When I was approached by Craig Dylke's fiancee Lady R to create a painting for his birthday, I was pretty excited. Craig is one of my fellow Art Evolved admins, and really the brains behind the whole operation. He's a prolific blogger: he also creates educational stories with Traumador the Tyrannosaur, shares his work in progress on Weapon of Mass Imagination, and his other projects on Prehistoric Insanity.
I didn't know that one of Craig's favourite groups of prehistoric creatures are the mosasaurs: large prehistoric marine reptiles often mistaken as dinosaurs. Lady R filled me in on this, and I love painting undersea landscapes. Check out this cool short fiction story by Mike Everhart with an illustration by the inimitable Carl Buell for more mosasaur goodness.
So to get started, I looked at reconstructions of these ancient beasts, flipped through books of fossils and visited some specimens at the ROM. Dmitri Bogdanov's reconstructions on Wikipedia were helpful and evocative. I didn't do any direct skeletal sketches. Instead, I thought about their form and considered doing either Taniwhasaurus or Tylosaurus; Craig and his fiancee met while both were working in New Zealand, so Taniwhasaurus seemed a good fit.
In the initial sketch above, I tried to convey a bit of time passing: a visual storytelling tool I admire but seldom employ. It's the idea of a moment before or after action takes place. One of the best examples of this in art is Michaelangelo's David, a man who is at the cusp of his decision to act against the terror of Goliath, knowing his life will be forever changed after. Many people don't realize that David is actually quite angry in his face, and his body is held back at a moment of relaxation before action.
With the above sketch, I tried to convey a lazily floating mosasaur turning its head to regard the viewer: what happens next? I included a reef covered mound behind the animal. I knew from the get-go I wanted to include a fossil or anachronistic trilobite on some stone in the background. By making it a mound, it served as a way of changing the lights and darks from the surrounding water and giving a gentle inverted "V" pointing the eye toward the center of the composition.
Not quite content, I started just sketching loose shapes, and thinking about Chinese dragons, especially the ones illustrated by western artist Wayne Anderson in The Enchanted World: Dragons book. Long sinewy shapes, snakelike bodies and unrealistic energetic curves. I can't stress how much that shape appealed to me. The bulkier Taniwhasaurus gave way to the sleeker Tylosaur.
Once the sort of doubled-over shape appeared on the page with its parallel shadows and highlights, I thought I might have something. It reminded me of a hummingbird, even moreso after I drew a second set of fore-flippers, which made it look like it had wings beating really fast.
I shared my initial sketches not only with Lady R, but also with artists I know and admire, Carl Buell, Chris Zenga and Eric Orchard. Clearly, this hummingbird pose was the winner.
Fuelled by coffee, I took a 12"x24" canvas I had primed with a black acrylic base and sketched the basics in white chalk pastel. It took a few tries to get the head and lower flippers where I wanted them. Then, I laid down some simple colour in oil, above.
You can see the 1st of three attempts at the light in the water, above.
With a pose this unusual, I decided to play it safe with the rest of the composition. An easy landscape composition is one that has three levels of distance: a small entry point along the bottom for the viewer, like a hummock of grass in a landscape. The middle distance is typically where the action or focus is. The further distance (in my case, to the left) is blue-shifted even in open-air paintings and often shows distant hills or mountains.
A good example of the 3-distance composition is seen here, in Desolation, by American painter Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School:
The viewer stands near the lone column, the desolated ruins and bay are in the middle distance inviting us to explore, while the rocky outcrop on the right and distant shore complete the sense of space.
I cranked up some Die Antwoord, Chemical Brothers and Gorillaz and got started on the painting. Coffee and fast music with big beats always help me keep pace with the brushstrokes. I mainly used the brushes above, especialyl my BFF, the one bent like a dental tool. I have two of those, and one I use for highlights, the other for detailed dark lines and cracks. That's the colour palette about halfway through.
Mauve Blue Shade,
Naples Yellow Red,
Payne's Grey and,
Above you can see the second attempt at the light in the water.
Part of the way through, I got worried it was too much. Too skinny and snakelike. Too exaggerated. So I decided to email paleo-author Brian Switek of the blog Laelaps and book Written In Stone and bounce a couple of images off his brain to see what he thought.
Brian pointed out that the base of the tail was too thin, and the spine of the tail likely ran under the fleshy fin, not over as I have above. I happened to check Art Evolved that day and - LOL! Craig had posted a Phylopic doing exactly the correct shapes Brian was suggesting to me! It was hilarious timing. I wondered if Craig somehow knew what I was up to.
Below, the third and final attempt at the light in the water.
|© Glendon Mellow 2011 Tylosaurus Reef - the final version. |
Fixed the tail, above. Thanks Brian and Craig! I don't typically worry about perfect scientifically-sound accuracy on a reconstructed painting like this. I'm more concerned with issues of drama and well, weirdness, not to put too fine a point on it. This is an exotic creature that is invariably shown leaping out of the water to bite fish or pterodactyls. I wanted to convey quiet menace and a possible posture (or is it impossible?) that gave us another way to look at the animal.
Does the eye successfully wander around the painting due to the final composition? Let's have a look the contrast pushed way up:
3/4 of the painting is dark, with only patches of light to draw the eye down.
Is the painting successful in guiding the eye?
Am I relying on the colour information too much?
|© Glendon Mellow 2011 Tylosaurus Reef - detail.|In the end, the image has a few hidden surprises in it: the trilobite: a maori symbol significant to Lady R and Craig; and not visible in these photos, a simple snorkeling Traumador on the side of the thick panel. And if anyone else tries to copy the hummingbird pose for a mosasaur I'm coming after them.
This commission was a joy to do, and ended up being one of my most colourful paintings. Thanks to Carl Buell, Chris Zenga, Eric Orchard, Brian Switek and my wife Michelle for feedback during the process. Thanks Lady R! Happy Birthday Craig!
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