Making of Tylosaurus Reef

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.


The face of David by Michaelangelo, 1504, marble. Image from Wikipedia, uploaded by Roropapa.

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 BuellChris Zenga and Eric Orchard.  Clearly, this hummingbird pose was the winner. 

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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:

Desolation, 1836, Oil on canvas, by Thomas Cole. Image from Wikipedia, uploaded by MarmadukePercy.   

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.

Used:
Horizon Blue,
Ultramarine Blue,
Mauve Blue Shade,
Olive Green,
Naples Yellow,
Naples Yellow Red,
Quinacradone Orange,
Black Spinel,
Payne's Grey and,
Titanium White.
 




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. 

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©  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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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

My copyright. Mine. Go 'way.

I assert a copyright from this day forth on painting mosasaurs in the pose of a hummingbird.


© Glendon Mellow 2011 not just on the artwork itself, but the pose and that shade of blue 3 mm from the right next to the funny-looking bubble. 


Go read this at Art Evolved. Important copyright assertions and analysis.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

Print Shop

Neener neener.

New painting: Tylosaurus Reef

Tylosaurus Reef  - ©  Glendon Mellow 2011. Oil on canvas. 

Commissioned by R.V. for Craig Dylke of Art EvolvedWeapon of Mass Imagination and the force behind Traumador the Tyrannosaur.



Tylosaurus Reef - detail view. ©  Glendon Mellow 2011.




You can view and enlarge a higher-res version on glendonmellow.com. Watch for prints soon in my online store - I'll announce those along with a 'Making Of' post in which I listened to a lot of music Craig would not approve of. :-)

'Making Of' up soon!

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

Flying Trilobites invade Loving Chasmosaurs

That blog title sounds wrong. 



Today David Orr of Love in the Time of the Chasmosaurs has an interview with me on his blog.  Check it out!  David's interviewing style is multi-layered.  We discussed ScienceOnline11, the future of the internet (!) and where I stand on scientific illustration.

David has a whole series of these interviews I'm proud to be a part of, including with Brian Switek, Nobu Tamura, Mark Witton and more. You can find them all at the interview label

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

Peer Review Radio: Why Palaeontology?

Recently I was interviewed by Adrian J. Ebsary for Peer Review Radio, out of Ottawa.  It was part of a series of interviews about palaeontology that includes Gary Vecchiarelli, Brian Switek and paleoartist Ron Maslanka - all in one episode.

You can listen to the podcast at Peer Review Radio #16: Why Palaeontology?

There are also more podcast and video interviews with me speaking about art, science, and fossils on my Media page, found at the top of the blog.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

Visual art leading research - it's not happening.

Can the production of and inspiration by visual art lead to new areas of scientific research?
It's not happening. At least not often, and not in any organized sense.



Anthropometry, 2009 © Glendon Mellow. Ink on latex gloves.

A couple of years ago while attending ScienceOnline09, I spoke to the group about my not-yet-fully-formed ideas on this matter. I said that visual art ("art", for the sake of brevity in this post) was largely parasitic on science.  It takes a lot of cues and inspiration from science, but seldom do sculpture, painting, drawing, collage or even photography give anything back.  

Some in the room were not having any of this: they cited the inspiration of film and movies, and of children's book illustrations as being catalytic to becoming interested in science in the first place.  Scientific illustration aside - and leaving aside the grand inspiration from film, which is not the type of visual art I am referring to- the field of science-art may contribute heavily to the cloud of inspiring the next generation of scientists, but it doesn't shine down, illuminating new areas of research. 

At the time, I put out a sort of open call to anyone who could think of specific examples of art leading to a new field of research.  

I've really only received one example, from paleontologist Andy Farke: 
In fact, it was art that led me down a very productive avenue of my own research. I had seen depiction after depiction of horned dinosaurs fighting each other. . .(a rendering by Bill Parsons sticks out in my mind, in particular). . .and this got me thinking. What evidence actually was there for such behavior? Could Triceratops even physically lock horns? I used scaled sculptures of Triceratops skulls (artwork in their own right) to test this idea. . .the results were published in Palaeontologia Electronica. This in turn has led to other projects (all ultimately inspired by those artistic restorations).  (Comment made here)

Since then, there have been other examples from literature, from film again, from science-fiction novels, but not visual art. And thanks to everyone who has provided these examples; it has people's minds ticking, and I appreciate that.  I so-o-o appreciate that.

I've briefly raised the issue at each ScienceOnline I've moderated a session at ('09, '10 and recently #scio11) and each time at least a few people tell me they can't let go of the idea. It's intriguing isn't it?  





But perhaps some of the fault is mine. You see, in my recent post for Scientific American's Guest Blog I criticized the idea underlying a symposium discussing "Art as a Way of Knowing".  I said that art is more a Way of Exploring. It doesn't provide new knowledge, only creates new, imaginative, metaphorical links between areas of knowledge.  And that really isn't the same as creating new knowledge, it's more a kind of visual noise, albeit a provocative, fun and challenging type of noise. 


I put wings on trilobites in my paintings. That isn't new knowledge, but it raises questions we can explore. Trilobites were aquatic arthropods that lived before wings.  Could they have evolved them? Does it recall the hoax of the Fiji Mermaid? If animals had a Creator, why are the forms only explainable through evolution? Bat wings on trilobites seem more Creator-ish.

Just because you can put two things together in a composition, doesn't mean you've created new knowledge, any more than saying "tension along the Afghanistan/Michigan border" has created new information in a sentence.


Trilobitlepidoptology, © Glendon Mellow 2008. Pencil on bristol.

Let me jump tracks for a moment.  I devour atheist blogs, and love reading about the tension between science, truth, atheism and religion.  And something that comes up a lot from both theists and atheist accommodationists is the idea that religions can provide us with special knowledge, different from that of science. Most atheists, myself include, decry this idea, it's kind of silly.  Any real knowledge found in religious scripture is either blindingly obvious from the human experience or else there by cultural artifact or accident.  

Yet so many religious sites (looks askance at BioLogos) would like to be able to claim to provide Knowledge as Important as that of science.

And so I have to ask:  am I guilty of doing the same thing?  In my quest to find and perhaps one day, create visual art that leads to new areas of scientific research, perhaps I am overestimating art as a stimulus tool. A stimulus tool able to pique working researchers to drop what they're doing and pursue a notion they had while browsing some science-art.

It may be that science-art will remain a curiosity, an homage, fanfic tributes on canvas. Contributing to lay people's curiosity is a noble thing, but I still harbour hopes that art inspired by science will one day rise to become a catalyst generator for research.  Maybe we artists don't try hard enough yet.

I could write my feelings about science-art's potential off as science-envy. Showing art is about hearing stories on what thoughts and feelings the art generates.  And hearing stories about the thoughts and feelings my art generates amongst scientists and science enthusiasts nurtures selfish noble hope that I'm somehow contributing.  

Slate fragments, © Glendon Mellow 2010.  Oil on slate.
But I want to find a way to contribute more than fragments of ideas, more than droplets to the science-inspiration cloud.


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

New! Art Evolved aggregate feed

Philosofossilising: what is palaeo-art?

Over at Art Evolved, admin Craig Dylke has started a new series: Philosofossilising.

The first question he's posed to members of the palaeo-art community is simply: What is palaeo-art?

Artist Rachael Revelle starts off the series with her answer. I'll be weighing in soon too - head over and comment on this series! Are the artists right? Who do you disagree with and why? We have a hugely diverse team of artists on the blog after its first year, so the question may be simple but the answers won't be.

What is palaeo-art?

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Original artwork on
The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under
Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery *** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***

New Going Pro about copyright


I've posted another edition of Going Pro over at Art Evolved. This time looking at different kinds of copyright that are useful for artists to think about.

Click here
to check it out. I promise Lego.


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery
*** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***