Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Making of a Prehistoric Scene: Murals that Could Have Been

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.

boceto pasillo verde alternativo baja

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.

boceto pasillo verde Grid baja

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!

“Food on the Ground, Food for All” Surprising Behavior of African Predators

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?

Here we see the mother leopard as she helplessly watched the wild dogs feed on her kill (Photo by Miguel Antón)
khwai leopard B&W baja

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)

Khwai wild dogs B&W

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:

New Video: Okavango Leopards

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.

Leopardo Khwai 1 baja

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!

Anatomical “X-Ray” vision in the savannah: unveiling the big cat bite

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?

While the leopard was applying the killing bite, she hardly moved a muscle -except for her eyes and ears. Photo by Miguel Antón.
leopardo muerde impala 1 close baja

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
anuncio tac leopardo

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.

Her is a frame of “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life”, showing the bones of leopard and impala under the animal’s skins.
anuncio leopardo e impala x ray-2

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.
anuncio leopardo con musculos 1

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:

Happy viewing!