Is this an “Art of ABC” or a “Making of ABC” entry? It could be both, so I went with Art because it’s all about the art.

Part of my job in making ABC entries is painting the illustrations. And like every semi-competent artist I despise everything I do. But sometimes I think I’m really missing the mark with a painting, and decide to start over for a number of reasons. What might those be? Let’s take a look at some dishonorable discharges.

comparison aloes

Some do-overs are simple. I decided the first Aloés I painted (top) just wasn’t interesting enough. Too generic, primary-colored, and simple. Too flat. And the “pear-shaped” crown, well… let’s just say it looked like crap.

comparison mbielu3

The Mbielu-mbielu-mbielu was painted during a time when I wanted to be as creative as possible. When I set out to draw the creature with planks on its back, I originally made the top image, taking the planks to heart. But it didn’t seem creative enough at the time. After consulting with my housemate at the time (who is definitely one of the Top 5 People I Respect The Most), the suggestion was “why not teeth that look like planks?” So I went with that and made the hippo-mesoplodont you see below. But now, in retrospect I’ve been trying to keep ABC depictions more “conventional” to go with the research, so I included a sketch in the entry that combined both.

One thing was for sure: I was not going to paint a stegosaur.

comparison pilou

I’ve also been trying to push back against things made up by other authors, in a bid to go back to the roots. The Pilou has no description, just the fact that it makes noise. Dubois saw fit to describe it as a dormouse-elf, and I wanted it to be different. I decided to do a sort of fuzzy jumping spider creature, seeing that those are a lot cuter than dormice, but it couldn’t seem to work for me (left). I eventually threw in the towel and made a dormouse creature anyway. It’s me, I’m part of the problem…

comparison pyrallis

The Pyrallis has been incorrectly described as a dragon-insect following Woodruff’s lovely image of one, so I definitely wasn’t doing that. The creature described almost certainly was a moth drawn to flame, but that wasn’t as interesting. Maybe a firefly? That’s on fire, after all. A tail-glowing scorpionfly with a lit match for a proboscis? Now we’re talking!

I redid this one due to material issues. I had been using textured watercolor paper, and at the size which I did it, the texture overwhelmed a lot of detail (top). So I repainted the whole thing on newly purchased hot-pressed watercolor paper, the fine grain doing a much better job (bottom). I do think the lighting turned out better in the original though. Look at how bright it turned out!

comparison shoo fly

This one’s a lot simpler. The original Shoo Fly I thought was really simple and generic, with only a snorkel-proboscis as a clue that it lived underwater. So I took the head and thorax of a horsefly, the flattened abdomen of a botfly, and took some cues from the awesomely-named Strashila incredibilis to round out the portrait of the submarine fly.

A short interlude to explain a bit about how the art for A Book of Creatures is made. Like every artist, I’m my own worst critic and think my work is awful, but I do feel obliged to explain how I make the things that I believe could have been done so much better if only I’d used more ultramarine.

Most of the art in ABC is acrylics and pencil, with touchups on Photoshop. Some paintings (the Sinad, Dijiang, and all the Libyan snakes) were done in watercolor and pencil, for no real reason other than “it seemed like a good idea at the time”. The extent of Photoshop adjusting varies from 0 to extensive, depending on how much I hated the final result. To my eternal shame, I have not yet figured out how to paint on Photoshop, but I swear I will one day. Eventually…

For my example, I will be following the creation of Haakapainiži, everyone’s favorite murderous anthropophagous eye-gouging grasshopper. Like all good paintings, Haakapainiži started out with a sketch, and before the sketch came the research. I knew Haakapainiži should be a grasshopper, but what kind of grasshopper? I love lubber grasshoppers, and their reduced wings, spikes, and poison seemed ideal for a ground-based menace like Haakapainiži.


Once the rough sketch is done, I start filling in details. This includes the basket, patterns, and textures. Probably because I’m used to painting animals, I don’t like to add lots of unnecessary detail for the sake of adding detail. This may or may not be a good thing. Spikes were an obvious addition, as were the little chevrons on the thighs. The stripes were added to give more of a predatory look.

I cannot stress how important it is to make a good underlying drawing. In my experience with acrylics, bad painting can be saved by good drawing, but no amount of good painting can save a bad drawing.


Now the fun starts. I usually use acrylics like watercolors, laying successive washes of increasingly dark colors, then picking out shadows and highlights. It was at this stage I decided to give Haakapainiži a colorful network pattern on his wings, like real lubbers have. It was also at this stage that I smudged paint on the paper. Fortunately, that’s what Photoshop erasing is for! And you thought thought an artist’s life was glamorous…


Light washes are followed up with darker ones, stronger colors. I decided to stick with a yellow palette in keeping with the desert theme, but actual lubber grasshoppers are really pretty and colorful. Don’t eat them.


Finally, I added shades of red in the eyes and around the body, and made the painting more three-dimensional by putting blue in the shadows and picking out highlights with undiluted white paint.


All that was left to do was erase everything that wasn’t Haakapainiži and do the usual entry format. For a change, I thought it was good enough that it didn’t need much adjusting in Photoshop besides tweaking levels.

And that’s how it’s done!