October 28, 2014

Leviathan

        This weekend I’ll be at Roslindale Open Studios (come see me - as well as loads of other local artists - if you’re in the greater Boston area!)  That means that, along with matting, framing, packaging note cards, and other preparations, I am also working on designs for blocks to carve while I’m there.  Right now I’m working on a design for a leviathan.  The leviathan is one of those mythical creatures that doesn’t have a widely agreed-upon look.  Indeed, through the centuries artists have portrayed it in wildly divergent ways, from fishy to whiskered to draconic, as you can see in these assorted samples.  Here are some of leviathan’s important characteristics as described in the Bible: mighty fins, graceful form, mouth ringed with fearsome teeth, scaled on the back like rows of shields sealed together and on the 
underside like jagged potsherds, smoking nostrils, snorting flashes of light and shining rays from its eyes, making the depths churn like a boiling cauldron.  And of course it’s big big big - big enough to eat other monsters that are hundreds of feet long.
        My general concept for depicting the leviathan came from this image of St Brendan by Robert Gibbings.  I liked the idea of the boat at the top and the depth of the ocean below, but I was thinking of a much bigger ship, a much deeper ocean, and the idea that the tiny humans at the surface are utterly oblivious of the immensity of life in that unexplored, alien world below.  I wanted to make all the sea creatures to scale, including tiny whales, for comparison with my enormous leviathan.
        I started with the boat, for which I envisioned a steam-powered paddlewheel ocean liner, a crazy hybrid technology that ruled the waves for just a short time between the age of sail and the age of modern boat engines.  My inspiration was the SS Great Eastern designed and built by the remarkable Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1858.  (Its original name, by the way, was SS Leviathan!)  But I actually ended up going with something more like the Great Western, an earlier, smaller - and much more reliable and successful - ship that plied the Atlantic from 1838 to 1846.  I needed a boat that wasn’t so big as to make whales too tiny in comparison to carve.  I imagine that my fictional ship is about 300 ft in length, 
somewhat between Great Eastern and Great Western (though closer to the smaller).
        As for leviathan himself, what general form to go with?  People have suggested all sorts of creatures as the real life basis for the legend of the leviathan, including crocodiles, whales, pythons, mososaurs, or even an underwater volcano.  I was thinking something in the mososaur or plesiosaur line, but with a bit of ugly eel and deep-sea creature about the face, and photoluminescence to explain the flashes of light.  After all, this must be a 
creature of the absolute deepest chasms of the ocean, or we’d hardly have missed seeing it more often.  I drew and redrew him many times, having an especially hard time with the fins, but I’m fairly satisfied with his general look now.  Here’s what I’ve got so far.  I still need to finish populating my ocean and making some decisions about the scheme of black and white and how I’ll do the water.  (Not to mention carving and printing the thing, of course.)  You will, naturally, be presented with the results of all this in due course.





[Pictures: Destruction of Leviathan, wood engraving by Gustave Doré, 1865 (Images from Wikimedia Commons except where otherwise noted);
This is Leviathan, illumination from France, 1277-86 (Image from Tony Harrison);
detail of Leviathan, illumination from Byzantine manuscript Book of Job, (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Codex Gr 749), c. 850;
detail of Leviathan, drawing from Hortus Deliciarum, German Manuscript c. 1170 (Image from Oberlin);
detail of Leviathan, illumination from Byzantine manuscript Book of Job (Greek Patriarchal Library, Codex Taphou 5), c. 1300;
detail from Behemoth and Leviathan, engraving by William Blake, 1823;
Ere the Leviathan can swim a League, illustration by Arthur Rackham from A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, 1908 (Image from Internet Archive);
Leviathan sketch by AEGN, 2014.]

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