Commission: Cool Collection of Cryptids for Coleman

As part of the Kickstarter campaign for the UFOlogy Tarot project, one of the rewards offered to the highest contributors to the campaign was an original illustration commission by yours truly. One of the three people who chose that reward was Loren Coleman, the legendary cryptozoology researcher who’s been featured in countless TV shows and documentaries.

I became acquainted with Loren many many years ago, back when I was just tipping my toes in the murky online waters of the paranormal pond. During those years Loren was a regular contributor for the website Cryptomundo, which became through its comments section a large and dynamic community of people, with varying degrees and opinions with regards to what is known as ‘cryptids’: animals that are either considered to be purely mythological or currently extinct, but whose existence is somewhat supported by folklore and/or witness testimonies. Whereas the loch Ness monster and Bigfoot are the most popular among these creatures, Cryptozoology as a discipline —skeptics would call it a ‘pseudoscience’— covers a much wider spectrum of animals, including those which managed to jump off from the pages of campfire tales to the annals of orthodox Zoology.

For his commission, Loren had not only a very specific concept in mind, but also a bigger purpose than just coming up with a pretty picture: For the last six months, he has been hard at work negotiating the purchase of a new location for his International Cryptozoology Museum, in Bangor, Maine. Loren had his eye on a classic 1945-era building designed in the ‘Streamline Moderne’ architectural style, and he wanted the building to be in the background.

How the building looks now. Despite some neglect, it hasn’t lost its modernist Art Deco style. Google Maps became invaluable for this project.

Loren wanted to be featured in the center of the image surrounded by a whole bunch of cryptid creatures —the dodo*, the Komodo dragon, the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger, the pigmy hippo, the saola, the mountain gorilla, the okapi and the imperial woodpecker.

And if that wasn’t challenging enough, Loren also asked me if I could draw the commission mimicking the style of the famous XXth-century Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, who during his prolific —albeit short— career created many illustrations for several books and American magazines.

Covarrubias also had a passion for travel, and he had a chance to visit many remote locations in the Pacific and East Asia. Aside from his artistic career he also became a historian and anthropologist.

Thumbnail sketch to study the composition. Initially I had thought of putting my dodo standing on top of my sleepy hippo. Also, Loren was going to be holding a ‘Nechisar nightjar’ on the palm of his hand; but I convinced him this bird wasn’t ‘sexy’ enough for our purposes and we opted for the more colorful imperial woodpecker instead.
Preliminary pencil studies, in which I attempted to capture the ‘flat’ and almost Cubist-like style of Covarrubias. Such a style, which was also characteristic of other mid-century cartoonists like Al Hirschfeld, transform the face and body of the subject into a fluid composition of curves and straight lines. It is a very bold approach to caricature which has influenced many modern artists and TV cartoon shows (think Genndy Tartakowsky and his Cartoon Network programs) and it is most effective when the person being caricatured is very famous —and also when they don’t mind having their face turn into a Picasso-like abstract piece!

Loren’s commission signified a return to color for me, in a way. After a whole year of dealing with the sort of monochromatic style I had employed for the creation of the Tarot deck, I knew that for this project to work I needed to approach it more like a traditional painting; which is why I choose the Gouache-type brushes available in the pro version of the Sketchbook app I use for most of my illustration commissions —achieving the ‘fur-like’ texture in some of the animals, like the Saola in the lower left of the gallery above, also involved a more painstaking approach of painting each hair strand with a sharp and rough pencil-like brush, just like many traditional artists do on paper when they start with painting first (gouache or watercolors for instance) and they finish up the details with color pencils. It’s a pain in the ass but most effective when done right!

Closeup of the dodo (one of the most difficult animals to paint) and the Komodo dragon. For the dragon’s scales I ‘cheated’ by way of adding to its body a layer with a honeycomb-like grid (not the real shape of the Komodo’s actual scales, but hey this is a caricature not a taxonomy illustration!)

I also noticed when studying Covarrubias’s work that he switched between a more abstract and cartoony style to a more realistic one, depending on the purpose of the illustration. Since I knew Loren’s commission would be utilized to educate the viewer about Cryptozoology as a field of study, I decided to make the animals not too abstract and more recognizable.

Closeup of my gorilla, in which you can notice the subtle cartoon-like facial expression I chose for him. As it is often the case in my artwork, I opted to eliminate all the outlines of the shapes, and just kept a minimum of lineart to better describe the elements in the heads and bodies (e.g. the mouth, nose, and wrinkles around the eyes) which were drawn with a textured brush that mimics the look of a waxy pencil. Notice also the fur in the arms, which were accomplished with a rough ‘bristled’ brush and then detailed on top with the pencil-like brush (all the brushes were given an extra canvas-type texture to further making it look as if the illustrations had been done with traditional media).

Unlike Covarrubias, though, I was very careful in giving all my animals and elements within my composition a somewhat realistic ‘volumetric’ look to them —meaning they are not painted as flat patches of color within the surface of the canvas. I guess this is the same conundrum encountered by artists commissioned to create the artwork of DVD covers for Hanna Barbera cartoons, and even though those cartoons were designed as flat, 2d characters, leaving them flat in a promotional piece feels wrong somehow.

This commission took a looooooong time to complete (one of my longest illustrations yet), and even though there were times when I felt I should have taken a simpler approach —Covarrubias, for example, never bothered with the laws of perspective and always left his buildings as if they were drawn by a child; whereas I did draw the International Cryptozoology building with a realistic 2-point perspective to make it more recognizable— I feel the end result speaks for itself.

Loren Coleman was very pleased when I sent him the final result, and I hope that one day in the future I may have the chance to make a pilgrimage to the International Cryptozoology Museum, where I’ll get the chance to contemplate an art piece painted by myself around Loren’s valuable collected items. A testament to my shared love of ‘impossible’ creatures.

(*): The dodo bird is not a true cryptid, since no one has ever claimed to have seen them after they were wiped out by Dutch explorers from the island of Mauritius. However, there are currently plans to bring them back from extinction using modern genetic technology, which is obviously a test to see if Science will be able to bring back other extinct animals, like the thylacine or even the wooly mammoth.

UPDATE (15-03-23): My friend Loren has been quick to correct me about the true cryptid nature of the dodo! According to him, there were several unconfirmed sightings of the beloved rotund bird long after it became officially extinct, which was in 1662:

“[M]ost recent confirmed sighting times of the dodo are 1662, 1638, 1631, 1628, 1628, 1611, 1607, 1602, 1601 and 1598. An escaped slave named Simon claimed to have seen a dodo as recently as 1674.” “…the purported sighting in 1674 cannot be ruled out on the basis of extinction time alone. If a sighting in 1674 is included in the record, the estimated extinction time is extended only modestly to 1700 and actually narrows the confidence interval to (1679, 1790).”

From a 2003 article in Nature

So there you have it, folks. The dodo was a cryptid, if at least for a little while…

Personally, I’m as fascinated by the possible existence of these wonderful creatures, as for the many reasons why people are so passionate about trying to prove they are indeed real. For Bigfoot, for example, I feel there is a certain subconscious yearning for a “return to Nature,” and in the famous hairy giant we see a romanticized idea of “the man in the forest” in perfect balance with the landscape it inhabits. There might also be a certain preoccupation with the rapid destruction of ecosystems in our planet hidden behind the hunt for Bigfoot as well —I mean, could you imagine how tragic it would be if Bigfoot actually went extinct before we actually found it?


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