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!)
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!