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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

3 thoughts on “Creating the San Diego Murals – Part Eight

  1. Bill,

    Love the iconic sketch.

    Nice to see each stage of the paintings taking shape. You should capture the rest of the painting stages and sell a Painting With William Stout dvd.


  2. Bill,

    I just bought your book Prehistoric Life Murals & look forward to perusing it. I have also enjoyed this step by step procedure of these new murals.

    I’m a painting/drawing arteest also – have let it slide for way too many years. I just turned 65 on Dec 13th & realizing I’m not ‘young’ anymore & have recently started slopping the brush on canvas again. Feels good (when I work thru the ‘perfectionism’)!

    I also like your candid (gripes) about aches & pains of stretching & stapling etc. I can RELATE.

    I think people look at (my) artwork & think it comes so easy – I tell them “Painting is Pain”

    Thank you for sharing your gift-

  3. Gee, Mr. Stout. You might consider polishing up those two earlier prelims just a smidge, and bringing them along in your “sketches for sale” portfolio to SPECTRUM Live! Not that I’d have any vested interest in that… ahem. Just sayin’. 🙂
    Beautiful work.

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