Sunday, April 13, 2014

Magnificent Mihirungs in Miocene Australia (Prehistoric Times March Issue #109)

Featured in the Prehistoric Times Magazine ▲ An  illustration of Dromornis sturtoni, protecting it's chicks from the prowling 'Powerful Thylacine', an extinct relative of the late Tasmanian Wolf.
Faunal Key ▲ 1) Thylacinus potens, 2) Dormornis sturtoni, 3) Tarsipedid sp., 4) Pyramio alcootense, 5) Cacatuidid sp., 6) Pheonocopterid sp.  
was recently given the great honor of featuring my artwork in the 20 year-old magazine Prehistoric Times, which has -throughout the years- featured a number of my favorite fellow paleoartists and friends such as Mark Hallett. This issue (#109 of March, 2014) is available for purchase through the Prehistoric Times website and can also be found in select stores where the magazine is sold. In addition to the image above, they also featured another illustration of mine which is shown below. I very much look forward to doing this kind of magazine/book work in the future and I look forward to adding more to this blog in the coming weeks and months...

Sivatherium giganteum ▲ A giraffid of Eurasia, here depicted feeding on a mimosa tree in the hilly environment of what is now present-day India. There is compelling evidence suggested by figures drawn in cave paintings that this animal or possibly even several giraffids existed in India in the recent Holocene.
Extinct carnivorous marsupials ▲ A Although not featured in Prehistoric Times, this illustration depicts an ancestral aborigine among the predatory marsupials of Dreamtime Australia, they are all extinct save the beautiful cat-sized Tiger Quoll (Dasyurus maculatus).
Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) ▲ A fascinating extant flightless bird of New Zealand, of relevance to Dromornithids because of their shared condition of flightlessness. This bird is also called the Owl Parrot for understandable reasons.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Banded Rubber Frog in an African Marshland

The Rainy Season has arrived in East Africa, and the strikingly colored Banded Rubber Frogs (Phrynomantis bifasciatus) are breeding in the newly resurrected marshlands. The males gather among the reeds at the edges of the pools and –inflating their vocal sacs (their balloon-like throat pouches)- they broadcast their bird-like calls to attract females –adding their own music to the great chorus of breeding frogs. They are rarely seen in the day, but during such times of aquatic abundance and with the storm clouds gathering in a midafternoon sky, it is possible that an occasional male such as this one would become inspired to sing.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Kings of the Heights / Wildlife of the Levant and the Greater Middle East

1. Takin Subspecies of the World. 2. Markhor (Capra falconeri) An illustration for a future book on mountain faunas and wild caprids of the world.
Nubian Ibex (Capra nubiana) Another illustration for one of my books in progress, this impressive ibex is native to North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant; it was a familiar animal to biblical authors and was referenced in Samuel 24:3 'Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went to seek David and his men upon the rocks of the wild goats...' Nubian Ibex are still present in the oasis of Ein Gedi in the Judean Desert west of the Dead Sea.
Wildlife of Ancient Turkmenistan ▲ I composed this sketch a few years ago, only recently I have begun to actualize this large panoramic painting (for which I have made many revisions and adjustments). It will be the main feature for the homepage of my upcoming website. In the foreground is a sketch of the extinct Caspian Tiger (Panthera tigris virgata).
Teaching illustration and inspiring young people to learn about the natural world is a great privilege. A recent invitation to teach at the Jewish Academy of Arts and Sciences happened to be a very timely and fitting opportunity given that the wildlife of the Levant and the Greater Middle East is the core subject-matter for one of the books I am writing and illustrating.

The majority of illustrations for this book are actually in pencil and I am arranging them in sepia 'plates' in the fashion of a field guide, but the book will also feature fold-out color paintings. The expansive subject-matter of this book will require some years of meticulous study and traveling, but I very much look forward to its eventual completion. An encyclopedic and purely illustrated portrait of Middle Eastern wildlife has never before been written to this depth.

This past week I taught the basics of natural history illustration to the 5th grade class at the academy. It was very rewarding and fun to be able to share this process and provide insight and inspiration for young artists; it was relevant to discuss the significance of 'Tza'ar ba'alei chayim' (having compassion for living creatures), which is certainly a universal concern for the condition of our modern world. It would be my hope to be able to teach similar classes to more scholastic communities in the future and to give children common ground for environmental concerns that are important for all diverse cultures and nations of the Middle East. 

Job 12:7-10

But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In His hand is the life of every creature
and the breath of all mankind. 

Musk Deer ▲ Of relevance to Kings of the Heights because of other mountain faunas featured in the book. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

North American Deer

Dawn light, evening light, and any kind of light illuminates the La Plata Mountains in a truly spellbinding way. Sometimes in the earliest hours of the morning, when the sun is just beginning to rise over the hill systems to the east, they are cast in the most enchanting purple veil, and their high snows beckon only the most reverent admiration. To greet the dawn and the waking day from the ridge behind my place, and to watch the ravens fly overhead on their mysterious errands to the south is an exceptional freedom. 

I have returned to the womb of the hills after a long journey, it is winter and quiet, Gabriel's time. There is no end to the supply of beauty all around, and when the day is finished and the sun must set, the vast ocean of stars pools in the heavens. The grand things, those celestial bodies gleaming far away, and then the smallest things, welcome a sense of undivided belonging. There will never be an end to the things one can wonder at. 

I live at the utmost end of a long road into the countryside, and in the midst of my studies and projects, I find abundant inspiration in the living elements of nature just outside of the door. This time of the year the Mule Deer and Wapiti (elk) move quietly among the fragrant passes of the woodlands. Just the other evening I was walking with a friend and spooked an elk from what must have been half a mile away, I only just barely caught a glimpse of her in the bottom of the valley as she vanished among the piñons and junipers, her hooves clattering heavily on the stony slopes... I approved of her secrecy, of her impulse to conceal. 

Though deer are present year round, there is something about the spirit of winter which is elegantly indicated in their forms and in their living presence. The bucks and bulls among Mule Deer and Wapiti wear their kingly crowns at this time of the year, and will only drop them once winter has spent itself and spring is at hand (very frequently I've come across their shed antlers in my many wanderings through the landscape). Stags embody a regal beauty and masculine power that transcends time, and painting them is a privilege and a reflection that I've thoroughly enjoyed. 

Morning Light on the La Plata Mountains ▲ The La Plata Mountains have been the backdrop of nearly all my young life, returning to them affords a fresh appreciation for how beautiful they really are.
Tracks in the Frozen Earth ▲ Early morning, the mud is frosted and trodden by the wanderings of Mule Deer and Wapiti. In this photo the tracks of the two species can be differentiated by the far greater size belonging to the elk.
Sunburst Lichens These colorful orange lichens (probably belonging to the genus Xanthoria) most frequently seem to grow on rocks and the rough bark of Gamble Oaks (Quercus gambelii), I've yet to observe them growing on other species of trees.
Wapiti (Cervus canadensis) 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Colorful Corvids

Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica)
It's been quite a few winters since I last sat down and had a good long look out of the back window at all the clever and colorful Corvids and their sprightly antics around the feeder (Corvidae is the avian family that includes jays, crows, ravens, and magpies). This is mainly because I haven't actually been consistently present in Colorado for some years, and partly because it's been a while since I last lived in a country house where such wintertime privileges are so easily accessible. I admit to having other privileges in recent years when it came to enjoying the richness of the natural world... Verily, to have been able to sight the Russet-crowned Motmot perched on the bromeliad-hung oak branches outside my window has been a blessing I will never forget.  

If only there was proper time to paint a portrait of every beautiful bird I have seen, I'd have books and books filled with those paintings! But illustration, like a lot of good things, takes time, and so a painter has to be selective about what subjects he chooses to paint. 

There can be no doubt however, with all the Scrub Jays, Steller's Jays, and Magpies flying their banners of blue, black, and white among the trees in my backyard, that I am sufficiently inspired to paint these birds in honor of a long-overdue homecoming. 

It feels right to be back in the Rockies, and though a lot of people tire of winter it is not easy to express how happy I am to feel the cold, clarifying spirit of winter and to spend my mornings watching birds and pondering their comings and goings. I think that most people who tire of winter would do well to look more closely at the finer elements beyond the gray curtain in order to discern its special quality, and there are few finer inspirations for that but in the birds themselves. 

My good friend Rigel Leland and I spent our Sunday morning participating with the Christmas Bird Count, an bird census conducted for the National Audubon Society and held yearly in Durango, Colorado. The first half of the morning we joined Daphne White and my mother Dr. Catherine Ortega (long-time bird-lover, author, and ornithologist) at Zink's Pond to count all the waterfowl present there. Later we whiled away our morning observing those colorful Corvids and other visitors to the feeder, where we have placed suet, birdseed mix, and thistle seeds. It very much reminds me of the science fair project I did when I was in 6th grade, studying the food preferences of Scrub Jays in the winter (it won the Regional Science Fair but went no further because there was no category for it on the State Level). The following is our bird list as of Wednesday, Dec 20...

Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica)
Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)
Black-Billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia)
Common Raven (Corvus corax)
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)
Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus)
Cassin's Finch (Haemorhous cassinii)
White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)
Dark-Eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)
Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)

Area of Census.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Ungulates in My Upcoming Books

Euceratherium collinum, a lesser-known Ice Age mammal that has been very rarely illustrated. Paleontologists have nick-named this creature the 'Shrub Ox', which would have probably been a befitting name for it had it survived into historical times. What is especially interesting about this creature is that it went extinct -along with a plethora of other large North American mammals- only around 11,500 years ago, which is relatively recent. It was an Ovibovine, meaning that it was most closely related to extant Musk Oxen and Takin, and more distantly, to sheep; it would have weighed upwards of 1300-1400 lbs. My feeling is that human beings had already emerged in the Americas a _long_ time before the Pleistocene extinction event, meaning that ancestral Native Americans would have known this animal well and probably hunted it. It lived in the Desert Southwest and would have shared its habitat with familiar residents that still live there today, along with extinct ground sloths, giant short-faced bears, mastodon, and camel to name just a few. 
This will be one of only a few articles on this blog which will serve as a preview for the content of some book titles which I am presently working on... And while I am greatly inspired and hard at work (when I can find the time), I have decided to be secretive about these titles until the publication process is well underway, because it is always best to be reserved about certain types of creative projects until they have been brought to actualization (the first drafts might be complete and ready to publish in a few years from now, depending upon research and traveling requirements.). What I am willing to tell about them is that they will showcase unique and poorly-known faunas and vanished ecosystems that have never before been extensively illustrated...   

So with a good amount of work already underway, I feel it is acceptable to unveil at least a few of these illustrations and photographs for the sake of presenting some current work. In the meantime, the rest are to be unveiled for a future time... 

A size comparison of the contemporaneous rhinoceros species Elasmotherium sibricum and Coelodonta antiquitatis –the latter of which is of course the iconic Woolly Rhinoceros. The larger Elasmotherium sibricum is an especially intriguing prehistoric mammal, not simply because of its extraordinary proportions, but also because it may have coexisted with human beings in Central Asia well within recent history. Evidence for this so far comes largely from compelling tales in the oral tradition of the Tatars of Siberia, who have been telling of a one-horned beast for centuries (even in the time of Ibn Fadlan). It is certainly a captivating notion that regardless of whether it vanished more recently than 50,000 years ago, it was in all respects a ‘real unicorn'.

Japanese Serow (Capricornis crispus)

Autumn Forest on Honshū Island, Japan. Wild Boar (Sus scrofa leucomystax), Japanese Serow (Capricornis crispus), and Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata), feeding on the ripe fallen acorns of Blue Oaks.
Golden Snub-Nosed Monkeys (Rhinopithecus roxellana)

Various paintings. Upper Left: Golden Takin (Budorcas taxicolor bedfordi), Middle: Nubian Ibex (Capra nubiana), Right: Preliminary sketches of Sivatherium. Tepoztlán Studio (2013)

Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus). Gouache, pencil, and acrylic (final product located at the top of the page beneath header). Tepoztlán Studio (2013)

The extinct Caucasian Moose (Alces alces caucasicus) staged among exposed lotuses of the Volga River Delta. Tepoztlán Studio (2013)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Ghosts in Mexico's High Alpine Woodland

The Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialus)
In recent years, I have spent a considerable amount of time living in the mountainous highlands of central Mexico, particularly in the region of Iztaccihuatl in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, where austere, stony peaks soar into the sky at such heights that they are crowned with windswept glaciers. The altitude of this region -while far enough south on the continent- creates a climate that is both unique and surprising -cool, rainy for much of the year, and broadly similar to ecosystems you would expect to find further north.

Dark, moss-hung conifer forests proliferate on the mountainsides and sometimes open up into hushed, misty glades. Icy waterfalls cascade down from the sky, the forest is full of the flute-like songs of thrushes, and the fruiting bodies of mushrooms provide generous fare during the rainy season. Overall, the shoulders of Iztaccihuatl hide secret, pristine places whose very essence is both timeless and a far cry from the relative chaos of the nearby city. It is a forest whose organic splendor could hardly be matched by the forests of our most elaborate fantasies, it is more than magical...

And yet, there is the reality of human impact also at work, and as expansive and rugged as the timbered ridges are, the Mexican White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus mexicanus) has been locally extinct in the area for at least 20 to 30 years due to over-harvesting and a virtually non-existent wildlife management program... And while there is reasonable hope to assume that stags may one day return to haunt the ferny shadows, there are some creatures that, save from paintings and the most animate imaginations, cannot be retrieved from the past at all...

Verily, it was this very mountain -Iztaccihuatl- which once marked the southernmost range of one of Mexico's most striking birds, and it is the ghost-like presence that I felt among the bright, open parklands near timberline (a place where they likely nested) that inspired me to paint this magnificent animal, the Imperial Woodpecker.



Wild, edible mushrooms

Since the year 1956, this spectacular bird has not been seen and the nature of its disappearance has almost perfectly mirrored that of its counterpart the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), which also disappeared from continental North American during the late 1950’s. The Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialus), in many ways the ‘quintessential’ woodpecker, was the largest of all woodpeckers (measuring 20-24 inches –the size of a Raven) and was of splendid coloration, the male was black, had a brilliant red crest on his head, white wing patches, and a white V on the back; females lacked the brilliant red crest, but almost as ornately, their crest was black and curled forward like some whimsical character from a Doctor Seuss book. These birds lived in high-altitude pine-oak woodlands throughout much of central Mexico (a distribution map detailing the former range of Campephilus imperialus can be found at the IUCN's Redlist, click here). It is thought that fragmentation of once continuous habitat due to development and logging was the primary cause of its recent and very unfortunate extinction, but they were also once sought for as a food source.

For a long time since its last confirmed sighting, it was believed that the species vanished without ever being filmed or recorded on audio. Much to the delight of the ornithological world, the recent discovery of this forgotten footage captured several birds foraging in their native habitat in the state of Durango in 1956. Ironically, this was the last year that the birds were recorded in the wild and they have not been seen since. Their disappearance -like that of their counterpart the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker- was a great disappointment and mystery to naturalists and ornithologists across the world. Here is a link to the William L. Rhein footage.