From Sketch to Painting: Simplifying

While preparing the illustrations for the “National Geographic Book of Prehistoric Mammals” with Alan Turner we agreed that we needed a double page spread image showing the sabertooth cat Smilodon populator in pursuit of its prey.

The core image was a couple of sabertooths leaping from behind a fallen tree on an unsuspecting Macrauchenia.

From that central image I ellaborated on the concept of a mixed herd of grazers including several macrauchenias an some South American horses. I played with the impression of a diversity of animals exploding in different directions as their peaceful grazing was interrupted by the predators.

But looking at the sketch I felt I had somehow overdone it, and I decided more simplicity was needed.
So, off went the horses (although one of them “mutated” into a Macrauchenia…), and the remaining elements got spread out a bit to fill the double-page spread format. Now the animals had more room to breath and the whole thing was more relaxing to look at. This third sketch went to the canvas with hardly any modification.

Looking at the final painting and the sketches all these years after, I get the impression that the more “crowded” alternative could have worked as well after all, if only I had had more time… but the practical fact was that to paint that version in oils would have been too time-consuming given the tight deadlines for the whole book project!


Sometimes you cannot separate too clearly the creative needs from the more mundane circumstances of your work, but often, in spite of the frustrations, the results improve thanks to those limitations… often, but not always, and not neccessarily!

Ultra-sketches, part II

In my previous post I introduced the concept of “ultra-sketch” and I recalled how, several years ago, I had to do one such hyper-detailed pencil version of my reconstruction of the Koobi Fora environment for the Altamira museum.
Now here is another piece I did for the same project: an Ice Age landscape in the Cantabrian region with some tipical late Pleistocene species such as woolly mammoth, woolly rhino, reindeer, horse and cave lion, all abundantly depicted in the Cave Art of northern Spain and France.
Once again the painting was so complex that I was in serious danger of not finishing it in time for the exhibition opening, so I was extra careful to make the preliminary sketch as clean and detailed as possible so it could take the place of the finished painting -for some time.
This was a tricky scene to draw because snow is not the most pencil-friendly material, in fact it is mostly defined by the way other elements, such as vegetation or the animals, interact with it and each item has to be painstakingly outlined against the white.

In the finished oil painting I changed the disposition of a few snow patches and shrubs, but otherwise I respected the sketch almost exactly, not least to avoid contradictions with a version that Museum viewers might already become familiar with!


From Sketch to painting: “Ultra-sketches”

Back in the days when I used to do all my prehistoric scenes in oils, it was of the essence that my sketches were quite precise and detailed, because once you start painting with the brush on the canvas, there is little room for improvisation. Of course you can change your mind and hide the old dry paint under fresh layers of oils but the process is time-consuming to say the least -for me it was usually pure agony to incorporate any substantial changes to an ongoing oil painting.
Painstakingly detailed sketches were created by classic masters of paleoart, especially by Rudolph Zallinger whose scale color sketches for the Yale Peabody Museum murals were so detailed that Time magazine published them as if they were finished illustrations in the form of large, several-pages-wide folds. Many of us grew believing that they were the finished museum murals.
I have created especially accurate pencil sketches not only to define all the details -and thus pave the way for the process of painting- but also because in some occasions I didn’t expect to get there to the exhibition opening deadline, and the exhibits designers needed something to show in the meantime.
That was the case with a series of large oil paintings I did several years ago for the Altamira Museum in Northern Spain. One of them was a scene set in the early Pleistocene at Koobi Fora in Northern Kenya. My pencil sketch was more detailed than I would normally do, so it could take the place of the color version until the latter was finally completed.

Here is the detailed pencil sketch

And here is the finished oil painting of the Koobi Fora scene.

The primates and the eagles of doom

One of the most intricate illustrations I have done recently is not about extinct species (not yet at least!). It shows the diversity of primates at the Tai Forest Reserve in Ivory Coast, West Africa. There are 8 different species of monkeys in that forest and, as scientists have found after years of field research, all of them are regular prey for the most impressive raptor in the area: the African crowned eagle. There are also 3 species of strepsirhine primates there (shown in the lower left corner), but their nocturnal habits keep them off the eagle´s menu.

I created this panoramic view of Tai forest for Clark Larsen´s masterly textbook “Our Origins”.

Hominids (humans and chimpanzees) live in in Tai forest as well but they are generally not attacked by the raptors. In the distant past, however, our own hominid ancestors were indeed part of the eagles’ diet, as shown by the marks in the skull of the famous Taung child, a young individual of Australopithecus africanus described as a new species by Raymond Dart back in the 1920s. It justly became one of the most important early findings in the study of human evolution, but the fact that it had fallen prey to an eagle would not be discovered until much later. In 1995 Ron Clarke and Lee Berger suggested that the accumulation of primate bones at the site of Taung could have been the result of the raptor’s activity, and the in 2006 Berger published a study of damage to the bone which revealed the bird’s talon marks on the hapless child’s skull.

I drew this impression of the Taung child’s sad end for Alan Turner’s and my book “Evolving Eden” in 2004. A couple of years later, Berger’s study of the marks in the child’s skull would confirm the raptor’s role in its death.

From sketch to painting: lighting

Leafing through folders with old drawings I found a few rough sketches for two paintings I intended to include in “The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives” (1997). Back in those days photo references were much harder to come by and I had to relay more heavily on my clay models, which I set in the pose of the planned painting and put under a lamp to mimic the desired lighting conditions.
During the late 1980s documentary viewers around the world were awed at the athletic feats of the tigers of Ranthambore, especially the formidable male nicknamed “Genghis”, who used to charge through the shallow water in pursuit of sambar deer. It was only natural that I wished to paint a similar scene with a different cast of characters, in particular the agile, tiger-sized sabertooth Machairodus catocopis and the strange artiodactyl Procranioceras, both from the late Miocene of North America.

In my earliest sketches for this scene I showed a different prey, Syntethoceras, which looked conveniently bizarre, but then I found that it apparently did not coexist with M. catocopis in the same fossil sites.

My next sketch already showed Procranioceras in place, but I still did not explore the matter of lighting in much detail.

Then I finally took the time to model Machairodus in the desired pose and place the figurine under the lamp to see the play of light and shadow.

The final painting took me ages to finish and indeed it did not appear in “The Big Cats”. It would only be published in 2004 in “The National Geographic Book of Prehistoric Mammals”.

Another sensation for wildlife documentary lovers back in the 1980s was the revelation of the intimate life of the white wolves of Ellesmere island, then filmed and photographed for the first time. Those predators chased their prey, from hares to musk oxen, in the barren expanses of the high Arctic, and in my mind the connection was made with the lightly built Beringian sabertooths of the genus Homotherium. Paleontologist Bjorn Kurtén had hypothesized that those animals would be black to match the coat color of their main prey, the woolly mammoth, but I found at least as likely that they would be white to match the winter color of their environment, just like the arctic wolves.
So I set to paint a scene with white predator and white prey inspired in those breathtaking Ellesmere images. I wanted to show my subjects under the dramatic light of the low arctic sun, and once again I had to model my creatures in clay and light them. The horns of the Dall ram were especially complex objects and I would have been at a loss to paint them without the figurine.

In this sketch I set the creatures in the composition.

In this quick study I concentrated on showing light and shadow as discrete patches.

In this case the final painting did find its way to “The Big Cats”!.


Paris la nuit

In the late Eocene, some 50 million years ago, the area of the Paris basin was occupied by extensive tropical forests with an abundant, exotic mammalian fauna. Many species from that epoch were described by pioneering paleontologist Georges Cuvier, including Adapis, a member of the early primate family Adapidae. This small animal, weighting about 1 Kg, was an agile if relatively slow climber that sought fruits and tender leaves in the green canopy.

Here is my reconstruction of Adapis, based on cranial and postcranial fossils from the Paris basin.

But the peak of primate activity in the Eocene forests of the Paris basin probably took place during the night. When the adapids went to sleep with their bellies full of vegetable food, faster primates, members of the family Omomyidae, emerged from their resting places in search of a diversity of food, including living prey. Like modern tarsiers and galagos, they had short muzzles, huge forward-facing eyes, and long hindlimbs well adapted to leaping from branch to branch in pursuit of insects and other small creatures.

Here is my reconstruction of 3 species of nocturnal primates form the Paris basin. From left to right:
Necrolemur, Peudoloris and Microchoerus.

I prepared these reconstructions as part of a collection of illustrations for C.S. Larsen’s masterly textbook “Our Origins”, published by Norton and now in its successful fourth edition. Check it on Amazon:

Join our “Drawing the Big Cats” safari!

Spring has come and it is time to begin our preparations for this year’s edition of “Drawing the Big Cats”! It may seem like there is a lot of time left until late August, but a trip like this requires quite some planning ahead. After four editions of this amazing safari, there are countless memories of incredible encounters with the wildlife of Northern Botswana, but our 2015 trip stands as one of the most memorable, if nothing else because we could see the fishing leopard of Savuti in action! Here are some impressions from our feline encounters of that year:

If you want to learn more about this incredible trip contact Elephant Trails safaris at:

And if you want to picture yourself there, here is a summary of the itinerary to help boost your imagination:


This is an overland safari where we spend all our time in the remote wilderness of Botswana. During the game drives we will concentrate on watching the wildlife, and making photographs or videos is the priority especially during our encounters with the big cats which are usally brief and always unpredictable. However, on particular occasions we will be able to use our sketchbook and pencil for some live sketching. It will be during the lunch stop or back at camp that we will have our drawing classes and learn about the structure, shape and action of the felines and how to materialise it in our sketches. On some evenings we will also have presentations about big cat evolution, behaviour and adaptations, all of which will enrich our experience of the real animals in the wild.

Day 1.  Sedia Hotel – Maun
Arrive in Maun, the safari capital of Botswana, and overnight in the Sedia Hotel on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis. We take a scenic flight over the Oklavango Delta for a breathtaking vew of some of the wilderness that we will be visiting over the following days. For bird enthusiasts there is a chance to watch some of the most colourful local bird species up close at the hotel’s garden bird feeders.

Day 2 & 3. Xakanaxa – Moremi Game Reserve
We depart Maun and travel the 5-6 hour journey into the Moremi Game Reserve which is situated in the Okavango Delta. Here we will camp in a private campsite in the heart of the waterways of the Okavango Delta.
Day 2 takes us on a boat ride on the main channels and lagoon systems of the northern reaches of the Okavango Delta. There is a great variety of birdlife along these channels, and mammals such as the elusive otter and majestic lechwe may be seen. If we are lucky we may even see an elephant cooling off in the clear waters or catch a glimpse of the shy sitatunga.
We usually spend most of the day out so we will pack a picnic lunch to be enjoyed in a shady spot in this picturesque part of Moremi. In the evening we return to camp for warm shower and a hearty meal while listening to the sounds of the African bush at night. LDBB
Days’ 4 & 5. Khwai – Moremi Game Reserve
After enjoying our early morning breakfast and clearing our tents we start our journey to the Eastern most extremity of the Okavango Delta.
The Khwai area is rich in habitat and wildlife. The animals are attracted to the narrow ribbon of water that is the Khwai River and this provides for some spectacular wildlife viewing. This is an area where lion and leopard may be seen. There is a healthy population of plains game, including kudu, impala, giraffe and zebra.
Here we will spend our days doing game drives and also have a chance to relax and catch up with our diaries during the siesta time of the afternoon on day 5. LDBB
Days’  6 & 7. Savuti – Chobe National Park 
Today we have a 6 – 7 hour journey to Savuti- we will be travelling through wilderness area for the whole journey. This is a day that puts into perspective the sheer size of this wilderness area.
Savuti lies in an ancient lake bed that is punctuated with small rocky hills (kopjes), some of which hold ancient San rock paintings. Here we explore the Savuti marsh and river bed for the abundant wildlife of this timeless place, including its famous elephant and lion population. Wild dog are regularly seen as well as a large variety of other mammals.
Savuti is a favoured area of wildlife- photographers as well as film-makers and many well known wildlife documentaries have been filmed here.
Days  8 & 9. Chobe River Front – Chobe National Park 
Today’s journey takes us out of the ancient lake bed and Kalahari basin , through the teak forests that make up the north eastern part of Botswana.
For a long part of the journey we will follow in the footsteps of famous missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone. We pass through some villages that are recorded by him in his books about his travels. The Chobe river floodplain is undoubtedly one of the greatest wildlife areas on the continent and one is sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of animals. Here we divide our time between game drives along the river and in the forest and a boat cruise on the Chobe River which is one of the highlights of the trip. We will also have some time to do some curio shopping in the village of Kasane.

Day 10.  Victoria Falls
Today we leave our camp for the last time as we are transferred to Victoria Falls.
Here we will overnight in a comfortable hotel.
We will have time to spend a few hours at the world famous “Smoke that Thunders” or in the local Batonka language “Mosi Oa Tunya”.(The entry fee is the responsibility of guest) It is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world .
There are also optional activities including white water rafting, helicopter flights or even bungee jumping. The restaurant dinner that evening is the responsibility of the guest.

Deinotheres for lunch? A sabertooth’s tough-skinned diet

The early Pleistocene of Africa was a time when modern species of large mammals coexisted with others that are no longer with us, creating an exciting mosaic of animal diversity. Sabertooth cats like Homotherium were still at large, but many of the animals they preyed upon were of modern type, from horses to antelopes. But now and then they would come across an elephant-like creature that had long become extinct in Europe and Asia: Deinotherium.
Deinotheres are classified, like elephants, in the order proboscidea, but they belonged in a family of their own, the Deinotheriidae, which probably diverged from the lineage of elephants very early on.
Deinotheres had elephant-like body proportions but their tusks emerged from the mandible rather than from the maxilla, and they curved downwards.
If deinotheres had tight societies like those of modern elephants, it would be very hard for predators to catch a young individual -hard, but not impossible. Even lions manage to snatch a young elephant every now and then in spite of the adults’ almost constant vigilance.

Here is a detail of a scene showing adult homotheres bringing down a young Deinotherium bozasi somewhere in Eastern Africa

But once the elephantine prey was down, the advantage of the sabertooths over the lions would become evident. With their long, flattened and coarsely serrated upper canines homotheres would be able to pierce their prey’s though skin and even reach the blood vessels underneath. That would be good for the predators, who saved a lot of time, effort and risk, and merciful for the deinothere, who would die from massive blood loss in a couple of minutes. Lions hunting elephants, on the other hand, can take ages to finally kill their prey, who in some occasions is virtually and slowly eaten alive. Bloody as the sabertooth kill was, it would be, in a way, much cleaner than that of its modern relatives, at least when it came to thick-skinned prey.

Spying on the big cats: an ancestral occupation

Prey animals are often quite interested in their predators. If you have spent time in the African wilderness you may have seen how the antelopes seem to shadow a leopard that ventures out from cover. The herbivores apparently consider that the most dangerous predator is the one that you can’t see, so they always try to keep the big cats in sight.
For our own ancestors, curiosity about the predators was a more complex thing. The very earliest hominins were almost exclusively vegetarian so they fit the role of potential prey very well. Fascination for the big cats equaled fascination with danger, a danger you need to know in order to better avoid it.
But, just as modern chimpanzees now and then include some monkey in their diet, australopithecines were likely to have more than a passing interest in meat, and from that point on, the felids became even more interesting, as examples of an extremely efficient fellow predator.

Somewhere in a humid forest in Southern Africa, a hominid of the species Australopithecus africanus spies on a melanic specimen of the “false sabertooth” Dinofelis barlowi, feasting on its kudu kill

Then another big change happened in our hominin ancestors’ behavior. Not content with an ocassional taste of meat, they became regular scavengers, a development inseparable from their ability to shape the kind of stone tools that allowed them to deflesh and break the bones of animals. From that point on, sabertooth cats and other big predators became potential providers of fresh carcasses, and hominins needed to become ever more acquainted with the details of their behavior, not only in order to predict when and where to look for their kills, but also to avoid becoming new kills themselves during the process of stealing.

Perhaps it is not surprising that when modern humans developed the ability to create art, the first subject they turned their attention to were the big cats. Learning about the felines was a way to know nature (and human nature) in more depth. To this day, drawing the big cats is an unsurpassed way to grasp the secrets of what it means to be alive in this world. I for one never tire of it, and it is good to know that my passion has such a long pedigree. If I am a freak, at least I am in good company!

Reconstructing a monster bear

Several years ago I was approached by the BBC and asked to produce an accurate reconstruction of the giant short-faced bear, Arctodus simus, to be used by a team of 3D artists in order to create life-like animations of the animal. I had drawn Arctodus before but this project required a more in-depth approach, so I set to review all the available information about the anatomy and body proportions of this amazing ursid.
I consulted with paleontologist Paul Mattheus from the university of Alaska in Fairbanks who sent me his Phd thesis along with a wealth of data about the giant bear. With all those figures and measurements I put together a detailed reconstruction of the beast’s skeleton, based mostly on the nearly complete specimen from Fulton County in Indiana, but complemented with bits from other findings. One especially nice skull from Alaska allowed me a detailed restoration of the animal´s head.

In this collage you can see my drawings for the reconstruction of Arctodus simus, from a working sketch of the skeleton to a restoration of the animal’s musculature and soft-tissue outline and a detailed rendering of the head

The creature that emerged from those drawings was quite impressive. With especially long limb bones, it attained a shoulder height of 1.75 meters -while standing on all fours the animal’s eyes would be level to yours! The reconstructed head had a short face indeed, but on top of that the head looked relatively small for the animal’s massive body. Seen from the front, Arctodus also looked tall, narrow and small-headed relative to a modern brown bear.
The next step was to set the animal in motion. The relatively long limbs of Arctodus led some paleontologists to infer that it would be a good sprinter, a very active predator catching speedy prey on the run. But Mattheus’ analysis of the giant bear’s anatomy led him to a different conclusion: Arctodus would move around at moderate speeds with an efficient pace, with more endurance than speed, which in his view was an adaptation for covering huge distances in search of carrion that it would then appropriate using its huge bulk to expel other predators. In other words, the giant short-faced bear would have been a kleptoparasite. Even its great stature when standing on its hind legs would allow it to scan the horizon for any sign of a recent kill.

This second batch of sketches shows the pacing walk of Arctodus and the bipedal posture it would adopt now and then to scan its surroundings. Finally there is a full-color rendering of the living animal

Was that the real ecological niche of Arctodus? Well, if the dentition of an animal is our main guide to inferring its diet, then Arctodus was not a specialized scavenger, for one thing it didn´t nearly have the refined adaptations of a hyena for cracking bones. The teeth of Arctodus were, in spite of differences in detail, bear teeth, and that means a broad-spectrum diet. It could certainly steal kills from most predators around it, but it could also consume vegetable matter and kill its own prey now and then. Its wide distribution in North America indicates a considerable habitat tolerance, and probably a high degree of adaptability, but not enough to survive the wholesale extinction of large mammals at the end of the Pleistocene. As a result, now we need to resort to paleobiological reconstruction if we want to have a reasonable idea of what it looked like and how it behaved. Sad, but better than nothing!