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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

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Disaster Hits Pasadena! News at 11!

Winds Take Out Trees in Pasadena

As you might have read (or seen) in the news, we Pasadena residents were hit hard by winds Wednesday night. The windstorm (with winds often over 90 mph) lasted all night long.

Magnolias and oaks seemed to be hit the hardest.

I drove home from Beverly Hills at about 11:00 PM from a special Roger Corman evening (more about that in a forthcoming post). The winds weren’t too bad until I crossed the hills into the San Fernando Valley. Valleys compress and accelerate winds. Random objects began striking my Prius (I was glad I wasn’t driving my van). I had to white knuckle grip my steering wheel to avoid being blown into another lane. Arriving home, I saw the electricity in my neighborhood was out.

My wife had candles burning inside our home. The noise was ferocious; it sounded as if we were in the middle of the ocean with hurricane winds buffeting and battering the walls of our house.

I didn’t sleep much that night because of the loud sounds. That pissed me off because I’ve got a lot of work to do (surprise!) yet I was pretty draggy all day long from lack of sleep.

Huge Clumps of Pine Needles at Hill and Loma Vista in Pasadena.

We have a lot of huge evergreens in our neighborhood. The pic above shows clumps of pine needles that accumulated during the storm.

Fallen Magnolia Branch

This is a branch torn from my neighbor’s magnolia tree. That’s my house in the background. We were lucky; no real damage at all, just some downed telephone cables in our backyard.

Tree Falls Between Two Homes

Across the street a huge evergreen fell between two of our neighbors’ houses. Unfortunately, the tree took out the corners of each home — and completely crushed two other trees.

Tree Takes Out Chunk of Roof

This neighbor’s tree fell right on top of their Spanish tile roof.

Blocking the Sidewalk

There were fallen branches blocking the sidewalks throughout our neighborhood…

Blocked Street

…as well as some of our streets.

Big Time Damage

A block away there was a spectacular sight. A gigantic evergreen had fallen — fortunately not on our neighbor’s house but right next to it, right down the middle of his driveway.

Completely Uprooted

This huge tree was completely uprooted, taking out some of the sidewalk, curb and street with it.


From the bowels of the earth, living beneath this tree’s root system, emerged two zombies, awoken from their undead slumber.

This Could Only Happen in My Neighborhood...

All in all, it’s been a very eventful couple of days…