Posted by Nadya on Jul 9, 2011
“…Hairy elephants were an important part of life on the way into the Ice Ages. Our contact with them has been vividly recorded in cave paintings at Pech Merle and La Madeleine in southern France that feature shaggy elephants with extraordinarily domed foreheads and sloping backs, some clearly at bay, riddled with spears. They were thick-skinned, small-eared animals, well-adapted to winter, with wildly curved fifteen-foot tusks that may well have served as snow plows. And they survived until less than four thousand years ago, holding out on Wrangel Island in the Siberian Arctic until 1500BC, succumbing finally to the combined effects of hunting and habitat destruction. But they carry on, at least as enduring legends, in the minds and mystical heritage of many northern people.”
— Lyall Watson, “Elephantoms”
I freely admit my obsession with elephants – but I was obsessed with mammoths, long before my obsession with elephants!
Ever since I was a little girl, growing up in Russia, visiting the museums and reading books, mammoths forever captured my imagination. I think we as the human race must have a genetic fascination with these gentle woolly giants that once roamed the Northern plains of Russia, Canada and Alaska. Sometimes, if I think about it hard enough, their absence and extinction literally brings tears to my eyes. How incredible would it have been to see a large hairy elephant in the snow-covered landscape of what became my motherland?
And so, the day has come for me to tackle my biggest challenge yet – painting mammoths!
I have plenty of references of elephants and their behaviour from my trip to Africa, but the challenge of this painting is adapting the physiology to match the mammoths – and that involves understanding it, first. So, I began with books, and looking for reference images of mammoth skeletons. (Because, ironically, I ended up living on the one continent without any mammoths – Australia! So I can’t just go and visit a museum to look at them.) My first frustration that I ran into with just about the first Google search, is an abundance of photos online that other people have taken in museums – but often a lack of information about what’s in the picture. “This is a mammoth skeleton.” Which species is pictured – the Woolly mammoth, or the Columbian mammoth, or is it actually a mastodon?? What gender was the animal? (And which museum is it in?) They write “female woolly mammoths had smaller tusks than the males” – okay, that’s the same as with elephants, but what did female mammoth tusks actually look like – the shape, curvature, average length? I may actually end up emailing a natural history museum or two and asking the experts! Because the scene that I am painting specifically involves a woolly mammoth matriarch on alert, protecting her baby. Fortunately, finding baby mammoth references is easier, with well-documented and well-preserved baby mammoths Lyuba and Dima.
I’ve started a Work-in-Progress thread on the WetCanvas forums, an online art community which I find to be tremendously helpful a lot of the time.
There you will be able to see any updates and progress of the painting: