Sunday, June 5, 2016


Paleoart is a fascinating field, one of my favorites, where imagination is used in heavy doses along with scientific accuracy to try to reconstruct scenes of past life and landscapes. I enjoy the challenge of researching the fossil record, paleontological studies, and comparing them to living ecosystems and wildlife in order to bring ancient scenes to life, whether a century in the past or a hundred million years ago.

I painted this mural in oil on canvas years ago for Badlands National Park, working with park staff who provided me with detailed material to work from. It was a fun project. I favor working in oil paint to achieve a glow and luster of color that is still hard to match in digital media, such as Photoshop-created art. My background as a Paleontology Major at the University of California, Berkeley, helped inform how I researched the project, and my graduate work in scientific illustration at the University of California at Santa Cruz gave me many methods to choose from in working on the image. As for my oil painting technique, I am self-taught.

The scene shows a giant 14-foot long titanothere (Brontops) mother with young calf, and a herd of small oreodonts (Merycoidodon) nearby. The exhibit illustrates a river marsh habitat in a subtropical forest with patches of savanna during the Upper Eocene Epoch (Chadron Formation), about 37 million years ago. Early grasslands were just beginning to expand in this wooded world, and most herbivores were still of the low-crowned dentition, leaf-browsing type.

To get an idea of the plant communities of the time, I looked at fossil floras of the Clarno Formation and John Day Formation, comparing them to my library of notes and photographs from my travels in such places as Costa Rica (with its dry tropical forests, savannas, and palm habitats), and all over North America (such as Florida, Great Plains states, and Southwestern woodlands).

I am always amazed when I look at the finished painting and compare how much times have changed in this same spot over the millions of years, the area now being a cold-winter temperate grassland habitat historically filled with herds of grazing bison.

Here are a few of my notes to illustrate how I research a painting and reconstruct a paleontological scene.

Sketches of the fossil fauna of the Eocene-Oligocene of North America, with relative sizes.

A very rough sketch to begin to flesh out an idea of how the landscape will appear and positions of faunal elements.

My list of fossil flora and pollen from the same time period and region, to be able to pick vegetation elements.

Rough sketch of titanothere group.

Notes on geological time, formations, and ages.

Notes on the oreodonts in the scene--extinct, small, pig-like browsing herbivores.

Finer sketch of the titanothere group, finalizing the position and behavior of the extinct animals.

Reconstructed life studies of the oreodonts.

Preliminary sketch of the scene, naming tree types, other plants, and rough positions of animals.

Final detailed sketch. This will be transferred to the large canvas as an underdrawing for the oil painting.

I make small clay models of each animal in the scene, and position a lamp in the direction that the sun would be in the painting, in order to see how shadows fall over the animal's body in three-dimensions, as well as the cast shadow on the ground. Then I make a quick note-sketch of this. Here, shadows on an oreodont.

This was a fairly large and detailed mural, about 2.5 x 5 feet long on canvas, which would be shipped to the park and the image increased in size for the exhibit. It took me more than a month to complete the project.

Final mural, oil on canvas.

Detail, Merycoidodon herd.

Detail, titanothere cow and calf.