Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Anatomists' models

Picture from Morbid Anatomy

This fascinating little chap is an anatomist's model dating from the early 19th century.  The technique is called corrosion casting.  It involves injecting coloured wax into the blood vessels and dissecting the body using acid, so that the inner structure of the body is revealed.  Back then studying human anatomy was just as vital for medical students as it is today, and preserved bodies like this had an advantage over traditional dissections because the refrigerator had not yet been invented.  The specimens were used as anatomical teaching aids for medical students, and played a very important role in helping students understand the inner workings of the human body.

Aspiring medical students acquired bodies for corrosion casting the same way they acquired bodies for any dissection; by purchasing them from body snatchers, collecting the remains of executed criminals, or by collecting unclaimed bodies from the local workhouse.

I'm told the corrosion casting technique was most commonly used on the corpses of children, because injecting wax into the blood vessels of an adult body was much more challenging.  But it could be done on adults, and probably the best known examples were created by Honore Fragonard.  Here is Fragonard's Horseman of the Apocalypse, an ambitious piece that combines a dissected man and his dissected horse.  I can look at Fragonard's work all day; the man was a genius.

Musee Fragonard
Picture from

This documentary from the BBC goes into more detail about how corrosion casts were made.  In the show, a team of forensic archaeologists explore a corrosion cast specimen from a Scottish collection.  They describe how the body was preserved, where it came from, and use facial reconstruction to discover what the body's original owner might have looked like when he was alive.  It's well worth a watch, but as much as I enjoyed this show, I have some major criticisms.  It was overly sensationalized and strongly implied that the body belonged to a murder victim.  While the body was probably supplied by a body snatcher and some body snatchers did, shall we say, "manufacture" corpses, there's no evidence that this person was murdered.

The show also irritated me by choosing to focus on the gruesome nature of the specimen and overlooking its importance in the history of science based medicine.  The medical knowledge we all benefit from today wouldn't have been possible without specimens like this, and to my mind that's something very important.  I like living in an age where we can have surgery, arterial grafts, artificial hearts and organ transplants.  We wouldn't have any of that without the pioneering anatomical work of Fragonard and his corrosion casting colleagues.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Ever done this with an armature?

The unprepossessing lump hanging from the eland horn there is on its way to becoming a preserved head.  The armature is a simple arrangement of plastic supermarket bags screwed up into a ball and coated with paper mache, the way schoolkids sometimes paper mache balloons.  I left one of the bag handles sticking out, which is something I do quite often because it means I can hang the project up out of the way to dry, as seen in the photo.  Obviously if it was likely to drip I would hang it outside on the clothes line.

My eland horns are very useful for drying things,  because they're quite high up on the wall.  As we all know heat rises, meaning that whenever you heat a room most of the warmth stays just underneath the ceiling doing nothing.  Not on my watch.  In my house, that heat gets put to use.  I currently have a zombie hand drying on top of my fire too.  The aluminum foil stops it burning.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Insectoid fairy in its cocoon

A while ago Propnomicon posted this excellent specimen of a young fairy developing in a pupa.  The idea lurked around at the back of my head for a while and, as these things do, eventually prompted me to have a go myself.  Propnomicon and I read off the same page when it comes to fairies.  We don't care for the twee Disney variety; we like the old school creepy fairies that they had in the middle ages.  The kind that sour your milk and steal your children.

I think the main take away lesson here is that you can make a really great cocoon out of cotton fiber impregnated with glue.  I have a thing for fibrous cocoons as a result of seeing this episode of the X-Files when I was young and impressionable, and the idea of an insectoid fairy really resonates with me.  It underscores the sense of otherness - of the fae being a completely different species - that you get in the old stories.

Here's the cocoon from the back.

I like to think my cocoon is an improvement over the original.  In my (obviously not so humble) opinion the fibrous cotton batting gives a more convincing appearance.  I've used several layers of paint here, including a layer of iridescent medium.  It's not very obvious because I've covered it with burnt umber and Payne's grey, it just gives the thing a subtle sheen - my take on the idea of fairy dust.  Note also the fluffy interior of the cocoon.  This is another cool effect made possible by the fact that I was working with cotton fiber.

Propnomicon's fairy has a little specimen label stating it was killed off by a late frost, but if I found a couple of these bastards stuck to my hedge plants I wouldn't be waiting for a late frost to take care of them.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Another beer cooler

Regular readers may remember me making a zombie hand beer cooler for my friend last year.  Now dad wants one too, so I'm revisiting the zombie hand concept.  I had a lot of fun with the zombie hand, and I'm looking forward to making another one.

This time I have an improvement to the design I want to try.  I want to leave a bit of wrist sticking out so the dad can use it as a handle, push his sleeve over his hand, and look as though the zombie hand is his own hand.

Here's the skeleton of the hand, minus the beer cooler.

From here on in I simply have to add muscles, skin and fingernails.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Thrift stores are awesome

Exhibit A

As a source of art supplies the thrift store is second only to the hardware store.  Exhibit A is a candlestick I picked up yesterday.  It's nice enough in a Laura Ashley kind of way, but it's not really eldritch enough to go with my decor.  

Never mind, I can fix that.  I've always wanted a corpse candle.

These items are made in several pieces, especially when they're electroplated as I suspect is the case here, and they're generally held together with screws.  So what I've actually got here is a whole range of useful components.  I've got a nice base, three candle holder parts, and an assortment of other bits and bobs.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

In which I review All Yesterdays

I promised a review of All Yesterdays by John Conway, C. M. Kosemen, Darren Naish, and Scott Hartman.  Here it is, folks.  Enjoy.

If I were to choose just one illustration to represent this book, it would be this one.  Apparently the authors agree with me, because they chose it for the cover of the book.   The caption says it all:  "Protoceratops climbing trees because they can".

I particularly like the style of the illustrations.   They are beautiful, almost impressionist paintings where the animals' skin texture is often rendered as spots of colour.   This picture of a plesiosaur camouflaged against a coral reef is a fine example, and is one of my favorite images from the book. 

The concept behind All Yesterdays is simple: it's an exercise in speculation.  Most palaeoart tries to show extinct species the way they really looked, to the best of the artist's ability.  All Yesterdays, in contrast, takes a look at some of the weirder possibilities and contains the kind of pictures you won't see on the Discovery Channel.   However, the speculation on display here isn't just a wild stab in the dark.  Darren Naish is a respected palaeozoologist and Conway, Kosemen, and Hartman are all experienced palaeoartists.  The images in the book are plausible and based on scientific evidence.  

This is also a book with a sense of fun.  The last section of the book is headed "All Todays", and it takes a tongue in cheek look at how palaeoartists in the distant future might reconstruct the creatures we're familiar with today. 

The authors coined the term "srinkwrapping", to refer to the practice of drawing animals with every bone and muscle visible under a thin covering of skin.  This is common practice in today's palaeoart (think the Jurassic Park dinosaurs), but it's likely not very accurate.  In modern animals it's generally not possible to make out the contours of the skeleton underneath all the fur, feathers and other soft tissue.  When you get right down to it, there's no reason to assume dinosaurs were any different.  To illustrate this point, the authors of All Yesterdays applied the shrinkwrap treatment to modern animals with hilarious results.  Can you tell what this animal is?

The teeth are the giveaway here; it's a hippo.

I absolutely, unreservedly love this book.  I love the sense of fun, the beautiful illustrations , the fact that it's thought-provoking, and most of all I love the fact that all this is packaged with a bit of wackiness.  I mean, where else are you going to see a stegosaur trying to shag a haplocanthosaurus?

If you're at all interested in dinosaurs,  palaeoart, or palaeontology, this is the book for you.  My only complaint is that it's a very short book.  I could have done with there being more of it.  All Yesterdays is available from Amazon,  and it's well worth coughing up the extra money to get a hard copy version.  The Kindle format does not work well for this book, as some of the reviewers have noted.

If you want to see more of the authors' work - and trust me, you do - they all have websites.  John Conway's art can be found here.  C.M. Kosemen has some fascinating sci-fi work online here under the pseudonym Nemo Ramjet.  Darren Naish, of course, is the author of Tetrapod Zoology.  Scott Hartman has a website too, and it's excellent.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Boar tusk helmet reconstruction

This is actually another Historical Sew Fortnightly project that I did some time ago but have only just got around to posting.  This time the challenge was to reproduce something from literature, and I naturally gravitate to anything Bronze Age, so it was probably inevitable that I would decide to reconstruct the boar tusk helmet that Meriones gives to Odysseus in the Iliad.

This project was absolutely fascinating.  I researched theories on how these helmets were constructed and built my version around layers of leather thongs that give the helmet its shape.  For cost reasons I wasn't able to use real boar tusks, but I made some fake ones out of polymer clay and I'm pretty happy with the results.  Apart from the fake tusks, all the materials I used were available in the Greek Bronze Age and are the same materials described by Homer.

The finished helmet is fairly heavy, but it's flexible and I can see it providing a reasonable amount of protection in battle.  The layers of leather and felt inside would help to absorb impact energy from a sword or arrow - this is how kevlar works and while ancient people didn't have kevlar they certainly knew how to use other fibers like linen, leather and silk to absorb impact energy.

Here's the original description of a boar tusk helmet from the Iliad, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Meriones gave Odysseus a bow, a quiver and a sword, and put a cleverly made leather helmet on his head. On the inside there was a strong lining on interwoven straps, onto which a felt cap had been sewn in. The outside was cleverly adorned all around with rows of white tusks from a shiny-toothed boar, the tusks running in alternate directions in each row.
—Homer, Iliad 10.260–5

Or if you prefer it in Greek:

Μηριόνης δ' Ὀδυσῆϊ δίδου βιὸν ἠδὲ φαρέτρην / καὶ ξίφος, 8ἀμφὶ δέ οἱ κυνέην κεφαλῆφιν ἔθηκε / ῥινοῦ ποιητήν: πολέσιν δ' ἔντοσθεν ἱμᾶσιν / ντέτατο στερεῶς: ἔκτοσθε δὲ λευκοὶ ὀδόντες / ἀργιόδοντος ὑὸς θαμέες ἔχον ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα / εὖ καὶ ἐπισταμένως μέσσῃ δ' ἐνὶ πῖλος ἀρήρει.

As per the source description, my helmet has a felt cap sewn into it as a lining.

This image by Peter Connolly shows the internal construction of the helmet, and lets you see how the leather thongs support the boar tusk plates.

A great cutaway view of the helmet.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

I have an awesome new book!

I've wanted a copy of All Yesterdays ever since it came out, and finally convinced myself to cough up the extra money and get a hard copy version.

I doubt All Yesterdays will make the New York Times bestseller list, but to me this book is very, very exciting.  Even more exciting than the latest Children of Bodom album.  That, gentlepersons, is about as exciting as it's possible to get in my world.  This is a book that celebrates speculation and asks a question that is fascinating and important, but often overlooked: just how weird might extinct animals have been?

Reconstructing how extinct species looked in life is a field where speculation is unavoidable.  We can look at fossilized skeletons and make a good guess about what the muscles might have been like.  If we're really lucky we might have fossilized impressions of skin or feathers.  But often we know nothing about the animals' skin, hair, and other soft tissues and the artist simply has to use their best judgement.

The difficulty here is that modern animals often look nothing like their skeletons would suggest, because of things like hair and feathers and subcutaneous fat.  And if we can't tell what a modern animal looked like from its skeleton, it's reasonable to suppose that ancient animals didn't look much like we would expect based on their skeletons either.  All Yesterdays contains pictures that speculate about how extinct species might have looked.

What makes this book really special, however, is that the authors are experts in their field. This is not a book of wild guesses, the speculations in this book are well researched and reflect an up to date scientific understanding of palaeontology.  I'll be posting a full review with lots of nice pictures soon.

In the meantime, here's a nice photo of  the cat  helping me enjoy All Yesterdays.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Tattoo design

Hello again folks.  Sorry I've been such a bad blogger of late.  I haven't forgotten about the blog or lost interest in it; my absence is down to a mixture of not being very well, getting a very demanding job, and my creative juices not flowing all that well.  It's mid-winter here, so when I try to tell my brain that it ought to do stuff it says "What do you mean do stuff?  You're supposed to be hibernating, remember.  We've talked about this before."  My brain has a point.  If I could get away with plugging in a beer fridge beside my bed and hiding under the duvet until July goes away, that's what I would be doing right now.

But I haven't been totally idle.  For starters, I designed my first tattoo.  I've always wanted to get my favourite verse from the Havamal inked on me:

Deyr fé,
deyja frændr,
deyr sjálfr et sama;
ek veit einn,
at aldri deyr:
dómr um dauðan hvern.

Carolyne Larrington translates it thus:

Cattle die,
kinsmen die
you yourself die;
I know one thing
which never dies:
the fate of the honored dead.

Inspired by rune stones, I drew up a preliminary design.

As you might expect, it looks much better written in Futhark.  the original is from the Codex Regius, which uses the Latin alphabet.  I took this along to Trinity Ink, where Joe, who is all kinds of awesomesauce, turned it into this:

If you're in the Wellington region and want some custom tattoo work, I highly recommend Trinity Ink.  The customer service is very good and so is the work.  Have a look at their Facebook page and check out the shading - it's really something!