The Story of a “Tale of a Whale”

Recently I’ve done a number of illustration jobs for Carus, the publisher of the “Bug” magazines (Ladybug, Spider, Cricket among others) so I thought I would share a bit about my process. This one was for the February 2014 issue of ASK magazine—Arts & Sciences for Kids (not all are bug-named). Clicking on most images should bring up a larger version.

Tale of the WhaleI received an email at the end of September 2013 asking if I’d be interested in illustrating a double-page spread about how whales evolved from land animals. Nature’s my thing so I said yes. I was sent the layout to the left and some photo reference for the evolving whales.

Here were the basic requirements:

  • show 4 ancestors plus a modern whale of my choice.
  • a name and a paragraph of descriptor text will accompany each one.
  • the modern whale has call outs in addition to a short descriptor.
  • show some land/water context for each one.
  • could have them all in one scene or separate.
  • sketches due Oct. 14
  • final art due Oct. 28

Sounds like a fun challenge, right? Here’s the problem with extinct animals—there are no good photo reference or real live ones to draw! 😦 You have to rely on other artists’ renditions which can be a slippery slope indeed. I Googled each to find as much info as I could and came up with my best guess. When I have an assignment that I do research for, I generally make a Pinterest board to hold my photo reference. Here’s one I did on whales. I sent the sketch out on October 13th, taking the full two weeks. For me, the sketch stage is the hard part.

© 2013 Denise OrtakalesThis is the layout I sent. I sketch by hand, scanning each element separately and playing around in Photoshop. I’ll make some corrections in Photoshop but ultimately print out the layout and go back to hand sketching. And vice versa, a viscous circle.

I kept the animals in the same order but tried to incorporate them all in one scene. A tall order since some were land mammals and others in the deep blue sea. The top wavy diagonal line is the water’s edge, the other a cut-away of the waterline so you can see below. I realize that whales wouldn’t be swimming quite so close to shore but we have to use our imagination here.

Somehow the client wanted me to differentiate the environments of each of the different whales. Hmmm. My Art Director, the wonderful Karen Kohn, also sent updated photo reference so I could tweak my extinct animals a bit.

© 2013 Denise OrtakalesHere was our solution to the various environments—to use different colored background papers in each ‘time zone’ if you will. The AD had also been concerned that the order was not obvious and asked for arrows. I changed Pakicetus to swim in the water because apparently that’s where he spent most of his time. I also moved the text around a bit but still haven’t added any details yet. I mentioned adding in generic plants and sea creatures.

Karen followed up with suggestions for other creatures and plants appropriate to each time period. Oh, the original land creature can go on a riverbank even though the text says ocean shore. Okay. More photo reference for vegetation for the different time periods followed. Oh, and by the way, we’re not sure about the arrows. Can you make them but don’t glue them down and we’ll decide later? Sure. No problem.

© 2013 Denise Ortakales

Here’s the third layout I sent. By now the sketch is looking like a patchwork quilt with all the back and forth between hand sketching and Photoshop manipulating. I added rocks, ferns and grass to the ‘river bank’. Also a snake and turtle. They wanted some pine trees but I couldn’t manage it and still have the text readable. So I created a block behind the text with pine needle edges. I changed Pakicetus so he was diving in the water which made the whole layout a bit more dynamic. Below the waterline I added jellyfish, seaweed, shrimp and a fish. “Are we getting closer?” I asked.

The answer was “Yes!”—with a few minor tweaks. They liked the text block with the pine needles. There were no snakes during Pakicetus’s time period. Could I add a lizard or something? And make his snout a bit shorter? Also, Rohocetus’s feet needed more webbing. Easy peasy.

© 2013 Denise OrtakalesHere’s a sketch I sent of just the upper right quadrant showing the lizard on the rock, Pakicetus’s shorter snout and Rohocetus’s webbed feet. At this point it is October 23rd and the art is due the 28th. Yes, it took 10 more days to sort it all out! A lot of research goes into something like this, on my part but mostly theirs. They check everything to make sure its accurate, for which I am grateful.

Knowing we were close and I didn’t have much time, I started working on the finish, leaving the unapproved bits for last. But this is the fun part! Choosing the colors and textures of the papers, deciding how to heck I’m going to make something work—I love this part. In the end I made the arrows removable so I had it photographed (shout out to Tim Cameron at Achber Studio) with and without arrows. I’m not sure how successful I was with creating the five different environments but it’s all a learning process, no?

© 2013 Denise Ortakales© 2013 Denise Ortakales© 2013 Denise Ortakales
Sometimes you finish a piece and you have your favorite spots. Here are mine. I like the turtle and lizard because I used watercolor paper to get a nice mottled texture. Too bad they’re so small in the image. I used a translucent vellum paper over a aqua blue for the water. I made a little slit it the vellum that I could slide the creatures in so they would still be visible. I like the area with the jellyfish because that pinky-violet with the orange and blue really sings. Here is the finished art, with and without the arrows.

© 2013 Denise Ortakales    © 2013 Denise Ortakales

And here’s the published article as it appears in ASK magazine, February 2014 issue!

© 2013 Denise Ortakales

4 thoughts on “The Story of a “Tale of a Whale”

  1. What a beautiful piece and interesting blog. I had no idea that whales evolved from land creatures. Reading about the behind the scenes work on your piece was helpful.

    I love your artwork! Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks Shirley. I had no idea they evolved from land creatures either. You learn so much illustrating different things. Okay, sometimes it’s more than you’d like to know about a topic (lol) but sometimes it comes in handy.

  2. Swooning over the vellum and the cutaway effect. Brava! I often get discouraged at the Photoshop “patchwork” phase and it is very inspiring to get a glimpse of your ability to bring it home from there to the finished product. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Thanks Jenn. Ummm, getting a paycheck can be a GREAT motivator to get over any phase that brings you down! When I get discouraged, I try to find something in a piece that I can feel passionate about—a color or paper choice, an intriguing shape, or maybe some lettering. If it’s not there, I have to create it. Then you HAVE to finish the piece because you can’t wait to see it done.

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