Monthly Archives: March 2018

Doomed predators: conveying the drama of carnivore entrapment in Batallones 3

Yet another of the illustrations I did for the great Batallones exhibition intended to depict an entrapment event at one of the carnivore traps, concretely Batallones 3. Some distinctive features of Batallones 3 are the large number of fossils of the larger sabertooth Machairodus aphanistus, which is the single most abundant species at the site; the presence of the bear Indarctos arctoides (absent in Batallones 1); and the abundance of giant tortoises of the species Titanochelon bolivari.

I planned a simple scene which showed these 3 main elements within the cavity, and I needed to gather all those big animals in a relatively small, closed space while still maintaining a sense of depth. One subtle aspect to consider was the angle of view. Put in other words, if I were a time-traveler and I could enter the cavity and take a picture of the scene, what lens should I choose?

In my first rough pencil sketch I chose an imaginary wide-angle lens, meaning that I got very close to the dead tortoise and sabertooth in the foreground and the bear in the background appeared to be farther away and thus looked smaller. This option created greater depth but it could make the cavity look too spacious

In a second pencil sketch I chose an imaginary 50mm lens or even a moderate telephoto. If I had been at the scene, this means I would have to step back from the smelly tortoise carcass and the anguished sabertooth (maybe hitting my head with the low roof of the cavity) in order to fit everything in the frame. The bear would look proportionally larger, and the cavity smaller

I choose the latter option and went ahead to block some of the shades with a sort of digital watercolour

When I tackled the final digital painting and the scene became more solid, once again I got the impression that the the viewer and animals were crowded in a too small room, so I corrected the view until I got something in between the first two options

In order to give a little more depth to the scene I used some rays of light coming from the roof opening to suggest layers of atmosphere. Those effects, together with the somewhat “heroic” pose of the sabertooth give the scene and adventure feel, something like the cover of a comic book. But still the real scene would have been oppressing, so I devoted quite some time to dwell on the effect of the mud splatters on the cat’s fur or the flies buzzing around the rotting tortoise, all reminders of the down-to-earth drama that led to the eventual preservation of the fossils which we finally find in the site.

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Sabertooth vs Bear-dog and Composition vs. Design

The last illustration I did for the Batallones exhibition correspons to a concept that had been on my mind for many months: a conflict between the two most fearsome predators from the site, the sabertooth Machairodus and the amphicyonid Magericyon. Only after the “warming up” of all the work in the rest of the pieces did I feel I was ready to tackle this one, and still it proved to be a challenge, not only for the composition itself but because of format limitations.

The image was intended to serve as cover art for the exhibition’s companion book, which meant a vertical format, but it would also serve other secondary purposes, so I had to extend the scene to the sides to allow it to function as a horizontal composition. Still, all the vital elements had to be grouped in the center so that the book cover would not look cropped up.

In my first pencil sketch I tried to fit the elements of the drama in the center. This is essentially NOT the way I use to compose. I like to place important elements on the sides of the frame so they will “pull” and create a tension that resolves somewhere in between (although never dead-center). I was beginning to solve the parts that would fit in the cover frame, but the whole composition felt lame.

In the second sketch I incorporated a third gomphothere approaching from the right. Depending on the amount of cropping, this animal might not even appear on the cover but I needed to expand a little from the center. I also incorporated some distant woods that put some welcome mass on the sides of the frame. Still, I felt the thing was lacking cohesion, with the elements in the center not having enough pull to keep the composition together.

In the third sketch I incorporated some trees that allowed me to organize the three-dimensional space of the scene. I also re-arranged the approaching gomphotheres so as to leave some breathing space in the vertical right above the dead beast. At this stage I decided to start with the digital painting.

In the early stages of the painting I felt like I was getting a grip on the composition but then we had a production meeting, and the design people showed me a preliminary placing for the titles. It was clear that the trees would provide too intense a background for some of the lettering.

In the next stage of the painting I had already deleted the nearby trees. The only elements I could use to organice space (besides the animals themselves) were the distant vegetation, the clouds, and the patches of shadow. Also I had added some more painting on the top and bottom to leave room for more titles. But then I heard from the desgin people again: they would be using the piece for a big canvas banner hanging outside the museum building, and it needed to be very wide, so I had to add even more painting on the sides.


In the final version the animals look rather crowded in the center of the wide-angle landscape…

…but seeing the huge banner on the museum wall, choke-full of titles and institution logos, I admit there was no way around the need to zoom-out (although it took me quite a few hours of painting extra grass and bushes!)

The book cover, for which the whole thing was done to start with, still manages to encompass all the action within the frame.

For me, this is an example of an assignment that required sacrificing “pure” composition values in favor of a more “applied” approach. Demanding as these exercises can be, they are good for keeping us alert and humble as artists!