Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Of Ursa and Strigiformes, part one

So, there's a challenge on Art Order at the moment on redesigning the Owlbear, a classic D&D monster that suffers from what I call Cut&paste Fantasy Syndrome and what many others call Flipbook Fantasy..that is to say, it has essentially been a bear body with an owl head for the past decade or so since it's creation.As much as I have a dislike of Cut&paste fantasy (probably from years of hearing the less educated members of our north american society try to stammer out exactly what they were looking at [usually a centaur..] in my mother's shop at various rennaisance festivals over the years) I do actually like the owlbear...I mean, more often than not it has been portrayed as, well, a fuzzy round thing with HYOOGE EYES. I mean, that's just a recipie for cute. There have of course been plenty of more ogreish depictions. In the end though, it is essentially still an owl with a bear body tacked on.

Now, I've been doing studies in my sketchbook for the past couple weeks of various skulls and body layouts for various owls and bears, trying to figure out what it is that really stands out to me about each. I've also contacted various friends of mine with experience in things like wild bird rehabbing, biology degrees and a passion for all things bird-y to help fill in my embarrasing lack of knowledge about owls. What can I say? I'm all about the lizards and great cats. Here's a three factoids I've learned.

  • 1. Despite the steriotype, owls are rather dumb. They're very good at what they do in the wild, but they tend to be ragefull and stompy and hard to deal with in a falconry setting.
  • 2. Owls have amazing hearing..partly because one ear opening is slightly lower than the other. This allows them to triangulate the origin of sounds more exactly..and as my friend and vault-of-knowledge on all things bird Jennifer Miller put it, "nothing's better at hearing mouse farts".
  • 3. If you study skulls, you'll find that owls have extraordinarily pointy faces. There's a huge mass of feathers that covers up all but the tip of the beak. This might translate in interesting ways over to a redesigned owlbear.
I also did some research on nocturnal predators spurred by a random thought I had one night- why isnt everything that hunts at night matte black? Well, turns out that somebody did a study on just that with orb weaver spiders recently. The scientists took two groups of spiders and painted one group black, and left the others alone. The group with the yellow spots intact far outperformed the altered group. What this means is that color, even striking patterns like on the Orbweaver, is in fact beneficial to these spiders. I cant make a huge statement and say that panthers need big yellow spots (though I suppose that's been done to the reverse in the panther's cousins) but in a fantasy setting I think I just found my justification for bold markings on an ambush predator.

As for bears, I've decided to indulge in my love of all things prehistoric and study Cave Bears, which I previously didnt know so much about. The wonderfull thing about this is that A; they are allready very optimized for fantasy proportions, and B; most of my refrence is bones, so I wont be influenced too much by floofy bear parts. I've done a few cave bear skull + skeletal studies to start off and get a familiarity with the anatomy I'll be weaving, and I cant help but feel I found the right place to start. There's even photos of bones of the juveniles, who look adorable and will be fantastic for keeping my proportions straight.

So that's step one.
Now I need to play with sillhoettes and figure out some proportional stuff, and then decide what to do about the skin of the creature. I dont know that I'll use feathers, that seems like a slippery path right back to people seeing this creature as an owl headed bear. We'll see! Next time, I'll post pics :)

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