With more than 340 different bird species and the range of mammals from Southern sea otters to mountain lions, the Elkhorn Slough area is a wonder for wildlife. The wildlife is also one of the key reasons it is important to conserve this amazing habitat. Yet, finding a way to show all that diversity proved to be challenging.
Local artist Laura Vollset offered her time and talent to create an illustrated look at key species - from birds to plants to mammals. The poster will be useful as a teaching tool for the nearly 7,000 students that visit the Elkhorn Slough Reserve annually. Along with the wonderful illustration and creative composite of the slough setting, there will be a key identifying the species. In other words, a learning opportunity in art.
Of course, we also hope to sell the poster (and perhaps some cards) of the piece when it is complete. This will allow visitors to the Reserve to share the slough's wonder too.
You can check out the work in progress through this short time-lapsed video. Stay tuned for more information on this depiction of Elkhorn Slough's diverse wildlife.
The Process of Creating the Elkhorn Slough Species Poster
From the Artist:
A project like this one takes quite a bit of preparation. (To be honest, no matter how much I prepare, I'm always faced with problems, mistakes and a sense of generalized panic...but at least preparing well takes the edge off the terror of putting pen to paper!)
The sheer number of species included in this composition meant that I spent a fair while taking reference photos at the Slough, checking accuracy and tracking down appropriate images of particular species online (getting permission to use the ones under copyright, plus finding sources in the
Once all snaps had been snapped and permissions granted I began to sketch out a few ideas using my photos for reference. Think stick animals and bobble-head birds, nothing fancy...
Often my ideas come together when I hit upon one or two images of animals I know I'd like to include that are interesting or compelling. This time it was the heron and the harbor seal. I was drawn to the dramatic foreshortening of the seal in the image I sourced and began to think of the idea of the seal emerging from the silty water of the slough right into the immediate foreground and turning slightly as if acknowledging the viewer. I knew I wanted the heron to be in the foreground too rather than a skinny background silhouette. He's so dramatic, and architectural in his form and colour. I wanted the chance to capture the curve of his neck, his head plumage and some of his general panache up close. Plus his long slender shape meant he could serve as a kind of intermediate frame for the image, directing the eye towards other elements of the painting without obscuring them. Those lovely long gams of his also meant that I would have room to have a couple of other species hopping/growing in the foreground of the pic near his feet without obscuring the bulk of his body and plumage.
With these two "starter species" decided upon, the layout of the overall composition began to take shape. For instance, if the seal was coming towards the viewer out of murky depths then he would need to be underwater...so there would have to be an under and over the water element to the composition. A line indicating the water surface would need to be included and underwater and above water distinction indicated. In addition the water would need to be deep enough to accommodate a harbor seal. It became clear that this dictated another aspect of the poster. Instead of looking from the slough out to the ocean, it would work better to do the reverse, as if looking at the slough from a kayak or a surfacing diver going inland from ocean to slough.
Not only would that accommodate the seal in suitably deep water, it would also mean I could add the barn in the background (thanks for that idea Lorili!) and give some specificity to the landscape, identifying it as Elkhorn slough in particular.
I began to work on large sheets of tracing paper that I could move around and tape together as needed (for some reason I find this hands on method for initial workings out more useful than composing digitally using Illustrator or Photoshop.)
Gradually the poster design began to take shape....
2/1/2014 update: Disaster Strikes
It always happens. Pretty much every piece I work on suffers some set back or other. This self-imposed catastrophe was quite impressive, though I say it myself.
I applied masking fluid to the completed graphite composition (this protects areas that I don't want to get covered in paint when I do the large initial washes of color for things like sea and sky.) The deal is you paint it on, leave it to dry, paint the washes/areas you need to, then peel off the masking fluid which by now has dried to a protective film. I practiced this first with two types of fluid, picked the best one and promptly began slapping it onto my detailed pencil drawing as sparingly as I could. All seemed well. I left it to dry, painted and then peeled.
Unfortunately for some reason (maybe the fluid wasn't dry enough when I removed it) not only did I manage to remove the masking fluid but huge chunks from the surface of the paper as well. This was not good. There was nothing to do but ditch a drawing I had spent at least a month working on. So that's what I did (after eating a lot of comfort muffins.)
Every cloud has a silver lining though. In this case, the silver lining was that I now had the chance to try a different drawing surface. I'd heard good things about aquabord, so that's what I used for the re-draw. It worked really well and the composition came out crisper and cleaner than before. After re-drawing the composition I tackled the dreaded masking fluid again. This time…success!
I quickly found that once I had applied the initial washes on large background areas I wanted to try my hand at some of the creatures in the foreground. I can never resist texture and detail, so I worked "front to back", giving myself the excuse to indulge in detail work and get less detailed as I moved into the background. The harbor seal got initial attention, followed by the sea otter and the heron. When I wanted a break from in-depth texture and detail, I jumped to creatures that required less detail because of their place in the overall image. The hummingbird was sketched in lightly as was the deer. So I moved back and forth over the composition and gradually things began to take shape….
I hope you enjoy the photos of poster progress.
About the Artist
"This project with ESF was a wonderful opportunity for me to dive back into the world of illustration after having twins in 2012. Juggling art and motherhood has been quite a challenge, but I am thrilled to be able to contribute to the work that ESF does and to help highlight the amazing natural environment that surrounds us in the Bay Area." -Laura Vollset
Laura Vollset is a freelance artist and illustrator based in Santa Cruz, but originally from the UK. She completed a graduate program in science illustration at UCSC in 2008 and has worked with the Smithsonian, Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, among others. She is volunteering her time and talent to create this Elkhorn Slough art.
About the Videographer
Devi grew up in a house without pictures. She was the keeper of memory in my family, the one who knew all the stories. When her dad got Alzheimer’s, memory became an obsession for her. And so did taking photographs.
She now lives in Santa Cruz, California and has a beautiful studio in the Tannery Arts Center where she is the Resident Photographer and Videographer (her dream of dreams!). Within two years of being on her own, she won the two coveted Best Photographer awards in her community.
"Every day I discover the special magic of connecting with people and telling their stories. For me, it’s all about the client experience. I enjoy working with other entrepreneurs and artists to create an image to really highlight them and showcase their work either through photography or video. I love seeing the smile on someone’s face when they see their photographs, and knowing that my images will be shared, remembered, and celebrated for a lifetime—and beyond." -Devi Pride
The Elkhorn Slough Foundation wishes to thank both Laura and Devi for donating their time to this project.