It has been my fate as of late to produce prehistoric murals in record time. One recent example is the reconstruction of the late Miocene environment and fauna from La Roma 2 fossil site in Teruel, commissioned by Spanish Museum “Dinópolis”. The schedule was so tight that it would have been impossible to do it in time, if it weren´t for a fortunate circumstance: this fossil site has been excavated over the last few years by a team of paleontologists who also happen to be my colleagues and friends, and in fact I have been involved in the study of some of the amazing fossils recovered there. As a result, I was quite familiar with the anatomy of most of the mammal species known from the site, which helped make my work so much simpler -and faster.
La Roma 2 has made headlines recently for the discovery of a new species of primitive otter, Teruelictis riparius, and also for the first finding of a pathological individual of the sabertooth cat Promegantereon. It also has yielded a truly spectacular concentration of hyaenid coprolites (hyena poo, to say it plainly), which in turn contain pollen useful for determining the vegetation that existed in the area some 9 million years ago. And it has one of the most amazing concentrations of bones of the three-toed horse Hipparion in Spain, a concentration that allowed scientists to determine that the larger of the two Hipparion species found at the site belonged to a new species, which has been named after the site: Hipparion laromae.
Even with my familiarity with the fauna of La Roma, it would have been impossible to complete this assignment in time if it weren’t for the advantages of digital painting. Working in layers makes all modifications and adjustments so much easier. This painting was intended as the background of a large exhibit case with fossils being exhibited in front. Halfway through the process, the exhibit curators told me that I needed to make sure to move any essential elements of the painting away from a large area in the right side foreground, in order to leave room for a skeleton of Hipparion that would be mounted in front of the mural. If something like that happens while you are working on an oil painting, you are tempted to commit suicide -or at least to induce others to commit it. Fortunately, when you have all the essential elements of the painting in separate layers, you are free to shuffle things a little to one side or the other and take them out of the way of harm.
This image shows the La Roma painting with some (not nearly all) of its foreground layers visible. In a previous version, the horse herd invaded the right hand section of the mural, but I had to move them to the left in order to leave room for the mounted skeleton exhibited in front.
Now I have uploaded a video where you will see the mural virtually “dissected”, showing all the layers as they appear over the bare background landscape:
But if you want to see the mural in all its 6-meter glory, together with a collection of amazing fossils from La Roma 2, you need to pay a visit to Dinópolis in Teruel!
The first of the large environmental paintings that I did for the exhibition “The Cradle of Human Kind” was a reconstruction of the landscape and fauna of Olduvai Bed 1, Tanzania. As in all the paintings I did for this project, the advantages of working in a digital format became evident during the process of review and information exchanges with the exhibit curators, Manuel Domínguez Rodrigo and Enrique Baquedano. For instance, when the painting was well underway I was told that the relative sizes of the distant volcanoes needed to be corrected; then at some point I was asked to put more palm trees in the scene, in order to reflect the data from the fossil site…
In complex scenes like this I usually end up with a large pile of layers, even though I am constantly trying to combine them to get as few as possible. But this is the only way to preserve the freedom to modify any of the main elements without ruining the work you have done in adjacent areas.
You can watch a video showing the whole sequence of layers from background to complete scene, hominid band and all, in YouTube:
The books that accompany this exhibition will soon be available for ordering through “Wild World Visuals”, be sure to check the site regularly:
These days I have delivered prehistoric murals for a couple of Spainsh museums, and after months of laboring on the computer, bent over my graphic tablet, I have had a chance to miss the good old days of oil painting. But there is one thing that I don´t miss from those times: the lack of freedom once the painting started on the canvas.
Making changes in composition once you have started an oil painting is a nightmare, and for that reason I always did very detailed pencil sketches, where every detail had to be defined and every composition problem solved beforehand. Nowadays I can indulge in being more informal in my sketches: I concentrate in getting the feel of the scene, but relax in the knowledge that I will be able to make minor adjustments down the road.
Those pencil sketches also had another purpose: to make the artist’s ideas visible for the scientists before going ahead with any particular concept. The dark side of this procedure is that sometimes I had to spend quite a lot of hours in a concept that was eventually rejected.
This was the case with a scene for the 1993 exhibition “Madrid Antes del Hombre” (“Madrid Before Man”). I was given a faunal list and envornmental indications for the Middle Aragonian faunas of Madrid, such as “Pasillo Verde”. The faunas included spectacular four-tusked mastodons called gomphotheres, and an early form of felid, among many other species, and I visualized a scene that brought together the bulk of the proboscideans and the smaller-scale drama of predation, all in one frame. So I developed a detailed pencil sketch along those lines.
Here is the rejected sketch for the Pasillo Verde Miocene fauna.
Unfortunately, the paleontologists in charge of the exhibition had a different idea of what we needed to show in this mural. They preferred a more panoramic view, where the transition of habitats from water margin to arid grassland could be seen in a more linear way. And the mastodons and early cat had to be left out in favor of other elements of the fauna. So I came out with a totally different scene.
Here is the final, approved sketch for the Pasillo Verde fauna, with the scale grid in place and ready to be transferred to the large canvas.
Apart from me and the paleontologist in charge, you are the first people to see the rejected concept after more than 20 years. With the digital workflow I make less of those detailed sketches today, but it was a nice thing to look again at this old drawing 2 decades later!
And here is the finished oil painting:
You can get high-quality prints of this and other of my paintings at Wild World Visuals, check the link below!
Most of the time, the African predators behave according to the biologists’ expectations. For instance, leopards haul their kills up trees in order to keep them safe from competing predators, and African wild dogs eat exclusively from their own kills and don´t bother to scavenge form other predators. After all, wild dogs are among the most efficient hunters in the African bush.
But reality has a way to challenge our assumptions, and during our safari in Botswana last year we witnessed a situation where hardly anything went according to the textbooks’ predictions.
One afternoon we found again the mother leopard whose interaction with her cub had so much endeared us. She had caught an impala ewe and the two of them had a Pantagruelian feast. But the cat was unquiet for some reason that only became evident long afterwards. She had the carcass at the foot of a tree, and at one point she climbed to rest, but to our surprise she did not carry the prey.
When darkness came we finally realized what was making her nervous: the pack of wild dogs that we had been observing for the previous days appeared out of the night and claimed the impala for themselves. With her keen senses the leopard had been aware of their presence for quite a while, long before we saw them, and that made it even more surprising that she did not haul the carcass. Was her belly already too heavy to climb with the extra weight of the impala in her jaws?
But the most surprising part of this story for us was the fact that the wild dogs would steal a kill from a leopard. The dogs appeared at the scene in an orderly manner, first an adult scout, then another, and only when they felt sure that the coast was clear did the pups arrive to the kill site.
The wild dogs consumed the carcass with impressive speed (Photo by Miguel Antón)
Many factors may have influenced the unusual outcome of this story. It is possible that the failure of the wild dog pack to secure a kill the previous day made them less selective, especially since they had a lot of young mouths to feed. May be that, being a large pack, they felt assured of their superiority. Also maybe they felt that the mother leopard would not take many risks in a battle to defend her kill when she had a vulnerable cub to take care of.
At any rate, it is clear that the real potential and flexibility of the behavior of wild predators can only be discovered with lots of hours of observation in undisturbed environments. Without that luxury, we are bound to make oversimplified theories about what the animals can do and will do in a given situation. But for the impressionable brain of the leopard cub who saw the whole thing from her branch, just out of reach of the dog’s jaws, there was an important lesson to learn for the future, as summarized in a short phrase by our safari guide: “Food on the ground, food for all”.
You can watch the story in video here:
I spend a lot of time trying to learn about the functional anatomy of the big cats, in an effort to understand how the complex machinery of muscle and bone really works. This is the only way to start deciphering the enigmas of the sabertooths, and to reconstruct these extinct animals in action. But it also leads one’s mind to focus, may be a bit too much, on the big cats as machines, and more specifically as killing machines.
Here is one of the pictures my son took of a female leopard we encountered in the Okavango. We shared some remarkable time with this animal.
But there is nothing like spending some time with the actual big cats in the wild to correct a biased perception, and to see that they are so much more than “killing machines”. And so were the sabertooths. Living, breathing, feeling, caring… and, now and then, failing miserably at what they do -just like ourselves. Such are the real cats, and we should not allow the filter of science to hide those facts from us.
Now I have uploaded a new video clip about our encounters with the Okavango leopards during the 2013 edition of the “Drawing the Big Cats” safari. Those encounters were pure wildlife magic for us.
In an upcoming clip you will see how the lives of our endearing leopard family and of the wild dog pack shown in the earlier video clip intersected in a most unexpected way…
Here is the link to watch the video:
Watch and enjoy!
The great Charles R. Knight once said that an artist who is unable to draw the modern animals properly cannot expect to depict the fossil ones. And indeed the living animals are the key to understand the extinct species in many ways -literally, more ways than meet the eye.
Watching the big cats in the wild is an experience to change your life, but if you go to the savannah armed with some knowledge of the felines’ anatomy and inner structure, that experience suddenly becomes so much more than skin deep.
In 2011 we came across this beautiful female leopard who was applying her killing bite to a huge impala ram in Samburu reserve, Kenya. But, what was happening beneath the surface of the animals’ skins? What complex machinery was at work to make this duel even possible? and, even more in the line of this blog, what does it all tell us about how the sabertooths would have dealt with their own prey?
The many dissections and even CT scans of intact big cats which we had done back in Spain gave me a fair idea of the position and shape of bone and muscle structures that supported the external shapes visible to us. The huge cross-section of the temporalis and masseter muscles, which give the leopard’s head so much of its shape, are not only related to the strenght of this deadly bite, but with its duration. That was in fact one of the most striking aspects of that dramatic episode: the many minutes that the cat spent, motionless as a statue, not releasing for a second the iron grip on the impala’s muzzle. And that is a feat that the sabertooths, with all their impressive weaponry, could not equal.
Here is one of our CT scans of a leopard head, showing simultaneously the bone and the outline of the soft tissue. Such imagery is useful both for understanding what goes on inside living animals, and to reconstruct the fossil species
Back home in Madrid, I set to work with 3D animator Juan Pérez-Fajardo to recreate the leopard’s “kiss of death” in 3D in order to reveal the inner workings of the animals’ functional anatomy, and then to compare it with the same structures in the sabertooths.
This other frame from the film shows the masses of the masticatory muscles on top of the bones, helping to explain how the anatomy of the felines allows them to perform their specific type of killing bite.
Afterwards we created animations that compare the structure of the leopard with that of the sabertooths and show how the latter would have dealt with their own prey.
But, just as an image is worth a thousand words, a film can efficiently show things that it would take many pages of text to explain. So, I suggest that you go and download the film “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life”. It is all there.
Just follow this link for the original version:
Or follow this other one for the version with Spanish subtitles:
Last summer, the editor of Dutch paleontological magazine “Cranium” approached me to ask if I would prepare an article about my reconstruction procedures to be published about the same date as the launch of the book “Sabertooth”. I grabbed that opportunity to provide a more informal, first-hand account of my experience with my favourite extinct creatures of all time.
I wanted to make this a honest account, and this means that, besides recounting the more exciting and satisfying discoveries and efforts, I also must tell of some early failures and frustrations, which I am sure will feel familiar to many paleoartists out there. After all, this is a speciality where there is no such thing as a full formal training, and each of us has to somehow “re-invent the wheel” as we develop our abilities and fill our tool box -one tool at a time.
If you want to read the whole thing, you can follow this link for the PDF:
You can visit the magazine’s web page here:
The new exhibit “The Cradle of Humankind” comes with 2 companion books. One of them, titled like the exhibit, is a bilingual, 2-volume set with contributions from some of the greatest names in paleoanthropology from Emiliano Aguirre to Donald Johanson. The other is a thinner book entitled “Ventanas al pasado” (“Windows into the Past”), with my own texts explaining the process of creation of the illustrations I made for the exhibit. This is the first time I publish my preliminary sketches -and plenty of them -providing a close look at how paleart is made.
For now the only way to get these volumes is to purchase them at the gift shop at the Museo Arqueológico Regional de Madrid in Alcalá de Henares. But stay tuned for information about other ways to order your copies.
La nueva exposición “La Cuna de la Humanidad” viene con 2 publicaciones exclusivas. Una de ellas es un conjunto de dos volúmenes bilingües, lleva el mismo título que la exposición y contiene contribuciones de algunos de los nombres más destacados de la paleoantropología, desde Emiliano Aguirre hasta Donald Johanson. El otro es un libro más delgado titulado “Ventanas al Pasado”, con mis propios textos que explican el proceso de creación de las ilustraciones que realicé para esta exposición. Esta es la primera vez que publico una amplia colección de mis bocetos preliminares, ofreciendo una mirada íntima al modo en que se crea el paleoarte.
Por ahora la única manera de adquirir estos libors es comprarlos en la tienda de recuerdos del museo Arqueológico Regional de Madrid en Alcalá de Henares. Pero oportunamente informaremos sobre otras modalidades para encargar vuestros ejemplares.
One question I am asked often is “how long does it take you to create a life reconstruction of a sabertooth?”. Well, we can use as an example my digital painting of Megantereon drinking from a forest stream, first published in the book “Sabertooth”. For this illustration I used a digital 3D model of the animal’s skeleton and life appearance that helped me to make sure the proportions were right. Probably the single most important part of that model is the skull, so let us concentrate for now in the process leading to the creation of the skull model. The steps can be summarized as follows:
1.- Gather all the available information about existing fossil skulls of the animal, published or otherwise. This includes travelling to different museums to study the material first hand, since even the published fossils are often poorly figured (time: several years).
2.- Combine the best preserved parts of the different fossils in order to “Frankenstein” an ideal, perfect skull. Supplement the broken, crushed or missing parts of one skull with the intact portions of another, and draw the “ultimate” skull in several views (lateral, dorsal, ventral…) with loving attention to detail and measurement (time: several weeks).
3.- Scan those carefully drawn views, import them to a 3D modelling software and use them as templates to create a digital 3D model of the animal’s skull (time: several days).
Once you have gotten there, you can rotate the skull in your screen and choose the angle more suitable for your next sabertooth portrait, render the object and use that render as a template for your drawing of the living animal’s head.
There is so much more invloved in the process, but this particular part is for me one of the most important, since the head embodies so much of an animal’s “personality”.
For a more lively explanation of the whole process, I suggest that you download our film “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life” (just follow this link: https://sellfy.com/p/vFjC/ ). Getting ever closer to know the sabertooths as living animals is every bit as fascinating as it is laborious. And of cousrse, having the “blueprint” is only just the point where the real fun begins!
The last few months have been rush after rush for me, largely due to the need to complete a large collection of illustrations for the exhibition “The Cradle of Human Kind”. On monday, february 10th the exhibit finally opened to the public at the Museo Arqueológico Regional de Madrid, and now I can finally sit down (briefly), look back, and see what I can learn from the experience.
One important aspect of this assignment was the combination of different techniques. On one extreme I did several relatively small scenes that depicted facets of hominid life (and death), and which were done in graphite pencil. That is probably the artistic medium where I feel most comfortable, so I thoroughly enjoyed myself doing those scenes.
Here is a quick preliminary draft for one of the pencil drawings I did for the exhibition. It shows a scene at the site of FLK North North in Olduvai. (Look for extensive “making-of” coverage of these illustrations in the upcoming book)
On the other extreme, I did four large murals that show the hominids, their environments and accompànying faunas. Some years ago, I would have painted such big scenes in oils. Facing a huge blank canvas and creating on it a scene from the distant past is an intense artistic experience, but now I have traded the grandeur of large scale oil painting for the convenience of the digital medium. I am not always very grateful for the change: working all day in front of the screen; trading the exercise and dynamism of steping back and forth (almost dancing) in front of a big canvas, for the finger-induced zoom-in and zoom-out of the image in the display, gives you a sense of being diminished. A long day of digital work leaves you stressed and somehow hunched.
But let us look at the bright side, I could never possibly have done 4 big landscapes like these in the time available for this project if I had painted them in oils. And also the relationship with the curators and consultants becomes so much more fluid. With an oil painting, any changes that need to get incorporated after the sketch stage have an effect little short of catastrophic. With a multilayered digital painting, reasonable modifications are so much easier to incorporate. I really love the adavantages of working in layers for these complex scenes.
To celebrate this, I have made a short video showing the main layers of one of the big illustrations I made for the exhibit, concretely the Laetoli scene.
WARNING: This is a video for those who are NOT in a hurry! I purposely decided to combine the images with one of my slowest, most intimate compositions for piano. Sorry, I have hurried enough in the previous months, so now let us just relax and watch how each layer adds subtle or not so subtle details to the painting.
Much, much more about the making of these illustrations is revealed in a book just published to accompany the exhibition. I will provide details about the book as soon as possible.
BTW, I am already hurrying to reach my next deadline. Sitting interludes are usually short in the life of a freelance illustrator…