Sunday, 8 February 2015

Rhamphorhynchus Revisited

Here's a short post just to bridge the gap between the BAM contest and something more wordy. It's a brief overview of an illustration of Rhamphorhynchus which I completed around October 2013. At the time, I was working hard to build my portfolio of palaeontological images which was still full of a lot of old material from my uni days ('99 - '02) and old commercial work. There was no real rhyme or reason behind some of the choices, and I think, if I'm honest, a few years' palaeoartistic inactivity had panicked me into action. My existing work was out-dated and palaeontology moves quickly; for example, hedging my bets and not feathering some of my theropods rendered them obsolete pretty quickly. Velociraptor and Compsognathus were given some nice, feathery integumentary structures. Struthiomimus and, bizarrely, Utahraptor, were not.

One of my earlier efforts, maybe from only a few months before, was a depiction of a group of Pterodactylus and Rhamphorhynchus, all riding a coastal updraft. The decision to show them from beneath was inspired by a photograph of extant seabirds showing multiple species, each keeping roughly segregated, and with each group stacked above the other. I figured it could make for a striking image if I used pterosaurs instead, and so I took some online skeletal reference, cut out some paper silhouettes, and arranged them on a sheet of Perspex which I then photographed from below. I did this for each of the two genera and then arranged them with Photoshop. Once I had the outlines, I transferred it to paper and went at it with gouache (whilst at university, 'digital illustration' was something which largely happened to other people).

Rhamphorhynchus and Pterodactylus riding air currents. (©2013 Gareth Monger.)
Now, it's not a terrible painting, but it's certainly got problems. I should reiterate that this was more of an experiment than anything, but it didn't take long for it to sink in that I'd forgotten an awful lot of what I'd picked up during previous years. The trailing edge of the brachiopatagium most-likely attaches at the ankle (see here) and Rhamphorhynchus's uropatagium should form a deeper membrane, extending further down the tail. Its tail also looks a little on the heavy side, and the chests for both pterosaurs are far too narrow and lizard-like. Luckily, the online palaeo crowd doesn't shy away from offering constructive criticism and there's also a wealth of freely-available information in the form of diagrams, illustrations and papers (though be careful; take a look at Tetrapod Zoology's warning against unreliable sources).

And so, with nothing particular in the pipeline, I decided to rework Rhamphorhynchus, but in a more 'encyclopaedic' manner, i.e., no background and a more-static pose. Think 'pinned insect'. I also thought I'd go to town on colouration. Not so much Luis Rey (that's his thing!), but more Lepidoptera. I grew up with an extremely nature-aware family: my grandparents had several Buddleja in their garden, attracting some of Britain's brightest and most-colourful butterflies, and my Dad was trapping and recording (and releasing!) moths for his degree. With that, and living near to so many RAF airbases, it's hardly any wonder I was keen to sneak in some eye-spots and roundels.

Working with the same skeletal reference material I had used for the previous illustration, I corrected some of the anatomical issues such as the wings, pectoral girdle and muscle bulk, and fluffed it up a bit more. Between illustrations, Mark Witton's excellent Pterosaurs - Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy was released. If you're into pterosaurs and you don't have it yet, stick on your wish list. It's that good. Anyway, with the anatomical bits and bobs tweaked, I addressed the colour scheme. Rather than repeat the previous effort's colouration, or copy their obvious extant analogues, ocean-going seabirds, I looked to the diurnal cinnabar and burnet moths.

Rhamphorhynchus sporting perhaps-unlikely spots/roundels. But they look pretty. (©2013 Gareth Monger.)
Tyria jacobaeae by Sander van der Molen (under CC BY 2.5)
Not an obvious choice, but judging by the occurrence of large cranial crests in pterosaurs, vision presumably played an important part in their lives, and not just for hunting. So, the red and red-and-cream eyespots are based on burnets and cinnabars (with a dash of tiger moth). The black margins and tips have a deliberate smidge of greeny-blue, also discernible in burnets and cinnabars. They're colours which look good together. Now, these colours are not necessarily to be expected of this type of animal, with bright colours in extant aquatic birds seemingly restricted - with a few exceptions - to those frequenting freshwater environments. But we don't know, and as it wasn't a commission, I thought I'd have some fun with it.

More visible in this rhamph, and not so much in my first, are aktinofibrils, those stiffening fibres which are found in exceptionally well-preserved specimens and which helped to maintain an effective flight surface. I wanted to mix them up with a light rippling in the wing of the animal, not so much to imply a lot of flexibility, but to suggest the animal has a degree of control over it. As a 'specimen illustration', the subject in this image is dead, and is therefore not holding its wing membranes taut. Anyway, I may in the future go back to Rhamphorhynchus in order to correct the issues in this one, namely the ugly arrangement of its manus and the bunched up feet. Yes, it's dead and therefore probably not wrong, but people want to see something reflecting its life appearance, right?

No comments:

Post a Comment