How would you go about painting a realistic scene of a sand dune or a snowy mountaintop? Short of scouting real locations, you might browse through stacks of photos of the Sahara Desert or the Himalayas. I tried that, but came up short. There was a specific composition and lighting idea that I had in mind for each scene and I couldn’t find anything like it.
I knew that if I tried to invent the whole thing from my storyboard sketch, it wouldn’t be convincing, because the key to realism is lighting. Whenever I base a painting on a real form in real light, I notice little accidents of truth that I could never imagine.
Artists (and animation studios) often use maquettes, or reference models, but they’re typically created only for characters or vehicles. Maquettes are just as useful for landscape elements. Maxfield Parrish collected jagged rocks, which he photographed as reference for his rocky mountainscapes.For the sand dune painting I used a light tan modeling clay, or plasticene, warmed up in the oven and shaped into a dune. I then arranged a small plastic model of a Brachiosaurus and photographed them both in the same lighting condition.
The combination of references gave me what I needed to paint “Skeleton Dune.”
To create a maquette for a snow-covered mountain, I made a rough base from styrofoam, then draped some plaster-impregnated burlap over the base. I then built up a very rough model of an alpine castle from modeling clay and cardboard.
This was the work of no more than three hours--and I threw it out when it was finished--but it gave me the information I needed for the painting “Thermala: Alpine Hideaway” in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara.