I'm thrilled to share my latest work with you: a painting of a Gila Monster! This is the only venomous lizard native to the United States and it is a member of the Beaded Lizard family. If you take a close look you can see why--painting this creature was like painting a thousand tiny pink and black marbles. The surface of this animal is like nothing I've ever seen before. The pattern of black & pink is unique to each individual as well, just like our fingerprint.
This painting was commissioned by a friend of mine from my studies at the Duke University Marine Lab. She needed a wedding present for some fellow scientists, one of whom is a herpetologist, so this was a perfect subject. We came up with a pose that seemed a bit dignified and I went to work on the pencil drawing.
Next up was to try and match the pinkish-reddish color of the body. I did some tests and then made a big wet wash over the entire body. My plan was to paint the black pattern on top of the pink after the wet wash dried.
Once the wet wash dried I then had a serious head scratching phase trying to figure out the pattern of these splotches and bars and polka dots! There really seemed not to be any kind of rhyme or reason to the pattern. After enough staring I eventually came to the conclusion that there was clear banding on the tail and that as the banding progressed from the tail to the head it became more and more interrupted with circles. Some of these circles were positive--- black circles on the pink background. Others were negative-- cutouts within the black bands. I always think about the process of protein synthesis when visually studying color patterns like this. Protein synthesis is nature's way of painting-- it is the link between the DNA and the trait. The DNA codes for the pink and black pigments and their pattern in the real lizard, and then protein synthesis based on the genes, produces the pigments (proteins). Using directions from the DNA black "paint" gets produced here and pink "paint" gets produced there--biology's paintbrush and paint.
The last step was to turn every one of these circles I drew with a pencil into 3D beads. These types of repetitive tasks, like painting all the scales on a fish, are a big undertaking, but the end result is so cool and rewarding, that's what keeps me going. I remember being in Manhattan once and my son Luke wanted to go into the Gucci store on 5th Avenue. There were these bomber jackets that had intricate patterns and Chinese dragons all made out of hand-sewn sequins. I thought to myself at the time, wow that must have taken someone a long time to sew all those in place. I thought about those jackets as I was painting all of these beads, each one with its own highlight and backlight.
Whew, well after all that bead painting business, we framed and shipped this piece to his new owners and seeing this text sent to my client made it all worth it!