Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Hobbit and Tolkien's Great Eagles

Quickly now to the top of this rock the eagles swooped one by one and set down their passengers.
"Farewell!" they cried, "wherever you fare, till your eyries receive you at the journey's end!" That is the polite thing to say among eagles.
"May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks," answered Gandalf, who knew the correct reply.
From Chapter VII of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien.
In these busy days leading up to the fast approaching holiday madness, against all odds, I've managed to finish reading The Hobbit and went to see the movie. Or rather, the first of the three films: An Unexpected Journey. As much as I enjoyed the three Lord of the Rings movies as they were released, this is actually my first time reading Tolkien.

The Hobbit

Warning: SPOILERS!

The book is very charming and has succeeded in making me want to read more of Tolkien's work and delve deeper into this world. Being only a casual Tolkien fan, I don't think my opinion of the film adaptation is all that relevant. Though as a more general movie fan, I will say I didn't think this installment lived up to all the hype; maybe the next two will. Epic battle scenes are awesome. Excessive epic battle scenes, coupled with what I felt was rushed character and plot development, are tiring. But that said, I liked it well enough, it was as beautiful as I expected, and some of my favorite scenes - the Dwarves' songs, the riddle-game with Gollum, the stone giants in the thunderstorm, the eagles, and so on - were marvelous!

Oh yes, the EAGLES. What I really want to talk about is the eagles. I'm sure you all could have guessed that the parts of the book I most enjoyed and most looked forward to seeing brought to life in the film have to do with the Great Eagles of Middle-earth. In the book, the eagles are fully conscious beings and can speak. Their leader, the Lord of the Eagles, was once healed by Gandalf from an arrow wound (there are apparently more eagle rulers in other Tolkien books, but only the Lord of the Eagles is present along with other unnamed eagles in The Hobbit).

The small backstory would've been more interesting in the movie rather than Gandalf sending a moth to beckon the eagles. In the book, the eagles simply notice all the commotion of the goblins and wargs from their high perches and come down to investigate, coincidentally just in time to save Gandalf, the Dwarves, and Bilbo from the tops of the burning trees. They're carried high to the inaccessible peaks of the mountains to the eagles' eyries. The great birds are happy to repay Gandalf for his past kindness and also agree to carry the travelers a bit further after spending the night. So the next morning the group climbs onto the backs of the eagles and sets out.
Bilbo opened an eye to peep and saw that the birds were already high up and the world was far away, and the mountains were falling back behind them into the distance. He shut his eyes again and held on tighter.
"Don't pinch!" said his eagle. "You need not be frightened like a rabbit, even if you look rather like one. It is a fair morning with little wind. What is finer than flying?"
Bilbo would have liked to say: "A warm bath and late breakfast on the lawn afterwards;" but he thought it better to say nothing at all, and to let go his clutch just a tiny bit.
From Chapter VII of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien.
While the movie doesn't reveal anything about the eagles aside from being majestic beasts that swoop in to save the day (much like their appearances in the Lord of the Rings films), the book reveals slightly more about their motivations and character. From the book, I imagined them to be a bit like the animal gods are portrayed in Princess Mononoke: beautiful and awe-inspiring, yet equally terrifying and potentially deadly at the same time.

I've seen several mentions roundabout the internets that the elk-creature the Elvenking Thranduil was riding in the film is likely based on the recently extinct Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus), one of the largest deer that has ever lived, with the largest antlers of any known cervid. I have no idea if this is based on anything in other Tolkien writings or not (do let me know in the comments if you happen to know) but it did get me thinking about what the Great Eagles might be based on. They look most like hugely oversized Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) to me, as far as extant eagles are concerned. The largest known eagle that has ever lived, the extinct Haast's Eagle (Harpagornis moorei), though impressive in size with a wingspan of almost 10 feet, was still too small to be the species of eagle as they're shown in the movie. So in size, no actual eagle can quite get there.

But, there is another group of extinct birds of prey that possibly do come somewhat close to matching the epic size of the fantasy eagles: the teratorns. The biggest of the teratorns and largest flying bird ever discovered, Argentavis magnificens, was thought to have a wingspan of up to 23 feet. Incredible! I've been lucky enough to see wild bald eagles a number of times, and once witnessed one lifting off the ground close enough to thoroughly startle me - bald eagles have a wingspan of about 5 to 7 feet, and they look massive close up with wings spread! I can't quite imagine how impressive a bird with a 23 foot wingspan would be.

It's perhaps only loosely relevant, but I don't think I can end this post without mentioning the largest known flying animals to ever grace the skies of planet earth: the pterosaurs of the family Azhdarchidae. The size of Quetzalcoatlus didn't even need slight exaggerating for the Skybax riders to seem plausible in James Gurney's Dinotopia books. The idea of riding on oversized flying creatures never gets old to me, and apparently captures the imagination of plenty of others out there as well.

And with that, my friends, may your beard grow ever longer! Or, breathe deep, seek peace...whichever you prefer.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Painting Progress

Here are a couple early progress shots from one of the paintings I'm currently working through. Core Ouroboros is its working title for now. Acrylic on canvas, 3' x 2'. Both photos were taken at rather odd angles to reduce glare.

Painting progress 2

Painting progress 1

Friday, November 30, 2012

New Drawings

A few exploratory drawings for a new series of paintings I'm working on (apologies for the subpar scans):

Celestial Boa

Ouroboros Sketch 1Ouroboros Sketch 2

Thursday, November 29, 2012



I've re-committed myself to reading more real actual books lately. I'd become increasingly lazy about it over the past couple years, reading books here and there but devouring the majority of my reading material online and from a few choice magazines (Nat Geo, Smithsonian, etc). I think this is an easy trap to fall into for a primarily non-fiction reader like myself. With that said, I'm also challenging myself to read more fiction.

I have decided to share some books as I finish them here on my blog. My intake of reading material ranges from loosely related to highly influential on what comes out in my artwork, so I think it's relevant. Or, at least it might be something to spark conversation amongst those of us who have some overlap in reading interests.

As science fiction is my favorite genre in film and TV, of course it's the first place I've turned to for book choices in the realm of fiction. So, here's the falling-apart paperback copy of Neuromancer, the classic cyberpunk novel from 1984, that I finished up a couple weeks ago. It was recommended by my husband who read it for one of his college courses a few years ago. I enjoyed it. I'm unfamiliar with and newly learning about the origins of cyberpunk; it seems that Neuromancer, and apparently William Gibson's work in general, has been hugely influential on the genre and sci-fi at large. The Matrix movies came to mind repeatedly as I was reading it (the use of "Zion" especially caught my attention). There were times when it strongly reminded me of Blade Runner (which predates this novel), though more loosely in the sense of mixing sci-fi with elements of crime noir (if I can use that term). I also thought of the Ghost in the Shell movies/Stand Alone Complex quite a bit. And I'm sure there are plenty of other books, movies, and series I'm as yet unfamiliar with that it applies to as well.

There are two more novels after this one that complete William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy. I'll be on the lookout for them in the future. You know, the dystopian near-future. For now, I'm already deep into my next read - you might be able to guess what it is based on a highly anticipated movie coming out next month.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Flying Messages of Yore

Siouxland PigeonGram

A recent news headline captured my imagination and sent me on a mission learning about the history of carrier pigeons. The relationships throughout history between humans and service/working animals has always been fascinating to me, but I'd only really considered equines and dogs for the most part, and elephants, dolphins and falcons to a lesser extent. For whatever reason, carrier pigeons have almost completely escaped my awareness until now.

Naturally, I immediately began working out plans for my future company, Siouxland PigeonGram. If there's one thing missing in the Sioux Falls area, clearly it's the option of having a message carried over the city and plains by an avian master of navigation.* According to my calculations, I'm confident this will be a highly lucrative business move.**

Siouxland PigeonGram is tentatively set to open on May 1st, 2025 (weather permitting).

*Oh sure, you laugh now. When the zombie apocalypse hits and all modern communication methods are rendered useless, you'll be begging to utilize my pigeon post services.

**I absolutely do know how to perform relevant calculations regarding bird-based business plans.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Eli's Camel Rides

Here's one of my favorite client-based projects I worked on over the summer. How does a little startup designer like myself meet someone from an Oklahoma based camel ride company who needs a new logo? Well, apparently by the luck of proximity and word-of-mouth: working at my summer job at the zoo and having some wonderful coworkers who recommended me.

Eli's Camel Rides Logo

The looming challenge this logo presented me with was, of course, the overwhelming association between any camel illustrations/images and Camel Cigarettes. I created a huge number of preliminary logo sketches that were very far removed from the side view of a camel in an attempt to cut ties with those associations as much as possible. However, the client was intent on having a realistic image of a walking camel and so I gathered a library of reference photos, drew up a number of walking camels, and we eventually decided on the one in the final logo you see here. (Here's the main reference photo I used.)

The client's instructions also included containing the logo within a box shape, which was another whole challenge in itself. The type was completely up to me, with the simple direction that the logo look more on the side of timeless or classic, as opposed to trendy. A combination of Bulmer (for its classic elegance - that capital 'R' is to die for!) and Univers (for its solid simplicity) were our ultimate choice. I created the logo in both the square knockout form and as a free-standing logo, as I was concerned that the square could be problematic in some usages. The client may never end up using the non-square logo, but at least the option is there if needed.

Eli's Camel Rides Business Cards

The business cards are one-sided and are printed on a recycled off-white stock. Creating the pattern was fun for me but is also a serious step for setting the feel of the business identity. The same pattern can now be used across any of the company's print or web materials to give everything a cohesive/professional look.

I noticed that the website has been down for several days now, but visit in the future for more information about the company and the camels. The two dromedary camels I got to know over the summer were named Cletus and Cam. If you ever get a chance to ride on a camel, DO IT. It's surprisingly different from riding a a slightly scary way if you're a little afraid of heights like I am!

Cosmic Doodles

Cosmic Doodles

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sketchings - Secret Dolphins

This is a much older page from the same sketchbook as in my previous post. Some of what you see here is iffy practice in isometric perspective.


One of the dirty little secrets contained in my sketchbooks is that, unfortunately, I still have a serious dolphin-drawing habit lingering on from my childhood. Shh, don't tell anyone.

Today's Sketchings

Well, it's been another long stretch of silence on my poor blog. By the end of this month or early in August, if all goes well, I hope to be launching my new illustration series that's been in development for many months now. In the meantime, I'll be updating more frequently with my least favorite thing in the world to share: raw sketchbook pages. Ick.

Sketchbook 7.18.12

This one is from today. It's a very typical example of what most of my sketchbook pages look like - loosely related thoughts scratched out between stretches of more focused work on other projects. I've always preferred to only share work that's more developed and refined, both technically and conceptually. Now that I've been away from college for some time, I realize that I'm not receiving the kind of critical feedback in the early stages of ideas that can be quite helpful. So I suppose it isn't a completely terrible idea to share some uncensored sketches here...but it still makes me cringe.

Dinosaurs and weather are no strangers to my sketchbooks, but Sputnik suddenly seems to be making a lot of appearances. Interesting.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Good Luck Minis by Safari Ltd

Have any of you seen these Good Luck Mini toys made by Safari? I just started collecting a few of them. They're incredibly small and incredibly detailed for their size. They're made of slightly squishy plastic material and feel almost like erasers. They all seem to be based on the larger Safari models of the same species.

Flamingo Bald Eagle


Zoo gift shops are hazardous places for me. I suspect Toys-R-Us probably carries these as well. You can check out all the other animals and dinosaurs available as Good Luck Minis at the Safari website.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"Dino-Roars!" at the Great Plains Zoo

This past Sunday was the last day to visit the "Dino-Roars!" traveling exhibit at the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls, so I'm long overdue for a blog post on it. The exhibit featured several animatronic dinosaurs, some large and some baby/juvenile sized. The Great Room of the Zoo, normally used for banquets, weddings, and other events, was transformed into a prehistoric wonderland for several months.

The lighting was dramatic - dim and moody, with spotlighting on the dinosaurs - but my photos suffered for it. The movement was powered by pneumatics (by one large air compressor, as far as I could tell), so in the background of the dinosaur calls and roars were the muffled sounds of hissing air and clicking metal parts if you listened for it.

Onward into the exhibit! The first dinosaurs seen upon entering the room were a pair of dueling Pachycephalosaurus. It may be a bit of a cliche to see them portrayed butting heads this way, but it's still undeniably cool! They both moved up and down a little and opened and closed their mouths. The one on the left made lunges forward with its upper body and grunted loudly at its adversary. I thought these two looked good overall, with the exception of maybe the eyes - it seemed strange that they appear to be squinting.

Pachycephalosaurus Pachycephalosaurus

Next on the tour was a huge Pteranodon hanging from the ceiling overhead. I couldn't quite capture the whole thing in my photos. The body was covered by fabric, giving it the appearance of having "peach fuzz". The sign beneath it also briefly explained about how pterosaurs were not dinosaurs. Excellent.


On the opposite side from the pachycephalosaurs and Pteranodon was a family of Maiasaura: a mother, three juveniles, and a large nest of eggs and hatching babies. The juveniles made cute cooing, calling noises (somewhat less cute when hearing it for 8 hours at a time, but still cute nonetheless). These Maiasaura won over many children who initially were scared of the dinosaurs when first entering the exhibit. They seemed to be a favorite among younger kids.

Maiasaura & Babies

Maiasaura Juvenile

The definite favorite among most older/non-scared children was the Albertosaurus. The head moved and the mouth opened to let out a mighty roar every minute or so. Beside it was a Euoplocephalus, which swung its tail defensively at the Albertosaurus. Bunny-hands aside, the Albertosaurus was quite impressive!




Everything is looking pretty good so far, right? Well, it wouldn't be a true classic animatronic dinosaur experience without at least one display that makes paleo-literate folks face-palm. The scaly, naked pack of Deinonychus bringing down a hapless Tenontosaurus was by far the most unfortunate part of the exhibit. These clever girls stepped straight out of a time capsule from 1993. I sighed a bit every time I laid eyes on them. More recent research and discoveries about dromaeosaurs are one of the things that pulled me back into my obsession with dinosaurs after a hiatus of several years, and of course I want nothing more than for others to be inspired the same way. But hopefully, in the end, the interest in dinosaurs overall that the exhibit has generated for visitors far outweighs any outdated information.

Deinonychus & Tenontosaurus

The last dinosaur to see before ending up in the dino gift shop was Apatosaurus, an adult and juvenile. Though technically neither one of them were adult sized, the larger of the two did seem very big while standing next to it. The "hands" were the typical inaccurate elephant-feet reconstructions, but the tails were lifted well off the ground at least. These were my personal favorites of the entire exhibit. Just look at those faces! I think I found them so endearing because they vaguely reminded me of one of my favorite movies as a kid - Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend.

Apatosaurus & Juvenile

Apatosaurus & Juvenile

Since I'm working part-time as a seasonal (temporary) summer employee at the zoo, I had the pleasure of spending quite a few days working as the dino-keeper while the exhibit was there. This mainly involved ringing up visitors for the entrance fee and dino gift shop items, but also gave me a chance to occasionally talk with people about the dinosaurs on slower days. I always had at least one great interaction, usually with children, throughout the day that made the more menial parts of the job well worth it. Some of the most memorable were kids that would tell me about their favorite dinosaur they saw, and then wanted help finding that particular dinosaur amongst the plastic models. I sensed the slight annoyance of more than one parent as their kid(s) and I enthusiastically rummaged through toys, talking excitedly about all the different dinosaurs. I'm usually not that great working with children, but in this setting it was truly fun. My highest goal was to make the experience as memorable as absolutely possible for the kids. I couldn't help but think that if any of the children I talked to are anything like myself, they will not only remember the exhibit fondly, but also still have those dinosaur toys many, many years later.

More photos, along with a few short video clips of the movement of some of the dinosaurs, can be found on my Flickr.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Pilot Whales in Watercolor

After spending even more time than usual at my computer this past week working on various graphic design projects, by Friday afternoon my eyes were fried and I was feeling stuck. I enjoy long-term projects, but it can also get frustrating not to see much for results on a day-to-day basis. Simple watercolor paintings are becoming my cure for mid-project burnout. I force myself not to overanalyze the subject matter - I just pick something quick that inspires me and sketch it out without much planning, then start painting it in. I try to finish within a few hours.

This one turned out ok and, miraculously, I even remembered to take some progress photos!

Pilot Whale Pod (progress 1)

Pilot Whale Pod (progress 2)

Pilot Whale Pod (progress 3)

Pilot Whale Pod (progress 4)

Pilot Whale Pod

The colors are a bit washed out in the final scan. It looks truer to the second to last photo above. I didn't bother to adjust color since it'll have to be re-scanned anyway if I want to do anything with it. I've reached my limits of patience with my scanner, which has been producing crappy, blurry images and keeps making some darker areas show up as a splotchy mess (like on the darkest parts of the largest pilot whale). The scan you see above was my sixth attempt at adjusting settings on the scanner to fix it. I guess I need to find somewhere local that can scan my paintings professionally for me. Whether it's my scanner or user error, scanning these myself just isn't cutting it anymore. Maybe someday I'll have my very own awesome large-format scanner (haha...). Also, the painting is just slightly larger than my scanner so there's a bit of cropping, most noticeably at the bottom edge.

Some technical notes on working in watercolor: to achieve texture like is in the water of this piece, I use a combination of spritzing fine droplets of water from a spray bottle and sprinkling salt on the surface in various stages of drying. For dark colors, I build up layers of lighter colors while letting them thoroughly dry between coats. I also almost never use black, but instead "build" blacks and grays out of other colors to give it more richness and depth. For example, the black and grays on the pilot whales are layers of mixed Payne's Gray, Phthalo Blue, Cobalt Blue, and Phthalo green.

I think I'll play around with this one digitally a bit once I have a better scan of it. You can view the details of the piece in larger sizes at Flickr.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Unofficial Prognosis

I recently had the pleasure of being commissioned by a new member to the Scientific American blog network, Ilana Yurkiewicz, to create a custom banner image. She is a first year Harvard medical student and her blog is called Unofficial Prognosis.

Unofficial Prognosis Header

One of my biggest challenges was creating an image that would work well at a rather small size, as the icon is only 200 x 135 px as it appears on the website. Based on her concept, I felt that pictogram style elements would work most successfully. Coming up with pictograms that have their own unique character, yet still are of a simple, geometric nature is one of my favorite areas of design.

My process in creating pictograms always starts with first researching what's already been done. Research is an important step with this because when images are pared down to their essential forms, it's easy to end up creating something exactly like what's already out there. With some items, it's practically unavoidable. But with others, there are ways to push them into new territory. I experiment and play with the form until something distinct emerges. The tiniest details matter greatly on such simply designed objects.

Unofficial Prognosis Header

With every project, I always end up learning something new not only about design, but about the subject matter. One of Ilana's excellent suggestions during the course of the project was the addition of the Rod of Asclepius instead of a more generic first aid cross I had included initially. The Rod of Asclepius, an ancient Greek symbol associated with healing and medicine, consists of one serpent entwined around a staff. It is used as the symbol for many modern healthcare organizations in the United States. However, in the course of my research, I discovered that use of the similar Caduceus, two snakes on a winged staff, as a symbol of medicine is also common. This is an unfortunate mistake, as Caduceus is traditionally associated with commerce and trickery.

The significance of a project like this for the client is not lost on me - the banner is being used to represent Ilana's entire blog and be a part of her online identity. It's certainly not saving lives, but it's still a tall order that I never take lightly. There's nothing more satisfying to me than creating something that's original, interesting, successfully conveys the concept within given parameters, and the client is 110% happy with.

I loved every minute of working on this banner and have to thank Ilana once again for giving me the opportunity. I'm looking forward to reading her blog and seeing the experience of medical school unfold from her perspective. Check it out for yourself! You can also follow Ilana on twitter @ilanayurkiewicz.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sketchings - The Red Lory

Red Lory Sketch

I'm sketching the Red Lory today in preparation for another painting. Lories and lorikeets have been shuffled around a bit in taxonomy, but are now thought to be most closely related to budgerigars and fig parrots. Aside from their beautiful colors, I find lories particularly interesting because they're primarily nectar feeders - their tongues are like little brushes, perfectly adapted to grab up pollen and nectar.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sketchings - The Pacific Parrotlet

Parrotlet Sketches

I seldom share my sketches or drawings online. They're messy, raw, and imperfect. Even my more polished drawings I don't consider to be anything special enough to show off. I generally lump all of my drawings into a 'preliminary sketch' category, though most of the subjects don't find their way into a final painting or illustration.

But, I've decided that in an effort to keep my blog more active between finished projects, I will start posting some sketches and drawings as I work. In other words, soon you'll be so tired of seeing and/or hearing about parrots that you probably won't want to visit my blog anymore.

I have a bad habit of sketching on cheap 11 x 17" printer paper, which is what the stack above is. Not only that, I also often use cheap Crayola markers on said cheap printer paper. I occasionally think to myself "someday I'll be a real artist who can afford real art supplies..."

Parrotlets (Forpus, Nannopsittaca, and Touit species) are some of the most d'aawwwww-inducing parrots around. They literally look like tiny adorable baby parrots as adults, hence the common name. They're even tinier than budgies, making them the smallest parrots in the world, and are native to Mexico, Central America, and South America. Pacific (or Celestial) Parrotlets are the most common parrotlet in captivity and breeders have produced several color mutations. Luckily, parrotlets are relatively difficult to breed and expensive, preventing them from becoming popular enough to be subjected to the injustices that budgies and cockatiels frequently are (bred in the avian equivalent of puppy mills, sold cheaply as 'throwaway' birds in chain pet stores, etc). I don't know how wild parrotlet populations specifically are being affected by illegal bird trade/smuggling, but as with so many other parrot species it's probably safe to assume that it's not good news.

Anyway, I'm working on a small painting of Pacific Parrotlets in the wild so I'll post some progress soon.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Eight Elemental Amphibians (of Sally Williams) - Panel #7

Panel #7

I saved panel #7 for last not only because it's probably my favorite out of all of them, but also because the photos turned out so well, including non-blurry close-ups. I've given some thought as to why this one is (maybe) most successful, and concluded (at least in part) that I was thinking the least about how this one would fit into the piece as a whole as I was working on it. For the others I was trying harder to incorporate certain colors or elements to fit the theme. Creating an installation that works together as a whole and as separate individual pieces is never quite as simple as it looks in my sketchbook. But, I really enjoy working this way and I think I'm improving at it.

Panel #7 (detail)

Panel #7 (detail)

Panel #7 (detail)

Panel #7 (detail)

Well, now you've seen all eight panels of the finished piece (or if you haven't, just take a look at the previous seven posts, or at this Flickr set).

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Eight Elemental Amphibians (of Sally Williams) - Panel #5

Panel #5

I think I have enough acceptable photos of Panel #5 here that I won't babble on about it. The gold color, of course, is metallic.

Panel #5 (detail)

Panel #5 (detail)

Panel #5 (detail)

Panel #5 (detail)

Panel #5

I'll be posting the eighth and final panel in this piece tomorrow. I haven't yet received photos of the final installation in its new home, so if I don't soon, I'll work up a photoshop composite of the panels to give you an idea of how the piece looks as a whole.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Eight Elemental Amphibians (of Sally Williams) - Panel #8

Panel #8

For some reason, even though I took these in the same room with the same lighting as the other panels, the photos for panel #8 turned out terrible. Embarrassingly terrible, in fact. Wow, what I would do for an oversized scanner. There are predominantly dark colors present in this piece, but with a great deal of depth and richness and variety that doesn't show at all in the photos. Parts of the early underpainting that show through, like in the largest fish on the left, are iridescent so it shows mostly as glare here.

Panel #8 (detail)

Panel #8 (detail)

Hopefully you can get the general feel of the piece at least. I almost got rid of the fish since I edited them out of one of the other panels and I was afraid they'd seem out of place on just one. As I was analyzing all the panels together when they were nearing completion, I ended up liking the variety they added so they stayed.

Two more panels to go!