Sunday, 24 February 2008

Getting out there

In my last post, I included the making of a new painting, called Darwin Took Steps. I had offered to share this artwork with the editors of The Eloquent Atheist, in part to reach a broader audience than The Flying Trilobite's alone.

The subject matter was intended to be a part of Darwin Day, and so I registered at the organizers' site along with the other participants. It's always fun to see your name on the same list as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

I tried to promote the piece on Facebook, changed my profile picture to one of the sketches, and made comments on the walls of a few groups, pointing the way to The Eloquent Atheist to aid in traffic there. Hopefully they'll have me back again some time.

By the end of the day on February twelfth, my Darwin painting had been re-posted on two other websites - in Spain! It was done without my direct permission, but it was done respecting the Creative Commons licence: in this case, it was cited as being a painting by me, it was not altered, and no one was profiting by it. I was and still am pretty excited!

On first site, the painting was posted by one of the DeviantArt contributors I have corresponded with, who goes by the name of Koolasuchus. In case you're not familiar with the "suchus" part, it is Latin for crocodile, and Koolasuchus often includes drawings of these in their DeviantArt gallery.

With the second site, It turns out that Koolasuchus also is a regular contributor to an aggregate site, also in Spanish, called Evolucionarios. The site looks great. Unfortunately the only other language I am fluent in is ASL, with a smattering of French from my Canadian upbringing.

So, Darwin Took Steps did what I set out for it to do; it put me out there. My thanks to all those parties who liked the piece, commented, re-posted it or checked it out! Next year is the two hundredth anniversary of Darwin's birth, so I'll have to start cooking up something grand to go alongside this year's painting.

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If you've read this far in such a self-indulgent post, allow me to tease you with another piece I am working on that should be up soon. Normally, I feel it is bad form to mention a piece of art for a contract until it is completed and approved. However, since Shelley Batts' confirmed it over at A Blog Around the Clock already, I figure it's cool.


I am almost finished a piece for Shelley Batts of Retrospectacle and Steve Higgins of Omnibrain. These two neuroscience students and ScienceBloggers have teamed up to create a new blog, to be called Of Two Minds, and launching March 1st. I will be doing one of the rotating banners again, and I'm pretty psyched.

It's a good start to 2008; two more painting contacts for others. And March 7th will be my one year blogiversary, so you know I'm cooking up a special illustration to mark the day that the flying trilobite army burst onto the scene!

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Making of "Darwin Took Steps"

For Darwin Day 2008, I decided to work on a surreal portrait of Charles Darwin, which is to be published today at the online literary 'zine, The Eloquent Atheist. There should be some writing accompanying it from one of the Darwin Day organisers, Dick Renfro. (Edit! Here's the link!) I always enjoy seeing another artist's process in creating a work, and I have found some scientists who read this blog are also interested in seeing the greasy nuts & bolts that go into a painting.

I am not a biologist, but I am something of a biology/palaeontology groupie. Darwin's work is so important not only for explaining a process of evolution by natural selection, but also for how it exploded the traditional chain of mythologies humans lived with as explanations for so long. The modern Bright movement and sites like The Eloquent Atheist seek to show how a life without religion and the supernatural can be intellectually and emotionally
fulfilling.

In my continuous struggle to improve my own madartskillz I am also trying to create works reminiscent of Symbolist and Surrealist masterpieces replete with symbols drawn from our modern scientific worldview. Why use Odin to symbolise wisdom when you can paint Darwin?

Making of Darwin Took Steps

1. Thumbnail sketches
These were just thumbnails, showing an elderly Darwin pondering what to write next. The one near the top right has a "tangled bank" of branches floating above his head. From the start I knew I wanted to depict Darwin in his later years, as it is a more generally recognised image. I discarded both of these ideas in favour of the staircase idea.

2. Beginning the drawing.


For the drawing, I drew upon a reference from National Geographic's November 2004 issue. (Cover title: "Was Darwin Wrong?". The answer inside, almost a page tall: "NO.") One of the goals for this painting was to see how quickly I could do it, and still be proud at the end. In this instance I gave up drawing freehand and used a projector to create the sketch above, which is something I rarely do. That took 20 minutes. Refining a drawing that size without the projector can take another 2 to 3 hours. Materials: 2mm pencil on vellum-finish bristol paper. (Must perform life drawing for three hours in penance for using the projector...)

3. Staircase and a false start.

The staircase is an older idea of mine I used on a piece called Disease. It was developed as a cd cover and never published. I like the image though, and thought it would be appropriate. The column in the background is supposed to suggest the path leading unexpectedly to D.N.A, beyond Darwin's scope. I checked the drawing in a mirror a lot, to see if there were any gross abnormalities that stood out. Noticed a staircase coming out of his head. During this phase, I was listening to Jakalope in my studio, which is actually a freakishly large closet off our living room.

4. Completed drawing.

This is the drawing as complete as I decided to make it for painting. I used a .3mm mechanical pencil, HB lead on vellum-finish bristol. Love that Strathmore. In total, the drawing itself took about 3.5 hours. I jettisoned the d.n.a. column idea, and left the staircase leading up and away, the edifice not yet finished. I had fun with the little 'chi' lines in the beard. After tweaking the contrast in Photoshop, I printed the drawing out onto a couple of sheets of canvas paper from my laser printer to paint on.

5. Prepping for 'speed-painting'.

I decided to work in our living room, claiming the coffee table as my territory. I use Turpenoid Natural rather than other solvents. It smells of pine and is not full of nasty toxic hydrocarbons like most odourless solvents. The pliers are to get my oil tubes open. (Seriously, are all tubes made by people who've never had to open them more than twice? The caps are all different by brand, but they all get stuck.) I wanted this piece to have an older, sepia-feel to it, so linseed oil rather than a paler poppy or walnut was just fine. I am armed with Bavarian Dutch Chocolate coffee in my Jack Skellington mug.

My palette consisted of Naples Yellow (which I am addicted to), Quinacradone Orange, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Monochrome Tint Warm, Burnt Sienna (which I hate), Raw Umber, Payne's Grey, Zinc+Titanium White and Lamp Black. A lot of people swear you shouldn't use white or black (and you should mix your own from blue and brown), and I say, stop living in the Impressionist Era! It's so over! Lamp black is warm and deep, like pvc goth-gear in a tube.

I set the timer to stop me every hour. My aim was to finish the painting in 3 hours.

6. Results after 1 hour.


Usually I start with the eyes. I worked out the face, mainly with a cad-yellow underlayer. Monochrome tint and white for highlights. I was listening to Darude, The Chemical Brothers, and a Nine Inch Nails remix album. The faster the beats, the fresher my brush strokes. This is deep in the Ugly Phase , where I just hate how it looks. No time to fret; hour two!

7. Results after 2 hours.

Started using a phylogenetic tree in the background, painting with quinacradone orange underneath, and iridescent gold oil paint on top. Renaissance masters usually painted a red basecoat under gold leafing to add luster. I am using some micron brushes my wife put in my stocking at Christmas. They are really tiny synthetic brushes, and the filbert is now my bf4evr. Some artists say oils must be painted with rough hog's bristle brushes, and then I just yell, stop living in the Impressionist Era! Old master used soft brushes for detail, and so do I.
It's not done. I need to move toward hour 3.

8. Results after 3 hours, colour corrected.
The final piece, colour-corrected in Photoshop.

I fretted about how dark it looked on some monitors, and after submitting the image to editor Michael W. Jones at The Eloquent Atheist, emailed a second colour-corrected version, seen above.

Complete! ( edit: Here is the full-colour-corrected image and how it appears in my online reproduction store, a portion of the profits going in support of The Beagle Project.)


Assigning a number to any amount of steps would be arbitrary, but I chose 5 for a reason. Four for the support of evolution by natural selection (Darwin drew upon examples of 1. biogeography, 2. morphology, 3. embryology, and 4. palaeontology), and the fifth step for natural selection itself, or the elevation of reason over dogma, as the viewer likes. The steps of learning never end.

Please check this out on The Eloquent Atheist today, and leave comments! Constructive feedback is always welcome. I will edit this post later today to provide the link once it is up. Merry Darwin Day!
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All original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details. Please visit my blog, gallery and reproduction store.

Merry Darwin Day!

Sometime today my Darwin portrait, Darwin Took Steps, will be posted on The Eloquent Atheist! I will update this post and add the painting to my deviantArt gallery later on. I'm pretty excited to have another piece featured in The Eloquent Atheist.

If you haven't stopped in to that online 'zine, you really should. Make sure it's during a time of day you have to spend just idly reading. Great poems, essays and prose to be found. And the occasional piece of art from freethinkers.

Also today, sometime before noon eastern standard, I will post a "making of" post of Darwin Took Steps. Why not see the evolution of a painting today as well? Okay, okay, it's really development, not evolution. I suppose it's good ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny when it comes to art. I'd start out in crayon, move my way through finger paint, awkward comic book figures with too many muscles, out of proportion life drawings, then to sunken oil paintings, and finally Darwin would just pop out.

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Other Darwin Day happenings:

-Go to the offical organiser's site, Darwin Day!

-A nice round-up (kid friendly, too!) at The Free Range Academy!

-Can't miss the wild and woolly folks at The Beagle Project!

-Pharyngula should be talking about evo-devo sometime today.

-Carl Buell's 2006 Darwin Day illustration is a classic: check it out on Olduvai George's Flickr site!

-There's always stuff going on at Richard Dawkins' site. Check out the cards!

I'm sure a lot of the science blogs in my blogroll will be involved. Please feel free to post a link to your own art/writing/Darwin Day happening on my comment thread. I'll update this with the link to The Eloquent Atheist as it comes up.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

more than scribbles in the margin?

The Flying Trilobite's 1st Blog Award!

The headmistress of The Free Range Academy has bestowed upon The Flying Trilobite's humble cephalon the E for Excellent Blog Award!

This is a pay-it-forward meme of sorts, as well as an award. In accepting it, it needs to also be granted to ten blogs chosen by the recipient. This is tough: I'm adding to my blogroll all the time.

I'd love to grant it back to The Free Range Academy if I could. If you love reading about parenting, science and the myriad experiences growing up in Ontario offers to kids, you gotta check this site out. Leslie's Blog is another vibrant community drawn to Leslie Hawes, artist & personality. However, since Leslie granted the award to The Free Range Academy, I will leave them off my list of ten. Presenting in no particular order...

I solemnly swear to grant the E for Excellent Blog Award to:

1. Fresh Brainz - For a blog about neuroscience and rationality to be so eclectic and wild and just plain bonkers, I need to grant this award to where my brain goes for a freakout.

2. Life Before Death - Reflective, sensible, insightful, witty and recently, frequent photos of the bees the author keeps.

3. Traumador the Tyrannosaur - written from the point of view of a Canadian ex-patriot living in New Zealand. Oh and he's an extra-small tyrannosaur. There needs to be a movie with videogame tie-in. And action figures.

4. Retrospectacle - I know Shelley Batts' blog is ending/spawning soon. What is it about neuroscience students that makes them so well-informed about weird things that really matter? Needs another award.

5. Sentient Developments - serious, thoughtful, and about nothing less than humanity's future, this blog is strange and vital.

6. Jesse Graham's Art - J. Graham's art is playful and tiptoes up behind you with the kind of drawings you wish you'd thought of. A talent unfettered by narrative.

7. Metamagician & the Hellfire Club - smart, concise, and the type of writing that needs no pictures. For freethinkers, science-types and Russell Blackford's groupies.

8. Olduvai George - The art of Carl Buell, no longer being updated regularly. I don't care; this blog is the gateway I rush through there to see what new stuff materializing in Carl's Flickr account. Real extinct artiodactyls make the concept of a unicorn look just lazy.

9. Zooillogix - captions so funny it actually makes me snort espresso out my nose. And it's about zoology.

10. Page 3.14 - I never know what I'm going to find here. And I really look forward to finding it. SEED magazine's editors know how to interview and uncover the things you didn't know you wanted to know.

Please enjoy the awards! Mine will sit on my mantle, next to my trilobite fossils and favourite paint brush I had dipped in gold. (It doesn't spread the paint as well as it once did, but -man alive!- it can keep it's tip pointy...)

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Retrospectacle: "making of" retrospective

Shelley Batts of Retrospectacle and Steve Higgins of Omnibrain will be closing up their blogs, and merging into one metabrainy blog. Both are neuroscience students, and are part of the ScienceBlog network.

Readers of The Flying Trilobite may recall that I was elated (frantically excited, honoured, scraping & bowing) that Shelley had asked me to design a new blog banner for her last year. It is still featured in rotation with a banner by Carl Buell, scientific illustrator par excellence.

Sometime this weekend, Steve and Shelley will be announcing the new blog title, which they threw open to their many readers in the form of a contest. I contacted Shelley when I read the news, and I may be once again contributing a banner. Here's hoping! Carl Buell has offered again as well, and Steve has some quirky banners of his own on Omnibrain.

So, since this may be the last weekend of Retrospectacle, I thought I would post here the process I went through to come up with the banner. This was already featured as a post on Shelley's blog, but I thought I would import it here, for my old & new readers. Hey, it's almost like an insight into my heavily-caffeinated brain. From September 24, 2007.

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Step 1. Thought about wing, an ear, and started with the Valkyrie type image. Thought about how cool it would be if Shelley was leading a gang with multiple-species, parrot-wing helmeted scientist-warriors.

Step 2. Drew a wing out in water-soluble pencil crayons, fudged the wing colours to bring in the red of an African Grey's tail. Worried about purist owners of African greys slamming the heresy.

Step 3. Copied a photo of Shelley from her blog, heightened the contrast, and clipped the sketch from step 2 onto it. Shelley mentioned making it dark, (my favourite) and I threw a black background on it. Also hand-drew a 2 minute version with blue around it too embarrassing to see the light of day.

Step 4. This is where I stay up late, drinking coffee, listening to fast gothy electronic music like Jakalope. Used my favorite tools, 0.3mm lead pencil on vellum-finish bristol. Used Shelley's face for the Valkyrie, since Retrospectacle is personal. I am really happy with how this drawing turned out. I like the Valkyrie-type idea. They were strong mythical female warriors in an age dominated by men. The wings also suggest Nike or Athena to me, for Victory & Wisdom. Scanned image in, printed it out onto canvas-paper so I can paint it without harming the original drawing.

Step 5. After painting on top of a couple of versions, I had trouble with the pale face and shadowing away from the ear. I decide to see what it would look like if I invert the whole thing. Showed it to good friends who will criticise me if I am on the wrong track. More coffee & fast electronic beats.

Step 6. Painted the ear & wing in oils, scanned it, tried a few concepts. This symmetrical one seemed too busy and impersonal. Played with various levels of cropping to see if the whole face was more important than the feather details.

Step 7. The final product. I picked this one since the face is up close which seems more intimate. Added effects using Photoshop to give it depth and draw the eye from the image on the left to the title on the right. Used font named 'Kartika' and put a spiral for the 'O' to reference the cochlea. Finished all the coffee in the house.


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I wish Shelley and Steve all the best on their new adventure in brainy blogging. 'Can't wait for the new title! I've got some ideas already.
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