A skull can be a treasure for an artist.
Skulls show us the intricate architecture of tooth and bone, the structures beneath skin and fur. They let us see how creatures live and die. We can use them to compare different species, and individuals within a species. To an artist whose work includes portraits, figures, or wildlife, a skull reveals essential truths.
I stay on the lookout for skulls to sketch.
Recently I spent a happy afternoon drawing this skull with a ballpoint pen.
It turned up in the underbrush near our cabin, and had obviously been there for several years. We think it belonged to a young bear.
Study of skulls and a vertebra
I once had the opportunity to draw an immature eagle skull.
I was thrilled to observe it so closely. The curve of the beak tells us how the bird slices up a meal. The beak is a third of the head’s length! The huge eye sockets say more about how the eagle survives. This page also includes another bird skull, a shrew or mouse skull, and a moose vertebra. The little button is for scale.
Five views of a fur seal skull
In Alaska, there is a library that lends animal skulls for educational purposes.
I borrowed two skulls to study and draw. This page shows multiple views of a fur seal skull. While doing this work I learned how to make careful measurements. Nature’s proportions are exacting!
Five views of a sea otter skull
The second skull belonged to a sea otter. I have never again thought of sea otters as cute. This is the skull of a very tough animal. The powerful jaw can crush crab and shellfish in a single bite. I gained much respect for sea otters.
Drawing skulls led to painting skulls. Two examples:
Bobcat skull and mandible (detail of a larger painting.)
Woodpecker skull (detail of a larger painting.)
Finally, I got to study human skeletons.
After spending time with so many animal skulls, I see our own skulls as comparatively delicate. Our small teeth and protruding cheek bones look vulnerable compared to the big jaw and grinders of the sea otter.
But whatever our skulls lack in durability, they make up for in personality. Who wouldn’t love a smile like that?
In honor of the season, and for my ongoing series How it Looks in a Frame: Amaryllis Vanitas, 16 w x 20″h, oil on linen panel. (with friend). Click on the title to see it without a frame.
Being a working artist has its joys and challenges, but, through it all, your support and encouragement sustain me. Thank you so much for being my audience.