Monday, 28 April 2008

Artwork Mondays: Graphite Camouflage

Graphite is an amazing substance.

Chemically speaking, it is similar to diamond. Pencils have never been made of lead, but graphite was once known as "white lead", or plumbago which is Latin for lead ore, so that's why we have the modern confusion. There's some interesting, but not fully comprehensive stuff on good ol' Wikipedia about pencils and the magical material, graphite. Little "sheets" of it rub off and onto the paper with friction, leaving smudgeable marks. Graphite will not harm humans. Unless you do that annoying flicking the pencil between all your fingers, in which case it's game on.

The last couple of Artwork Mondays, I've been revamping an old concept of mine for a Dimtrodon Sphinx (at right), which was a detail of another drawing.

I'm using a .3mm mechanical pencil, as well as a more standard 2mm pencil for the larger areas. Both are packing HB leads; a lot of artists like softer (think B for black) or lighter (think H for hard) leads, but I like how easy it is to get a hold of HB. It's in the middle of the spectrum, and easy to shop for. The grey piece of putty-stuff is my wonderful kneadable eraser. Kneadable erasers can be shaped to erase in any nook and cranny, and leave no little eraser bits behind on the page. Brilliant. I used the same materials on the original (above), which I tinted blue using Photoshop for the sake of whimsy.

This has been a busy week for me and I did not make a lot of progress on this piece. However, I did decide to go with a slightly different reference photo than what I started with. It's always important to try different lighting, and when I took the model photos, I took two of each pose, one with the flash, and one with natural light coming from the window behind and to the right of the model. This week, I made a decision to switch to the latter.

I was reluctant at first, since this model has an excellent back, and the flash-lit photo showed that more clearly. However, being backlit can lend the piece the lighting of a full moon, or perhaps lightning which works better at making this beautiful half-human, half-dimetrodon sphinx look like a dangerous predator.

Needing a background, I started roughing in some rocks, and a scraggly tree to the left. I may try to make the sail-fin on the back partially translucent, with the silhouette of the rocky background darkening the fin near the spine.

I'm also debating with myself about whether or not this homo-synapsid will have hair; I've begun sketching a second sail on her neck and head. The sail makes her more "other" and alien, and hair makes her more beautiful and accessible for most viewers to immediately engage in. I'm currently leaning toward hair whipping in the wind.

Although the leading theories say that dimetrodon, edaphosaurus and the much-later-on spinosaurus may have had sails for thermal-regulation, I believe they must also have been there for sexual display, much like a peacock's tail. In nature, large flamboyant features with no immediately obvious use often turn out to be the result of sexual selection pressure. If this is so, what colour or pattern would be present? Since anything I choose will be speculation, there is a lot of freedom here.

In the inspiring book, The New Dinosaurs, by Dougal Dixon, artist Philip Hood depicted a creature called a Dingum, a small hopping, fuzzy creature with a spiky frill and a sail-fin on it's back. The interesting feature the artist added, was a pattern like that of a monarch butterfly on the sail-fin. As I say, there is a lot of freedom for an artist here.

Because the synapsids like Dimetrodon are more closely related to mammals than any other modern beasties, I'm leaning toward some sort of mammalian pattern to make it interesting. Perhaps an orca? Doubtful it would need that type of camouflage, since orcas, like penguins and herring gulls have evolved dark on the dorsal so animals looking down through the water at them are less likely to see them against the depths, and vice versa when looking up at their backlit ventral side. However, that type of colouration seems exciting, even if a cheetah pattern or tiger stripes are more likely. It's just that leopard print is like, so late 90's.

Orcas, baby. I'll see if I can finish this drawing in time for Artwork Monday next week.
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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.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Artwork Mondays: The Right Pose

Welcome to the second Artwork Monday here at The Flying Trilobite!

Rehabilitating an older concept can be a fun endeavour. It is rare that I do not have a new idea that I want to try out, but on the few occasions it has occurred, I find the best way to inspire myself is by flipping through old sketchbooks. One of the biggest worries I think most artists share is living long enough to get all their ideas out.

Currently, I have about 8 more new concepts waiting to see fruition, but reviving this older drawing seems really appealing. I'm curious to see how much my drawing skills have matured over the past eleven years.

After the rough sketch last week, I knew part of my focus would be to show off how my life drawing abilities have matured. The model pose I used last week didn't seem satisfying though. I wanted this Sphinx to look predatory. The dimetrodon was an ancient pelycosaur that was probably the apex predator of the Permian, living just before the worst mass extinction of all time.

The Sphinx is supposed to be an ancient creature who guards secrets, and is famous for the riddle, "what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?". An interesting and more modern riff on this riddle was in my Favourite Book of All-Time, The Stress of Her Regard, by Tim Powers. The answer had to do with the amount of atoms in carbon and silicon.

Together, the dimetrodon and sphinx appeal to me, since both are ancient creatures, and using the dimetrodon in lieu of a lion makes a good example of how re-imagining the mythological past can be enhanced by modern scientific understanding. One of the reasons I feel compelled to create at all is to use the rich visual language science affords us to look at ourselves in light of the past and of reality as we understand it to actually be.

There really is no excuse as an artist not to do research in this day and age. The internet has some generally reliable sources; libraries and bookshops are teeming with full-colour pictures; digital cameras, photocopiers and scanners abound. Sure it takes away a small but of spontaneity to do some research, but in the end, it is worth it. What you will have is a fantasy image, culled from real life, and real human bodies often move in ways your mind does not expect, especially if you've watched a lot of cartoons.

One of the best ways to do research, is to go out and photograph your own images and use those as reference. Scientific Illustrator Heather Ward, who blogs at Druantia Art has some tips.

After finding a suitable pose, I drew this image. I think it is a more dynamic pose than the one I mused with last week, and the figure turning over her shoulder will hopefully lend that predatory air, especially if the face is largely in shadow, with glittering eyes. So far, I'm not too happy with the rendition of the face, so I will likely re-work that altogether. I'm pleased with the back though, and I think the foreshortening of the arm has turned out rather well.

The next phase will be to begin joining up an appropriate dimetrodon body to this one. If you followed the Wikipedia link about dimetrodons, you'll note that there were distinct species, with markedly different sails and jaws. I won't refine this sketch any further until I see where and how the sail-fin attaches to the back of the woman above.

Thanks to everyone on the comments last week! I love the feedback.

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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.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

What do you read outside?

Spring in the city! The last few days, I've stopped in Trinity-Bellwoods Park on my way home from work, and read a chapter or three of Parenting Beyond Belief, edited by Dale McGowan.

There is something satisfying about reading outdoors in the sun. I pass through Trinity-Bellwoods usually twice a day on my 30 minute walk. I've mentioned the park before, and here are a couple of even better pics of the stunning little albino squirrel, having a snack with a friend.

Parenting Beyond Belief is an excellent book I found out about backwards, through reading the editor-author's blog, Meming of Life. Dale McGowan is entertaining and informative, and also heartfelt. He knows how to mix appealing anecdotes with research, so the literary calories are not hollow.

Here in Toronto, Chapters/Indigo/Coles/World's Biggest has it listed in their system, but I can't seem to find it. A new Book City moved in, and were happy to have it delivered to the location on my walk home. Nice! The sales consultant thought it looked pretty interesting too.

It's easy for me to pick a favourite in this book. Teaching Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder, by Dale McGowan. I like anything by McGowan in particular. Even the endnotes can be entertaining.

There are science experiments you can do with kids. A beautiful letter to his daughter by Richard Dawkins, whose writing has inspired much of my painting in the past. Essays on how to deal with concepts of death with your children (and for me - this was good stuff).

This is not a ponderous, heavy book, and is not meant to be. It is a nimble conversation-starting book, a catalysing book, a deeply interesting book. It does not matter if you are atheist, Bright, religious-but-liberal-and-a-little-lapsed; a parent of adopted or natural children, an educator, or involved in some young person's life.

Never quite understood the fuss about evolution? Chapter 8: Jaw-Dropping, Mind-Buzzing Science has the easy explanation of what Darwin discovered. Order this book, and while you're waiting for it to arrive, read The Meming of Life.

There is something a little sublime when sitting below a massive, twisty old tree, reading an excellent book while the sun is shining, buds are slow-mo bursting, kids are on bikes, dogs are lolling on their backs in the grass, and you have a bottle of blueberry-green tea.

Spring is back. What have you read outside? What do you plan to read?

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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. Squirrel photos by Glendon Mellow. I tried not to hound the little guy; this was taken from a distance. It's a squirrel, ya gotta be respectful.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Artwork Mondays: Revamping the Past

The poll is closed, and so I will be posting artwork now every Monday. (And for the couple of people who voted for bunnies, over the next few weeks, I'll have something special for you. Wink, wink!)

The artwork I post on Mondays will likely be a mix of sketches, past artwork revisited, and new works-in-progress. Time can lend new dimensions to pieces, and this is something worth discussing as well. Perhaps we can do a critique now and again, where I step aside for some initial comments from you, the viewers.

To start the artsy Mondays off, I thought I'd revamp an older drawing. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll share some updates on this piece of art. Here's the original drawing, a detail from my 1997 drawing, Lord Extinction Yawns:
I've tinted it blue here, but it's actually plain ol' graphite of the HB persuasion.

Back in 1997, I was in University studying Fine Art and was drawn more and more to the fin-de-siecle, The Symbolist period of the 1890's. To give an idea of that period to people unfamiliar with it (but by no means a thorough explanation), the Symbolists were the artists still in love with the past. While the Impressionists made great strides in optics and colour, innovating new ways to paint, the Symbolists clung to classical and Renaissance ideals. Symbolist work was often very realistic, and illustrated incidents from classical Greek and Roman mythology and Biblical stories. A general feeling was the the Symbolists were afraid of the end of their century, and of the dawning Industrialism heading into the last century of the millennium.

Their fear of the future was not what fascinated me, although I often wondered if all the "x-treme" sports in the late 1990's were tied to a similar feeling of being afraid of tomorrow. In particular all the peculiar beasts such as the Sphinx-Muse in Fernand Khnopff's brilliant The Caress fascinated me. Here were images from the old myths, newly informed by realistic illustrations of cheetahs, anemones, and New World parrots. Part-human, part-other creatures have drawn the eye since artists first started synthesizing the beasts.

Post-university, I still find a major portion of my work influenced by depicting part-humans with something earlier from Earth's biodiversity-parade. Why not the Permian? The Cambrian? How will we see ourselves anew, in the light of beasts we have no historical symbols invested into?

The woman above is a Sphinx, but not part-human, part-lion. At the time I modelled her after a dimetrodon instead of a lion. An apex predator fittingly older than the Sphinx itself.

And so I thought I'd see where I am, just over ten years' removed from that drawing. Here is a preliminary sketch of the new drawing I will produce in my spare time over the next few Artwork Mondays:

Hmm. This pose is a little too side-on, although I'm fond of the shoulder. Perhaps I'll have our Dimetrodon-Sphinx looking over her shoulder at us. Dark and predatory.

This sketch is out of my head, with a look at a photo to get the back and shoulder right. To begin, I'll use some photo reference, a model, and my trusty .3mm mechanical pencil. Trusty being a relative term; I love the .3mm, but it always jams like a reluctant hyperdrive when I need it for the delicate stuff.

I'm not sure where this piece will lead. Painting? Coloured-drawing? Love the concept, dislike the execution? Hate it and find it derivative? Please voice your opinion, throw tomatoes or inflate my ego by leaving comments. And thank you once again for those who voted in the poll.

Welcome to The Flying Trilobite's Artwork Mondays!
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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.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Darwin: The Evolution Revolution - review

(This review was originally written for The Beagle Project Blog, and the request to review the show was made by Humble Woodcutter of The Free Range Academy.)

Darwin: The Evolution Revolution at the Royal Ontario Museum

Posters of a man in black and white, a green iguana, and bright pink orchids abound in transit shelters across Toronto. Darwin: The Evolution Revolution exhibit is on at the R.O.M., my hometown’s museum that has caused so much buzz in the past year after being “crystallized”.
To introduce myself, my name is Glendon Mellow, and I am honoured and thrilled to be writing this review for The Beagle Project Blog. I am an artist in awe of science who lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and I blog at The Flying Trilobite. Pictures were not allowed in the exhibit, so I have done my best to provide.

Exhibit
By following a chronological look at Darwin’s life and achievements, the exhibit seduces and beguiles using only facts. He was an ordinary man, albeit with the foibles, interests and intelligence that made it possible for him to think deeply on the natural world, and much time is spent on this at the beginning. The exhibit pulls no punches with evolution by natural selection later in. In that matter-of-fact, writ-large-with-no-punctuation way that museums do so well, evolution as a proven fact is stated again and again. As it should be.

As a visual kind of guy, let me give you the rough sketch of what the exhibit feels like. The exhibit is below ground, under an overhang in the R.O.M.’s Staircase of Wonders; the overhang is perfectly suited, as it displays “Mammal Weaponry” with everything from antlers to a narwhal tusk. The main portion of the exhibit features darkly stained wooden glass cabinets. Small curios featuring antique magnifying glasses of interesting construction dot the exhibit, each enlarging some beetle or hummingbird or plant or fossil. The piece that most struck me with a shiver of Darwin’s presence included a small drawing of Leptura quadrifasciata in a letter to his cousin, inscribed, “the insect is more beautiful than this drawing”. (I could go on and on about an 1840 lithograph by George Scharf of a Toxodon platensis skull fossil, but I really shouldn’t.)

To me, the importance of information in a museum is paramount, and this exhibit delivers. You can catch brief titles, or spend a couple of hours looking over everything. As I have often observed at the Toronto Zoo, it is amazing how some people have opinions on displays without first reading them. At the diorama of the Galapagos seashore, which features robustly stuffed marine iguanas and a couple of green iguanas, I over heard one young man ask his girlfriend, “Those real?” to which she replied, “Yeah, but they’re like dinosaur-age iguanas”. They then moved forward to read the placards.

There are so many things I did not know: I had no idea he discovered Megatherium; was related to the Wedgewoods; or argued his Captain about the immorality of slavery and was almost left on shore because of it. I hope the curators are quite proud of how this exhibit came together; it is a treasure. Live frogs, an iguana, tortoises, orchids, venus fly-traps, fossils of Pleistocene megafauna, skeletons of bats, primates and the homology of forelimbs feed the eyes and entice the curious.

Reactions
“I wish this guy was still alive; I’d introduce him to God.”
One stomping teenage girls’ commentary notwithstanding, the people I observed seemed to be curious and enjoying themselves. There are five short movies playing and three were well-attended, the last two being grouped so close together their sound overlapped. After hearing palaeontologist and trilobite-rockstar Richard Fortey say something to the effect of biodiversity being “…all the spiritual present in the world I need,” I overheard one patron utter, “Works for me.” A nearby wall about current controversies remained well-attended.

This video featuring Fortey was on a vertical flatscreen on a pillar near the large evolution by natural selection exhibit. It was set at an average person’s height, with the commenters’ addressing the viewers on their own level. It featured Francisco Ayala, Eugenie Scott, Niles Eldridge, Georgia Dunston and Kenneth Miller. The natural selection exhibit is clear and easy to follow. Evolution has been observed in the lab amongst bacteria, which reproduce quickly. The connection of slower, larger reproducers from eohippus to the modern horse is clearly made.

A child’s perspective
On this visit, my wife and I brought our six-year old nephew, who for the sake of his anonymity I shall refer to as Obi-Wan. An easily overlooked workbook is at the entrance, (in both official languages, mais oui) urging children to become Darwin’s assistant.

The booklet was terrific, starting Obi out by investigating the two tortoises and comparing their features. Many times our nephew Obi crouched down on the floor after figuring out what the answer was that he needed to finish another section. We received a lot of curious looks and some comments from passers-by. When Obi was filling out some true or false answers and he guessed at one, my wife pointed out that he shouldn’t guess, as he did not yet have any evidence. He was incredibly excited when he found the answer, and I feel that lesson may stick.

At another point, Obi was moved to draw abruptly, and asked to borrow my sketchbook so he could draw the dwarf armadillo on display next to the glyptodont. He spent about five minutes leaning against the angled placard, and drew this brilliant armadillo, starting with its detailed toes.

A video screen found in a few areas deftly illustrated natural selection better than my bungled attempt. It features bright orange and green bugs zipping around a background of green leaves. As the bird (clicking a button), Obi clicked the obvious orange bugs out of existence –almost! Then the screen turned the shade of orange as the orange bugs! The green ones are being eaten!

The kids’ area at the end was almost an afterthought, even with their version of The Beagle.

Conclusion
The exhibit is well-displayed and rigorous in its main points; Darwin was a normal, decent person; evolution by natural selection is true and makes sense; and though controversy remains, the natural world is deserving of the wonder Charles Darwin gave it. I highly recommend it, and hope it is indicative of the pursuit of displaying scientific truths about the natural world that we should expect from institutions such as the Royal Ontario Museum.

When I asked my nephew what he thought the skeleton of the chimpanzee hanging from the tree was, he studied it and asked, “a person?”

“Yeah, close!” I replied.

Darwin: The Evolution Revolution is on at the Royal Ontario Museum until August 4 2008.

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.

Review over at The Beagle Project Blog

After being asked by the Humble Woodcutter of The Free Range Academy, I've written a review of Darwin: The Evolution Revolution on now at the Royal Ontario Museum for The Beagle Project Blog. And being me, there are some sketches. (Except for the iguana one which will never see the light of day.)

Grab some popcorn and check it out.

While you're over there, make sure to check out this worthy and noble endeavour, and think about a donation as well.

If the high seas make you queasy, I'll post the review here at The Flying Trilobite later today.

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.
Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 Glendon Mellow. All rights reserved. See Creative Commons Licence above in the sidebar for details.