Friday, January 9, 2015

Underwater, There Lies Inspiration

As shared in an earlier post, I renewed by scuba license with my son last summer, in time to go diving off the coast of Monterey, CA. At the surface, sea life was abundant with pods of 50 or more Dolphins cavorting offshore while dining on bait fish, Humpback Whales and Sea Lions swam within 100 yards of the beach in pursuit of the same. Underwater, we experienced a similar bounty of life including a Cormorant swimming past us looking for its next meal, a "fly-by" from a Sea Lion and a variety of bottom life including Metridium, Octopus, nudibranchs and loads of fish and crabs.

While floating peacefully through this amazing forest of kelp that extended above us to the surface, we encountered a Giant Kelpfish suspended motionless upside down trying its best to blend in with the leaves that surrounded it. As we moved closer, it gently swam off, its elongated body undulating in striking yellow waves.

Later that day after my body warmed back up from the chilly 52 degree water, I did a quick watercolor sketch to frame up the event in my mind. The series of sketches and the final painting are a result of that experience.

Many thanks to Scott, my divemaster and the other folks at Aquarius Dive Shop for a great dive experience in Monterey.

At the Bottom of Monterey Bay, 
Watercolor sketch,  5 x 7.  

While flying back on the plane, I did a quick sketch on my iPad to play around with the composition. It was at this point that I decided on the warped perspective, to show the bottom and the surface at the same time. I used the app called Procreate and a Wacom pressure sensitive Bluetooth stylus.


And then when I returned to the studio, refined it further with this oil sketch.
Kelp Forest
oil on panel, 8 x 14"

I then roughed out the painting on a large 24 x 48" birch panel.


Here is the piece as it stands today. I am still adding details to the
bottom and filling out the entire composition.
Kelpfish! - In Progress. Oil on Panel, 36" x 48".

The Completion of Elephant Dreaming

Two years after its inception, I am happy to say that the painting Elephant Dreaming has been completed. Thankfully most of my work doesn't take this long to complete but in this case, I feel the effort was worth it. The final is more interesting and dynamic than where the original piece was headed.

If you are interested, here is a link to the original post where you can see the inspirational sketches and where the work was last left. What follows is an explanation of the piece. If you'd like to download the explanation for easier reading, click here.

Elephant Dreaming - BruceKerrArt-2015
Elephant Dreaming, Oil on Canvas, 18 x 36. 

Elephant Dreaming; What Does It Mean?

On the east side of Lake Michigan where my family vacations, thunderstorms make their presence known far in advance of their arrival due to the vast expanse of flat water that lies offshore. Sitting on the beach one evening listening to an approaching storm reminded me that I had once heard that elephants are able to feel subsonic waves from thunder over great distances through the pads of their feet. I mused that if they have these specialized abilities there must be all sorts of these capabilities in other animals and since we were preceded by a variety of life forms prior to becoming human, we must have gained and lost a variety of interesting senses in the process.
So what were we once able to see, hear or feel? Humans had to come from the primordial ooze, with flagella, gills, fins, tails, scales, you name it. Did we too once sense subsonic waves? Or guide ourselves through the early seas by lateral lines along our sides or primitive eye spots? And what still lurks in our cells, waiting to awaken to meet the demands of survival? This painting is a visual exploration of this theme. 

Each of the numbers on the painting corresponds with the descriptions that follow.
1.  The figure in the foreground is dreaming and as she does so, starts to revert back to a more animalistic form, in this case a Zebra, which uses its markings as camouflage in the tall grass of the African plains. Perhaps sometime in the past, we had more elaborate coloring to our hair patterns that allowed us to survive to our current form.  

2.  The elephant uses the pads of its feet to feel for subsonic waves given off by thunderstorms at distances of up to 75 miles to aid in their search for water during the dry season. Subsonic waves can travel great distances through the ground, as well as water, where prior to the appearance of powered ships and the cavitation caused by their propellers, whales were able to communicate over thousands of miles via subsonic waves.

3.  Honey Bees are able to see ultraviolet waves, allowing them to better distinguish certain types of flowers by both color and pattern that we don’t see. In addition, they use a “dance” to communicate these sources of rich pollen with others in the hive, orienting themselves to the sun as they do so.

4.  The Dung Beetle of Africa uses the Milky Way Galaxy (shown in the upper portion of the painting) for navigation. During the day, the beetle’s eyes have photoreceptors that allow it to navigate by a pattern of polarized rays around the sun. But under the dark skies of the Serengeti, the beetles orient themselves by the bright stripe of the galaxy across evening skies.

5.  Several species of jellyfish and marine feather worms have eye spots that allow them to sense light. We often think of the eye as an incredibly complex mechanism available only to higher forms of life but we have since come to realize the breadth of animals that contain some type of “vision” system, however primitive.

6.  Cartilaginous fish such as sharks and rays have a network of sensors scattered about their heads called Ampullae of Lorenzini. These sensors give its owner the ability to sense prey by the faint electrical signals given off by their muscle contractions or nervous system. These systems are incredibly fine, with the Scalloped Hammerhead Shark sensing as little as one billionth of a volt, allowing them to find live food buried under the sand. There is also speculation that this system also allows them to navigate by detecting fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field caused by ocean currents.
7.  Single-celled animals use a variety of mechanisms for locomotion such as flagella, cilia or pseudopods. We too most likely had some form of locomotion in our single celled forms as our earliest direct chordate ancestor is a worm found in the fossilized mud of the Burgess Shale formation in Canada, which dates back to the Middle Cambrian Era over 500 million years ago.

8.  A sea-going animal is shown making its way to shore, most likely with some combination of gills, skin that absorbs air, lobes instead of feet or fins and a variety of other methods of adaptation that allowed it to survive better than other species and therefore pass its genes along.

9.  The volcano represents the electro-chemical stew which gave rise to all life as we know it. The exact source of the seeds are still unclear, but it is speculated that life either rose from the amino acids present in earth’s early atmosphere or was delivered via extraterrestrial sources which then prospered on our young earth.

Since this piece originated with an essay written a number of years ago, the images and facts represented here and in the description have been gathered from a variety of sources during that time frame, none of which are presented directly with the following exceptions. The following are the articles or credit lines for this piece which can be directly correlated to the source:

  • Mohamad Itani, - female reference
  • National Geographic - Dung Beetles Navigate Via the Milky Way, First Known in Animal Kingdom by Christine Dell'Amore.
  • Hammerhead Shark - Wikispaces.
  • Ampullae of Lorenzini - many thanks to Oliver on Grand Cayman for our discussion about the Scalloped Hammerhead shark. Wikipedia provided additional reference.