Darwin meets Blue Guy

The oil painting I produced for The Eloquent Atheist, entitled Darwin Took Steps, has found another champion today, in the form of Mike H. of the prolific Tangled Up in Blue Guy blog.

You can see the Tangled Up in Blue Guy post about Darwin Took Steps here.

And hey- he's also pointed at the banner that I produced for Of Two Minds! Any chance you're moonlighting as a scientific illustration talent scout, Mike? Perhaps if I need an agent one day...

With both of these pieces being worked on throughout February, it's been a busy month. Thanks Mike, for the comments. Feedback on my artwork is always welcome. (Thrown vegetables or muttering "derivative" are less welcome, but interesting.) In addition to the link in my gallery, you can also see my popular pencil drawing, or read the 'making of' post.

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By the way, this Friday will mark one year since The Flying Trilobite began. Look for a misty-eyed reminisce-a-thon on Friday. And cake! Maybe pie!

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(Edit: March 8 2008: Darwin Took Steps also featured on The Dispersal of Darwin ! )

Getting out there

In my last post, I included the making of a new painting, called Darwin Took Steps. I had offered to share this artwork with the editors of The Eloquent Atheist, in part to reach a broader audience than The Flying Trilobite's alone.

The subject matter was intended to be a part of Darwin Day, and so I registered at the organizers' site along with the other participants. It's always fun to see your name on the same list as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

I tried to promote the piece on Facebook, changed my profile picture to one of the sketches, and made comments on the walls of a few groups, pointing the way to The Eloquent Atheist to aid in traffic there. Hopefully they'll have me back again some time.

By the end of the day on February twelfth, my Darwin painting had been re-posted on two other websites - in Spain! It was done without my direct permission, but it was done respecting the Creative Commons licence: in this case, it was cited as being a painting by me, it was not altered, and no one was profiting by it. I was and still am pretty excited!

On first site, the painting was posted by one of the DeviantArt contributors I have corresponded with, who goes by the name of Koolasuchus. In case you're not familiar with the "suchus" part, it is Latin for crocodile, and Koolasuchus often includes drawings of these in their DeviantArt gallery.

With the second site, It turns out that Koolasuchus also is a regular contributor to an aggregate site, also in Spanish, called Evolucionarios. The site looks great. Unfortunately the only other language I am fluent in is ASL, with a smattering of French from my Canadian upbringing.

So, Darwin Took Steps did what I set out for it to do; it put me out there. My thanks to all those parties who liked the piece, commented, re-posted it or checked it out! Next year is the two hundredth anniversary of Darwin's birth, so I'll have to start cooking up something grand to go alongside this year's painting.

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If you've read this far in such a self-indulgent post, allow me to tease you with another piece I am working on that should be up soon. Normally, I feel it is bad form to mention a piece of art for a contract until it is completed and approved. However, since Shelley Batts' confirmed it over at A Blog Around the Clock already, I figure it's cool.


I am almost finished a piece for Shelley Batts of Retrospectacle and Steve Higgins of Omnibrain. These two neuroscience students and ScienceBloggers have teamed up to create a new blog, to be called Of Two Minds, and launching March 1st. I will be doing one of the rotating banners again, and I'm pretty psyched.

It's a good start to 2008; two more painting contacts for others. And March 7th will be my one year blogiversary, so you know I'm cooking up a special illustration to mark the day that the flying trilobite army burst onto the scene!

Making of "Darwin Took Steps"

For Darwin Day 2008, I decided to work on a surreal portrait of Charles Darwin, which is to be published today at the online literary 'zine, The Eloquent Atheist. There should be some writing accompanying it from one of the Darwin Day organisers, Dick Renfro. (Edit! Here's the link!) I always enjoy seeing another artist's process in creating a work, and I have found some scientists who read this blog are also interested in seeing the greasy nuts & bolts that go into a painting.

I am not a biologist, but I am something of a biology/palaeontology groupie. Darwin's work is so important not only for explaining a process of evolution by natural selection, but also for how it exploded the traditional chain of mythologies humans lived with as explanations for so long. The modern Bright movement and sites like The Eloquent Atheist seek to show how a life without religion and the supernatural can be intellectually and emotionally
fulfilling.

In my continuous struggle to improve my own madartskillz I am also trying to create works reminiscent of Symbolist and Surrealist masterpieces replete with symbols drawn from our modern scientific worldview. Why use Odin to symbolise wisdom when you can paint Darwin?

Making of Darwin Took Steps

1. Thumbnail sketches
These were just thumbnails, showing an elderly Darwin pondering what to write next. The one near the top right has a "tangled bank" of branches floating above his head. From the start I knew I wanted to depict Darwin in his later years, as it is a more generally recognised image. I discarded both of these ideas in favour of the staircase idea.

2. Beginning the drawing.


For the drawing, I drew upon a reference from National Geographic's November 2004 issue. (Cover title: "Was Darwin Wrong?". The answer inside, almost a page tall: "NO.") One of the goals for this painting was to see how quickly I could do it, and still be proud at the end. In this instance I gave up drawing freehand and used a projector to create the sketch above, which is something I rarely do. That took 20 minutes. Refining a drawing that size without the projector can take another 2 to 3 hours. Materials: 2mm pencil on vellum-finish bristol paper. (Must perform life drawing for three hours in penance for using the projector...)

3. Staircase and a false start.

The staircase is an older idea of mine I used on a piece called Disease. It was developed as a cd cover and never published. I like the image though, and thought it would be appropriate. The column in the background is supposed to suggest the path leading unexpectedly to D.N.A, beyond Darwin's scope. I checked the drawing in a mirror a lot, to see if there were any gross abnormalities that stood out. Noticed a staircase coming out of his head. During this phase, I was listening to Jakalope in my studio, which is actually a freakishly large closet off our living room.

4. Completed drawing.

This is the drawing as complete as I decided to make it for painting. I used a .3mm mechanical pencil, HB lead on vellum-finish bristol. Love that Strathmore. In total, the drawing itself took about 3.5 hours. I jettisoned the d.n.a. column idea, and left the staircase leading up and away, the edifice not yet finished. I had fun with the little 'chi' lines in the beard. After tweaking the contrast in Photoshop, I printed the drawing out onto a couple of sheets of canvas paper from my laser printer to paint on.

5. Prepping for 'speed-painting'.

I decided to work in our living room, claiming the coffee table as my territory. I use Turpenoid Natural rather than other solvents. It smells of pine and is not full of nasty toxic hydrocarbons like most odourless solvents. The pliers are to get my oil tubes open. (Seriously, are all tubes made by people who've never had to open them more than twice? The caps are all different by brand, but they all get stuck.) I wanted this piece to have an older, sepia-feel to it, so linseed oil rather than a paler poppy or walnut was just fine. I am armed with Bavarian Dutch Chocolate coffee in my Jack Skellington mug.

My palette consisted of Naples Yellow (which I am addicted to), Quinacradone Orange, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Monochrome Tint Warm, Burnt Sienna (which I hate), Raw Umber, Payne's Grey, Zinc+Titanium White and Lamp Black. A lot of people swear you shouldn't use white or black (and you should mix your own from blue and brown), and I say, stop living in the Impressionist Era! It's so over! Lamp black is warm and deep, like pvc goth-gear in a tube.

I set the timer to stop me every hour. My aim was to finish the painting in 3 hours.

6. Results after 1 hour.


Usually I start with the eyes. I worked out the face, mainly with a cad-yellow underlayer. Monochrome tint and white for highlights. I was listening to Darude, The Chemical Brothers, and a Nine Inch Nails remix album. The faster the beats, the fresher my brush strokes. This is deep in the Ugly Phase , where I just hate how it looks. No time to fret; hour two!

7. Results after 2 hours.

Started using a phylogenetic tree in the background, painting with quinacradone orange underneath, and iridescent gold oil paint on top. Renaissance masters usually painted a red basecoat under gold leafing to add luster. I am using some micron brushes my wife put in my stocking at Christmas. They are really tiny synthetic brushes, and the filbert is now my bf4evr. Some artists say oils must be painted with rough hog's bristle brushes, and then I just yell, stop living in the Impressionist Era! Old master used soft brushes for detail, and so do I.
It's not done. I need to move toward hour 3.

8. Results after 3 hours, colour corrected.
The final piece, colour-corrected in Photoshop.

I fretted about how dark it looked on some monitors, and after submitting the image to editor Michael W. Jones at The Eloquent Atheist, emailed a second colour-corrected version, seen above.

Complete! ( edit: Here is the full-colour-corrected image and how it appears in my online reproduction store, a portion of the profits going in support of The Beagle Project.)


Assigning a number to any amount of steps would be arbitrary, but I chose 5 for a reason. Four for the support of evolution by natural selection (Darwin drew upon examples of 1. biogeography, 2. morphology, 3. embryology, and 4. palaeontology), and the fifth step for natural selection itself, or the elevation of reason over dogma, as the viewer likes. The steps of learning never end.

Please check this out on The Eloquent Atheist today, and leave comments! Constructive feedback is always welcome. I will edit this post later today to provide the link once it is up. Merry Darwin Day!
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All original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details. Please visit my blog, gallery and reproduction store.

Merry Darwin Day!

Sometime today my Darwin portrait, Darwin Took Steps, will be posted on The Eloquent Atheist! I will update this post and add the painting to my deviantArt gallery later on. I'm pretty excited to have another piece featured in The Eloquent Atheist.

If you haven't stopped in to that online 'zine, you really should. Make sure it's during a time of day you have to spend just idly reading. Great poems, essays and prose to be found. And the occasional piece of art from freethinkers.

Also today, sometime before noon eastern standard, I will post a "making of" post of Darwin Took Steps. Why not see the evolution of a painting today as well? Okay, okay, it's really development, not evolution. I suppose it's good ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny when it comes to art. I'd start out in crayon, move my way through finger paint, awkward comic book figures with too many muscles, out of proportion life drawings, then to sunken oil paintings, and finally Darwin would just pop out.

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Other Darwin Day happenings:

-Go to the offical organiser's site, Darwin Day!

-A nice round-up (kid friendly, too!) at The Free Range Academy!

-Can't miss the wild and woolly folks at The Beagle Project!

-Pharyngula should be talking about evo-devo sometime today.

-Carl Buell's 2006 Darwin Day illustration is a classic: check it out on Olduvai George's Flickr site!

-There's always stuff going on at Richard Dawkins' site. Check out the cards!

I'm sure a lot of the science blogs in my blogroll will be involved. Please feel free to post a link to your own art/writing/Darwin Day happening on my comment thread. I'll update this with the link to The Eloquent Atheist as it comes up.

The Flying Trilobite - Highlights of 2007

This has been an important year for my artwork. I began taking my paintings and drawings online last March, and this blog quickly saw a lot of changes in layout and tone. Yes, it has always been to promote my artwork and find future contracts and a wider audience; it has also allowed me to meet a number of talented artists, scientists, writers and bloggers from around the world -check the sidebar! I feel welcomed by the people who've taken an interest in my mythical flying trilobite fossil paintings, and interacting with people in comments and on their own blogs has been a rewarding experience so far.

In this post, I thought we could look back at what I consider some of the highlights of the year, and my fledgling career.

Page 3.14 profiles Glendon Mellow
May 2007, Virginia Hughes of SEED magazine interviewed me for their Page 3.14: Best of ScienceBlogs and Beyond. This was pretty exciting; a peak moment of my year, for sure. I'd been online only two months, and the attention from Ms. Hughes and SEED gave me me a boost. Ever since a zoology-major asked about the tardigrade in one of my paintings, I have planned to get my paintings in front of as many scientists and science-enthusiasts as possible. My work is niche, and this is the niche. The painting featured was the Mythical Flying Trilobite Fossil from my banner. Oil on shale.

Retrospectacle banner for Shelley Batts

There are a lot of of interesting sites on the ScienceBlog network of sites that SEED magazine runs. One of my favourites has been Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog. After making on a comment on one of Ms. Batts' posts, she checked the link back to me and asked me about doing one of her new blog banners. The other, featuring a nautilus and African Grey parrot was by Carl Buell, (scientific illustrator of great repute)! Working for Shelley was a pleasure, as was reading all the comments that followed on her site after she posted a making of the blog banner, with narration by yours truly. I went for a "Valkyrie" motif, to incorporate the wing of an African grey while highlighting the ear, and spotlighting a portrait of Shelley. A spiral in the title completed the reference to the cochlea.

A large portion of my visitors continue to come from Retrospectacle. My first professional work since taking my art online this year! The banner is a mixture of mechanical pencil, oil paint, and digital manipulation.

The Eloquent Atheist features Symbiosis
One of my personal favourites of all my paintings is one I did in university, called Symbiosis. It contains the aforementioned tardigrade (also known as a "water-bear"), a microorganism that can survive hundreds of years when dried out, only to start swimming again when placed in water. It also depicts some of my DNA-candles, and a figure in green writhing/dancing/falling in the foreground. It was the painting featured in my university's graduation show, and I've submitted to a competition in the past, though it was not picked.

It is fairly obvious from looking here at The Flying Trilobite that I consider myself a Bright, an atheist, a person who understands science and the power its rational checks and balances has for revealing the world as it is to us. I came across an exceptionally well-done site, called The Eloquent Atheist, and asked if they were interested in featuring any of my paintings. After some discussion with one of the editors, Michael W. Jones, an engaging writer himself, The Eloquent Atheist profiled Symbiosis, as the online-magazine's first visual art feature. Oil on canvas.

These may be the highlights of my art being showcased this year, and there is so much more. I have enjoyed comments and correspondence with the artists I have met on DeviantArt, and the illustrators Gina Mikel introduced me to on the sciart listserv.
I'm thankful in particular to some of the following:
This post from Tangled Up in Blue Guy , and being a part of Dale McGowan's Ten Wonderfull Things for a little while!
All the wisdom and shenanigans from Leslie Hawes, Fresh Brainz, Traumador the Tyrannosaur, Jesse Graham, Nancy Eldridge, Shelley Batts, PZ Myers, Metamagician & the Hellfire Club, Carl Buell, Jacqueline Rae, and Luna_the_Cat! Deep thanks to anyone who added me to their blogroll or linked to me this year as well. It is inspiring.

For 2008, I hope to produce more work of quality than ever, and to gain some more freelance contracts; sometimes the best work is though project collaboration. To all the commenters and regulars who have commented and encouraged and thrown eggs at me this year, my sincere thanks.

D.N.A. Candle - Vanitas




This oil painting was done for my good friends Michele & Chris for their wedding.

The DNA Candle image is one I began using with Symbiosis, a painting of mine recently featured on the online magazine, The Eloquent Atheist. It's one of my favourite concepts that I have come up with. Back in March 2007, when I was frustrated that I had not done anything with my art and I started this blog one blustery day, I almost chose the name "DNA Candles" instead of The Flying Trilobite. Yeah, I'm proud of these.

Vanitas painting is an old tradition, especially popular in the Northern Renaissance. Usually, it is a still life, depicting perhaps a skull, a broken watch, a candle just snuffed out with the smoke trailing in the air, a book half-read, a tipped over water glass....Pieter Claesz, trained by Franz Hals, is one of my favourite masters of this art style.

The image is one of mortality, with a kind of knock-you-over-the-head symbolism. The message intended is a kind of carpe diem, or "seize the day".

After reading about how telomeres may play a part in the aging process, and that their ends snip off when they replicate, I started coming up with the DNA Candle image. I remember reading something in the 90's that suggested if one could extend telomeres, one may be able to stave off death. The candle melting and the telomere shortening just seemed a natural image. I used DNA as a wick since it is more readily recognisable by most people.

So the ultimate message of the DNA Candle Vanitas is one of seize the day, life is beautiful but finite. The candles are lit and glowing, a loving image and the wax has melted together in union.

Variations of this image will return to The Flying Trilobite from time to time. The banner below and in my sidebar give a detailed view.

Life Drawing - Female

While literally naval-gazing, one of the interesting things I've been mulling over is that human bodies are made up of a multitude of creatures, working symbiotically together.

This idea has fascinated me for a long time, and was the impetus for my Symbiosis painting, recently featured on The Eloquent Atheist. Only recently did I come across an explanation for where the microflora largely come from.

Most of the symbiotic bacteria are transferred to infants from the mother, mainly during birth, and from the breast-feeding and foodstuffs to follow. I thought this topic would be an interesting counterpoint to these life drawings I did of a model at the Toronto School of Art last spring. Less so simply because the model was female; moreso because of every move, every pose we all make every day, we are a multitude of organisms working together, resting together and just being together.

While reading Daniel Dennett's Breaking The Spell, he makes another arresting point. Not only do you have an entire ecosystem of bacteria in your body, on your skin, "your body is composed of perhaps a hundred trillion cells, and nine out of ten of them are not human cells! (p.86)" The important point is that they are not transmitted genetically.

Some people say we are really all alone trapped inside our own minds and bodies. We seldom think of what organisms we share our bodies with, and that our whole lives, the ecosystem living within us and on us, is still evolving.

Bacteria can evolve at a prodigious rate; and for men, we carry them around, populations evolving as we subject their environments to espresso and fine cheeses, beer and pizza, until our whole system collapses. For women, it goes further. Women pass on their evolved-since-birth microflora to their children, when they give birth. As Dennett points out (p.86 again), since it is not a genetic inheritance, and so a surrogate-mother still gives her infant a large portion of its future health during the minutes of birth.

In an interesting turn in one of my favourite sci-fi series, a few characters in David Brin's Heaven's Reach , part of the Uplift Storm trilogy, find themselves becoming symbiotically entangled not only with other similar, oxygen-breathing aliens, but also with the mysterious hydrogen breathers that live inside gas giants. All of them are swallowed up, to transcend into being part of a new organism known as 'Mother'.

There are more interesting things to learn about this subject. Check out the Wikipedia entry, and more at ScienceBlogs.

Amazing. No person is an island; but we are all ecosystems.

Glendon Mellow featured on The Eloquent Atheist

The Eloquent Atheist, an online atheist & humanist magazine, has featured one of my paintings, Symbiosis.

This is the first entry by a visual artist on The Eloquent Atheist, and naturally (not supernaturally) I am very excited to be a part of it! From The Eloquent Atheist:

"Our intent is to expose people to the positive aspects of Atheism and
Humanism through various types of the written arts..."

I do consider myself to be a Bright , a term coined a few years ago for one who believes in a natural universe. It is an umbrella term, or at least it seeks to be for people who variably describe themselves as atheists, humanists, rationalists, Darwinists, skeptics and freethinkers. Some find the "Bright" name unappealing, and worry it is too arrogant or silly. A proposed term (I believe by Daniel Dennett) for people who believe in the supernatural, is "Supers". I have chronicled my growth out of agnostic-pagan thought before, and I like the Bright label. Hard to say you're a Darwinist when you are talking about astronomy or quantum mechanics, since evolution by natural selection doesn't enter into it.

Just to be all linky about it,
the article is here.

A bio about me is on
The Eloquent Atheist here.

My original post about the painting
Symbiosis is here.

I also posted
a sketch I did of the painting here.

There are a lot of great articles and pieces of poetry on The Eloquent Atheist. A special piece by Harvey H. Madison called Cosmic Connection struck a chord with me, it is secular numinism, if I may say such a contradiction in terms. As well, Michael W. Jones' short story, Night Sky is a thoughtful portrayal of realising which universe we really live in. Fans of astronomy should check these out.

Thanks to Michael W. Jones and Marilyn Westfall at The Eloquent Atheist for creating a great magazine, and for showcasing my artwork.