Thursday, October 4, 2007

Sleuth Work on Irish Elk

When you need to reconstruct an extinct Irish Elk that died out thousands of years ago, what do you have to go on?


First there’s the skeleton, dug out of a bog in Ireland, with the incredible antlers, up to 13 feet across.

But what about the muscles, skin, and fur, which don’t fossilize? Fortunately the Irish Elk (which is really more like a huge fallow deer) lived during the Ice Age, and shared what is now Europe with early humans. And it must have really impressed those early artists, because they sketched portraits of the creatures on cave walls. Those cave artists really could draw, maybe because they knew their subjects so well.
Here are some female Irish Elks in a cave in Chauvet, France. Some years ago, Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould pointed out the unmistakeable hump on the shoulder and the line running down the side.

The next thing I had to figure out was a pose, so I looked through a stack of old zoo sketches and found this one of a Bongo, which I painted from life at the LA zoo. Different critter, but I liked the basic pose.


Here's the final painting, which appears in the new Dinotopia book. Based on those cave drawings I put in the shoulder hump, which I assume is a big clump of brown shaggy fur with a lot of muscle underneath, like on a bison. And perhaps the line along the flank divides the darker color of the back from the lighter belly fur.

14 comments:

WeaselBoy said...

...just discovered your blog... lots of great stuff... I'm looking forward to digging through it all!

Amy Stegner said...

Was the picture of the Irish Elk taken at the Field Museum in Chicago?

Dakota said...

I had been wondering if this was an extinct species or not. :P

manu said...

Wow, this is just... Great !
I can almost feel the cold wind of these snowy hill.

Eric Orchard said...

Cool! Irish Elk? I've never heard of them. They have that gloriously akward look that many creatures here in Canada have, the massive dipping antlers. I'm doing a book cover right now which features dinosaurs. I have to draw a sinornithosaurus, do you have any thoughts on what the definitive look is. There seems to be much variation in peoples representation of it.Thanks!

James Gurney said...

Who knows what is the definitive look for a Sinornithosaurus, but I think the model made by the American Museum of Natural History looks pretty convincing to me. By the way, I love your blog and your work.

I'm not sure where the photo of the skeleton was taken. Megaloceros is in quite a few museum collections.

Eric Orchard said...

I think the only thing I can say is- Gosh! Thanks Mr. Gurney.

Nina Johansson said...

I just found your blog through Lines&Colors, and what a goldmine! Page after page of pure inspiration! Is there any technique or any practice that you don´t know everything about?
I´ll be back for sure (all the way from Sweden)! Thanks for taking the time to post all these goodies!

James Gurney said...

Hello, Nina,

I am just learning like everyone else. I loved the Moleskine sketches of musicians on your blog. Maybe you can help me figure out how to use watercolor on the large Moleskine drawing books without the paint beading up.

Andas djupt, sok frid.

Stephen Thompson said...

I've seen (and drawn) the skeletons of the Irish elk here in Dublin many times, but it's great to see a quality reconstrution of the living animal. Stephen Jay Gould actually came to the natural history museum here in Dublin to take measurements of the antlers. It's an odd little place, rather than modernising it they've kind of preserved it, as a victorian cabinet museum.

K_tigress said...

That big hump on the back was probably due to the fact it was all that muscle that takes to hold up that rack and actually do battle for females est. Probably also very attractive to the female too.

Beautiful paint BTW.

Stephen James. said...

I recognize that animal from the LA zoo.

I go there to draw too.

Death in The River said...

yes, that elk was larger than the largest moose, i have done done an oral report upon this animal, guite interasting

H.K.Hollinstone studio said...

I love the Bongo, one of my favourite animals. Fantastic painting of the elk, really beautiful.