Out of the Depths

What is it that makes fossilized crinoids so compelling? Is it the artful way these delicate creatures came to rest at the bottom of the sea? Or the amazing transformation from living animal to rock, forever preserved, then heaved and eroded from the depths of time? Or is it the sheer success of this class of echinoderms as a survivor—living, reproducing, and dying over millions and millions of years to this very day in the depths of the oceans?

Click to view larger. Watercolor in Stillman & Birn Beta journal

Click to view larger. Watercolor in Stillman & Birn Beta journal

I discovered the fossilized Uintacrinus socialis, a floating crinoid species whose arms could reach three feet long, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut. I found the other beautiful specimens (depicted below) at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College in Massachusetts (Platycrinus and Dichocrinus sp.) and the Peabody Museum (Sea Lily).

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Tips & Techniques– Studying the anatomy of creatures you’re interested in painting can make a world of difference. Not only will it help you get the drawing right, it will deepen your understanding and appreciation for the nature of the world. Drawing the anatomy of a crinoid helped me figure out what features to look for in the fossil specimens and to see the similarities between crinoids and their echinoderm relatives– sea stars and urchins.

Ancient Seas

Sketching at a museum is a pretty fun thing to do—especially when the collection is as rich as the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The place is a treasure trove: birds, gems, butterflies, objects from native cultures, and fossils of all kinds—from giant dinosaurs to tiny ancient plants. I decided to try two very different approaches to painting on a recent visit. See what you think…FossilFish_Peabody_750bInspired by museum sketches of Canadian artists Marc Taro Holmes and Shari Blaukopf, I jumped in with watercolor to sketch the ancient fish Xiphactinus audax. I used burnt sienna and ultramarine blue to float color from head to tail. It was important to keep the paint wet to facilitate the flow and enable the colors to bleed into each other. I added the text back at home to complete the page.sealily_Peabody_750

For the Sea Lily, I made a very detailed sketch directly in ink before painting. The arms and cirri are made of many small plates of calcium carbonate so I had to decide whether the draw them all or just suggest them. The museum specimen was bleached white, but living crinoids are quite varied, so I took some liberty with color. In the end, I wish I had kept it simpler, using only earth tones, to give it a more ancient look, though the blue is fitting for a creature of the sea.