A project like this one takes quite a bit of preparation. (To be honest, no matter how much I prepare, I’m always faced with problems, mistakes and a sense of generalized panic…but at least preparing well takes the edge off the terror of putting pen to paper!)
The sheer number of species included in this composition meant that I spent a fair while taking reference photos at the Slough, checking accuracy and tracking down appropriate images of particular species online (getting permission to use the ones under copyright, plus finding sources in the public domain).
Once all snaps had been snapped and permissions granted I began to sketch out a few ideas using my photos for reference. Think stick animals and bobble-head birds, nothing fancy…
Often my ideas come together when I hit upon one or two images of animals I know I’d like to include that are interesting or compelling. This time it was the heron and the harbor seal. I was drawn to the dramatic foreshortening of the seal in the image I sourced and began to think of the idea of the seal emerging from the silty water of the slough right into the immediate foreground and turning slightly as if acknowledging the viewer. I knew I wanted the heron to be in the foreground too rather than a skinny background silhouette. He’s so dramatic, and architectural in his form and colour. I wanted the chance to capture the curve of his neck, his head plumage and some of his general panache up close. Plus his long slender shape meant he could serve as a kind of intermediate frame for the image, directing the eye towards other elements of the painting without obscuring them. Those lovely long gams of his also meant that I would have room to have a couple of other species hopping/growing in the foreground of the pic near his feet without obscuring the bulk of his body and plumage.
With these two “starter species” decided upon, the layout of the overall composition began to take shape. For instance, if the seal was coming towards the viewer out of murky depths then he would need to be underwater…so there would have to be an under and over the water element to the composition. A line indicating the water surface would need to be included and underwater and above water distinction indicated. In addition the water would need to be deep enough to accommodate a harbor seal. It became clear that this dictated another aspect of the poster. Instead of looking from the slough out to the ocean, it would work better to do the reverse, as if looking at the slough from a kayak or a surfacing diver going inland from ocean to slough.
Not only would that accommodate the seal in suitably deep water, it would also mean I could add the barn in the background (thanks for that idea Lorili!) and give some specificity to the landscape, identifying it as Elkhorn slough in particular.
I began to work on large sheets of tracing paper that I could move around and tape together as needed (for some reason I find this hands on method for initial workings out more useful than composing digitally using Illustrator or Photoshop.)
Gradually the poster design began to take shape:
Once I’d got things as I wanted them to be I digitized this tracing paper design in Illustrator:
I met with the lovely folks at ESF to get feedback and edits. It was decided that the red-legged frog needed his own segment of freshwater habitat and that the Olympia oyster and sea lettuce should be included in the underwater portion of the painting.
In addition I had a few edits of my own which I thought would make the piece more successful.
Before I began to transfer the finalized design to watercolor paper and I played around with some small watercolour sketches of some species, just to loosen up and get myself ready to paint the final piece.
Once all the muffins had been eaten and the sketches had been done, I was ready to tackle transferring my composition onto a 40″x 60″ sheet of watercolour paper using my trusty mechanical pencil and a projector borrowed from my talented fellow illustrator Cecelia Azdherian (You can see her lovely work here…go on, I’ll wait.)
Great ain’t it!
Anyway, back to the transfer. This was by far the largest most detailed transfer I’d ever had to do. It took at least a month of detailed pencil work to get it to a satisfactory stage. But, finally I was done. Time to slap on some color!
What happened next? Well let’s just say I ate my own weight in muffins coping with the disaster that struck at this point in the proceedings. Stay tuned for misadventures with masking fluid…