of problems. So I used a triage mentality and collected the maximum amount of reference material for working in the studio. You only get one shot at a trip like this, and the timing/scheduling wasn’t going to work perfectly. So I only painted when we had a big block of time at one place.”
“It’s very rare for an artist to work in oil in the field in Europe,” Coe continues. “I was one of only two working in oil; most take watercolor, and they are incredibly proficient in watercolor in a way you don’t see much here in the United States. The great field artists were painting pieces in a matter of minutes. A few were amazing; they could look through a scope and in 15 minutes, paint a bird. I saw no need to compete with them. I concentrated strictly on habitat. I’m incredibly impressed with what they can do, but they can’t do what I can do. I can paint en plein air. I was a dedicated landscape painter on the trip. That was my strength and that was how I could make a contribution that was different from other contributions. Why do a poor copy of what other people can do very well, when I can do something else?”
Coe considers the trip a cherished memory and a great opportunity, but he acknowledges that it wasn’t the ideal trip for plein air painters. “It was more focused on wildlife,” says the New York State artist. “You have to be invited to participate in these projects. Actually, it’s not just visual artists. Paul Winter, the internationally known musician, was there, too, writing music to go with it.”
Before the trip, Coe prepared painting surfaces by gluing linen to 3/16″ Gatorboard. “That’s much lighter than my usual Masonite,” he says. He tried—and found useful—a FastMatte white paint made by Gamblin that quickened drying time so he could transport his finished work more easily. “It was almost too quick-drying because it was very stiff on my palette,” says Coe. “I had to soften the paint up and use some medium. But my paintings were touch-dry the next day and totally dry after two days. The weather was very dry, and because I was traveling and moving from day to day, it worked out.”
A shade umbrella was crucial. “The light was very harsh. I really needed to have an umbrella, and luckily, the couple of days that it was too windy to use an umbrella, it was overcast, so I could get away with not using one.”
There was only one other American on the trip, pastelist Deborah Kaspari. She worked in soft pastels on loose sheets of sanded Artspectrum Colourfix paper backed with Fomecor. Her pastels were kept in a cardboard Terry Ludwig pastel box with foam inserts cut apart to allow a good range of pastel pieces, held to the pochade box with binder clips. Kaspari also worked in pencil and watercolor in a Stillman & Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, especially when she worked while viewing wildlife through a field scope. “My pochade box is an EasyL on a light tripod with an extra quick release for switching to a field scope when wildlife drawing,” she says.
The wildlife was captivating. Coe says he added 66 birds to his life list. He saw five types of eagles, photographing four. “I saw a lot of them very close up,” says Coe. “Some were backyard birds for Israel, very common for there. The Palestine sunbird, for example, is gorgeous, a little iridescent jewel of green/purple/black with a curved beak. It’s iridescent like a grackle, but brighter and smaller, the size of a kinglet. That’s an entirely new family for someone who lives in the New World. Another common bird I saw for the first time was the yellow-vented bulbul. We don’t have them here in America, but a close relative has been introduced in Hawaii. It’s the size of a blue jay, but with a pointy head, not a crest.”
“The exciting birds we saw at a stakeout. There are different species of sand grouse that come in from the Negev Desert to drink at this person’s pond. She has a covered portico that we hung out on, and we used our scopes. The attraction was the crowned sand grouse. It’s a cross between a pigeon and a quail. Everyone was excited, even the Israelis, because they are a rare bird. It’s hard to find them in the desert, a wide expanse of inhospitable territory.
“We also saw griffon vultures, which are huge,” continues Coe. We saw some on the nest but also on the wing, coming and going in a deep rocky canyon. We saw things of interest everywhere, not just along the Dead Sea. In a canyon we saw a Bonelli’s eagle on the nest. I sketched the nest and a number of artists set up and painted in watercolor. One day we left the hotel well before dawn to see a known population of McQueen’s bustards, birds with a very flamboyant mating display like a grouse, strutting, puffing out its feathers, doing a wild dance. They were in an ancient riverbed in desert with shrubby stuff.”
The artists didn’t just see birds. Mammals thrilled the group as well. “The whole Dead Sea region and much of Israel is now protected for the Iberian ibex, hunted to the point to distinction outside of Israel,” says Coe. “We saw them, including one male with huge arcing horns that almost go all the way back and touch their backs. Their horns are the original material used to make the shofar, an ancient horn still used for Jewish religious ceremonies. They come down into the towns because they know they are quite safe, protected by law. They eat in the gardens and drink in fountains. Very cool animals, classic Middle Eastern mammal.”
Plein air painting is a little different in Israel, as Coe and company discovered during a trip to a national park. “Huge groups of dozens of students, entire classes of 30 or 40 kids, just poured into the park during the day,” he recalls. “There were noisy, disruptive kids on the trails most of the time. When I tried to set myself up slightly off the trail to not get trampled, I was told I had to move and stay on the trail. The rules could be rigid and interfere with what I am used to doing here in the United States.”
But Coe says the payoff was big enough to ignore such inconveniences. “It was great being in a place that is extraordinary, and seeing these unique landscapes.” And now he has 1,200 photographs to sort through! Ω