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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Becky Barnes's blog

Designing a Museum Mural to Save Space: How a Paleontologist and Artist is Creating a 3-D Plesiosaur Exhibit

In October 2016 I wrote a “Year of the Plesiosaur” blog that showcased a chain of vertebrae from the neck of one of these Loch Ness-esque sea monsters. In a perfect world we would show the awesome size of this creature by hanging an entire cast of the skeleton (all 50 feet of it) in the Underwater World exhibit of the State Museum’s Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time. However, we do not have the kind of space needed to facilitate that. What about hanging part of the cast instead? Even a portion of the 70-vertebrae-long neck is impressive to behold. As you enter Underwater World, there is a blank wall to the right of the mosasaur on display. We decided to paint the rest of the plesiosaur on the wall and have the cast neck and skull sticking out as a three-dimensional element.

Then the question was: what to paint? Do we paint a fleshed out creature and have the bones sticking out of the wall? Seems disconnected. How about a skeleton painted, and the 3D bones? Seems a little gruesome. What about an x-ray effect, with a fleshed out creature and the bones (real and painted) fading into obscurity? Perfect! What is the process now?

Sketch of Plesiosaur mural

Initial sketch for the mural.

We measured the wall at 106” wide. Then we picked up a painting canvas at 40” wide. Since I’m the artist for this mural project, I can paint in the comfort of my office instead of pretending to be Michelangelo for weeks on end. The plesiosaur was drafted in a few different poses, until we found one that fit what we wanted. We needed an underbelly view, since the animal will be above the viewer. Take into account light sources, so there are not strange shadows. Next calculate how much the painting will need to be enlarged into a wall mural to fit the space (265%). Then check the size of the last cast vertebra – 9.5” tall. So, at 265%, the last painted vertebra needs to be 3.6” tall in order to fit the expanded painting.

Water painted on Plesiosaur mural

Washes of blue acrylic get rid of the white void, and actually make it easier for me to concentrate.

Now it is time to paint. Redraw the critter on the canvas and rough out my lighting and shadows. I like to do an underpainting of acrylic first to get rid of the blank white of the canvas. Nothing is worse than a big white canvas staring at you. Acrylic dries fast, which is good and bad. Good because I can get a lot of color on fast. Bad because I’m terrible at going back and blending with established (i.e. already dry) colors.

Some bones have been painted onto the Plesiosaur mural

After layers of acrylic, the painting is just about ready for oil paints.

Once the underpainting is done, I start in with oil paints. Sadly I have an allergy to standard oils, but I’ve found a walnut-oil based paint that is low odor and is smooth like butter. The oils I can blend on palette, as well as on canvas. As of right now, the painting is almost done – I’m not going to show the final image, however, until our grand unveiling of the exhibit including the mural and cast neck and skull. So come by the museum on April 27 and you will be able to see the finished product!

The Art of Making Fossil Casts

A few blogs ago, I introduced the good kind of mold we have in paleontology: silicone rubber, used when making casts of fossils. Depending on the purpose of making a cast, the end result can look very different. If we need to make a cast to replace an original fossil, a lot of time and care are taken to paint the cast to make it look as close to the original as possible. If a cast is meant to be a teaching tool, handled frequently, or given away as a prize, then maybe a more generic paint job (i.e. less time) is used.

There are times when people are conflicted – they found a cool fossil, and they want to donate it to the State Fossil Collection, but they would also like to keep it to show their friends and family. Depending on the fossil, we can make a cast and paint it to match the original. This way the person can keep what looks (and even weighs) the same as the original, but the real one is safe in collections.

Mosasaur vertebra casts and original fossil

Two painted casts of a mosasaur vertebra, and the original. Which is which?

During our 2017 dig season, our public diggers came across two beautiful Tyrannosaurus teeth. Everyone wanted the teeth – yet there is only one of each. What to do? Make copies and paint as close to the original as possible. After making a silicone mold, it was time for an assembly line. There is no point to mixing up all the paint you need, over and over, to paint one tooth at a time. So we cast a bunch, mixed our paint, and started the lengthy process. In order to keep all the surface texture, the paint had to be applied in thin layers. Wash after wash. While it is nearly impossible to match a tooth exactly, we can get close enough. This means lots of small brushes, and patience.

One of the failings of casts is that they are often much lighter than their rock counterparts. To fix this we weighed the original tooth (171 grams). When mixing our plastic (~65 grams), we made up the difference in weight by adding metal BBs without adding a lot of volume.

T. rex teeth on scales

Original Tyrannosaurus tooth (left) and 80 percent painted cast (right). Weight distribution in both teeth is the same.

We can’t just let the plastic and BBs sit in the mold, or all of the weight would be on one side. So, we have to rotate the mold until our plastic sets. Time consuming? Yes. Great arm workout? Yes. Awesome teeth? Totally.

Becky turning box

Becky becoming the human gyroscope. Turn, turn, rotate, pivot.