Layers of Ash, Layers of Digital Paint; Reconstructing Laetoli

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)
Sin título-16-baja

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…

Posted on 12/02/2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Lars Werdelin

    It looks like I may have to visit Madrid at some point to see this exhibit, since I contributed to the catalog! The murals are spectacular, of course (as always).

    • Of course you should come, you will love the exhibit! Also it has been quite a few years since we last met here in Madrid. For some reason we tend to meet half a planet away from our respective homes…

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