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Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part One

Earlier this year I received a commission to paint two new murals for the San Diego Zoo, the largest zoo in the world. The murals are scheduled to be installed in their new Elephant Odyssey exhibit.

I thought my Journal pages would provide a good opportunity to show the mural process and how these projects evolve. Over the next few months I will display a step-by-step illustrated diary chronicling the creation of these two paintings.

After the contracts and agreements are sorted out, I begin the first visual steps. The murals will each be 3 ft. high by 8 ft. long. I ruled out borders for reduced scale drawings, each 9″ x 24″. The first mural depicts the San Diego region back when it had elephants, i.e., mammoths and mastodons. Since this painting will be part of Elephant Odyssey, I decided the obvious focus of the painting should be a big Columbia mammoth. Surrounding the mammoth are about forty different species that existed during this time and place (the Pleistocene, about 20,000 years ago).

This is my first pass at a composition for this mural (clicking on the pictures should increase their length to ten inches). I wanted to convey the majesty of the mammoth with this pose. A main concern was the placement of the other animals, especially since, as you can see, there’s a lot of them. The landscape and some of the major plants have to be indicated as well. At this point, I’m not too concerned with my values (dark and light systems).

The second mural depicts the same San Diego region with the handful of wild animals that remain there to this day.

In an homage to Sir Edwin Landseer (painter of Monarch of the Glen, the famous stag painting that graces the Challenge butter packaging), I decided to make a mule deer family the focus of this picture.

After these pencils were completed, I digitally shot them and sent them to Ed Lewins, my San Diego Zoo point man and the visionary on this project.

With the feedback I received from Ed and the zoo staff (via Ed), I revamped my first drawing.

The zoo (rightly) decided that the animals needed more space. The first drawing is pretty jam-packed. I liked the powerful, dramatic scale of the mammoth in the first drawing but everything needed to be scaled back a bit. Even so, it’s still pretty packed.

Here’s my revised pencils for the modern San Diego mural.

The changes here are much more dramatic. The zoo wanted to emphasize the sparse number of wild species we have today in comparison to the Pleistocene, so the animals were scaled way down in size in relation to the overall composition of the picture. It looked so empty that I decided to include a huge, dramatic sycamore tree as the picture’s centerpiece and visual anchor.

The zoo also wanted the modern animals that remain to be situated in roughly the same spots they hold in the Pleistocene mural. This presented some interesting composition problems for which I think I came up with some pretty good solutions.

Tomorrow: The zoo’s reaction to these two revisions

4 thoughts on “Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part One

  1. Bill,

    Looking good! I like the way you cleaned up the first one. Crowd shots are always a nightmare. And your rhythm in the second one is really strong. Can’t wait to see the finished works.


  2. My dear friend 🙂 That looks amazing. It’s really beautiful to check the series of steps those murals required till their conclusion. And it’s really exciting to see how you create that terrific art without the use of new technologies (I mean computers, of course), according to the old school tradition. Thanks for such gratifying drawings and very interesting texts (as always). It’s a real pleasure 😀

    Love and peace from Spain,


  3. Yes! Bill, I’ve been waiting very patiently for an update on the Zoo Murals, and your sketches are Fantastic! I love the first illustration! The positioning of the wildlife, the giant mammoth….Good Stuff!

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