Friday, October 16, 2009

Maiacetus, Part 2

To imagine the four-legged whale Maiacetus, I made a quick maquette out of Fimo, keeping it in scale to printouts of the skeleton drawings. The baby maquette was easier to make; it didn't even need legs, because I knew I would photograph it mostly underwater.

After painting the maquettes, I placed them on a blackened cookie sheet covered with about a half inch of water. The C-stand holds a white umbrella to try to get some fill light into the shadow.

Here's the resulting photo, with small waves creating reflections. The reason I added the tail flukes was that I read an argument for them on a science discussion forum online. There are no bones in a whale's tail flukes, so it seemed reasonable to speculate that flukes might have been emerging in this cetacean ancestor.

But just to be sure, I contacted Dr. Philip Gingerich, who made the fossil discovery, and he said the evidence of the tail bones definitely rules out flukes. So off they came.

With the help of the reference photos, along with plein air studies that I had made of lakeside scenes, I did the final oil painting.
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ADDENDUM--At the request of art director M. K. reading the blog, here's how the final page looked. Thanks to Donna Miller, art director for Ranger Rick, who fit everything together!

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To see all the Ranger Rick posts back to back, link.

18 comments:

Ginger*:) said...

You always amaze me..challenge me and delight all of us! Thank you for always sharing so generously.

jeff jordan said...

Do you think about doing straight up bronze sculpture? Or have you already done it? Seems like a small step from the maquettes.......

Brian Floca said...

Another great post. And now a question, maybe one that's been asked before, but, do you save your maquettes? I'd like to imagine a herd of them crowding a shelf in your studio.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Ginger...it's fun to document the process and share it with y'all.

Jeff, no I haven't done bronzes yet, but it's a fun thing to think about.

Brian, yes, I hang on to most of the maquettes, because they're fairly small. And yes, they are taking over the shelves in the studio!

Drew said...

Wow, the final painting looks really great! Can I ask what exactly about the tail bone structure ruled out flukes in the creature?

Also, I'm not sure if you've covered this topic before on the blog, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on rendering different textures in paint, such as suggesting scales over shiny, wet skin (like Maiacetus here!) or feathers instead of fur.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Drew..I don't know much about what to look for in the caudal vertebrae of cetaceans with flukes--I'm guessing that they're more robust to allow for anchoring.

About the surfaces, I coated the Fimo maquette with acrylic gloss medium to make it look shinier. I looked at a lot of reference photos of hippos for ideas on how the highlights should look in a view toward the sun. Even a fur-covered aquatic animal like a seal or an otter looks pretty shiny when it's wet. That's where the scrap file comes in handy to help go beyond the details of the maquette.

Tyler J said...

Great process and final product again.

I notice that the water looks very different in the final piece, what are some of the factors for how much liberty to take with it, does your experience kick in and you can just make it up?

Also, the printed version is flipped and I wonder how that is for you. I have read that many artists use a mirror to look at their work in reverse to catch things that they might otherwise miss (and to see it with fresh eyes, as it were) but every time I do it, the piece looks so odd that is almost stops my progression.

Thanks again for maintaining such a great blog!

Tyler J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Antoine said...

I'am not at all a paleontologist but I teach human anatomy and I'am very astonished by the spinous process of the vertebrae of the Maiacetus : on the skeleton you show us, spinous process of thoracic and lombar vertebral column are in the opposite angle (caudal for thoracic and cranial for lombar) : is it normal on dinosaurs ? was this on the original fossile ?

James Gurney said...

Antoine: good question and interesting observation, but I don't have a good answer. Maybe someone else knows more about it.

MANu said...

Thank you for sharing all this Jim. This is all so useful! Is the maquette making somthing you have always used? I think its great!
manny

Markus Bühler said...

The painting is really wonderful, and it is really nice to see how you made this nice little maquettes to illustrate the working process of such a work. I am very interested in the prehistory of whales as well as other mammals which turned back to sea, and there are so many highly interesting and bizarre species which are nearly unknown in popular science. Several extremely freaky new whales were found in the last years or "rediscovered" in old museum archives. Those transitional species like Maiacetus are of course especially interesting, because they tell us a lot about the evolution of whales. But there are still so much unanswered questions which can turn you really mad when you try to reconstruct such an animal. You alway mentioned the fluke problem. As far as I remember in Karl Zimmer´s book "At the Water's Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea" there is a notion about the flukes. As far as I remember the posterior vertebra of modern whales show some morphological traits which are coresponding with the fluke, and which are absent in very primitive whales. Very early fully aquatic whales like Dorudon had also still wider tails, which were not that strongly horizontally compressed as those of modern whales. But as other organs those flukes must also have a more or less gradual development. But how did they look like? Were there early forms which had rounded flukes similar to those of manatees? Animals like Maiacetus were still comparably well adapted for a terrestrial life, still much better than seals for example, but they share already a lot of morphological characteristics with more evolved species which spent probly already most of their life in the water. I suppose flukes evolved already comparably early in whales because even very primitive aquatic forms had strongly reduced hind limbs and in contrast to fur seals their forelegs don´t seem to have had much impact on the locomotion. There are of course several other problems too. For example the question when whales lost their fur. Many depictions show even early whales completely naked, but we have no idea when this actually happened for the first time. All modern seals have fur, even those living in warm water. Seacows which inhabit only warmer water (except giant extinct species like Hydrodamalis gigas of course)and have also only isolated hairs remaining. Early whales evolved in comparably warm regions, so I wouldn´t rule out that they lost all their fur (ecxept whiskers) already at a very early and still very terrestrial stage. Modern pygmy hippos spend comparably much time on land, at least more than normal hippos, and they are also completely furless. I have already asked me how the loss of the fur occured. Became it more and more shorter, or perhaps more like in pigs or man apes lesser and lesser dense? Was it a comparably sponanous mutation which caused the loss of hair which those which is responsible for the lose of the hind legs?

Markus Bühler said...

Another problem is the layer of fat. If I look at reconstructions of archaeoceti I am under the impression that most of them are too skinny. Even in tropical environments mammals need an isolation in the water. In modern whales, seals and also penguins especially in the neck region a lot of fat is stored. This doesn´t only help them to maintain their body temperature but also helps to generate a more hydrodynamic shape. The layer of blubber has an enormous consequence for the external shape of an animal. I made once some test drawing based on a Basilosaurus skeleton. The "traditional" reconstruction looked very reptilian and a bit like a mosasaur. But adding more fat in the neck region made it looking more like a modern whale. As even the very early aquatic forms like Basilosaurus were already much better adapted to a life in the water than seals for example, I can hardly imagine that they did not have already comparably "fat" necks. There are some very nice exponats in the Museum of Natural History Berlin which show marine tetrapod-skeletons with unilaterl casts of the external shape:
http://bestiarium.kryptozoologie.net/artikel/ein-blick-ins-innere-mariner-tetrapoden-und-warum-weichteile-lugen/
In the region below the mandible and the neck the layer of fat completely flatens the underlying bone and muscle shapes. The neck on your maquette looks much more plausible than those shown on many other reconstructions, especially with the small rolls of flab at the incurvature.
Another issue I already discussed with my friend Carl Buell, who has also already worked a lot with fossil whales reconstructions (he made also the illustrations for Karl Zimmer´s book)is the lip region. If we look at modern mammals, nearly all have moveable lips which are able to shut the mouth completely. Modern toothed whales have no true lips anymore, but still their teeth aren´t visible when they close their jaws (except oddballs like ganges river dolphins and males of narwhales and some beaked whales). If you look at animals like orcas or false orcas which have proportionally very large teeth, you can still only see the lower teeth from the side when the mouth is opened. The lower teeth occlude when the mouth is closed between or besides the teeth of the upper jaw, and both tooth-rows are covered by the stiff lips of the upper jaw, which also isolate the mouth against the surrounding water. Archaic whales like Basiloaurus are often portrayed with teeth in the upper jaw which are still visible, what gives them a very reptilian-like appearance. But in this case they wouldn´t be able to completely shut their mouths, execpt with very flexible lips, completely unlike modern whales. It would be strange if whales turned from terrestrial carnivores which were surely able to shut their mouths completely over a crocodile-like form where the teet were still visible when the mouth was closed to modern toothed whales which can shut their mouths. So it seems most plausible that archaeoceti also had upper teeth which were covered by lips. I also made a test drawing in this case based on an archaic whale skull, and again the simple adding of lips turned the traditional reptilian whale to a much more modern looking mammalian whale. The covering of the upper teeth by lips gives the whole head a very different looking, especially because it suddenly seems much higher. I´ve sculpted two model reconstructions, one of Basilosaurus (which I also used for a weight calculation experiment) and one of Dorudon, which I sculpted with covered upper teeth and a moderately fat neck. I have them not online, only a small model of Janjucetus I sculpted based on the reconstructed skull:
http://bestiarium.kryptozoologie.net/artikel/janjucetus-hunderi-der-scharfzahnige-uronkel-der-bartenwale/

Markus Bühler said...

I added additional soft tissue in the region of the nostrils. The heads of archaic whales look very often highly similar to the shape of the skull, and the nostrils are sometimes only pure wholes. But even modern baleen whales (which are here probably a better comparison as they lack the melons of modern toothed whales) have bulbous nostrils which have cartilaginous and musculous parts, what leads to a different external profile and postion of the nostrils than the bare bone would show. Here we have again one of this bloody problems we can´t see from the bare bones. What did they snouts of the earliest whales look like? Were the soft-tissue parts somewhat anteriorly produring like dog snouts or more like those of pygmy hippos for example?
This are really a lot of questions I already asked them to myself when I wanted to make some own reconstructions. Fur, amount of subcutaneous fat, lips, flukes, snouts...all that not-preserved soft-tissue is really a mess, because it can cause very strong effects on the actual reconstruction. I think this is much lesser problematic in dinosaurs and other reptiles, as they have in general much lesser facial musculature and subcutaneous fat, and the skulls give in general already a very good idea how they looked in life.
Have you ever used any archaic whales for Dinotopia, or have you painted some of them for any other projects? I really love the way in which you paint, especially because it has such a great vintage-style, and because everything looks so lively, similar to the amazing paintings of Burian.

James Gurney said...

Markus, I'm so grateful you took the time to share all these incredible observations and thoughts. And thanks for that fascinating link to the museum half-models.

In dealing with the fat and dermal layers, I stayed pretty close to the skeleton to be conservative, though I gave her a thicker dermal layer than the reconstructions offered by the official discovery team and the other publications. As you suggest, fur would certainly be a possibility, and would not hold up streamlining that much. I was thinking not only of seals, but also otters.

As a general thing, I suppose most paleo artists tend to stick a little too close to the skeleton, maybe because we want to show were it is, and it's often all we know for sure. Your brilliant observations will make me think harder about this topic next time.

Sweet One said...

I have the October issue of Ranger Rick. THIS PICTURE IS NOT THERE. There was an article on sea monsters with your art, but not this.

There is nothing on Miacetus, ot that giant S. American rodent. In what issue did it appear ????

James Gurney said...

Sweet One: Please check the date of the post. It was October 2009, not 2010. Sorry you missed it.

Markus Bühler said...

It´s already more than two years ago since this post about Maiacetus was written, but I think it´s still an interesting topic. I wrote already here at the comment section about soft-tissue in fossil whales, and now I have written a long post at my blog about the reconstruction of archaeocetes, and why they had lips, nostrils and thick necks. The blog post is written in German, but I included many photographs, an illustration I made for the article and photos of a model I sculpted, so it should be understandable what problems there are with reconstructing primitive whales:

http://bestiarium.kryptozoologie.net/artikel/fossile-wale-teil-1-was-bei-vielen-darstellungen-von-urwalen-falsch-gemacht-wird/