Sketches and changing minds: the case of Batallones
Working with digital media makes it easier for an artist to go straight for final art withouth bothering too much with preliminary sketches. After all (and compared with, say, oil painting) it is now so much simpler to make things up as you go along… But nothing equals the flexibility of the good old pencil-and-paper when it comes to quickly visualize a complex scene and turn it around in our mind.
One nice example of this was the series of sketches I made for the Batallones Miocene scene that appears in page 53 of my book “Sabertooth”. Originally created for an exhibit at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, the painting had to depict most of the relevant species of mammals found at the fossil site, and that is A LOT of creatures!
When you have to fit so many species in one single scene, it is almost impossible to include any violent action, but I could not resist to show the sabertooth Machairodus doing business!. So even in my earliest sketches I depicted a couple of the large sabertooths in the act of catching a rhino. One felid was on the hapless prey while the second one was approaching cautiously as the cats will do. Other rhinos were escaping towards the right margin of the frame.
The arrangement seemed to work, but in a later version I started to incorporate more of the species that I needed to include, and found a problem: having one cat approaching took too much space in the scene, so I had to find a way to concentrate all the action in a smaller space.
It is not only a matter of the animals occupying too much room; it is also the fact that their activity reverberates and seems to ask for breathing room around them, a luxury I could not afford in this project! So I decided to show both cats engaged with the prey, one delivering the killing bite while the other added its weight to the fight.
I will spare you the profusion of sketches that followed, suffice it to say that I decided to turn around the cats and rhinos scene so that they look away from us, which fits better with the direction the rest of the herd are escaping. By the way, I made the herd run to the left so that their action went into the frame rather than out, a device that keeps more “energy” within the composition.
Even with the flexibility of the digital media, there is no way I could have made all these changes as I worked on the final piece of art. But more importantly, changing elements around in an already ellaborated digital painting can be such a painful process that you often end up leaving things much as they were, just to spare yourself the agony of adding modifications. On the other hand, exploring different alternatives with lightning-quick pencil sketches is not only a much more practical way to shape your composition: it is so much more fun!