Monthly Archives: February 2018

Machairodus pair: the intricacies behind a simple composition

One of the subjects I needed to depict for the Batallones exhibition was the sexual dimorphism in the Miocene sabertooth Machairodus aphanistus. In this species the males were considerably larger than the females, and the best way to reflect that fact was a simple illustration showing the relative sizes.

To illustrate the size dimorphism in Machairodus I just scaled up the same drawing to fit with the sizes of a very large (presumably male) and a very small (presumably female) adult individuals from Batallones 1 based on the measurements of their long bones (in this case the humerus)

But what would it be like to see a Machairodus couple in their environment? Would we see a striking difference as with modern lions or something more discreet as in leopards? In terms of its external appearance the lion is clearly the most dimorphic among living cat species, but surprisingly, in terms of body size the leopard is even more dimorphic. And yet, if you see an adult leopard out in the African bush, you may have a hard time trying to sex it unless the cat obligingly raises its tail. Some older female leopards can be so stocky and muscular that they would pass for a male, but then older male leopards often have very thick necks with a dewlap of loose skin hanging from their throats which make it easier to recognize them. Among tigers, the males not only are larger but they usually have a thick growth of long hair on the sides of their heads, a feature that is mirrored to some degree in other cat species.

What then about Machairodus? We have no evidence to infer a dramatic external feature like the lion male, not only because the lion is the outstanding exception among all living cats but because it is likely that the evolution of its mane has at least something to do with its similarly exceptional social structure. So for Machairodus I have inferred a similar coat for both sexes, although I have given a somewhat longer “beard” to the male. Also I have depicted the male yawning in order to show its large canines. After all, as in other cats, not only the male is larger than the female but it also has relatively larger canine teeth, and displaying them would be an important part of its body language.

For this illustration I decided to do a very simple composition with the two animals resting on the ground, and I quickly defined it with a rough pencil sketch

In a second pencil sketch I went into a little more detail, especially in the head of the male whose facial expression is more complex to portray

For the final version I used my computer 3D model of the skull of Machairodus, rendering it in the same views as the sketched heads so that I could check the proportions

Like other sabertooth cats, Machairodus had a somewhat longer and narrower skull than a modern cat of similar size. This difference would be partly masked in life by the thickness of soft tissue around the skull, but still it would be noticed, at least subtly.

In the final composition, the counterpoint to the shapes of the cats is provided by the fallen tree just behind the animals, but at one point I felt I needed one more, nearer plane in the picture. As an experiment I quickly added another fallen branch in the foreground, but I was not quite convinced by the effect

Finally I decided to delete the foregorund branch and leave the original, cleaner compostion

Was this the best option? Well, as in many other cases, I wouldn´t say for sure. I simply followed my instinct while trying to make choices within the limited time frame of this assignment. I had a large series of complex illustrations to do and a tight deadline, which, looking back, sometimes is a good thing. When you are a perfectionist of sorts, agonizing endlessly about your composition choices is a very real danger, so that limited time can be, ironically, the lesser of two evils!


Predators, Dreams, and Extinctions

I remember well the first excavations at the fossil site of Batallones-1, over a quarter of a century ago. After some teeth of the saber-tooth cat Promegantereon appeared at the site it seemed likely that, for the first time ever, a complete skull of the mysterious animal could be found. Back then, that possibility excited me so much that one night I even dreamed that we had discovered such a fossil and that I held the skull admiringly in my hands, as we drove to take it to the Madrid museum…

Reality fulfilled my dream and surpassed it by far. Today, we have so many complete skulls of Promegantereon from Batallones that they won’t fit on a large laboratory table. The sample of fossils from this site complex not only has provided complete skeletons of species that previously were known only from a few scraps, but it has yielded the remains of several species completely new to science. Dozens of academic papers and several Phd dissertations derived from the study of the sites have largely rewritten the history of the evolution of carnivorans and saber-tooth cats in particular.

These days there is a large exhibition celebrating the scientific success of the Batallones excavations. Some of the most amazing fossils that you can imagine are shown together in the hall of the Museo Arqueológico Regional de Madrid, in Alcalá de Henares. I have had the privilege to create a large series of illustrations updating the way we see the animals and environments of Madrid province some 9 million years ago.

This illustration I did for the Batallones exhibition depicts the best known carnivore species from the sites, shown at the same scale. They are shown life-size in the exhibition

In a way, this exhibition is another dream come true. My favorite beasts, the saber-tooth cats, have achieved center stage together with an amazing array of fossil carnivorans and other vertebrates. I am thrilled to think that many children will be exposed to the wonders of paleontology, as I was almost half a century ago when my imagination was set aflame by seeing a reconstruction of saber-tooth cats in their world painted by master paleo-artist Rudolph Zallinger.

But fossils are only half the story here. The fascination of saber-tooths derives from their combination of the strange and the familiar. Monstrous as they may appear to some, they were, after all, big cats. So, it is the modern big cats that have, so to speak, provided the flesh with which I have dressed the dry skeletons of their extinct relatives. As a child I dreamed of studying the fossils of saber-tooths but also of watching the big cats in the wild and learning about them first-hand. Those are dreams that I have fulfilled, and I am happy that I had the choice to pursue them. The fossils were there in the museums and in the sediments, and the living predators were there out in the wild. I could have settled to just learning about them through the pages of books (and later, computer screens), but I had the chance to go out and experience the real thing. But now I am worried about the options available to the children that will visit this exhibition.

I don’t know what are the chances that children now in school will be eventually able to pursue a career in paleontology (in Spain the prospect is already grim today), but their chances of seeing large carnivores in the wild a few years from now are deteriorating fast. To think that the last generation to enjoy the privileges we had regarding the observation of wildlife may be already alive is a sad but possible perspective. To experience an environment where big predators still rule is to renew our connection with the kind of world we are evolutionarily “designed” to live in, and to lose that connection is to enter an era of madness, a time of vicarious fulfillment of frustrated needs. And yet now we face a new variety of cynicism among some scientists, who claim that there is no point in lamenting extinctions because they have been happening for many millions of years and people eventually get used to everything, so after a while lost species will no longer be missed. A philosophy that contemplates without a tremor to deprive the next generations of the experiences that have enriched our own lives is the most depressing consequence of a world view that sees human life as little more than a balance between ingestion and excretion. Such views reveal the impoverished sensibilities of those scientists -or their will to downplay losses as a way to skip the fight to prevent them.

Now as you look to the assembly of magnificent carnivorans from the Miocene of Batallones, just imagine your grandchildren facing a similar illustration, but showing the lion, leopard, wolf, lynx, polar bear… by then completely extinct in the wild. Imagine the desolation of knowing that there is nowhere in the world where lions or tigers reign as sabertooths reigned in the distant past. Today those places still exist but if one day they disappear it will be, at least in part, because of our own idleness. Just by having a clear opinion and making it heard, or through our vote, we can make a difference. But trying to convince ourselves that extinction doesn´t matter is perhaps the ultimate sign of cowardice, and thinking that future generations will not be aware enough of their loss to reproach us is the farthest thing from a consolation. We need the fossils in the museums and the living predators out in the wild. Each thing in its place!

Machairodus hunting an Hipparion: from Raw Sketches to Final Art

One of the many illustrations I prepared for the new exhibition about the Batallones fossil site shows the large sabertooth cat Machairodus aphanistus hunting a three-toed horse of the genus Hipparion.
I needed to illustrate the key moment of the killing bite, and as a result the predator and prey duo make a dramatic but not especially dynamic ensemble, with the horse being pinned to the ground by the weight of the predator. I had previously rendered this action as a pencil drawing on a white background, but this time I wanted to place the animals in their habitat, showing the kind of environment that allowed the sabertooth to creep on its prey taking advantage of cover. But how to create a dynamic environmental composition when the center of attention is at the same time violent and static? Placing the kill in the center of the frame would neutralize the composition, creating a sort of implosion where everything else becomes superfluous.

My first decision was thus to move the cat and horse, and especially their heads which would attract all attention, away from the frame’s center. This decision at the same time made the composition more dynamic and threw it out of balance so I included a second cat in the scene to put something on the empty left side. In my hypothetical story, the hunting cat would be an adult female, while this second individual would be a grown cub, of the kind that sometimes assist and sometimes ruin their mother’s kills. Such a scenario is derived from the behavior of modern big cats and it allowed me to make the presence of a second large cat compatible with the likely solitary life of these sabertooths.

In this first raw sketch I quickly outlined the masses of the three animals, and used several trees to organize the rest of the space in the frame. Looking at the draft I felt that the second cat had perhaps too much importance in this composition, how to solve this problem?

In this second pencil drawing I attempted to leave the second cat in shadow in order to center the attention on the kill, but even with such a quick sketch I noticed that there was enough intensity on the predation without further highlighting it. The second cat should retain its share of the sunlight

In this third sketch I calculated the effects of perspective more carefully and found that I could place the second cat at a distance where it would look conveniently smaller than the hunting cat. With the animals approximately placed in the composition I began to work in the digital painting

As the painting began to take shape I found that the trees were shaping the composition a bit too strongly. Drawn with a few light pencil strokes, they seemed to arrange the space conveniently, but when those lines became solid branches they almost appeared to be enveloping the animals, like the sinister “Old Man Willow” capturing the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings… So I trimmed the lower branches leaving some breathing space for the animals and creating a corridor for our eyes to look into the mid-distance. Other changes included to block the view of the distant hilltop (which resonated too much with the shapes of the animals and seemed also to compete for attention) and to replace the tree trunk in the left side foreground with a more modest shrub.

In the finished painting I added a marten-like mustelid climbing on the tree trunk on the right, an element that further dilutes the tension. All in all I tried to compensate the violence of the kill with an apparently matter-of fact distribution of the elements in the composition so it would not look overly dramatic

The random patterns of light and shadow on the ground also intend to treat the story’s “stars” almost as just two more objects placed in the landscape, like something you could see while driving along in your safari vehicle. I don’t claim that this anti-dramatic treatment is the best solution for this painting, but it is what my instincts dictated as I went along. Following your instincts is in no way an infallible recipe for success, but as an artist it is still the best compass you have for finding your way through the conflicts of a complex work!