National Wildlife Federation 2013


One of the cool things about my job is that many of my projects bring me together with really dedicated people who are passionate about their work. Two of those people are Tracy Edmonds and Ruby Lyon of the National Wildlife Federation. For the past two years, I’ve worked with them to design and paint a stage backdrop for the annual National Conservation Achievement Awards and Dinner.

This prestigious event has featured many Celebrities and Politicians. Honorees in the past have been Lady Bird Johnson, President Jimmy Carter, actor Robert Redford, and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.

Each year the project begins by developing a theme. In this case, the theme is a geographic area that the NWF would like to showcase. Last year, the theme focused on the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Here is what the backdrop looked like:

For this year, Tracy and Ruby decided to go with the “Wetlands” for their theme. They brought me into the conversation by describing in detail the things that should be included in the design: a waterway, cattails, dragonflies, a heron etc. We also liked the idea of the scene opening up to a vista of the ocean.

For research, I could always go to the internet – but my feeling is the best and most original work comes from doing your own primary research. So, my wife, Janis and I took a hike …down to the Mount Vernon trail in Alexandria, Virginia to look around and get some ideas. We were looking for that section of the trail that meanders along the Potomac. The river becomes marshy and swampy and it opens up into the bay. Here are some photos that I took:


I know what you’re thinking, “those aren’t the best photos – they kinda suck ! … It’s gonna be a really ugly backdrop.” Okay, so I’m not a photographer. But I got what I wanted: just some clues and shapes about how this terrain fits together. And here’s a bonus: if you look closely at the center of the middle photo, there is a gorgeous blue heron – I’m definitely going to use that. I can’t do much about the fact that I was down there on a dreary winter day. But when I paint the scene, I’ll make it a light-filled summer day … and I can go crazy with bright jazzy colors.

I began by doing a bunch of thumbnail sketches. These are very loose scribbles – like napkin sketches. The idea is to simply get some ideas on paper and not worry about technical stuff. Tracy, Ruby, and I had decided that the backdrop would be 9’ tall by 18’ wide. So, as I put down my sketches, I was conscious of the overall shape of the backdrop: a horizontal rectangle with the length at least twice the height. For most projects, I’ll do about ten thumbnail sketches before I’m ready to move forward with a layout.

The next step is to refine the thumbnail into a technical layout. I like to do this on graph paper because, at this point, I want the proportions to be accurate. On my original layout, one inch of the graph paper represents one foot on the actual backdrop. The layout is a sketch that tells me the basics about my composition, but it is not a very refined sketch. My feeling is that the real process of creation takes place when I am actually painting. The layout sketch is a guideline – but it is not set in stone. I almost always make changes while I’m painting the scene.

Once the layout is complete, it is time to start working at full scale. I stretch a piece of raw muslin on my wall and prime it with “Rosco Tough Prime” … (or, just any old latex primer will suffice). After the primer dries, I finish the sides by folding over about a 3” hem and then I put in grommets every foot on the two sides and the top. The grommets are needed to be able to strap the finished backdrop to a pipe hanging system when it is on display.

Now that the muslin is primed and the edges are finished, I have a big blank canvas that is just waiting for action. There are a few ways to transfer the layout image to the full-sized backdrop: you can just free sketch from your original design, or you can grid the surface, or you can use a projector. It’s not cheating if you use a projector – it just saves a lot of time. Most of the time you can’t use a projector anyway – so, don’t feel guilty about the few occasions when you can. (BTW, artists have been using projectors for centuries. Did you know that Vermeer used a sort of 17th century projector called a Camera Obscura ?) If you’re going to use a projector, throw your layout on one of those Artograph things and go to town….. Or, if you don’t have an Artograph; simply copy your layout on a piece of transparency paper and use an old-fashioned overhead projector.

So, now it’s time to start painting. For me, this is when the fun begins ! I like to get really physical when I paint: slapping it on fast and aggressively. I like to use sloppy, wet brush strokes to show the artists’ energy … (kind of like Franz Hals). The first thing I want to do is block in large areas of color: blue sky, water, and green marshy areas. I’m just observing how the color balance is working and whether or not there is enough contrast to define the shapes. When I think of contrast, I am thinking about these three types of contrast: #1 – “value” contrast between light and dark colors, #2 – “hue” contrast between warm and cool colors and, #3 – “chroma” contrast between dull and bright colors. I want to make sure that the trees in the distance contrast dark against the blue sky … but I also want them to be cooler and greyer than the vegetation in the middle ground.

I continue the scene by adding a muddy beach area and some vegetation in the water.


I decide that I want another waterway in the foreground moving to the right side of the composition. This creates a visual parallel to the boardwalk and it strengthens the design. Then I paint In the walkway and gazebo. In order to keep the vertical lines perfectly straight on the gazebo, I use a chalk line, pinned to the wall with the heavy end dangling free like a plumb line. For this to work, you have to make sure that your backdrop is perfectly square on the wall. To get the horizontal lines square, you can measure from the floor.

Next, I block in the cattails in the extreme foreground. I want them to be in shadow – so, I paint them with darker, cooler, and greyer colors. By doing that, the yellow and almost neon colors of the swampy area really pop out.

Even though, the heron was actually grey, I decide to brighten it up with some white to give it a stronger presence in the composition.

Tracy and Ruby want some more wildlife, so, next I add some dragonflies and Seagulls:  

This is what the finished backdrop looks like and here it is at the Mayflower Hotel. They still have to set the room and put a small stage in front of the backdrop.

Here are some shots from the ceremony:

Photo by Leslie E. Kossoff/LK Photos Photo by Leslie E. Kossoff/LK Photos

Photo by Leslie E. Kossoff/LK Photos
Here’s a photo of the stage backdrop (in the background) with the event Emcee, David Mizejewski and canine guest of honor, “Grey Wolf”.

Learn how you can enjoy the next National Wildlife Federation Conservation Achievement Awards Gala and help protect wildlife and wild places for our children’s future!

For more information about Leslie E. Kossoff/LK Photos, visit her website at: www.LKPhotos.com
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