My sketches form the foundation for my paintings. Of course, I often have a camera or smartphone with me to record the unexpected moments (see the story ‘Sometimes it’s a dangerous profession’). But the advantage to working from sketches is that you can better express your creativity. I take pictures whenever I am not very familiar with the particular breed of animal. If I’m inspired to sketch a donkey, for example, then I always take pictures first to record their hair patterns or their gait.
A camera only lets you record a single instance in time, but when you spend an afternoon sketching among the peacefully grazing cattle, then you can get to know them as individuals. I observe their behaviour, gait, character, which one is the most dominant in the group and which cows seem to be friends with one another. Because even cattle can form friendships for life as they graze the same meadows and sleep in the same barns.
Did you now that cows can recognize approximately 50 to 70 individuals? Within the group they maintain social relationships with other cattle, and the sum total of those relationships forms their social ranking order. When the group has strong social ties, then they display endearing group behaviour: the cattle graze, ruminate and rest at the same time. That behaviour shows that it is a stable group and I can sit among them with my sketchbook without being disturbed.
And did you know that cattle keep a certain distance to one another based on their relationships to one another? That can vary from a few dozen centimetres to a few meters. They reinforce their relationships through threats, avoiding some cattle and licking others. Licking has a calming effect and also helps get rid of parasites, since they can lick places the other cow can’t reach. As cattle get older, their importance for the herd and for the young cattle increases. Elders provide continuity in the transfer of knowledge and experience.
Knowing all of that helps me enjoy observing the cattle and getting to know their personalities. Their peaceful, friendly and curious nature makes them the ideal ‘supermodels’ for my paintings.