Monthly Archives: August 2017

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!