Building a Pleistocene Pampean Panorama

When facing the challenge of creating a reconstruction of such a fantastic fauna as the ones found in the late Pleistocene of Argentina, the real difficulties are to decide what to leave out and, even more, how to arrange what you cannot leave out.
As it has happened so often in this kind of projects, the paleontologists I worked with insisted that I include at least the most iconic members of the fauna, and that included a lot of huge animals that you cannot easily accommodate under a log or in the shade of a bush. These creatures become relevant elements of the landscape on their own right so as an artist you have to brace yourself for a tightly packed composition.

The first thing I did was to try and visualize the general shape of the scene, using very fast, light pencil strokes to block the main objects. In this early version I still thought I would get away with excluding the largest Pampean animal of them all: Megatherium! But that was not to be

In the next quick sketch I let the megathere in, and instantly things got almost unmanageably crowded

One advantage of the Pampean landscape in terms of this kind of compositions is its flat, featureless lay. Vast expanses of land with unobstructed views allow the hapless artist to place a lot of gigantic animals in the frame, but careful attention must be paid to perspective. So, even in this quick sketch I trace the perspective lines to get an approximate idea of the relative sizes of the various animals according to the distance from the viewer

Once the main composition is decided, I need to do a lot of sketches of the anatomy and action of the individual animals. The pair of Macrauchenias in the foreground were an important element of the composition from the very first version, so I needed to study their anatomy carefully

Although the sabertooths are dearest to my heart, I made up my mind to leave them in a discrete middle ground in this case, but even so they are prominent and I needed to do a lot of work on their postures

Especially important is the head of the drinking sabertooth, so I used a cast of the animal’s skull as a guide to draw the head in the exact angle and posture I needed

The advantage of working digitally is that I paint the animals in separate layers, so I still can do small tweaks to the composition as I go along working on the final painting

This painting was reproduced at mural size in a Museum exhibit here in Madrid so I needed to give it a lot of detail. In the end I suppose it took me about as long as it would have taken to do one of my large oil paintings but I enjoyed more freedom for changing my mind on smaller aspects of the work… and I got more back pain form hunching in front of the computer for so many hours. Sometimes I do miss the easel!

But the one thing that left me frustrated in this project was to double-check the plant list from the fossil sites and find out that I needed to leave the palm trees out. Damn, I love palm trees!


A deeper look at the cheetah

The process of reconstructing extinct animals is like a dissection in reverse, where one adds soft tissue layer by layer on top of the animal’s skeleton. But in order to be prepared to work in such a way, it is necessary to get familiar with the inverse process, that is, proper dissection of extant animals. I have taken part in many dissections of big cats in collaboration with the University of Valladolid and the Paleobiology department of the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales. Those dissections have allowed me to acquire first-hand knowledge of the feline anatomy, and to understand in more depth the differences between the various species of big cats.
One good example is the cheetah. We know this animal as “the feline greyhound”, and its lean appearance is obviously related to the considerable length of its limb bones relative to its body size, but is that all?

This drawing of the cheetah skeleton shows the gracile proportions and elongated limbs of the fleetest living cat

Well, the fact is that the cheetah’s muscles are arranged in a different manner than in other big cats. In the limbs, the bulk of the muscle mass is concentrated in the proximal segments (that is, those closest to the animal´s trunk), while the distal parts (those farthest from the trunk) hardly retain any muscle mass at all, and it is mostly tendons, not muscle fibers, that reach those segments.

The musculature of the cheetah is that of a true runner, with limb muscle masses concentrating near the animal´s trunk and little more than tendons reaching the paws

The external appearance of the cheetah betrays its lean proportions, but many details are obscured by the arrangement of the fat tissue (little as there is…), skin, and fur

Such a particular arrangement of the muscles is reflected in the shape and position of the muscle insertion areas in the animal´s bones, something that we can track as dissection proceeds deeper inside. Sketches and photographs record all the findings made during the process, and it is this kind of observations which in turn allow us to restore the lost musculature of extinct animals using bone morphology as a guide.

This series of sketches shows the process of dissecting the cheetah´s forelimb, starting with the intact limb (top) and ending with the bare bones (bottom). Of course this is just a selection from several sketches showing different stages of the dissection

Unfortunately dissection is a destructive process and once the tissues are removed from the specimen there is no putting them back in place. But fortunately we have the option of scanning the intact specimen before dissecting it, as we did with this cheetah. CT scan imagery allows us to check time and again the relationships between soft tissue and skeleton, looking at those structures from any angle and using perspectives we couldn’t check during dissection.

Here we see a screen capture of our CT scan of the cheetah forelimb, showing the relationship between the animal’s bones and the´soft tissue outline

Observations like these pave the way for my work in the anatomical reconstruction of extinct carnivores, but it also gives me a renewed, deeper look at modern big cats. Whenever I see a wild cheetah moving around in its environment I perceive the lever system of its bones, muscles and tendons working right under the skin, and my admiration for these wonderful creatures grows even more.

You can learn much more about these processes of dissection and reconstruction in my film “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life”, available for download at Wild World Visuals online store:

The Deinothere’s Forest and the Noah’s Ark Trap

Let me share now the genesis of yet another of the oil paintings I did for the “National Geographic Book of Prehistoric Mammals”. That project left me a bittersweet taste because on one hand it allowed me to create a series of scenes I had longed to do for quite some time, but on the other hand the deadlines were so tight that I barely had the time to enjoy the process -or even to think much about what I was doing!
This painting depicts a scene from the Early Miocene of France, a time when the faunas of Europe, previously more isolated, were enriched by the arrival of immigrant species from Africa, such as the proboscideans, and from North America, such as the horses.
As happened with many of my illustrations, this idea had been on my mind for years and it had been left out from a previous project, in this case from the book “Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominins”. Like other scenes intended for that book, I planned it as a vertical composition, in order to fit the design constrains of that volume, so when I recovered the idea for ·”Prehistoric Mammals” the first thing I had to do was to change the format to horizontal.

Here is the first concept sketch for the scene, back when it was planned to be a vertical composition for “Mammoths Sabertooths and Hominids”

Once I redesigned the scene I also decided to make my life a bit simpler by excluding the primitive deer from the composition. The primitive deinotheres (Prodeinotherium), the three-toed horses (Anchitherium) and the mongooses (Leptoplesictis) together with all the greenery, were enough to keep me busy for a good while.

Here is the preliminary pencil sketch for the horizontal version of the scene

As in the other examples I have commented previously, I went for a rapid color sketch where I established the basic palette I would use in the final painting.

Here is the quick color sketch

One final step I always took before attacking a big canvas was to make a schematic outline of the final sketch and draw a grid on top, to help me transfer the composition faithfully to the bigger format. In this step I omitted one of the Anchitherium horses, in order to simplify things a bit more and also because it looked odd that the head of the poor creature was hidden by the deinotheres…

Here is the line sketch with the grid for transfer

So I finally started painting, and only then I realized that, not for the first time, I had fallen in the dreaded “Noah’s Ark Trap”. By this I mean an unconscious propensity of mine to include always two individuals of each species in a scene, no more and no less! I am not sure why that happened so often to me, but the case is I wouldn’t notice until it was too late, and the effect could be, as in this case, a bit awkward. So I decided to bring back the third horse and to delete one of the mongooses…
Good intentions but not enough time: out went the mongoose but I literally didn’t have the time to do the horse, even though, having no head, it would have been simpler to paint!
That mad race to finish such a big collection of oil paintings in record time left me so exhausted that, for better or worse, it was the start of my digital epoch. The easel still seems to look at me regretfully from the closet where it has rested for more than a decade. Only time will tell if I can take it out in a more relaxed, leisurely time. I can´t say now.

Here is the final painting as it appeared in “Prehistoric Mammals”

Color Sketches from Down Under

Here is just another example of a complex reconstruction which I had to paint in oils in record time and which required a lightning-fast color sketch to establish the palette I would use. This was also part of the “National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals” book, a project where I had little room for hesitation in terms of my compositions.

My preliminary pencil sketch defined anatomy, action and composition rather precisely, but I still needed to visualize the atmosphere

I had in mind an open environment as indicated in descriptions of the late Pleistocene of Australia where the fossils of the marsupial “lion” (Thylacoleo) and giant kangaroo (Sthenurus) were found.

This oil sketch only has some 15 cm in length and the fabric of the canvas shows quite clearly. I spent about an hour working on it and I quickly defined the warm, earthy colors of the terrain and dry vegetation and the sharp blue sky

While preparing the final painting shown here, I decided to make some changes relative to the color sketch. I included some thorny, dry bushes, and I changed the color of the sky to a more silvery hue with more sharply defined clouds.

As in other cases, the color sketch made me feel comfortable about the whole palette of the painting, and such last minute changes as I did felt more like calculated risks than blind turns.


While preparing a complex paleo-scene with several animals in their environments, I draw line sketches by the dozen, many of them too rough to show even here. But once the anatomy of the animals and the composition have been solved, the matter of color needs to be dealt with. Some times from the very beginning you have a rather definite idea of the palette you want to use, while in other occasions your concept is more defined regarding shapes than color or atmosphere.
One case where I had a concrete idea from the start was the scene with a herd of indricotheres of the genus Paraceratherium which I painted for the National Geographic Book of Prehistoric Mammals.

The preliminary pencil sketch indicates a flat terrain and massive animals walking among the dust

I wanted to play with the sober contrast between the grey animals and the orange-colored dry grass, and I wanted to use light grey dust to intermix both elements. The idea seemed clear and simple enough, but for this project I had such tight deadlines that I could hardly leave anything to improvisation. In such cases, “more is less”: a little more time invested in a preliminary color sketch is less time wasted later on in changing your mind about color schemes.

So, based on my preliminary pencil drawing I did a very rough color sketch in oils, only some 20 cm wide. As I was painting the earthy color combination I had imagined, I found it looked rather oppresive. All the colors were a bit too similar and with all that dust dominating the scene it felt clausthrophobic, as if the animals were inside a huge room rather than outdoors. So I decided to bring in the color that most directly contrasts with orange: blue. Incorporating the patch of blue sky in the right upper corner of the painting created a tension between two complementary colors and it further suggested the idea of advance, so that as the herd moves towards the right side of the scene the dust seems to be cornering the blue sky, but it hasn’t totally happened yet.

Here is the rough color sketch, painted in oils

I solved these issues in an hour or two working on my small sketch. But if I had set to paint directly on the big canvas (shown below) and found these problems along the way, the solution would have taken much more time, a luxury I could not afford in that project.

Here is the finished oil painting


Digital imaging came to stay a long time ago, and some times it can become a nightmare for artists with traditional training like myself. After many years painting digitally, pencil and paper are still my tools of choice when it comes to sketching, and the digital tablet and pen sometimes feel like ill-fitting gloves. And you know what they say about a cat in gloves…

That said, in many ways digital imaging has provided paleoartists with possibilities that seemed just dreams some years ago. For me, being able to handle an accurate 3D model of a fossil skull is incredibly convenient when it comes to make a faithful reconstruction of the head of an extinct animal.

In a recent book cover commission for Japanese publisher Gakken, I had to illustrate a gaping Smilodon facing the viewer, and it was imperative that the proportions were totally accurate. So I used a digital 3D model of the skull of Smilodon and rotated it in the screen until I got the right pose and angle, then I made a screen capture and used it as a template to anchor my drawing of the living head.

In this preliminary attempt the snout was too elevated and the animal’s muzzle was too compressed by perspective for my liking

So I went back to my 3D application and rotated the snout a few degrees down.

This new version was much closer to what I had in mind, so I proceeded to elaborate a line sketch

The line sketch was the basis for the final painting that appears in the book cover.

The painting was done digitally, and the flexibility of working in layers was a welcome advantage when it came to make minor adjustments to fit the requirements of the cover layout. Like it or not, most of us scientific artists are now plugged in to the digital world, so we should better look at the bright side of -virtual- things!

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.