December 2014

Reference Art

, animator at Animat Habitat

In the making of White Elephant—a comic book, a companion app and an invitation to change the way we look at wildlife—I have had a number of influences. This article introduces the project through its roots in art and story. In storytelling, like in design, we communicate with imagery that is familiar, symbolic and even iconic to drive focus to specific details carrying a unique visual tone. Here are some of the artworks that have championed the culture and design of wildlife art.

Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, 30,000-32,000 BP [unesco.org]

Animals in Art History

Look way back to the beginnings of visual storytelling—to cave art that is as aesthetically textured as it is rich with historical implication. All the way back to the most pertinent example: the Decorated Cave of Pont d’Arc, “located in a limestone plateau of the Ardèche River in southern France”, as introduced on the Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc UNESCO World Heritage Listing. This decorated cave, also described in the great history book of Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, “contains the earliest known and best preserved figurative cave paintings in the world,” These cave paintings are around thirty thousand years old, Frank and Ollie continued, “they demonstrate a range of techniques including the skillful use of colour, the combinations of paint and engraving, anatomical precision, three-dimensionality and movement.”

Lions, Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc
Horses, Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc

Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, 30,000-32,000 BP [unesco.org]

From the earliest days, [humans have] tried to capture in drawings the living quality of the creatures around [them]. […] For some presumptuous reason, [we feel] the need to create something of [our] own that appears to be living, that has an inner strength, a vitality, a separate identity – something that speaks out with authority – a creation that gives the illusion of life. Twenty-five thousand years ago, in the caves of southwestern Europe, [the early modern humans] made astounding drawings of the animals [they] hunted. [The] representations are not only accurate and beautifully drawn, but many seem to have an inner life combined with a suggestion of movement.
— Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. (1981) The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, p 13. Walt Disney Publications.

Another example of cave paintings, Phillipp’s Cave in Namibia, includes a white elephant painted more than five thousand years ago. Namibia is home to the Erongo Mountains. The area has historically allowed for rich wildlife because, as explained at Info-Namibia, “the Erongo Mountains offer a reliable water supply, thanks to impermeable granite pans, which are filled during the rainy season.” A white elephant is pictured among numerous rock paintings in the Erongo Mountains that depict the importance of animals in the lives of ancestors of the indigenous people of Southern Africa.

Phillipp’s Cave, Namibia, 3,200-3,500 BCE [info-namibia.com]

Relief is another artistic technique as old as human community and creativity. Some of the earliest known bas-reliefs are also found on cave walls. Later bas-reliefs are found on the surfaces of stone buildings constructed during the civilizations of the ancient world (c.3,500-600 BCE) by ancient Egyptians and Assyrians and so on.

Even in ancient Greece, reliefs appear more like contracted sculptures than expanded pictures. The figures inhabit a space that is defined by the form of the figures themselves and is limited by the background plane. This background plane is not used to create a receding perspective but rather as a finite impenetrable barrier in front of which the figures exist.

Trajan's Column, Rome [wikipedia.org]

In ancient Rome, a particular example of relief art—a triumphal monument of the Roman emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus Crinitus: Trajan’s Column (106-113 CE) then had a significant impact on late Roman architecture and sculpture. Its bas-relief sculpture is in the form of an engraved band – 625 feet in length, and 4 feet in height – that spirals upward, around the column, in a continuous narrative of Trajan's military campaigns. Its spiral narrative holds more than one hundred and fifty scenes with more than two thousand five hundred figures, all sculpted in low-relief, including sixty images of the emperor. The scenes include specific events from the Dacian campaigns, and yet most scenes depict the day-to-day activities of the Roman legionaries. Trajan’s Column provides an illustration of the ancient Roman military tactics and equipment set against a flat relief background with an occasional suggestion of a town: houses, walls and bridges and so on.

The sculpture is of particular note here for its unique application of visual storytelling. While its construction may seem impractical in relation to making a comic book today, Trajan's Column showcased a similar capacity to tell an epic story nearly two thousand years earlier.

Wildlife Through a Lens

Nature is a wonder. Our perception of nature will vary from one who only sees a picture to the photographer who shares what was there to be seen. Works from wildlife artists – celebrated paintings, pictures and motion-pictures – have defined the picturesque wonders of the natural world. The African wildernesses are almost inherently iconic. For good reason, the Namibian desert landscape has predominantly influenced the visual tone of White Elephant.

The key art for White Elephant takes a look at visual reference through the lens of artists who have given glimpses of our wild world as never before seen. The project was also born out of admiration for those working to raise the public consciousness about the value of the natural world. Through expression of value in those things that are vanishing, the art of Robert Bateman has set the example for projects at Animat Habitat. In his book, Robert Bateman: An Artist in Nature (1990), Bateman expresses the realization, “that we are living in a disappearing world,” that his art, “hearkens back to a distant, mythical age when the world was a Garden of Eden and animals.”

Above all he fell in love with the infinitely rich ecosystems of the rainforest and the great mammals of East Africa. Since that first trip, he has returned to East Africa many times – it was his paintings of East African wildlife that launched his art career – and he often refers to it as the Garden of Eden, one of the last places on earth where men and nature have lived in complete harmony.
— Rick Archibold, Robert Bateman: An Artist in Nature, Essay: ‘The Education of an Environmentalist’ (1990) Penguin Books Canada Limited

An Artist in Nature (1990) © Robert Bateman [batemancentre.org]

Bateman has come to believe that every living thing is a unique individual, and has claimed some lions are so familiar to him, “that when [he sees] them on TV [he recognizes] them.”

Every bald eagle’s face […] has its own individuality. It only stands to reason that every zebra stripe is different, every fingerprint, every snowflake is different, unique. […] If we started thinking about the planet earth in this way and paying attention to the particularity of the different species and the different races, we would probably have a different attitude toward wiping things out.
— Robert Bateman, Robert Bateman: An Artist in Nature, Essay: ‘The Education of an Environmentalist’ (1990) Penguin Books Canada Limited

Similarly, the photography of Nick Brandt has documented the disappearing of the natural world. Brandt's focus has been the animals of East Africa, with the vision, “to create an elegy, a likely last testament to an extraordinary, beautiful natural world”, which manifested in a trilogy of books with the full title: On This Earth, A Shadow Falls Across The Ravaged Land. The last of the trilogy: Across The Ravaged Land is a treasured reference work and motivational resource for White Elephant.

In the book, Brandt shares a stark portrayal of animals, which offers a poignant look at the tragedy for African ecosystems. He describes the choice to photograph in black-and-white as not purely aesthetic, “it accentuates the impression of the images belonging to another, much earlier time […] already long gone.”

[…] there is a continent-wide apocalypse of all animal life occurring across Africa. When you fly over such a vast continent with so much wilderness, it’s hard to imagine that there’s not enough room for both animal and man. But between an insatiable demand from other countries for animal parts and natural resources and a skyrocketing human population, the animals are being relentlessly squeezed out and hunted down. There is no park or reserve big enough for the animals to live out their lives safely. — Nick Brandt. (2013) Across The Ravaged Land, p 7. Abrams.

Across the Ravaged Land (2013) © Nick Brandt [nickbrandt.com]

The hope is simply to share the message of wildlife conservation—to share White Elephant with a generation that has been exposed to wildlife through images on a screen – more often than not accompanied by the narration of Sir David Attenborough, legendary host of BBC nature documentaries. The BBC Studios Natural History Unit has documented invaluable visual archives of our planet on film, and in so doing has defined a high-standard for cinematography in nature and otherwise. The art direction of White Elephant has taken cues from how elephants have been pictured throughout visual storytelling, in particular in the “Deserts” and “Great Plains” episodes of BBC Planet Earth (series, 2006), the “Mammals” episode of BBC Life (mini-series, 2009), and the “Kalahari” and “Savannah” episodes of BBC Africa (mini-series, 2013).

Africa (2013), e/2: “Savannah” © BBC Studios Natural History Unit [bbcstudios.com]

And one more thing…

For a wildlife animator looking for reference footage to inspire their work, there may be no better place to start than the BBC Motion Gallery. This gallery is now a collection at Getty Images.

Continue to the second part of this article: Reference Art – Imagery.

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