New Work: Hyena
I have always loved the physical shape of hyenas. They’re equally awkward and powerful with those pointy satellite dish ears, meaty necks and sloping backs. Not to mention wild-looking, multicolored fur. I had been thinking about painting one for a while but I wanted to go “against type” and create a portrait that was on the soulful side. Therein laid the rub: finding a soulful photo of a hyena. Or at least one that didn’t have her red face stuck in a carcass (which, to be fair, would also make a great painting but isn’t my particular style.)
But after looking at thousands of photos online, I finally found the needle in the haystack on the flickr.com page of Theo van Wyk, who happens to live in Lydenburg, Mpumalanga in South Africa:
He and his friend, Gabriel, were at Kruger National Park when they snapped the shot:
The hyena you painted was the teenage babysitter that had to look after the kids while the older folk were out trying to get some food. You can see the inquisitiveness in the posture and the nose raised a bit to get a better smell of us, but the right ear keeping a lookout and listening for danger, trusting but not trusting…
Theo was nice enough to send me a high resolution file to paint from so I could see all the minute reflections and details in her eyes:
Hyenas in general get a pretty bad rap. But it turns out that spotted hyenas in particular are not the block-headed, opportunistic scavengers they’re portrayed to be in TV and movies. The spotted hyena is truly more of a predator, like a lion, and lives in very complex societies where the females are dominant (and larger in size):
Like cercopithecine primates, spotted hyenas use multiple sensory modalities, recognize individual conspecifics, are conscious that some clan-mates may be more reliable than others, recognize 3rd party kin and rank relationships among clan-mates, and adaptively use this knowledge during social decision making. [source]
I’d like to say that I knew all this before I painted one, but I didn’t. Though now I’m even more happy that I choose this hyena as a subject.
I’ll be sharing a video of the entire painting process here soon, so stay tuned for that post.
In the meantime, thanks for reading.