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Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part Eleven

The detailing begins. I’m focusing on the animals first, as they are the most important elements to my San Diego Zoo client.

I began with the black bear. The umber underpainting really helps to warm up my rendering as it peeks through my cool color scheme of the bear here and there. It looks much harsher here than in the original, as the camera always seems to see and emphasize things that the human eye doesn’t. I’ll have to compensate for that with my final rendering of this animal, as the final display of my murals will be extremely detailed digital representations of them printed full size on a huge tile.

This rendering of the black bear is near completion; I don’t want it to get too tight; I want the execution of the animals to be consistent with my painterly handling of the landscape.

The jackrabbit sort of flew out of my brush with very little effort on my part (that’s not always so, believe me). Working wet-on-wet I got some very nice painterly passages happening here. There won’t be too much final tweaking necessary on this guy.

A roadrunner confronts a southern pacific rattlesnake. I’m kind of carving the animal forms out of paint. At this point I’ll make raw corrections to what is around them (ground, grass, etc.) without concern for the crudeness that surrounds each animal rendering. I can fix that later when I turn my focus to the different elements of the landscape. Right now my main concern is getting the animals — and their shapes — just right and in proportion.

Thinking about proportion brings up the fact that the roadrunner seems a little large in relation to the other animals. This afternoon I’m going to carve him down a little bit to solve that problem. Hopefully, it won’t require an entire repainting of the bird. If I have to, though, I’ll do it.

The rattlesnake was fun; I just happen to love painting snakes. I’ve owned many, so I am intimate with their anatomy. They are not tubes, as many artists have portrayed them. Everything hangs from their spine and their bellies are a bit flattened.

The trick in painting the roadrunner (and the hawks, as you’ll see) is in figuring out how to not lose the bird’s form with all of those complex plumage markings. The key is too simplify where possible and to use the markings to describe their forms.

Here is the cougar (or puma or mountain lion). I wrestled with this one for a while. I was having proportion problems, mostly. Cougar proportions (and colors), like humans, vary from one animal to another. My goal is to distill the essence of cougar, and paint a beautiful, definitive vision of this animal. As I’m painting, I am constantly checking: Are the neck and tail too short? Should I lengthen the body? If I do that, how will it affect its proportions in relation to the bear; i.e., will it then make the cougar too large relative to the bear? Are the eyes too high in the head (originally they were indeed too high, then too low. I think now, as Goldilocks would say, they are just right, although I think that head still needs a little work; some softening, perhaps)?

Unlike the bear, which was very cool in color and needing some warmth, the cougar as painted in my first pass of rendering was too warm. It needed some cool grays to take the bite out of the overall warmth — and, in my mind, to make it look more like a cougar.

I was also having problems with the cougar disappearing into the background. I fixed that by changing the values of what was behind the cougar. Some parts required darkening; others, lightening.

I took those rough brown blobs of my lay-in and turned them into three different species of hawks. There are a lot of delicate patterns in some hawks — like the ones portrayed here. The trap to watch out for would be rendering them too much and not leaving any soft edges. Without soft edges, the hawks won’t be a part of the picture. They’ll look like they’ve been stuck on to the canvas like paper stickers. So, I look for ways to realistically blur some of the edges of these birds with the sky.

Note that the sky (like the ground in the other animal renderings) is not finished at this point. I’ll get around to that later.

Upon finishing my first pass at rendering the animals in this quarter of the mural, I began to suggest some of the distant landscape.

At this point, I could either finish this quarter of the painting or continue down the mural and render the other animals. I think I’m going to do the latter because I fear that rendering each quarter’s landscape separate from each other might lead to some inconsistency in the painting. Better to paint each mountain range all at once, I think.

Last night I did a lot more research on the animals for both murals. I discovered several more creatures that I could include in both murals. Should I surprise the zoo and add all these extra animals? That is typically my tendency — to give my clients 120% or more of what they are expecting. I think it’s one of the reasons I’m successful.

We shall see if time allows for these unscripted additions.

Next: Rendering the Animals in Section Two

2 thoughts on “Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part Eleven

  1. Great to see the detailing grow. Always exciting to watch each stage and how they tie together. Also interesting to read your comments on the back and forth of the thought process and how it changes the first layer of work.

    As to surprises…depends on the client. Some might not want things they haven’t approved. Other would be surprised and delighted that you had gone beyond. Always a tough call.


  2. Lucky Friday the 13th to ya. Like Rick I’m really enjoying your “class” here on painting this mural. Bill, do you pay any attention to the ol’ “echoing” shapes? I see a bit in the twisty tree branch above the Mt Lion.

    Your use off color is what has drawn me to your artwork – i.e. not just a standard brown jackrabbit – but what looks like blues & pinks & greens mixed to relate to the background and give it visual variety – sparkle, or whatever you call it. Like you say, get the values to make each shape stand out from the other & those proportions of the critters right, like the snake, & it works well. Throw in the punch with the dabs of color & whoa-la= visual eye candy.

    By the way Rick – are you an artist?


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