Most of the images I’m sharing with you are digital pieces that I’ve done fairly recently. I have been at this a long time however, and I didn’t start using the computer for any visual aspect of my work until 2001. Here is the very first piece I did with Olduvai in mind back in 1995.
This is acrylic paint on gesso-primed illustration board. As happened too often in the good old days, the pencil preliminary drawing for this took as long as the painting itself. Karianne was the daughter of friends and, as it turned out, a very expressive little model. I told her the idea behind the painting I wanted to do and she was simply great. Apparently, mom and dad knew she would be and just smiled.
Taking the photos of Karianne to work from was definitely the easy part. I now turned my attention to the animal in the painting. I had decided on Megistotherium (order: Creodonta, family: Hyaenodontidae), because it had to be big and potentially very dangerous, and I also wanted a creature that I hadn’t seen painted a hundred times before so I wouldn’t be influenced by somebody else’s art. What I had seen were a couple little Gumby silhouette illustrations of the animal with no attempts at detailing. I could approach my image with no visual baggage.
I haven’t researched it recently, but at the time, Megistotherium was known from only one massive 26-inch (65 cm) skull, the largest of any creodont, and larger than any known carnivore. There were, however, dental and post-cranial remains of another creodont of almost equal size, Hyainailouros. Hyainailouros (Megistotherium, it turns out, may well be a junior synonym of this genus)* was fairly long in body and tail with relatively short, robust limbs. With this information and a number of skeletal restorations of other hyaenodont genera to look at, it only took me about 15 sketches, 25 “sized” Xerox copies of various body parts, and half a bottle of aspirin to get the proper attitude and proportions I wanted for the pose.
Looking at the piece today, except for the feet being a bit too big, I’m still happy with the structure. But there are things I’d change in the more speculative soft tissue features. Megisto/Hyainailouros’ fossilized remains have been found in early Miocene deposits in North Africa and Europe. The climate at the time appears to have been milder than today and those look like cold-weather ears to me. And I have absolutely nothing on which to base the long spiky hair down the back. It looked ‘neat’ at the time, still does I think, but today I would leave it off.
As I was about to post this evening, I asked myself how would I portray this animal today. I have a natural history library that would be the envy of most small towns, so I dug out my books, skeletal photos and drawings and found some older sketches from a few years back. Between 8pm and 11pm this evening did the sketch below.
This was done digitally on my Wacom graphics tablet. (Warning: Photoshop tool talk) I opened a blank screen in Photoshop and started as I always do, sketching very loose and rough with a thick brush (airbrush) tool in black. As soon as I had something worth keeping, I moved the “fill” bar in the layers menu to 25% opaque, making the black a very “thin” light gray. Dropping a new layer over the first, I worked again in black refining the drawing. I don’t like to worry about measuring any proportions until I have something that’s starting to look good to me. Reproportioning (very little in this case) was done on layer 3. This particular drawing is 5 layers deep. The wonderful thing about this technology is that when the drawing was done, my final measurements told me that massive skull was just a tad too massive. With the lasso tool I isolated the head, scaled it back 10%, and was able to blend it back into the rendering all in about a minute. If I’d thought of it earlier, I’d have saved all the layers. I promise to do that and show them all to you the next time I suddenly feel the need to sketch a critter.
Very briefly, creodonts were at first thought to be the ancestors of today’s meat eaters. It’s now believed that the two families in order Creodonta and the ancestors of order Carnivora evolved from the same or closely related Cretaceous insectivores shortly after the demise of the dinosaurs. There’s too much information and too many genera (for me) to go into without supporting visuals, so if you want more information today, you’ll have to go here or Google it . I promise to be visual-rich in the not-so-distant future. Until then it’s back to the drawing board, literally.
*Something strange happens when you work with people exclusively by email. The last few years I’ve seldom had to speak or hear the names of the animals I work on, I’ve only typed and read them. This being the case, I hope Megistotherium is indeed its own beast, because I know both how to pronounce the name and what it means. Hyainailouros on the other hand: I don’t know if I’d recognize the name if I heard it spoken, because I have no idea how to say it. For a guy who deals with the scientific names of prehistoric critters as much as I do, I’m awful. I’m pleading age, never having taken Latin or Greek, and having missed the whole hooked-on-phonics thingy.
The late Donald Savage, professor emeritus of paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, and just a wonderful man, once told me with a smile, “If you’re having trouble with a name, just say it with authority!” That might work for emeritus professors, but let’s just say a fumbled pronunciation doesn’t hold any weight coming from me. (Would someone out there less linguistically challenged than I am want to take a shot at Hyainailouros?)
Cultural(?) insight: As I was painting Karianne’s Pet, I was working in the front window of a little natural history/outdoors shop in the resort town of Mammoth Lakes, California. I’d ask children watching me why the little girl in the painting was upset with her pet. Girls almost universally answered with something fairly benign like “He won’t give her a ride” or “He’s laying on her doll” or my favorite, “He peed on the carpet.” Boys, especially over the age of 6 or 7 were a different story. Quite often death and destruction reigned. “He ate the cat” or “He trashed the house” or even “He tried to eat MOM!” Don’t read too much into this, it was a fairly small sample.