Friday, March 7, 2008


NOVA recently aired a documentary about the flying dinosaur called Microraptor gui, which was discovered a few years ago in Liaoning, China.

I love this little four-winged wonder, and featured it in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. Here is Microraptor flying over the rooftops of Chandara, with its front wings up and its back “wings” or legs down.

Whether this creature was capable of flapping, and what position it held its arms and legs in flight are the subjects of lively debate among both scientists and artists.

What I’d like to show you here is a practical tip for making a quick reference maquette for a creature like this so that you can get the perspective right. I call it a “2D to 3D maquette.” This method would also work for insects, birds, and fish.

To begin with, I found the science article by the Chinese paleontologist Xu Xing, and printed out the dorsal view of the creature, with its arms and legs splayed out flat. The printout was on card stock.

Then I hot-glued some thin aluminum armature wire underneath the paper cutout. I tried to place the wire where the bones go. I then beefed up the volume of the head and chest with plasticene, or modeling clay.

I now had a fully poseable maquette in 3D, which allowed me to experiment with different wing positions. I placed a light source to see how the big planes would look in light and shadow.

This is the work of only an hour or two, but it helped me choose the angle and pose, and it gave me crucial information about the foreshortening of the wing shapes, the cast shadow on his left wing, and the appearance of the tail.

NOVA video on its website, Link.
New Scientist Article, Link.
Wikipedia article on Microraptor, Link.
Thanks, Mike Sheehan.

Tomorrow: The Sinking of the Cumberland


Anonymous said...

This is great. What do you use if you need a human "maquette." If it's one of those wooden guys, how do you use it? Judy

Erik Bongers said...

Can I ask how you prepared for the dome ?
Because the golden shine, with the blue-ish reflection from the sky in the middle is very convincing.
(It's probably grey-ish in absolute colors, but it appears like a blue sky reflection)

Anonymous said...

That's a pretty neat idea, creating a 'surface model' to paint from. I really should get myself some neutral coloured plasticiene -blue isn't really optimal for light and colour studies. :]
The article was also fascinating, although the video feeds from NOVA are unfortunately restricted to inhabitants of North America. I don't know why they make such a big deal about whether birds learned flying from going up or from 'falling' from trees. It's like trying to find the first beings that used fire or the ones who first decided to wear animal skins...

James Gurney said...

Hi, Judy...I got a couple of those old fashioned wooden mannikins, but I must admit I've never used them because the forms and articulation don't really look right. I know there are better ones on the market, and I've tried making my own to follow the Bridgman planes. But in reality, I just make up figures for quick sketches, and then get real human models (or pose myself) for finished figure work.

Erik, the dome is a combination of a lot of photo reference of different kinds of gold and bronze domes, some that I photographed, and some clipped from magazines.

Jen: too bad those video feeds don't work outside NA, and I agree with you about the way that the battle lines on flight origin theories. The debate among scientists is actually more subtle and complex than it appears in this TV show, which had to simplify the arguments and make them entertaining.

Matt said...

Awesome maquette tip Jim!!! Thanks. I'll definitely add this to my bag of tricks. Thanks again.

Charles Alexander said...

Fantastic work! I just discovered your blog yesterday. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience. I have learned so much--and spent most of yesterday reading everything you have posted.

Roca said...

Nice. I got to see the Microraptor fossil at the North Carolina Museum of Natural History recently. It was an awesome exhibit!

Anonymous said...

I watched the NOVA documentary earlier this week and was blown away by the fine detail and full articulation of the microraptor model they used for testing wing configurations in the wind tunnel. Always fascinating to see the meshing of science and art. I'm sure it would've made for the ideal reference tool for you too! But the maquette you created appears to be the next best thing, certainly, and thanks for the tips on constructing and using our own. They will definitely be coming in handy.

Michael Damboldt said...

Great stuff! I actually saw that special on NOVA. thanks for showing us the way you work!

DPetersen said...

Great to see your model-making process!!

Kevin Hedgpeth said...


Jose Parramon had a plan for building a similarly-articulated cardstock "humanoid" maquette in one of his books.
I think it was "How to Draw the Human Figure".

I have a bin of toy cars, dinosaur replicas, G.I. Joes and the like that I use for drawing & lighting reference.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this information. I am currently doing an editorial illustration for class on the Microraptor. I have to watch that video now, and the maquette process was useful to see, as of course, were your paintings of them in the book. I've put everything in my process folder to look through as I work on it.
Thanks again for the help!

Sotopia concepts said...

Really cool this maquette of the Microraptor gui. If you have a 3D digital drawing of the Microraptor gui we can print it in a 3D printer.