Darwin Day re-post: Making "Darwin Took Steps"

This post originally appeared on Tuesday 12th February 2008. Don't forget a portion of the sales from Darwin Took Steps prints, cards & shirts goes in support of The Beagle Project, one of the most inspiring educational endeavours conceived.

Merry Darwin Day everyone!

- - - - - - - -
For Darwin Day 2008, I decided to work on a surreal portrait of Charles Darwin, which is to be published today at the online literary 'zine, The Eloquent Atheist. There should be some writing accompanying it from one of the Darwin Day organisers, Dick Renfro. (Edit! Here's the link!) I always enjoy seeing another artist's process in creating a work, and I have found some scientists who read this blog are also interested in seeing the greasy nuts & bolts that go into a painting.

I am not a biologist, but I am something of a biology/palaeontology groupie. Darwin's work is so important not only for explaining a process of evolution by natural selection, but also for how it exploded the traditional chain of mythologies humans lived with as explanations for so long. The modern Bright movement and sites like The Eloquent Atheist seek to show how a life without religion and the supernatural can be intellectually and emotionally

In my continuous struggle to improve my own madartskillz I am also trying to create works reminiscent of Symbolist and Surrealist masterpieces replete with symbols drawn from our modern scientific worldview. Why use Odin to symbolise wisdom when you can paint Darwin?

Making of Darwin Took Steps

1. Thumbnail sketches
These were just thumbnails, showing an elderly Darwin pondering what to write next. The one near the top right has a "tangled bank" of branches floating above his head. From the start I knew I wanted to depict Darwin in his later years, as it is a more generally recognised image. I discarded both of these ideas in favour of the staircase idea.

2. Beginning the drawing.

For the drawing, I drew upon a reference from National Geographic's November 2004 issue. (Cover title: "Was Darwin Wrong?". The answer inside, almost a page tall: "NO.")

One of the goals for this painting was to see how quickly I could do it, and still be proud at the end. In this instance I gave up drawing freehand and used a projector to create the sketch above, which is something I rarely do. That took 20 minutes. Refining a drawing that size without the projector can take another 2 to 3 hours. Materials: 2mm pencil on vellum-finish bristol paper. (Must perform life drawing for three hours in penance for using the projector...)

3. Staircase and a false start.

The staircase is an older idea of mine I used on a piece called Disease. It was developed as a cd cover and never published. I like the image though, and thought it would be appropriate. The column in the background is supposed to suggest the path leading unexpectedly to D.N.A, beyond Darwin's scope. I checked the drawing in a mirror a lot, to see if there were any gross abnormalities that stood out. Noticed a staircase coming out of his head. During this phase, I was listening to Jakalope in my studio, which is actually a freakishly large closet off our living room.

4. Completed drawing.

This is the drawing as complete as I decided to make it for painting. I used a .3mm mechanical pencil, HB lead on vellum-finish bristol. Love that Strathmore. In total, the drawing itself took about 3.5 hours. I jettisoned the d.n.a. column idea, and left the staircase leading up and away, the edifice not yet finished. I had fun with the little 'chi' lines in the beard. After tweaking the contrast in Photoshop, I printed the drawing out onto a couple of sheets of canvas paper from my laser printer to paint on.

5. Prepping for 'speed-painting'.

I decided to work in our living room, claiming the coffee table as my territory. I use Turpenoid Natural rather than other solvents. It smells of pine and is not full of nasty toxic hydrocarbons like most odourless solvents. The pliers are to get my oil tubes open. (Seriously, are all tubes made by people who've never had to open them more than twice? The caps are all different by brand, but they all get stuck.) I wanted this piece to have an older, sepia-feel to it, so linseed oil rather than a paler poppy or walnut was just fine. I am armed with Bavarian Dutch Chocolate coffee in my Jack Skellington mug.

My palette consisted of Naples Yellow (which I am addicted to), Quinacradone Orange, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Monochrome Tint Warm, Burnt Sienna (which I hate), Raw Umber, Payne's Grey, Zinc+Titanium White and Lamp Black. A lot of people swear you shouldn't use white or black (and you should mix your own from blue and brown), and I say, stop living in the Impressionist Era! It's so over! Lamp black is warm and deep, like pvc goth-gear in a tube.

I set the timer to stop me every hour. My aim was to finish the painting in 3 hours.

6. Results after 1 hour.

Usually I start with the eyes. I worked out the face, mainly with a cad-yellow underlayer. Monochrome tint and white for highlights. I was listening to Darude, The Chemical Brothers, and a Nine Inch Nails remix album. The faster the beats, the fresher my brush strokes. This is deep in the Ugly Phase , where I just hate how it looks. No time to fret; hour two!

7. Results after 2 hours.

Started using a phylogenetic tree in the background, painting with quinacradone orange underneath, and iridescent gold oil paint on top. Renaissance masters usually painted a red basecoat under gold leafing to add luster. I am using some micron brushes my wife put in my stocking at Christmas. They are really tiny synthetic brushes, and the filbert is now my bf4evr. Some artists say oils must be painted with rough hog's bristle brushes, and then I just yell, stop living in the Impressionist Era! Old masters used soft brushes for detail, and so do I.
It's not done. I need to move toward hour 3.

8. Results after 3 hours, colour corrected.
The final piece, colour-corrected in Photoshop.

I fretted about how dark it looked on some monitors, and after submitting the image to editor Michael W. Jones at The Eloquent Atheist, emailed a second colour-corrected version, seen above.

Complete! ( edit: Here is the full-colour-corrected image and how it appears in my online reproduction store, a portion of the profits going in support of The Beagle Project.)

Assigning a number to any amount of steps would be arbitrary, but I chose 5 for a reason. Four for the support of evolution by natural selection (Darwin drew upon examples of 1. biogeography, 2. morphology, 3. embryology, and 4. palaeontology), and the fifth step for natural selection itself, or the elevation of reason over dogma, as the viewer likes. The steps of learning never end.

Please check this out on The Eloquent Atheist today, and leave comments! Constructive feedback is always welcome. I will edit this post later today to provide the link once it is up. Merry Darwin Day!

- - - - - - - -

Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery *** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***