Drawing a Life-size Sauropod Vertebra illustration
Apologies for the length between posts life as ever has been incredibly busy however, I am striving to create some new posts inviting you into a glimpse of my current art practice along with some exiting fossil trips and finds. Since leaving university I have come to realise how important it is to still challenge and push yourself in your practice, the illustration that I will be discussing challenged my practice through new ways of approaching specimen illustration. I will share with you the creation of this piece, I think this is probably the most difficult thing I have ever drawn… well so far anyway.
What is it?
I get this question a fair bit, this is a sauropod vertebra, it would be found late cervical or early dorsal (a later neck bone, yes a neck bone imagine having this for one bone in your neck, it must have been enormous)!!… The specimen is really large considering it is only one bone it sits almost half a meter high, this size gave me the inspiration to create a life size illustration.
The further challenge,
For some unknown reason apparently creating a life-size illustration of a giant sauropod vert isn’t enough, so I ended up creating the work in colour. I have previously created other smaller scientific style illustrations but nothing on this scale. Using artists coloured pencils was vital so that I can apply great depth and manipulate the material to create a range of tones and textures. Bone is complex at the best of times but this was another level, there were areas of incredibly detailed texture within the surface layers of the bone, alongside this I have the challenge of showing where the bone ends and the matrix (rock) is still present after preparation. This fossil was found by Jeremy Lockwood a local researcher and was prepped by Martyn Hornett a volunteer at dinosaur Isle, I have great respect for the amount of patience that this specimen will have required.
As some of you know I have various sessions throughout the week so fitting in a drawing session can sometimes be quite tricky, fortunately I found a couple of hours a few months ago to begin this process. The first steps to creating the piece are to mark things out roughly with light pencil marks, here I used a very light ochre as I knew this would be covered by later additions of pencil. By the end of day one I began to realise just how much of a challenge I was taking on. If I was simply working in graphite the process would have been a lot easier as lights are darks are much quicker to produce than colour, this is a whole new game so to speak. Although by the end of the few hours I didn’t have much to show I had already began to spend time with the object and get to know it, this understanding is so pivotal to creating a good drawing.
By the end of this drawing session I was feeling more hopeful and optimistic, I had started to create some basic shapes and some tones were beginning to build. I’m pleased with the top left edge of the bone as it curves round and meets the underside (its just a nice bit of shading). I began to see the challenge of colour as I approached top centre of the specimen, here although the bone is receding it still isn’t that dark this is where the balancing act of colour and shade started to play.
By this point I had some real understanding of the fossil and I was beginning to get to grips with the forms of the bone. This helped enormously as I could begin to show and use the understanding, developing colour and tone which often juxtaposed the real colour of the bone so therefore I continued the balance of pushing and pulling the tones to give the specimen shape.
And play it did,
Not only did I have the bone receding but as previously mentioned there was now matrix too and some of the matrix is closer that receding bone, however if I use the true tone of the matrix this appears further forward than the bone in front of it, so to fix this I had to adjust the shade to make the piece “work” as the shape receded…. Sigh
This was primarily looking at how the lights and darks balanced through the fossils form, I decided to deepen the shading of the matrix to show how the bone recedes in the space. Although the actual tone is lighter the adapted tone makes for a better drawing. There were some other minor tweaks and changes but generally it was increasing the contrast between different areas to show the overall form yet retain smaller details.
This is KEY I’ve often used directional shaming before but since I started working in paleoart the directional shading is so key to creating a drawing that works. I find that shading mainly in the direction of the bone growth and following the minute almost grain like quality is what helps gives these pieces the shape and for want of a better works life.
I think my background as a sculptor comes in to play a lot when it comes to specimen drawing, having the understanding of 3 dimensional form and the ability to translate from dimensions is very useful.
Would I do this again?
To be honest I’m not sure exactly how I would approach this a second time, I know that using simply graphite makes this process a lot more simple and the tone becomes easier to create and read. I do however think that this style of drawing has its merits and place as when compared to a standard colour photograph the drawing is simpler to read. Personally I enjoy the contrast of colour to the grayscale images we normally see in this environment.
The other thing I would like to mention is the choice of palette, I feel that often there is a huge jump in palette between grayscale graphite specimen sketches and our over the top bright colourful dinosaurs aimed at children. I feel that all of these have their place but that perhaps some more natural palettes could also become part of this artistic vocabulary. obviously I was driven here by the natural tone of the specimen, but this is also a nod to my own sculptors palette. For me I consider where these skeletons of previous beasts were found and wish to note the subdued palette of our English coastline throughout my work.
The Finished Piece
Materials used were. Dayler Rowney A2 Paper, Fabercastell polychromos pencils, and a few caran D’ache luminance pencils. With thanks to Dinosaur Isle for access to specimens and working space,
I recommend a visit to the museum if you get the chance, you can find more about it here