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Bestiarium: from science to fantasy

The history of drawing animals and inventing fantasy creatures is intrinsically intertwined. Albrecht Dürer’s rhinoceros for example, famously drawn from a written description of the animal and not from sight, is a combination of one man’s observations and the artists’ imagination.

The Rhinoceros
Albrecht Dürer, 1515

Sea creatures drawn into the uncharted waters of maps were similarly combinations of word of mouth reports describing fleeting glimpses of creatures and the cartographer’s own imagination. A true experience of a sailor, perhaps, catching sight of a magnificent and wholly unknown creature combined with the brain’s love for filling in the gap. This depiction of a “sea pig” drawn into the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus in 1539 combines two well known animals, a pig and a fish, to create a new animal.

This sea pig, which was compared to heretics that distorted truth and lived like swine, lived in the North Sea on Olaus Magnus’s 1539 Carta Marina, a lushly illustrated map that inspired many after it. Public Domain.

The research drawings of Charles Darwin and other Naturalists brought an increased realism and focus on direct observation to the depictions of exotic animals. To a norther European audience, some of the animals observed by Darwin in the Galapagos might have seemed just as fantastical as the invented species of former centuries.

Land iguana (Amblyrhyncus [now Conolophus] subcristatus). Darwin 1838–1843:part V.

The Naturalist Maria Sybilla Merian was working more than a century before Darwin, applying her precise observation skills to unlock the secrets of metamorphosis. She traveled to to the Dutch colony of Suriname with her daughter to observe and collect insects in their natural habitat, the first person to undertake such a voyage for purely scientific purposes. Her observations, which she recorded in stunning drawings and engravings, so scandalized audiences that her work was met with disbelief. Later Victorian society attributed her illustration depicting a spider eating a bird to the fantasy of a hysterical woman. Scientific studies eventually confirmed her findings as accurate.

Maria Sibylla Merian
Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate XLIII. “Spiders, ants and hummingbird on a branch of a guava” (Tarantula: Avicularia avicularia)

Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction! Especially when closely observed, wonder can be found in nature just as much as in one’s imagination.

Maria Sibylla Merian

Contemporary fantasy illustration often seeks to combine the realism of Naturalist drawings, made from observation, with the mythological elements of pre Modern animal depictions.

The fantasy illustrator and artist Alan Lee explains his appreciation for Renaissance paintings in an interview: “I’d always liked the Italian masters,” he says, “but now I’m completely besotted with Botticelli, Bellini, da Vinci, and the rest. To see their work in its natural landscape and light is a revelation. The paintings are calm, controlled, and yet each face, each form, each hill or flower or tree contains such passion. In Botticelli’s paintings, every pebble and every leaf is rendered with a religious devotion. There’s a reverence inherent in paying such close attention to every stone…turning painting itself into a form of worship, an act of prayer. I’m still thinking about it, still working through what effect this may have on my own approach to drawing and painting.”

Although Lee is best known for illustrating Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and other magical  tales he stresses the importance of drawing from observation and accurate rendering. “I keep drawing the trees, the rocks, the river,” he says. “I’m still learning how to see them. I’m still discovering how to render their forms. I will spend a lifetime doing that. Maybe someday I’ll get it right.”

Treebeard drawing by Alan Lee
Caudimordax and Egidio by Alan Lee

Imagine collecting all these wondrous creatures together in your sketchbook, and now you have the concept for our upcoming workshop!

Sketchbook Practice: Bestiarium

with G Caruso

Draw animals and discover the history behind mythological and magical creatures. Create a bestiarium, or collection of wild creatures, within your sketchbook.

Travelers and map-makers have filled countless sketchbooks with drawings and studies of the beasts they encountered on land, in the sea and in their imaginations. We follow their footsteps as a starting point for our creations. 

Some sources of inspiration:

  • Werner’s nomenclature of colors aka Charles Darwin’s handbook
  • Medieval illustrations of monsters and creatures
  • Modern fantasy illustrations

Use a variety of techniques to create your creatures. Drawing techniques as well as painting with watercolor and gouache are covered in this exploratory approach.  

Study the basics of animal anatomy. Learn drawing and painting techniques to render textures such as fur and scales. These building blocks can be used to depict a beloved pet or to invent a new mythical creature. 

This workshop is open to participants starting at any level. Exercises are tailored to fit the group and the individual interests of students. Are you a complete beginner that loves animals? Are you experienced with life drawing but want to get started with four legged figures? Or perhaps your goal is to create illustrations or comics? G Caruso guides the class through basic and advanced techniques, with options for individual levels, to get you to where you need to go. 

March 1 – May 3, 2021
8x Monday from 6-8 pm CET
(6pm in Berlin, 12pm in New York, 9am in San Francisco, 5pm in London)


Cost: 230 Euros
(includes 16% VAT)


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