Thursday, 7 July 2016

Conodonts: 520 Million Years Long in the Tooth

Decent conodont fossils are frustratingly rare. Sure, their 'teeth' are so well known they're used as index fossils, id est, the distributions of particular types are used to gauge the age of the rocks in which they're found. Lacking the hard, bony skeletons of 'vertebrates proper', they don't leave so much to fossilise; ergo, only a handful of not-teeth-fossils are known. It's hardly surprising, then, that the arrangement of the hard elements within the head isn't fully understood. The animals are generally pretty small, ranging from 10mm to 400mm, and the teeth are only rarely found associated with the animal which used them. It's not even clear from the remains themselves how they were used, with a variety of feeding methods proposed, including filtration, crushing and actively grabbing hold of small prey. It's not hard to imagine conodonts as analogous to extant eels, and eel-like lampreys and hagfish - after all, they share a broadly similar form - but the feeding methods employed by those animals are disparate to say the least.

Given the poor preservation of the soft tissue elements of conodonts, many reconstructions are understandably pretty basic represented by little more than line art (and there's nothing wrong with that). However, Davide Bonadonna has put together this incredible image, which is probably the nearest anyone is going to get to a face-to-face encounter with our fishy (fishesque? fishish?) friend. Mercilessly terrifying, mercifully small.

Rocking the 'someone stepped on my tail' look: Clydagnathus. (Copyright © Davide Bonadonna.)

So Davide's pop-eyed conodont inspired something a little less scientific from me, in the form of this Alien3-Clydagnathus mash-up, and is available on products at my Redbubble store, here. And if you prefer something a little more scientific, you can buy Jaime Headden's instead.

The conodont Clydagnathus, which, were it alive today, would gestate in your chest and eventually smash through your ribcage. Why? Because pop culture. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger)

Big thanks to Davide Bonadonna for allowing the use of his work in this glorified advert. If you're unfamiliar with his incredible work, correct that immediately!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Blackpool's Place In Illustration History, The Passing Of Wildlife Artist David Johnston And Grabbing Your Reference When You Can

The seaside town they forgot to close down...

BA (Hons) Scientific and Natural History Illustration was a successful degree course with an international reputation and was run at Blackpool and the Fylde College of Art and Design until only a few years ago, when short-sighted management decided to turn an important college with students from all over the world into a very average one which tends only to the needs of the local populace. People hardly need a reason to avoid Blackpool; after all, it's an end-of-the-line seaside town with no pre-tourism industry to speak of (and precious little pre-tourism history), and a local government which has no firm long-term plans. It also finds itself high up in national rankings for deprivation, suicide and low life expectancy.

Two shoppers wait for Primark to open against the stunning backdrop of Blackpool Tower and the Fylde coast. (© Twentieth Century Fox.)

A marriage of science and art

The degree, which we used to refer to as 'Sci Ill', was initially taught by a former Technical Illustration student, Dave Johnston, who would become a world-renowned wildlife artist. Although he left the college the year before I started, I would get to know him at the print shop where I work, printing for him hundreds of reference images of myriad extant dinosaurs, but mainly corvids, larids and sternids. Though in his sixties, Dave still valued fresh reference material, though I was always a little surprised that, given his insatiable appetite for photography, there was still any photographic reference left for him to collect.

Die-hard Dougal Dixon fans may remember Dave as one of the two illustrators (the other being Andrew Robinson) who provided images for Dixon's The Illustrated Dinosaur Encyclopedia which was published by Hamlyn in the late '80s. Although I doubt the artwork blew anybody away, the treatment of many of the dinosaurs, especially the ceratopsians, did make them look 'fuzzy', albeit unintentionally, a long time before most palaeoartists were feathering anything other than Archaeopteryx and the odd segnosaur.

The Illustrated Dinosaur Encyclopedia by Dougal Dixon, illustrated by Dave Johnston and Andrew Robinson. (Not to be confused with The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs, by David Norman). Section of stolen blue pallet for scale.

Dave Johnston died unexpectedly last month, which ended one chapter in Blackpool's part in the story of British wildlife art - and it was quite a colourful chapter. His humanist service certainly had a 'rock star' vibe and many of those in attendance had that 'lived in' look. Blackpool has its characters; I think most of them were at Dave's funeral.

Sci Ill was set apart from similar courses in that it employed a full-time biologist (Mike Clapham) who was on-hand to tutor students in biological processes, but his main role was to level the playing field by teaching everybody how to effectively research their subject matter. This was combined with photography tuition; the theory went that your illustrations could only be as good as your reference.
This was a time when digital photography hadn't quite kicked film of its perch, so the entire class went out and purchased a tonne of 35mm camera gear. Every photoshoot ended with a trip to the local film developer, and if you didn't get it right, you had to do it all over again. Not really a problem if you're making clay dinosaurs, but if you're shooting something that's more time and location-sensitive, like the annual Fen tiger migration, it can be a real pain in the wallet. You kids don't know how good you've got it.

Cameras, cameras everywhere...

...and still no convincing thylacines or yetis. In 2016, of course, many of us don't go anywhere without at least a basic camera. Most mobile phones come with cameras as standard, and the quality of these has increased dramatically since they became commonplace some time in the '00s. Better lenses, better resolution and camera apps have between them provided people with the digital equivalent of the Instamatic. You don't really need a dedicated point-and-click camera if you own a mobile.

For artists, mobile phone cameras are pretty handy in that should you come across a scene or plant or something else not so easily or ethically brought back into the studio, you can photograph it with minimal fuss and add it to your reference library. You can record compositions and colours, organisms which you may wish to identify later, and, as was suggested to us during a field trip, evidence of illegal poaching and landscape destruction.

The highlight of my day: a dead bird. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

Whilst out on the school run, I noticed this unfortunate infant theropod in the middle of the pavement, tens of metres away from any obvious nest sites.  We can only speculate about how this animal found its way here. It certainly didn't fly itself there. But whilst I did have my trusty phone with me, I didn't have any means to transport the corpse back to my lab open-plan kitchen/lounge where I could take a better set of reference photos, and maybe ID it. From now on I carry a few plastic sandwich bags - just in case.

(I was going to offer a paragraph or two on the possible reasons for the liberal scattering of dead baby birds upon pavements, parks and gardens, but of course the second I searched the net, I see Darren Naish has already done it! - see here.)

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Rocky Transition From Paint To Pixels

Orca flies the flag

Last March, noted zoologist and living-encyclopaedia-on-tetrapods-and-selected-fish, Darren Naish, sent me some outlines to colour for Tetrapod Zoology's April Fools article. Cetacean Heresies detailed the bright colouration of extant cetaceans, and how those colours go undetected by the pitifully inadequate human eye. That black-and-white orca in your ornamental pond? Fringewhiner's Chromatic Truthometer shows it for what it really is: a gay rights poster boy. It's rainbows all the way. Rainbows are good.

Peponocephala and killer whale pod. (By Darren Naish and Gareth Monger; CC-NC-SA 2.0)

Special offers on piss-taking

The article was good fun, and was a veritable 2-for-1 deal; it parodied both a well-known fringe science blog, and one of those inexplicably popular (and subsequently internationally famous) internet memes - a photo of a blue-and-black dress which appeared to some internet users as a white-and-gold dress. In one of those bizarre twists, the woman who originally photographed the dress then came into the printshop where I work to run off a few copies of the photo, and STILL wasn't sick of talking about it.

Skamps (I think that's what we called these at uni) of generalised mosasaurs in different poses and angles. Pencil on paper. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

So why am I milking whales, ten months on? In short, it was the first time I'd used a digital package to put together a full-colour illustration, albeit in a rather rushed manner. At the time, nearly all of my work was coloured by hand, using gouache. (If you're not sure what that is, read my article on gouache at ArtDiscount.) If you are an experienced gouache user, you'll know it's no slower a medium to paint with than anything else, the main limitation to speed being how much detail you want to put into your image. It's considerably quicker to work with than oils, it dries reasonably quickly, and can be forgiving. However, there's a basic set-up time associated with it, namely the time taken to stretch paper, which can, if you're lucky, be as short as a couple of hours. There's nothing better than seeing a perfectly stretched sheet of 140lb Arches watercolour paper, ready to receive its first pencil mark. Conversely, there's nothing worse than seeing that your adhesive tape has failed on one side of your paper, and you've got to redo the whole damn thing. (For hints on paper stretching, see my dA post, here.)

Preliminary sketch (top) of a pair of Platecarpus, with soft tissue outline based on Lindgren et at, 2010. Revised outline (bottom) tweaked to reflect social media comments by palaeontologist Nathan Van Vranken. Note the shorter intermediate caudals' section. Pencil on paper. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

Material costs

This time, however, I heeded advice regarding digital illustration, and figured that these kinds of non-commercial, tight-deadline jobs would benefit from employing a more-speedy process. Material costs are also a consideration, and when a single sheet of paper costs upwards of five pounds, digital art offers a cost-effective alternative. That's not to say I've fallen out of love with toxic pigments and plant-based substrates, it's just that digital painting is very, very convenient. Also, I may go a couple of months without breaking out my paints and, inevitably, they dry out. Yes, they're water-based, but they're also awkward to rehydrate whilst in the tubes. The easiest way to get any use out of dried gouache is to slit open the metal tube and use it in the same way you would a watercolour pan. Of course, you're not really using it as gouache, but it eases the pain of seeing expensive paint dry out.

Pencil outline after some clean-up, and an initial pass through Photoshop to add some body-forming shading. Pencil on paper/digital. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

Going Digital, Sorta...

And so, with last year's April 1st in mind, and probably also inspired by seeing Amin something-or-other's passive-aggressive, and generally unwarranted, comments about Nic Grabow's (I think) deviatART mosasaur, I decided to knock out a quick full-colour render of a mosasaur, complete with background. Google's luck-of-the-draw-type results would determine the genus, which ended up being Platecarpus. Back in 2010, Johan Lindgren, Michael W. Caldwell, Takuya Konishi and Luis M. Chiappe published in PLOS ONE a paper on convergent evolution in aquatic tetrapods, focussing on a specimen of Platecarpus which displayed some excellent soft tissue preservation, and which suggested that a crescent-shaped caudal fin was present in life.

 Lindgren, et al (2010). CC-BY-2.5

A reconstruction in Lindgren et al (2010) (left) suggested a possible soft tissue outline for Platecarpus, based on the specimen discussed in the paper. The dorsal portion of the fluke is only tentatively restored, as implied by the fuzzy margins, but it's enough to offer a hint on how to progress with an illustration for a palaeoartist. Scott Hartman also writes about this at Skeletal Drawing, in the article 'Mosasaur Tails - Teaching the Controversy', and offers a handful of likely shapes which a palaeoartist may wish to adopt. Whatever the case, the traditional view of mosasaurs as having essentially lizard-like tails, albeit laterally compressed and ribbon-like, is out of vogue, especially for later genera, and shows that a more (superficially) traditionally-fish-like fluke was adopted by secondarily aquatic reptiles in several disparate groups. Oh, and dorsal frills are out too, having been mercilessly copied from Charles Knight's Tylosaurus for decades. Hey, I did it (over a decade ago, mind).

A pair of Platecarpus, lured into posing for this image by the promise of a David Attenborough voice-over. Digital. (Copyright © 2016 Gareth Monger.)

So here's my full-colour illustration of two Platecarpus, swimming around calmly like obedient Seaworld killer whales. The original layout was an evening's work; the colour work took a second evening. On the whole, I'm pretty pleased, and yes, of course, there are things I would change/add. Integumentary structures, for example, aren't evident, but then they might not be at this distance. The foreshortening on the caudal fin caused some confusion, with some commenting that the fluke angles were incorrect. They weren't, or, at least, they were based on the aforementioned reference, and it was the foreshortening causing them to appear unfamiliar. But that's to be expected when most pictorial reference is in diagrammatic, lateral view. One noted mosasaur expert didn't like the blubbery look; another palaeontologist figured it simply denoted healthy individuals. There was a speculative angle to this, which was to show a more fluid outline in an animal which spends its entire life in fluid.

But on the whole, not so bad for a couple of evenings' work.


Hartman, S (2016) Mosasaur Tails - "Teaching the Controversy"

Lindgren J, Caldwell MW, Konishi T, Chiappe LM (2010) Convergent Evolution in Aquatic Tetrapods: Insights from an Exceptional Fossil Mosasaur. PLoS ONE 5(8): e11998. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011998

Naish, D (2015) Cetacean Heresies: How The Chromatic Truthometer Busts The Monochromatic Paradigm.

Want to support me?

If you like what you're reading and you want to help me keep this going, maybe take a look at my Redbubble page? Here's a mostly-relevant mosasaur (Globidens, not Platecarpus, but who cares?):

Globidens, Haida-style, available on t-shirts, mugs, and a butt-load of other stuff, via Redbubble.