Cougar portrait in pastel

Cougar, Mountain lion, Puma, Florida Panther….. Whatever you want to call the largest of the small cat species, Puma concolor is one of North America’s most elusive and enchanting felines to roam the wilderness.

This post will focus on the step-by-step process I did while drawing the cougar mount from the Field Museum’s exhibit hall.

Cougar, Puma concolor, mount from the Field Museum.

The cougar portrait started, like all of my other portraits, with a rough sketch.  From there, I refined my sketch by measuring and scaling from the cougar mount and transferring my measurements to my paper. The ground I used for this portrait is a burgundy color from Canson’s Mi Teintes collection.  This is a textured paper with a medium size tooth which perfectly holds the pastel for that textured feeling and finish.  I used my trusty color-erase white pencil as it is one of the essentials I keep close when I work on dark colored ground.

My set-up in the Carnivore room while drawing the cougar portrait.

Drawing felids (cats and cat relatives) are a slight challenge as they have a flat skull compared with other animals.  They also possess a foreshortened and wide muzzle orsnout which is unlike canids (dogs and dog relatives) as the muzzle length and width are a distinguishing factor between some of the species within both groups.

At this time in the process, I am sometimes still deciding what media to use (not surprised).  This time I choose Prismacolor Nu-Pastels and Derwent pastel pencils.  I started with an under-painting of Nu-Pastels as I could get a larger amount of the ground covered in a shorter amount of time.  Once the basic colors for the under-painting were complete, I added the highlights and shadows in places so that I knew where I would be enhancing certain areas when I started the detail work.  As you can see above in the finished under-painting, the cougar has a flat feeling to it as I have not rendered the form much in this photo.  As I started to add the detail (more color layering, hair and texture) the cougar starts to take on a more “real” look or a more modeled look on the paper.

I added dark patches of color to create the base of the skin and fur folds, the dark shadows within the ears, and the shadow that is created under the chin on the neck.  Once that was done I started with more highlights around the cheeks, over the eyes, and on the tips of the ears.  You can see that once the low- and high-lights are done, detail can be added.  And I LOVE DETAIL!

The eyes are the entrance to the soul so this is my favorite feature to draw and paint.  I do have a tendency to add more emotion into the eyes I create then what is presently on a mount or in a photo reference.  The detail is were I get to use pastel pencils and my blade to sharpen the Nu-pastels.  I can get a better point with the pencil or by cutting or chopping away at the pastel sticks or blocks to create a point verses just using the Nu-pastels or my Sennelier soft pastels.

Folds on the skin are the first part of the fur that I started on.  I layered the dark colors with medium tons and then after a quick spray of fixative, I added the light colors and white highlights.  The textured paper takes away a little bit of dimension since you do see a little of the ground color through the layers of color but with each mammal portrait I do, I try to balance the color of the ground with the base colors in the specimens fur color.  With the cougar, you can see the the burgundy color of the paper balances out with the orange and golden yellow colors of the fur.

Once finished, I always sign and fix with spray so that the pastel does not rub off easily.

Cougar, 2016, Pastel on paper, 19″x25″. Copyright Rebe Banasiak, The Brush Hilt, Rebe Banasiak Art.

I will be doing more carnivore portraits in the future so keep your eyes on my blog pages here, Facebook and Instagram to watch the progress unfold.

Next step-by-step, Shrink-e-dink sketch magnets:  How I create shrink-e-dink magnets from my sketches.  Stay tuned.

The daily grind gives artistic inspiration

After the Field Museum Women in Science and Art blog post, many of you wanted to find out more about what is new about my job at the museum.   As most of you have read in one of my past posts (Yes, I do have a job to pay the bills…) a couple years ago, I talked about what my job at the museum entails as a Research Assistant and the opportunities I get offered to do what I love, illustrating.  Now, as the Mammals Collections Assistant and Preparator, I am doing much more than what I use to do within the Mammals Collection.

Bobcat skull that has been prepped and ready for cataloging (or sketching, hmm?).

How much “art” is in my daily routine?  I do not get to create illustrations or photograph specimens as much as in the past but I take what I do at work daily and incorporate what I learn on the job into my artwork. I take advantage of the many specimens at my finger tips to study and learn how their forms and textures can influence and INSPIRE how an art piece will turn out.  This makes it easier to visualize what I will see on paper when illustrating  the mounts in the exhibit halls.  It’s the LOVE and ENJOYMENT of what I do and where I work that INSPIRES and fulfills “MY CREATIVE PASSION” in the studio. Even if that means sacrificing my time before work, at lunch or on a weekend to come into the my office or lab to illustrate a specimen or a mount in the exhibit halls.

I’ve been in the new position for more than two years now. I moved from doing primarily research based tasks for the Collections Manager to doing more collections prep and maintenance of the mammals collection.  That entails skinning, stuffing, cleaning the bones, cataloguing, numbering and installing specimens within the collection.  There is still some time to take photos of specimens and illustrate for my colleagues but now I am training my volunteers to help me with many of the regular tasks that I use to do as well as train them to use the camera systems and finally, illustrate specimens (YEAH!)

The lab, where all the magic, I mean science happens. This is where the mammal specimens are processed before being installed into the main collection.

What is the difference in what I am doing now verses two years ago? Well, for one, any mammal specimen that needs to be cleaned has to go through my lab first.  I also take care of the mammals beetle colony (Mary Hennen takes care of the Birds beetle colonies).  I inherited thousand of little babies who depend on me (but mostly Mary) for food… and a home.  Check out the beetles Facebook page, Bird’s Bug Room here.  Most people think this is a disgusting part of the job but my time in the beetle room is nice, peaceful, and most importantly, quiet.

Cleaning the torso and femurs of a rodent. This rodent was born with a femur deformity. You can see that the left femur is slightly shorter and extremely wider then the right femur.

My volunteer staff has grown from five to ten volunteers/interns.  I guess mammals has become a popular place over the past two years.  I depend on them everyday to help with cleaning bones after the beetles have finished, skinning specimens and stuffing the viable skins for research, as well as, helping with database entry, scanning, numbering bones and photography work from researchers.

After all this you would think I would need lots of sleep but no, I still give myself time during the week to work on my artwork and sketching.  I am non-stop, the energizer bunny, the flash, a sugared up toddler. I have so much energy I need to release it so I work in the studio (as well as working out a lot).  I consider myself one of the lucky ones in the scientific/natural illustration world to be employed as the collections assistant and preparator.  I still get to use my artistic talent in some form everyday, in either skinning, numbering, Photoshop work, or photographing or illustrating specimens.  Thanks for visiting.  😋

The numbering and boxing area in the lab.

Crocidura monax specimen under a camera lucida microscope with the illustration on the right.

Crocidura monax specimen under a camera lucida microscope with the illustration on the right.

Rhinolophus illustration on a light table. Stipling on vellum from a graphite drawing.

Rhinolophus sp. illustration on a light table. Stippling on vellum from a graphite drawing.

Next INKtober….enough said:  The attempt to do a sketch a day for INKtober and my “failings” at it, LOL!.  Stay tuned.

Women in Science and Art

Women in Science and Art: Rebecca Banasiak, Mammals Collections Assistant and Preparator

In March, many of my colleagues and I, were asked to answer some questions about what it is like to be either a women in science or a women in art.  I am lucky enough to be one of the few who was highlighted as both a women in science and art.  I highlighted some of my answers below and you can read the full blog post here on the Field Museum’s website.

How did you get to where you are?
I received a BA in chemistry and fine art … from Lewis University in Romeoville, IL, in 1997. ….It wasn’t until I went back to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago …. that I was introduced to the vast collection of material and specimens here. While at SAIC, I started at the Museum as an intern with Bill Stanley, … then in 2005, I became a full-time research assistant. In 2015, the collections assistant, mammals preparator position opened up … and that is how I got to where I am now.

A woman in a laboratory-like space, wearing gloves to handle a fox specimen as children observe

Teaching visitors about mammal preparation at Meet a Scientist in the Science Hub.  Photo copyright the Field Museum of Natural History.

What does your job entail? What’s the day-to-day like?

Part of my day-to-day includes working with the dermestid beetle colony that cleans specimens … I also supervise volunteers and interns. I train them on different tasks like skinning, stuffing skins, and cleaning and numbering bones … how to use the camera equipment and the camera lucida for illustration, and help them get involved with different research projects. One of the projects we’re working on now is photographing the skulls of Grammomys (a group of rodents found in Africa). … Other tasks for similar projects have been to photograph or illustrate a specimen or create maps and graphs that my colleagues or Field Museum researchers may need for publications. … Other projects might include processing specimens that a researcher brings back from an expedition. …..

What has been your favorite part of the job, or a memorable moment?

One of my proudest moments was the day that Bill Stanley came down to my office and was holding the new Fieldiana (a scientific journal published by The Field Museum) that had various articles about the small mammals in the East and West Usambara Mountains in Tanzania. ….

The other moment was when one of my colleagues and a researcher at the Smithsonian, Mike Carleton, asked if I wanted to be an author on a paper about a new species of rodent in the Hylomyscus genus. …..

A woman with dark hair and glasses sketching a cougar in a museum gallery, with a specimen of a large cat in the background


What advice do you have for future women scientists?

I’m not a proponent of STEM, I’m a proponent of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math). … Like the sciences, the arts also do not have enough representation by women. … Art does help with science; they work together. … Science and art work together.

If I had to go back to myself at the age of nine or 10, I would say, “Stick with science, and stick with art, and don’t worry about anyone making fun of you.” When you look at our Museum, we have a lot of female presence. But we need more female leaders in science as a whole. As we educate a new generation, we want to give them confidence. My message to future female scientists and artists is to have faith in yourself; this is really what it is. If you think you can do it, you can do it. If you do something incorrectly, you’re only human, so get back up and do it again. Learn from your mistakes. All it takes is a little education and practice, and you can do it. Take the criticism, learn from it, and keep improving. You will see that it all pays off in the end.

Full text of the original blog post can be found here at Women in Science and Art: Rebecca Banasiak, Mammals Collections Assistant and Preparator, Original published date: Monday, March 27, 2017, by Rebecca Banasiak, Sciences, Animals, Mammals, Collections, Women in Science

Next the daily grind at work:  What do I do at work? Well, you can find out in the next post.  Stay tuned.

Throwback Thursday – #1

This is from the year 2000 when I was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The second stipple I ever did in pen and ink.

Beetle, ink stipple on vellum, 11×17.

Beetle, ink stipple on vellum, 11x17. Copyright Rebe Banasiak, The Brush Hilt and Banasiak Art Gallery.

Beetle, ink stipple on vellum, 11×17. Copyright Rebe Banasiak, The Brush Hilt and Banasiak Art Gallery.