Saturday, 10 December 2011

From the IFB archives (2): the marshwalloidea

The archives of the 'Institute of Furahan Biology' contain sketches of animals that later evolved into paintings (the sketches, not the animals) . This second foray into the deeper vaults of the archives reveals the development of the marshwallow, a large herbivore that like a hippopotamus spends much of its time in water. You can find the finished version on the land page of the Furaha site, and it is also visible in animated form on the 'walking with...' page.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

I think this was the first sketch. I was experimenting with a new type of felt-tipped pin that was promised to behave as a brush. It did, largely, and that is why this sketch has such strong black strokes. The paper came for a stack used for polygraphic recordings, which is why it has yellow vertical lines on it. As you can see, the sketch shows an animal with a mane of hair standing in water. It has a somewhat bland expression on its face; perhaps it is wondering what it is doing there. The sketch does not show any underlying pencil lines but was done directly with the pen, which probably explains why the perspective isn't any good. Just look at the lower portion of its jaws: it is almost as if it is twisted to the right compared to the upper part of the head of the animal.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

I did the same animal again later, this time with a pencil sketch overlaid with a version in blue ballpoint pen. The perspective works better here. The ballpoint pen version shows a smooth neck head shield protruding form the back of the animal's head. I must still have liked the brush-like pen, as I proceeded to go over it once more, this time with the thicker black strokes. The animal is still standing in water and still looks a bit daft, but seems to have a stronger personality than its predecessor. The complex shape of the head was the result of a conscious effort to avoid a typical mammalian head.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

It may be difficult to see what is going on here. These are sketches in which I was searching for a pleasing composition. The theme is an animal standing in water, the surface of which is covered with lily-like leaves. The shadows show that the sun is behind the animal, so its shadow projects well before it. The sketch on the lower right is better in this respect, but looking back now I should have emphasized the diagonal nature of the composition.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

This one shows the same idea, but the sun is now straight overhead. The lily-like thingies on the water surface are still there, but a new feature are the shadows of 'birds' flying overhead. Some of those are cast on the back of the animal itself. I wonder whether I would have succeeded with this approach: as the birds themselves would not be shown, would anyone be able to work out that those shadows were cast by four winged birds? 'Bird' is used here analogous to 'fish' in the Furahan context. For biological lay people, animal in water are 'fish', and for those people animals that fly are 'birds'. I know better, so do you, but that's how people are.
Obviously, I must have felt that the composition could be improved by just focusing on the head of the animal, as I not only went over the main lines there with a pen, but also divided that section of the sketch into 16 rectangles, a step that helps to redraw a composition in another format. That choice was chosen for the painting.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

And here is the 'marshwallow' again in finished form. In this incarnation it looks irritated. I could easily have omitted all indications that we as humans read as emotional clues, and I probably should have. After all, it is not exactly likely that alien animals would convey emotions in a way that we can read. I probably liked it better this way...

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Later, I thought about painting a herd of these marshwallows in the middle ground, being stared at by a predator in the foreground. For that I needed to think about a colour pattern. Here are two possible ones. The top one is very mammalian, but the second one is not. The shape of the limbs illustrates what happens if I do not pay a great deal of attention: they turn into mammalian legs. The hind ones especially go against the basic design of large hexapods, in whom the anatomy of the hind legs is -except for the feet- a mirror image of the front pair. In both, there are shoulder blades that are only loosely attached to the bulk of the body. The middle pair has a bone and joint connection to the corporal skeleton. For more on leg design, see previous entries in this blog: here and here.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Why have just one species of wallow? Indeed, shouldn't there be a group of related species, the 'walloidea'? I thought as much, and here are some. As you can see, there is a 'Protovolvulus species' at the right, in which males and females look the same. The one at the top is a male marshwallow, here called 'Disjecta membra', which means 'with strewn limbs'. The limbs that phrase refers to are not its own, but those of animals dumb enough to bother a marshwallow. In time, the name 'Disjecta membra' was replaced by 'Volvulus elongatus'. Some wallow species tend towards gigantism together with elaborations of the neck shields. Any resemblance with Ceratopsia is not coincidental at all. I have no idea why I came up with the name 'Disjecta pandorae', but to avoid any confusion I would like to stress that this sketch predates the film 'Avatar' by at least 25 years. 'Polyonyx vivax' seems to be the most elaborately coiffed wallow species. By the way, the gender symbols indicate that this how the genders look in the major portion of an animal's life. In most species, sex changes as a function of size and social importance, and 'indicator features' such as spikes on the neck shield change along with sex. It's complicated, I know...


Evan Black said...

I've hesitated to post here because my initial comment has always been something that I hate: I keep wanting to point out that I prefer the original sketches over the final design; I just feel like the furry ruff around the head and neck has more aesthetic personality than the finlike spikes on the neck shield. I don't like comments like these because they imply that the commenter feels the right to impose some sort of influence on the artistic (or physiological) decision. I hope you take no offense at my comment, but I couldn't resist beginning with it.

That said, I'm always impressed by your skill with capturing a candid moment of the painting's subject. The images you've shared online never feel like posed, contrived renders of Furahan biology, but rather hastily grabbed moments of creatures going about their own interests. You really breathe life into your work.

In the marshwallow's entry on the website you talk about its mild nature, broken only occasionally by territorial bites and kicks intended to scare more than do real damage. Yet in this blog post you allude to the idea that these creatures strew limbs about them when crossed. Was this idea abandoned in favor of the more placid temperament (thus prompting the name change you talked about) or is there a species/genus of marshwalloid with marked aggression?

mike said...

In the last drawing it seems the upwards-facing tooth-like structures are part of an independent jaw. Is this a remnant of the four-jaw system of the fish?

Spugpow said...

Thanks for posting this; I find the process of developing these creatures fascinating.

I actually agree with Evan about the initial design--though I'm pleased to see you reappropriated the fur ruff for the Woolly-haired shuffler :) . The final rendering is great anyway.

A question: wouldn't stalk-eyes be more appropriate for an animal that has to peer above the surface of the water?

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Evan: don't worry about commenting. There is of course a line between well-intended criticisms and snobbish or condescending comments, but yours never were of the latter variety. In fact, you nailed one of the things that I like least of my own work, and that is a tendency to work on it until spontaneity is lost. I often wonder why a sketch was lively while the finished product turns out much less so.
As for the marshwallow mellowing with maturity, that might be an expression of the same phenomenon. As I work on a design some of the roughness is smoothed over. But in truth I did not think about in in much detail. Only now the thought came to me that Protovolvulus might engage in really nasty fights, with torn lips and real damage being done. In contrast, mating fights in Polyonyx vivax, the one with the most impressive head gear, might involve a lot of posing and strutting. But a Polyonax can and will still take a parson (a predatory species) apart if it ventures too close.

Mike: No, not really. in many hexapod lineages the lateral jaws evolved into tongues (well, tongue analogues, as they have bones in them). The bumps/teeth in the lover jaws are part of those jaws.

Spugpow: that is a good point, and raised eyes would indeed be very suitable for such a purpose. When I decided to equip hexapods with compound eyes I realised that such eyes do not necessarily have to be on stalks. I admit that in quite a few cases I added the stalks to increase the alien aspect of an animal. It does help to provide vision in all directions though...

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

I forgot to point this out regarding the stalked eyes; have a look at the first two rough sketches, and you will see that there is a kind of groove behind each eye. that was there to allow the eye to be swivelled back for protection. It's a common feature in hexapods.

slaug said...

Brilliant work with this design. I love how the shadows and lighting really help make it feel three-dimensional, and the comparison of several species gives a certain nature-guide feel, as if written from the POV of a field researcher who studies these animals up close in their natural habitats.

One minor criticism though: you mentioned that this aggressive, aquatic herbivore is an analogue of a hippopotamus...and the final creature kind of reads too much as "hippo". I admit I occasionally fall in the same trap of designing an alien animal and making it look too much like its earth counterpart (looking at you, Direhorse from "Avatar") and I wonder how far we can chalk it up to convergent evolution? After all , Australia's "deer analogue" is the kangaroo and they look very different...

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Thank you. I knwo; I often feel that the analogues work too strongly, but the process isn't 100% rational.