Introduction: Trilobitus Antikythera Painting

When my kids were younger, my family collected fossils from all over the U.S. Our only trilobte fossils were found in Oklahoma and they were gray not brown.

I thought it would be interesting to create a painting showing a trilobite fossil with the Ancient Greek Antikythera embedded in it.

I started working on this idea in 2013 and finally finished it in 2021.


Liquitex Acrylic Paints:

  • Burnt Umber, Yellow Oxide, Cadmium Red Medium, Dioxazine Purple, Ultramarine Blue

Grumbacher Gesso used as a white paint

Liquitex Gesso used as primer and base for painting

Liquitex Modeling Paste

1/4 inch thick plywood (2x4 feet)

1/4 inch thick masonite (2x4 feet) or MDF

Wood Glue (not Elmer's)


Masterson Sta-Wet Palette with Airtight Lid

Distilled Water

Plastic Cups

Paper Towels

Rubbing Alcohol for cleaning paint stuck to brushes

Multiple artist quality brushes

Water Mister

Table Saw

4 hand spring wood clamps

Car window scraper

Fine grit sand paper

Sacrificial Plastic Credit cards

Step 1: Create Canvas

Any pre-made canvas can be used.

I prefer 1/4 inch MDF (pine-colored) or masonite (brown) glued to a 1/4 inch piece of plywood as my "canvas", especially for smaller works. I've used masonite on-and-off since the 70's. I added the plywood backing to my work around 2000. The plywood gives an extra level of support.

Cut both the masonite and plywood to size. In general, I buy off-the-shelf frames. So, I use standard frame dimensions, which are available on various craft store websites (Michael's, Hobby Lobby). In this case, the painting is 11x14inches. Less 1/16 of an inch so the painting floats in the frame. Any expansion or concentration in the wood won't make the canvas warp.

Instead of buying 4x8 pieces of wood, I buy the smaller project boards which are 2x3 or 2x4 feet. I use the table saw to square up the wood, and then cut to size.

I put a generous amount of glue on the plywood, and working quickly, I spread the glue with a handheld car window scraper. Once there is an even glue coating I add the masonite with the shiny side up and clamp the two pieces together keeping everything square. I let this dry for 24 hours or more.

Once the glue is dry, I sand the shiny side of the masonite with fine grit until the surface is no longer shiny.

I use Liquitex Gesso as the primer on the masonite. I pour a small amount of gesso on the masonite and spread it with the window scraper ensuring the front side of the canvas is fully covered. I put on 3 coats, waiting 2-3 hours for each coat to dry, and sanding with the fine grit sand paper after each coat. Wipe away any dust with a slightly damp paper towel.

The final step in preparing the canvas is to tint the painting. I use a mixture of Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Umber and a small amount of Dioxazine Purple to make a neutral black (Mars and Ivory black are too harsh). I mix the neutral back with Grumbacher Gesso to get a neutral medium to light gray (not too brown, or blue). With a large brush, I paint the canvas with the gray.

Step 2: Drawing

I draw the image first on paper using a number 2 pencil. I went through many iterations until I was happy with it.

One drawing trick is to hold up the drawing to a mirror, and see if anything is out of place, and then fix any issues.

For the drawing, I used a photo of a trilobite found in Morocco with an Antikythera photo and photos of brass gears from the web. Antikythera photos don't have the shine or complexity I wanted in the gears.

I started this in 2013 and didn't keep any of the original drawings.

Step 3: Background Color and Outline

I used a mixture of the neutral black, with more burnt umber and some yellow oxide and the Grumbacher white to try and imitate a parchment-like color. I didn't mix the colors throughly but left some blotches of other colors in the Stay-Wet tray. The idea behind doing this is the parchment isn't one flat color but has many colors in it.

Prepare the Stay-Wet tray according to the instructions provided.

At this point, I should divulge that I am almost completely color-blind. I watch people mix paint and can get the approximate proportions correct, but I have to check the colors with my wife. I explain the color I want and she tells me if it is close enough.

I went over the pencil marks with the neutral black.

My original idea was just to have a sketch like those found in a naturalist's notebook. The painting sat like this for a few years.

I wasn't happy with it.

Paintings don't get framed until I am happy with them, or at least not annoyed by them.

Step 4: Modeling Paste

I have a cabinet in my office filled with fossils. So, I thought it would be cool to make the painting look more like a real fossil by building the fossil up using modeling paste. I made layer upon layer of modeling paste, sanding it in between until I got it to the right height.

And when I was finished, I really hated it!

After a few years, I scraped it off and started over.

Instead of building up layer-by-layer, I used modeling paste was with plastic molds. I used old credit cards to make the molds. The modeling past is very thick and hard to manipulate. After much trial and error with other flimsier material, I found that credit cards worked perfectly. The molds were cut as cross sections of a trilobite rib or other feature.

With trial and error, I taught myself how to plop down some modeling paste and more-or-less get the shape and height I wanted using a mold.

Several features had multiple molds. For example, a rib starts high and trails off to be almost flush with the surface. I started with the high mold and went about halfway. I tilted the mold at a steeper angle to reduce the height as I went. Once the angle was too steep, I would create another mold for the middle rib, and a third for the end.

Yep, I hated this too, and left it to sit for many years.

My youngest son came home from college and said that is really cool you need to finish it.

That was the encouragement needed to finish it.

Step 5: Just Dumb

I thought I could cheat and bought Liquitex bronze metallic paint and painted the gears.

I am not sure what this paint is for, but it turned out just awful. And I almost threw the whole thing away.

Skip this step!

Step 6: Gears and Bronze

I always paint back to front. So, the background parchment is painted first, and then the gears which are under the trilobite, and then the trilobite.

In addition, I start with the underpainting first and then move forward. As an example, I started with the back gear using a 50-50 mixture of bronze and neutral black. I add layers of progressively less neutral black until the gear is the right color.

I used the neutral black with a little bronze to paint the shadowed edges of the gears.

Also, I tried to make it appear to slope inward with light coming from the upper right. Since the gears are supposed to be inside the trilobite, the gear shadows should be darker on the upper right, and the highlights brighter on the lower left.

Googling Liquitex bronze gave me a nice recipe for creating the correct color for the gears (Yellow Oxide with Cadmium Red, or at least I hoped it did, at least until my wife confirmed or denied).

The neutral black is mixed with the bronze color to create shadows and add detail to the gears.

Adding highlights is the last step. Ensure the highlights are coming from the light source, and show-off the gears, and the layering of the gears. Don't use white for highlights, use a mixture of the bronze and Grumbacher gesso, and do it in layers

There are some parts that aren't perfect, but I was happy with it.

Step 7: Trilobite

I painted the whole trilobite in neutral back, and let it dry (~20 minutes)

Using neutral black as the based I added a bit more burnt umber and the Grumbacher gesso to get a slightly lighter brown color blending it in to the neutral black, keeping in mind the light was coming from the upper right. I repeated this step 3-5 times making the brown a bit lighter and blending it in. In general, each layer of light brown should be small then the one preceding it, but this is not always the case. You need to use your judgement

The last painting step is to add the highlights. Again, I start with the neutral black, or brown as the base and add Grumbacher gesso keeping the paint very thin by adding water, and I use a smaller brush. (Don't use straight white for highlights)

Step 8: Varnish & Frame

With a soft white brush, I paint on two layers of satin or matte medium to protect the painting.

I put the painting in standard 11x14 frame.

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