Madagascar river scene (Late Cretaceous, Campanian)

So it seems I just can't keep away from river/water scenes lately! This latest reconstruction depicts an early morning scene in Madagascar in the late cretaceous (Campanian: around 83.6 - 72.1 ma). In this scene we see (from left) a pair of Masiakasaurus  knopfleri indulging in a morning's fishing, three Phosphotadraco mauritanicus flying overhead and several Rahonavis ostromi enjoying a bath and breakfast courtesy of the Mahajanasuchus insignis just waking up on the beach. This tranquil scene is only slightly interrupted by the arrival of a family of Majungasaurus crenatissimus, as they arrive to take advantage of the cool morning air to take a drink themselves.

Copyright A V S Turner 2018
I wanted this to be a naturally beautiful and tranquil image after the restless drama of my last depiction of a river scene. Palaeoart (particularly any art involving carnivorous subjects) tends to show violent hunting or fighting behaviours; and for good reason - audiences want to be wowed by drama. However, when you observe predatory animals in the wild, their lives are not all hunting and fighting. The truth is most animals spend an awful lot of time simply lying around not doing much. Given that much has been made of Majungasaurus' cannibalistic tendencies (show me one predator; humans included; that doesn't eat it's own kind!), I wanted to demonstrate that these are complex animals with many sides to their nature.

This scene was not inspired by new research (I normally try to be lead by new science rather than just my own selfish curiosity), but I have wanted for a very long time to explore the extraordinary Mesozoic fauna of Madagascar, which boasts a plethora of weird and wonderful species. Also, since I have completed the bulk of this image in a week off between jobs, I felt I was due a little creative holiday, simply to draw or paint something because I wanted to do it!

Furthermore; this is a mixed-media image. Now this is something that I have not done for a long time: in fact I think the last time I created a large reconstruction using analogue media was my rendition of Amargasaurus cazaui (which was longer ago now than I care to remember!). However, recently I have yearned for the joy of crafting something on thick, tactile paper, using media that I love, such as technical pencils, watercolour pencils and acrylic inks and paint. I enjoy the immediacy of digital art and there are many effects that I simply cannot achieve in analogue media, but this is a door that swings both ways; in that I can't replicate the effect of my favourite medium; watercolour pencil; in any digital space.
Plus I like the fact that artwork executed in analogue media demonstrates my personal drawing style more potently than digital media. You could make a valid argument that science illustration requires that an artist's style should be removed as much as possible, to allow the subject to be the star of the show. But looking at all the palaeoartists who have inspired me over the years: Charles R Knight, John Sibbick, Luis V Rey etc; these are artists who all exhibit strikingly different styles, but without sacrificing scientific rigour or accuracy in their depictions. A professional artist's unique visual style is their calling-card and lends the greatest strength to their work.
So, I have taken a break from working purely in digital media to revisit the mediums I taught myself to draw with (and so fell in love with drawing) in the first place.

This image began life as a graphite drawing (executed using several traces with layout paper to get the composition and proportions right) which I then scanned in and imported into Photoshop.

I did some tests with pastels to create the sky and base wash, but nothing I tried was working out, so to allow myself some leeway I created the base colours for the background digitally over several layers and printed this out with the line-work reduced to 20% opacity onto 200gsm cartridge paper.

I then spent time building up layers of detail, at first just using the blue tones for shaded areas to create the overall tone of the image: drawing in the details and then working into them with increasingly fine brushes, waiting for the paint to dry and repeating the process. I also added yellow & orange highlights to bring the forms out further.

Once the forms were established I added some touches of colour into the subjects closer to the foreground to accentuate the depth of field and pick out some of the bounce-lights from the main body of water.
Finally I finished the image by picking out the brightest highlights with titanium white acrylic paint.

Whilst there are numerous aspects of the image that I am not happy with (and yes, it is frustrating to consider how easily these could be rectified if only I had been working digitally!), this is the value of working in analogue media: it trains you to be observant, methodical and economical in your approach. I achieved some very pleasing effects with only a few brushstrokes which I know from experience I would have wasted hours agonising over had I been working on a digital canvas. Not being able to zoom in on your subject or quickly undo a clumsy pencil stroke is a great exercise in brutal simplification of your process and one which even an old-school illustrator like me needs to remind herself of from time to time. Working this way; in the media that my secondary-school graphics teacher taught me to work in; makes me feel grateful that I grew up and learned to draw an paint in a world where digital media weren't an option. I sometimes wonder how I might work differently (if at all) had I learned to draw just using a stylus and tablet?
Admittedly, creating the base wash digitally could be considered a bit of a cheat, but if I were to create this in analogue media on an A3 canvas, I would have needed to use an airbrush (another favourite tool from back in the day!), but sadly my tiny flat lacks the space and ventilation (and my wallet lacks the capacity to invest in a really nice airbrush and compressor right now!), so given that I ran several tests to see if I could circumvent this issue I don't consider it a cheat but rather using the right tools available for the job.

And that is the lesson that I'd like to take away from this exercise: that there is not a scala naturae of artistic media: Analogue does not have the moral high-ground over digital or vice versa: they are all simply tools for achieving different finishes. Both have their merits and their shortcomings and I recommend any artist, whatever their medium of choice, to experiment frequently with new and old techniques. Not only is this useful for all the reasons discussed above; it is also a pure and playful expression of artistic freedom!


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