Sketching Brett working on the ribcage of 'Hope' the blue whale now hanging in Hintze Hall
Welcome to my blog. Here with my sketches and paintings I’ll share my story and personal journey of my residency with Research Casting International (RCI) and a very special and unique blue whale. (RCI Canada is one of the world’s largest providers of Museum Technical Services).
It has been a humbling experience and surprisingly emotional to be up so close to this beautiful skeleton. As well as one of the most exciting and extraordinary five months of my life, I have been part of a big secret which all started back in December 2016 when Peter May, President of Research Casting International commissioned me to document their work. I am delighted that at last I can invite you to share it with me.
Sketching in Hintze Hall as Jennifer Flippance and Colin Russell watch on
A Gargantuan Task
My artistic journey has given me a deeper understanding, appreciation and respect for this giant of nature. I have had the good fortune and privilege of observing and sketching the Research Casting International crew throughout, both in the workshop and at the Museum. I have also enjoyed recording the Natural History Museum conservators working with delicate precision on the skeleton skull.
Of course, before the fabrication process began, there had been many months of meticulous and expert preparation at the Natural History Museum (NHM) and RCI. Richard Sabin (Principal Curator of marine mammals NHM), Jennifer Flippance (Project Manager NHM) and Lorraine Cornish (Head of Conservation NHM) and her team of Conservators had spent months researching and preparing the 126-year-old skeleton before it was delivered to the ‘secret’ workshop.
It has been a pleasure getting to know everyone involved and to have been granted access both at the RCI workshop and Hintze Hall. I’ll pick up the journey from when the blue whale was received by RCI at the workshop and where industrial met natural history.
Brett and Matt Welding and grinding metal study - Charcoal
First encounters: ‘THE SKELETON CREW’
As I step through the door of the workshop I am greeted by an intense frenzy of activity from the unwrapping of bones to hammering, welding and the grinding of metal. The atmosphere is electric and I am immediately taken aback by the huge skull hidden under plastic. Little did I know just how close an encounter I would have with this beautiful giant of the deep.
I am about to meet the skeleton crew from RCI. It’s hard to believe it but for the next few months this will be my art studio and I’ll soon find out that these guys don’t stay still for long!
They are here to build the armature (which involves the shaping of steel to fit the bone) so that it is strong and secure enough to hold the whale in a dynamic diving pose from the ceiling of the magnificent Hintze Hall. These skilled artisans, blacksmiths and engineers are cool and they build dinosaurs! (including the ones we all saw in Jurassic park – the movie). Who wouldn’t want to be part of a group called the ‘skeleton crew’?
Introducing the 'Skeleton Crew' from left to right:
Mike: Head of Molding and Casting Big in stature, focused and fun to be around.
Patrick: Exhibit Technician The youngest crew member. Old head on young shoulders with a big heart and a great work ethic.
Matt: Production Manager Highly respected, Managing the project for RCI. Cool, calm and collected. Never a problem always a solution. If in doubt, “figure it out!”
Brian: Exhibit Technician Joined us for a short while. Highly skilled, unassuming, great team member and quieter than the rest!
Brett: Head of Mounting This guy works fast. He moves like an acrobat and is not afraid of heights. I called him my main model as he was everywhere (wearing his trademark red cap) presenting great poses in among the metal and ribs.
Chris: UK Co-ordinator for RCI Mr Fixer. Also comedian and tea maker extraordinaire!
Bill grinding the metal armature ready to fit the bone
Bill: Exhibit Technician Joined us for a short while and worked with military precision. He was here to get the job done and the only one to avoid eating all the homemade cake I provided!
A Visual Feast
My artistic senses are immediately ignited. I feel a sense of urgency not to miss a thing as I want to capture and record such a unique event in history. I have never drawn a blue whale skeleton being built before! Where do I start?
There’s so much going on it’s going to take time to absorb it all. I want to convey more than just what I am seeing but engage all the senses, use colour and mark making to record the actions and atmosphere of this historical ‘once in a life-time’ experience. To begin with I’ll just use charcoal pencil.
In the sketch above I've recorded the RCI team attaching the vertebrae to the armature and the processes involved from building the frame to shaping the metal. The scissor lift was an essential piece of equipment for building such a huge skeleton. The mandibles in the foreground (the largest single bones that have ever existed) offered great perspective and make for an interesting composition as well as being wonderful to draw. I'll often repeat the same figure to record the different actions and to create a sense of movement and atmosphere.
From my sketchbook: Brett and Matt creating the armature for the vertebra
I am also dependent on my sketchbook to begin to understand the shapes, light, figures and bones and to absorb and work out a plan for the larger pieces. In time and with constant and careful observation, I become fully acquainted with how each person moves, stands and works.
I’m soon to welcome the distinctive shapes of the welding masks (all personal for each skeleton crew member) along with the repeated use of tools and machinery such as the anvil, scissor lift and huge hammers in setting up and directing my composition.
The sketch above shows Brett and Matt working together on the armature for the vertebra.
I enjoyed including Matt in my sketches as when he wasn't welding he'd still keep his mask on with the visor upright.
As I am sketching, the sound of the heating system becomes strangely hypnotic and reminiscent of the sea. I am in awe of the magnitude and the incredible natural engineering of the skeleton. I am drawing the bones of the largest known animal to have ever lived and I am gripped by the fact that it is now going through an industrial process that is so alien to its natural habitat. This is an amazing and exciting concept and I can’t wait to see how they’re going to achieve it.
Finished sketch of Brett working on the ribcage of 'Hope' the blue whale