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Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part Ten

Here’s the lay-in of local color for the mural depicting the contemporary wildlife of San Diego. Like the prehistoric color lay-in, this one is pretty rough. I’m obviously not going for detail here. At this step I am out to establish the color scheme and tweak the design a little bit. Like the other painting, I’m working full size now: 3 ft. by 8 ft.

Here’s a detail of the left hand side:

The black bear and the jackrabbit and its tableau appear darker in the original painting.

Again, I have tried to evenly distribute the color to move the viewers’ eyes around the painting.

I can already see that I am going to have to lighten those last two sets of mountain ranges to give the viewer an even greater sense of distance.

Note that I have already varied the color temperature across the wings of the condor to give it more size and scale, as if the wingspan is so large that we can see an atmospheric difference between the closer and farther wings.

With the exception of the bobcat, tortoise, coyote and hawks, this last section of the painting will basically be a California Impressionist landscape by the time I’m done with it. Again, I can see those distant mountains need to recede more.

Here’s a slightly larger detail so you can see just how darn crude this thing is at this point:

I love painting landscapes. The landscape part of these murals just might be the most fun elements for me to paint.

My wife thinks the bobcat appears too big. She might be right (she usually is). If the dark value alone doesn’t convey how close the bobcat is to the viewer (its closeness is why it’s larger in size in relation to the other animals), I’ll reduce the bobcat in size a bit before I begin detailing it. It’s always easier to change an element in its raw, crude form. I don’t end up wasting a lot of time painting detail that I’d ultimately have to paint all over again once the scale has been changed.

Next: The Detailing Begins

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Sean Bonniwell 1940-2011

Sean Bonniwell, the prime force behind the proto-punk rock group The Music Machine has died of lung cancer at age 71.

The Music Machine had one national hit (written by Bonniwell), the blistering pop fuzz guitar classic, “Talk Talk”. They also had two regional hits here in Los Angeles, two Bonniwell-penned classics of tough, jaw-dropping power pop: “Double Yellow Line” and “The Eagle Never Hunts the Fly”.

My band saw The Music Machine at the Thousand Oaks Recreational Center in 1966. We thought they were the ultimate in cool. They didn’t wear suits but they did sport matching clothes. The incredibly tight, solidly professional group was all in black; black boots, black leather pants, black long-sleeved turtleneck shirts, black sunglasses — and (remember, this was pre-Michael Jackson) each band member wore one black glove. Now, how cool was that?!

The Music Machine’s first LP was Turn On The Music Machine. It consisted of pop covers (Neil Diamond‘s “Cherry Cherry”, The Beatles’ “Taxman”, Ma Rainey/The Animals’ “CC Rider”, ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” and the first pre-Jimi Hendrix “slow version” recording known to me of The Leaves’ “Hey Joe”) as well as brilliant Bonniwell-penned originals. Sean’s songs were heightened by his dangerous, sexually potent vocals. This was no kid singing here — this was an angry, frustrated and highly sensual man.

After their first LP Sean fired everyone in the band (WHAT TH—?!!! His talented bass player, Keith Olsen, became an enormously successful record producer, responsible for Rick Springfield‘s #1 “Jessie’s Girl”. Olsen co-produced Fleetwood Mac‘s monster LPĀ  Fleetwood Mac and produced albums by musicians as diverse as Whitesnake, The Scorpions, The Grateful Dead, Emerson Lake & Palmer, REO Speedwagon, Carlos Santana, Joe Walsh, Sammy Hagar, The Babys, Ozzy Osbourne and Mexican superstar Emmanuel).

The second LP was credited to The Bonniwell Music Machine. Bonniwell wrote all of the songs this time around — no covers. Sean then recorded a solo LP, T. S. Bonniwell, that completely confused his fans, as it had none of the hard rock elements of The Music Machine. The solo effort was a strictly light, mellow, folksy affair with vocals veering more toward Frank Sinatra than early Kinks Ray Davies or Them period Van Morrison.

After that, Sean Bonniwell faded from the music scene. I met Sean during the acting phase of his career. He had just appeared as a bad guy henchman in the feature film The Swamp Thing.

We were introduced to each other at a Rhino Records party (Rhino had just issued an LP of some classic and rare recordings by The Music Machine). After being introduced I was very eager to discuss The Music Machine with Sean, as my own garage bands had covered several of their songs.

Bonniwell did not want in any way to discuss his old music except to proclaim that he was a genius and his music was brilliant for its time and era — nothing more need be said except that he firmly disassociated himself from his own musical legacy.

I soon found out why.

He considered his “Talk Talk” era music somewhat impure and Satanic. His sole conversational focus immediately became a concerted effort to convince me to become a Born Again Christian, as he himself had become. I find few topics duller and more annoying (proselytizing of any religion; I was once trapped as a teen at a Mormon youth event), so I found a way to deftly yet promptly end our talk and meander over to another part of the Rhino party. My friend (and Rhino co-founder) Harold Bronson gave me a sly smile. That rascal knew what was going to transpire as soon as he had introduced me to Sean.

Regardless of Sean’s annoying proselytizing, the music he made under The Music Machine banner was (and is) amazing. Here are some CDs well worth tracking down (especially the first two):

The Music Machine – The Ultimate Turn On (Big Beat Records CDWIK2 271) This 2 CD set includes both the stereo and mono versions of the first Music Machine LP plus an entire disc of previously unissued recordings.

Bonniwell Music Machine – Beyond the Garage (Sundazed SC 11030) This CD contains the entire Bonniwell Music Machine LP plus loads of bonus tracks from the period.

Bonniwell Music Machine – Ignition (Sundazed SC 11038) 19 tracks that are (for the most part) previously unissued.

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Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part Nine

This part is fun. I love the physicality of it. Because of the size of the painting and its lack of detail, I stand the entire time I’m painting at this stage. Despite my eating Christmas cookies, I lost four pounds during this part of the mural process.

Using my little scale color studies as a guide, I start laying in the local color of the picture. “Local color” is the average color of an object. I am obviously not going for detail here; I am just trying to establish the color scheme of each mural on top of its value (dark and light system) painting.

This part of the process is not as mechanical or as non-thinking as it may appear. As I paint, I look for opportunities to distribute the colors I use throughout the painting. For example, if I use a bit of intense reddish pink in one part of the painting (like on the flamingo), I don’t want that to be the only spot of that color in the entire work. It would call attention to itself and keep the viewer from looking elsewhere. So, I look to distribute that color, even if only in small amounts, throughout the rest of the painting. Those spots of that color then become a way to guide the viewer’s eyes over the rest of the painting.

Here are some details so you can see just how loosely this is painted.

Like I said: pretty rough. It is not my goal yet to render here. I am just laying down my color scheme.

Here’s the middle section:

The pose of the sabertooth on the right had been bothering me (it seemed clunky and unnatural), so I changed it. While I paint I am constantly looking for ways to improve the picture. I try to find ways to make it read more clearly, I get rid of any tangents I run across, I take bits of color that are still on my brush from painting one side and add them to the other side — I do lots of these little things that have nothing to do with detail but nevertheless add to the quality of the picture.

Note the shift in temperature in both the pond water and the sky (especially in the full mural shot). Doing this creates a greater sense of scale and gives the sky a more natural dome-like presence. If I had painted the sky (or the pond) the same color from left to right and top to bottom, the sky and pond would both appear flat and lifeless and, almost as importantly, the large animals would appear to be much smaller.

Why does this work? Changing the temperature or value of a sky over the length of a canvas gives the viewer’s eyes a sense of traveling — a feeling of scale and distance. Painting them with just one flat color would indicate to our eyes that we haven’t traveled much in distance — if at all.

You can see the temperature change in the sky even in this last third of the painting, as it goes from a cool lavender on the left to a warm blue on the right. The pond color goes from a warm lavender to a cool blue.

Here’s part of that same section, slightly larger, so that you can see more “detail”:

The color has been laid in; the fun part is over. Now comes the work (although, in truth, I enjoy rendering, too). The next step with this picture is to begin rendering each and every element in the picture.

When I work like this I an reminded of one of the oft repeated bits of advice from my best art teacher, Harold Kramer. Hal was the head of the illustration department at the Chouinard Art Institute (CalArts). After graduating, I studied privately with Hal for over twenty years.

Hal would often repeat this simple (yet profound) phrase: “Draw, paint; draw, paint.”

Here’s, in essence, what that means: Hal would tell us to always work with a brush that was twice the size of the one we thought we needed. He wanted us to always see the “big picture”, to have a broad overview of our painting. He didn’t want us to get caught up in the details too soon in the painting of our pictures. He insisted we use a big, fat brush to lay in our paintings. Once the basic design was established, then we could use a slightly smaller brush to tighten things up a bit. At that stage, we’d have our picture’s color and design well established. Hal knew that no amount of detail can save a bad design.

OK; that’s the “paint” part. At this stage the painting needs some drawing. With a smaller brush we would put our drawing skills to work, correcting and fine tuning proportions that needed it, perhaps adding color sparks here and there to enliven the color scheme and basically adding elements of drawing that the painting needs.

After drawing for awhile, I usually sense when it’s time to stop — typically, it’s at the point when your painting has now ended up with too much drawing. So, back to “paint”. Using a larger brush, some of the unnecessary drawing details are painted out, as are many of the hard edges. As my friend and painter Dan Goozee says, “Shapes. Values. Edges.” If there is something wrong with your picture, it is almost always one of those three elements. You want to choose your hard edges very carefully, as that is one of the places the viewer’s eyes go first (typically, the very first place a viewer’s eyes go to is where your darkest dark meets your lightest light).

So, “Draw, paint; draw, paint”, back and forth until the drawing and the painting in your picture have equal strength.

Next: The Color Lay-in of the Modern Scene

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Creating the San Diego Murals – Part Eight

Maybe it’s the completist collector in me, but after accidentally running across the very first preliminary pencil drawing (more of a rough, really) of the San Diego Zoo Pleistocene mural, I thought I should include it (even at this late date) in my series of blogs on the process of creating the zoo murals.

So here it is.

I think I was inspired by one of Zdenek Burian‘s iconic paintings of prehistoric elephants with similar tusk symmetry. The symmetrical form of the head and tusks are what gives the mammoth its iconic, almost religious presence. I’ve broken up the symmetry, however, with the mammoth’s body and its placement within the design.

I like this design, but the unfinished quality of the rest of the picture makes me think that I probably came up with the more dynamic pose (from my earliest postings) shortly thereafter and jettisoned this pose in favor of the more dramatic stance.

OK; that’s Old News. Here’s New News, continuing our murals saga.

I did something a little different here.

In the past, I’ve used three ways to enlarge my studies to their full size. The first was taking a slide of the study, projecting it on to the canvas as dusk was beginning (as you can’t see the projection in daylight), then very quickly (because it rapidly gets too dark to paint at that time of day) “drawing” (with my paint brush) the outlines of all the creatures. That’s how I enlarged my Houston Museum of Natural Science murals. Crude, but it worked.

For the San Diego Natural History Museum murals the amazing Enrique Vidal (or his talented partner Johnny Thongnoi) at ThemeScape Art Studios took digital snapshots of my quarter scale paintings and printed them out. Then, he placed a sheet of acetate over the print-out and traced all of the animals’ shapes with a Sharpie. Once finished, Enrique used an overhead projector to project his line drawing on to the full size canvas. Using oil paint and a brush, Enrique traced the line drawings on to the canvas.

The other method is squaring up. I draw a graph paper-like grid over my scale picture. Then I proportionally make the same-but-larger grid on my full size canvas. After that, I fill in each square on the full size canvas with its own individual part of the drawing.

I don’t like this method. It’s dull, mechanical and, hence, tedious and it doesn’t allow for “happy accidents”. I like art to be fun and for it to have a magical sense of discovery.

If you look at this picture carefully (a double-click should enlarge it), you’ll see that I ended up doing a variation of the squaring up method. Using lines of yellow ochre paint, I divided each 3′ x 8′ canvas into four 3′ x 2′ sections.

Trying to re-draw the entire design on to a full size canvas would have been difficult and intimidating. I know I would have made a lot of proportional mistakes that would have turned into a nightmare of correcting and re-correcting.

But I paint 3′ x 2′ canvases all the time. It’s no big deal. So, I just looked at each 36″ x 24″ section as its own “little” painting. I printed out each of the four sections of each mural from the digital snapshots you saw in earlier posts. Using those print-outs as a guide to each section, I did a quick lay-in of each section in dark brown paint with only rough fidelity to the original design. If I saw some way to improve the design, I did. If it didn’t work out, I went back to the original.

I did the same thing with the modern San Diego mural:

OK. So, now my basic designs have been transferred. It’s time to add my basic light values to each picture.

I told you it would get more interesting! It’s starting to look like a painting, isn’t it?

Again, using my print-outs of my little scale color pictures as a guide, I roughly knocked in my lighter values. I didn’t use titanium white (too harsh). Instead, I opted for the mellower unbleached titanium, a kind of ivory cream color.

When I didn’t want the full-on “white” that you can see in the pond water and sky, I scumbled or dry-brushed some not-so-intense, slightly darker light areas on to the canvas.

I did the same for the modern mural:

Since I’m not yet working in color here, these sepia lay-ins give me a pretty darn good idea of how my value (dark and light) systems are working. If they’re not, it’s pretty easy to correct them at this stage. Once again, let me remind you artists out there: if your value system is working (and your shapes and edges as well), your picture will work regardless of what colors you use.

The next step is establishing local color on the full size canvases (in artistic terms, “local color” is the average color of an object).

If these paintings were fantasy paintings that didn’t require any research, I could now finish each mural in about eight days (it usually takes me three days, start-to-finish, to paint a 3′ x 2′ canvas. After I’ve done the value lay-in it takes me about two days to finish the painting in color. I’m talking long days, by the way). Obviously, that’s not going to happen with these two babies. We’ll see just how long this all will take.

Next: Local Color

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Creating the San Diego Murals – Part Seven

The next step is stretching the canvases (the canvas in the photo looks much smaller than it is because I am sitting well in front of it). If one does this right and gets the canvas nice and taut on the frame, this is hard physical work. The gripping, pinching, pulling and stapling only served to aggravate the blister and muscle & tendon aches I had acquired in building the stretcher bar frames (I know…”Oh, Poor Me”).

One of the canvases I like to paint on is Fredrix Antwerp, which is what I stretched for these two murals. I like the moderately rough tooth of that canvas. It really absorbs the paint well. It took me exactly one (expensive) Fredrix roll to cover both. My strut lumber only cost me five bucks, though, so I guess it all kind of averages out in the end.

The next step is toning the canvases. I can’t stand to work on a white canvas. For one, it makes the project look bigger (and more intimidating) than it is. I also get flecks of white coming through all over the damn painting if I don’t tone it first. A toned canvas also gives me the opportunity to more easily punch in my darks and especially my lights, as you’ll see in my next Journal entry.

Typically, I will get a paint sample of the wall color on which the mural will be mounted. I will then tone the canvas with that same wall color so that the bits of canvas peeking through the painting will harmonize with its environment (I did that with the San Diego Natural History Museum murals, as detailed in my book William Stout – Prehistoric Life Murals, a must-have tome for anyone with an interest in art ;-)). In this case, however, these murals will be stand-alone entities (at least as I currently understand it, anyway), so I toned the canvases with a light-to-middle value warm raw umber, just as I do for all of my easel and plein air paintings.

I mix up a batch of Winsor Newton Galleria acrylic for the toning, using raw umber, titanium (or unbleached titanium) white, yellow ochre (to warm it up) and a bit of burnt umber. I try to make the tone a middle value but I don’t get too anal about it. That these two turned out to be a little darker than I normally like did not mean I was going to repaint them with another, lighter coat of brown. That’s just too much time, trouble and paint, especially since it is all going to be painted over anyway. I try to put down a nice, even coat but if it gets a little streaky (which they did) it’s no big deal. Like I said, I’ll just be painting over it anyway.

I know: These last two posts are pretty boring — but we’re about to get to the fun stuff.

Next: The Canvas Lay-ins

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Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part Six

With the zoo’s approval of the color studies, I begin building my full size canvases. Ironically, my local art supplies shop had the four 8 ft. stretcher bars I needed but didn’t have the very standard size 3 ft. stretcher bars, so I had to special order them.

They came in a couple of days later. Then came the physical task of their assembly. It’s not just a matter of fitting them together; they have to all be perfectly square (perfect 90 degree angles) in the corners.

Because of the ultimate size of these frames (I’m painting the murals at their full 3 ft. x 8 ft. size), I knew I needed support struts. A quick trip to the local lumber yard provided me with the wood. After some careful measuring and sawing I had my bars ready.

I should have charged up my Makita power drill but I didn’t, so I decided that instead of waiting for the battery to charge I would screw in all the L-brackets on the braces by hand.

Big mistake. I got a massive blister from my first effort. It was very physical work, hard on my knees, hands and back. I like the physicality of murals, though, as it gives me a break from my sedentary life style; that is, it gets me out of my chair for awhile.

I did one each day.

Next: Stretching the Canvases

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Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part Five

Double-click on the images to make them larger.

I painted right over my value study, quickly laying in the picture’s local color (“local color” is the “average” color of an object). I took this quick digital snapshot and sent it to the zoo to include them in the process. Then I refined this little scale painting:

I followed the same procedure with the contemporary picture:

Again, this step was fast and crude. Then I refined it:

I sent jpegs of the two color studies to the zoo staff for their approval.

Their approval meant it was now time to start working on the full size murals.

Next: Stretcher bars

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Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part Four

With the pencils approved, the next step is painting my little scale value studies (double-clicking on the image will increase its size).

Let go back several steps here first. Above is the very first thumbnail sketch I did for the Pleistocene mural. It was drawn in my sketchbook well before I began the pencil drawings I showed you in the past few Journal entries. You’ll notice that the proportions are different from the pencil drawings. The size of each mural was originally going to be 4′ x 8′. As I was beginning the pencil drawings, the size of each mural was changed to 3′ x 8′.

As you can see, crude as it is, I was already beginning to think about my value (dark and light) systems.

I looked at it in the mirror and decided I liked it better in reverse, so I flopped it:

Using this thumbnail and my approved pencil drawing (see previous Journal entry), I painted this value study:

I went through the same process for the mural depicting San Diego’s contemporary life. Here’s my thumbnail:

I wondered how it compared to its reverse image version.

If you compare these to the first pencil drawings I submitted to the zoo, you’ll see that I decided to use elements of both.

Again, using these crude thumbnails and my approved pencil drawing as a rough guide, I painted my value study:

The value studies are very important, as they establish and organize all of the design elements into groups. They simplify and do away with much of the chaos of the pencil drawings. Leaving out the color at this stage is good because color can be such a distraction. I have learned that if your values are working (and you stick to them), it doesn’t matter what colors get put down later; the picture will work.

I sent the zoo jpegs of these two value studies so that they could see the progress I was making.

Next: Color Studies

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Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part Three

Four minor changes from the last set of pencils: the pose and size of the jaguar and grey fox, plus the pose of the bobcat (remember to double click the image to see it at its ten inch size).

A few more changes: What was the grey fox (looking down at the capybaras) is now a coyote. The grey fox has moved to center bottom. The bobcat has been re-posed.

This drawing was approved.

In this revised pencil drawing of the modern San Diego scene, the bobcat‘s pose changed and the small herd of pronghorn antelopes were eliminated (there are no wild pronghorns in San Diego). In addition, the large sycamore at the right was reduced in size and placed behind the black bear to give animals more emphasis over plants.

In this pencil drawing I placed a grey fox bottom center examining a tarantula. The pack of coyotes in the distance are gone. What was a grey fox (far right center) will be a coyote. Remember, the placement of the animals in the modern mural needs to correspond to their placement in the Pleistocene setting.

This drawing was approved by the zoo staff.

Next: Painted Value Studies

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Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part Two

As you can see, the last pencil drawing of the Pleistocene mural got a major revamp as per instructions from the zoo staff (remember, double-clicking on the images should enlarge them to ten inches in length).

The Columbia mammoth is now in profile and is now without its calf. The giant ground sloth is more prominent. The biggest change, perhaps, is that the secondary animals now all vary in size and distance from the viewer. Although many of the animals look itsy-bitsy now — some indicated with just a few lines — you have to remember that when the mural is painted full size these animals will become greatly enlarged.

As the composition is now beginning to firm up, I have also begun to put a little more emphasis on the Pleistocene plant life and its placement.

Remember that in the modern version mural that the still existing animals need to be in roughly the same spots as in their Pleistocene depiction, requiring careful planning in both pictures.

Obviously, the large sycamore centerpiece was not a hit with the zoo staff. Their reasoning is that with the tree, the scene did not convey the relative emptiness they desired to contrast with the Pleistocene content.

I cleared some of the trees in this version. I had liked the trees functioning as a sort of proscenium arch/frame but the scene still required even more sparseness and indications of a warmer, drier and slightly more desert-like climate.

A little change: The bobcat is looking at you, the viewer.

Same change with the bobcat in this one.

Next: Final Pencils