Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Zoo work

I haven’t written anything for a long time about what I’ve been working on at the zoo, so here’s a ‘brief’ synopsis.

This year I have drawn and painted 17 species of animals so far;- 5 invertebrates (discosoma and zenia soft corals, a ghost mantis, a giant hairy scorpion and a long-spined sea urchin), 8 fish (rainbow and blue-tailed goodeids, Lake Kuroma and dwarf rainbowfish, a pyjama cardinal, blue-striped pipefish, yellow skunk clownfish and pink anemone fish), 1 snake (Aruba Island rattlesnake), 2 birds (Von der Deckens hornbill and ruff in breeding plumage) and 1 mammal (agile gibbon).

Most were pretty straight forward and for the most part I needed to work from photo’s I had taken of the animals we had, as well as a few found in internet searches. When we have the animals on site, I can go back as frequently as I like to check the animal for details, colour etc. and when circumstances allow I will finish off a painting in front of the animal’s enclosure. However, during the summer months, it’s not practical for me to sit by the enclosures whilst I paint/draw, as I have to be aware of not blocking an exhibit from the public if the frontage was small. So that excluded the fish, invertebrates and snake.

The hornbills were held off show out at the zoo’s land at Cribbs Causeway and as the birds were a bit flighty (being new arrivals) I couldn’t hang around long, so it was a case of pop in, take a series of photo’s in a relatively dark aviary without flash and leave. The result was pretty rubbish photo’s but I could get a good idea of shape and proportion from them. Also the two birds were juveniles and not yet in full adult plumage, so I needed to do a reference search in books and on the internet to find some adult pictures of the species.

For the gibbon I was required to show the animal brachiating (swinging from branch to branch) in a horizontal format that measures approx 120mm x 70mm. Not much room for manoeuvre, you might say. Particularly when you see that when they brachiate they are in a vertical hanging position. Were I to depict the animal this way, the illustration would be far too small to be of any use on the sign. So I had to find another way to do it. In the end I found several pictures of a gibbon at the end of brachiating, about to land/reaching out for a tree trunk. These I was able to combine and adapt to fit the format I had to work with.

The ghost mantis and one of the rainbowfish (dwarf species) gave me a few headaches as they are both quite small animals. Although I had taken photo’s, they were not much good for detail on the mantis or for colour on the rainbowfish, so I sat in the off show areas of the invertebrate and aquarium sections to finish the paintings I had started in the studio. I lost my patience a few times with the rainbowfish, with the painting nearly coming to grief, as thoughts of sending it up in a flash of fire or hurling it out of the window passed on more than one occasion through my head. The problem was trying to paint a one and a half inch fish whose pearly iridescence changed pattern and colours with every angle and movement from the live subject, as photographs just couldn’t pick up the correct or range of colouring. To top it off I just couldn’t recreate the neon blue stripe it had on the body along the line of the dorsal and anal fins, no matter how many blues, greens and other colours I mixed to match it! I had to put it aside on one day and ‘walk away’ as I knew my temper was about to snap with it! See… now this is what is meant by ‘artistic temperment’ and who ever said painting was a relaxing past-time!

We have ruff in one of our free flight aviaries… again they were juvenile birds at the time I needed to paint them, when we first got them at the end of last year. The male and females looked pretty much the same through my camera lens and binoculars (couldn’t get anywhere near them to get decent look or photo’s) so I did the best I could with the help of other reference photo’s.. knowing that come May the males would start developing their spectacular breeding plumage, radically changing their appearance making them look like a separate species to the uninitiated. So I started researching the possible colour changes so that I could do one in full breeding regalia. Without too much effort I found a dozen photo’s showing all different colour combinations of the male ruff! The decision was made to wait until late Spring/early Summer this year to see how much our males changed and what colour combinations they would have.. and then I’d do the illustration from there based on them. Typically, just to make my job a little more interesting, our two males had different colour combinations and one didn’t seem to fully develop his ruff. This is the only species in the zoo where I have had to do two illustrations so that we can alternate according to the plumage morph of the bird.

Apart from painting or drawing the pictures for the identification (ID) signs, several times a year I have to check all the animal ID signs and replace the faded and damaged ones – this can be just a handful to a couple of hundred, as was the case in October when I spent 3 weeks working solely on this. After walking round the grounds compiling my list, it was back to the studio to the computer to print out replacements and where necessary ‘build’ a new sign file. This involves typing in information, scanning and adding a picture and adapting a map to show range. Once I had them printed I then trimmed them to size, laminated them, re-trimmed to size, stuck double-sided tape on the back and then they were ready to be put up.

I am currently painting a signal crayfish and after that I have a fly-river turtle to do. For the turtle I took some photo’s a month or so back when the animals were having a routine vet check. They are housed in one of the big landscape tanks of the aquarium and tend to reside at the bottom and at the back making photography impossible and visual study for an illustration very difficult. So a call from the reptile section at the time had me ‘hot-footing’ it to the aquarium to get a closer look and some photo’s done after the vets had done their check-ups.

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