Up to the Eyeballs in acrylics. Part 1: Digital draft


“Up to the Eyeballs”, digital painting rough draft in preparation for acrylic painting. The image features Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai from the Wapiti Formation, Alberta, Canada.

Today I begin a several-part post in which I follow a painting from start to completion in acrylics. The posts will not necessarily be immediately consecutive, so I will add links as they accumulate to make navigation easier.

Most of my work these days is digital, but sometimes I experiment with techniques in traditional media, in this case, acrylics. I enjoy digital painting, but although the techniques required for digital painting are similar to those used in traditional painting, I think that it is beneficial for even a purely digital artist to practice techniques with a brush, pencil or pen. Plus, it’s extremely enjoyable to get covered in paint.

In this first post of the series, I set out the subject of the painting and demonstrate how I created the digital painting that will serve as the rough draft for the subsequent acrylic work.

For this piece of paleoart, I wanted to focus on something that is less bloody and violent and more along the lines of something that we might see while out on a Cretaceous safari. The piece features Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai from the Wapiti Formation, near Grande Prairie, Alberta in Canada, around 73 to 75 million years ago. This environment was a low-gradient, waterlogged alluvial plain that was rich in wetlands, including oxbow lakes, bogs and marshes (Fanti and Miyashita, 2009). Therefore, it is likely that dinosaurs such as Pachyrhinosaurus would have had to cross water bodies on their journeys from time to time.

The painting was inspired by pictures of elephants that have waded partly out into lakes or rivers; when they emerge, there is a sharp horizontal dichotomy boundary between the rough, dry and low-lustre skin above and the wet, glistening, water-darkened skin below this line.

Young elephants — like the juvenile Pachyrhinosaurus in this image — sink farther into water of any given wading depth than do adults, and the water line recorded on their skin is consequently higher on their bodies. Presumably, young dinosaurs would have had to float and swim through some waters that their parents may have been able to wade through. In such cases, only the tops of their heads and backs would have protruded from the water surface, and in such cases, they would consequently have been literally up to their eyeballs in the stream or lake.

The painting depicts a juvenile and adult pair emerging after such a crossing, and the piece is entitled “Up to the Eyeballs”. Although a diverse ichnofossil assemblage has been discovered in the Wapiti Formation (Fanti et al., 2013), I am unaware of avian skeletal remains or other bird ichnofossils having been found there yet. However, Currie (1981) has reported characteristic bird tracks (ichnotaxon Aquatilavipes swiboldae, possibly an early shore bird) from the older (Aptian, Early Cretaceous) Gething Formation in eastern British Columbia, not too terribly far from the Pipestone Creek bone beds of the Wapiti Formation that have yielded Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai. It’s therefore reasonable to hypothesize the presence of shorebirds in the Wapiti Formation, of which I have painted three individuals buzzing the Pachyrhinosaurus pair.

I enjoy painting scenes that include water, either on the surface of subjects in a thin film, or in pools, because it allows the exploration of a wide range of lustre, and the associated reflective phenomena such as coherent image formation and flare points from reflected sunlight. In addition, I have depicted the scene a short time before sunset, with the low sun generating not only interesting distributions of shadow, but also an interesting contrast between warm incident light from the sun and cool bluish scattered light from the sky. Below is a sequence of images showing several stages in the progression of the digital rough from outline to completion.

1. Outline.


2. Beginning the dry skin.


3. Adjusting values and adding more skin detail.


4. Starting on the wet skin.


5. Complete digital draft.




Currie, P.J. 1981. Bird footprints from the Gething Formation (Aptian, Lower Cretaceous) of Northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 1: 257-264.

Fanti, F. and Miyashita, T. 2009. A high latitude vertebrate fossil assemblage from the Late Cretaceous of west-central Alberta, Canada: evidence for dinosaur nesting and vertebrate latitudinal gradient. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 275:37-53.

Fanti, F., Bell, P.R. and Sissons, R.L. 2013. A diverse, high-latitude ichnofauna from the Late Cretaceous Wapiti Formation, Alberta, Canada. Cretaceous Research. 41:256-269.