TOM #12


In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition



Whenever I come across a book on Marco Polo, I read it or at least page through it.  The adventures of Marco Polo are of course the basis of my book, ‘The Other Marco’.  The other day I found ‘Marco Polo by Richard Humble’, totally misfiled at the local library, so I brought it home as it seemed that I was meant to discover it.  This book is well illustrated and when I came across these delightful drawings of an elephant and a giraffe, I felt I should comment on how important it is to use reference when drawing.


Drawing from life is usually the best reference available to an artist, but it can also be the most difficult and frustrating.  Animals and birds simply don’t stay in one position long enough to capture accurately.  Even models in a life class tend to sag or readjust when pins and needles make a pose untenable.

Artists today have access to photographic reference that the Masters of yesteryear could only dream of.  It is interesting to look at these two animals drawn centuries ago to see that the artists had probably never observed their subjects in real life.  It is often glaringly obvious that the animals to be drawn were described to the artist by a third or even forth party.  The end result is usually somewhat comical but also woefully inaccurate.

Take a closer look at the elephant in this war scene from Le Livre des Merveilles.


 The artist draws the horses accurately but has obviously never seen an elephant in real life.  Imagine being told that the tusks protrude from the side of a long serpentine nose that makes a trumpeting sound!  No wonder that he had some vicious teeth sticking straight up through the trunk and then added a trumpet bell on the end of it.  Notice, no one told the artist that there was supposed to be a mouth somewhere under the trunk as well.  Needless to say, the artist would have to believe what the reference person tells him and not be too skeptical either!


Perhaps the birth of Modern Art was the result of artists being confused by over-exaggerated verbal reference. One never can tell.


I usually draw from reference, but a few years ago I was illustrating a children’s book and was, as always, in a hurry.  I tried to take a short cut and attempted to draw the giraffe in the story from memory.  It was going to be slightly stylized anyway, so I thought I could freely interpret the shape.  After several hopeless tries I found some reference and was astounded.  A giraffe’s outline is more complex than one imagines.

The body of this animal is not an ellipse with a long neck attached to one end.  It is far more complex than that.  Take a look at this explanatory sketch to see where I went wrong.




Now let us have another look at the giraffe illustration from the book.


As the original picture is a bit dark, I have traced an outline to show it more clearly.

The long angled body is not quite right.  The sloping back is fine but the stomach underneath should have been parallel with the ground, making the back legs as long as the fore legs.  The neck is long enough but must be higher up on the back and the head could have been a fraction bigger.   Well done to the artist of long ago who depended on someone else’s observation.


The sabre-toothed trio in the Monsters 4 Monsters section at the end of this blog, was drawn without reference as they are stylized cartoons and has no reference with reality to compare it with.  Almost.  As for the brave Leprechaun, my first attempt had him looking like a miniature Father Christmas, since I drew a soft nightcap with a pom-pom at its long tapering end on his head.  Again reference , in the shape of an indignant Irishman, helped me to ‘Get it right, Begorrah!’

“Thus endeth Art lesson #1!”  Hope you enjoyed it.


Right!  That brings us to the Monsters for Monsters corner.  Another Aydan creation.  Aren’t there any other youngsters out there with fertile imaginations that can suggest a monster for me to draw, or better still, that they can draw themselves and allow me to publish them on this blog?   GGGGGrrrrrrrrrrrooooowwwwwLLLLL!!!!!



TOM #11

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition




BeautVenice 50

                                                                                                                                                              Picture credit:  Lonely Planet.

          Venice must surely be one of the most fascinating cities on earth.


          Venice served as the starting point for my book; ‘The Other Marco’, but Venice has a colossal story of its own.  Celtic people called Veneti lived along the north eastern coast of Italy since 50 BC as Roman citizens. In 330 AD Constantine established the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople and it became known as the Byzantine Empire.  Atilla the Hun invaded what was left of the now weakened Western Roman Empire in 453, causing the Veneti to flee onto the islands in a huge lagoon nearby. There they built villages and lived in relative safety.  A hundred years later more Veneti joined the island people when the Lombards invaded Italy.  They eventually realized when all the 117 available islands in the lagoon were occupied that they would have to expand onto the water.  This for me is the incredible story of Venice.  How they built a magnificent city on a lagoon.


          Moving down the Grand Canal in a waterbus called a Vaporetto and looking at the superb palaces and huge churches one cannot but wonder what lies below these buildings.  What are the foundations made of and how were they built?  It was when I began to find answers to these questions that my opinion of the medieval engineers and architects that created this city, soared!  Who would have thought that Venice sits on top of millions of trees?


          To create a solid foundation, thousands upon thousands of 4 metre long wooden stakes were driven into the lagoon bed by human pile drivers as shown by this simple animated sequence.  One immediately wonders how heavy the battering ram was that the men used.  Also how strong the men were and for how many hours a day they lifted and slammed that weight down on top of the wooden stake.  I always come back to this same question:  Were they tougher then, than we are today

ABG4 (1)

 Onto these ‘piles’, wood was laid horizontally and fastened.  On top of this platform rose the buildings we now see along the water’s edge.  One church alone, the Santa Maria della Salute required over 1,100,000 wooden stakes!  This foundation took more than 2 years to complete.

Santa_Maria_della_Salute 50

Santa Maria della Salute.

          As Venice has no timber of its own, trees were imported by sea from Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro.

          The next question that begs is why these wooden foundations have not rotted away centuries ago.  A simple answer is that they pickled in the salt water of the lagoon and have become hardened like stone.  Because the stakes are underground, the lack of oxygen makes it impossible for microorganisms to attach themselves and rot the wood.

          Venice is periodically plagued by ‘Aqua alta’ or unusually high tides that floods all low lying piazzas like St Marks square.  I was therefore intrigued by this picture of an exceptionally low tide that drained the shallower side canals.  It clearly shows the foundations of the buildings and gives an idea of the weight pressing down on the tree stumps buried in the mud.



           Sadly, it seems from professional engineering assessments that Venice is sinking and rising tides will eventually destroy this magnificent city.  What a pity.



The next posting will be TOM #12 which means Monsters 4 Monster’s time again.  I can see some Sabre Toothed Tigers coming this way.  Will catch up with you there!