Research

Morphological Mapping – where Science and Art meet

From scientific journals to educational materials, field guides and clifftop signage, fine art exhibitions to books, sculptures and paintings, Noel’s whales and dolphins have become world recognised for their scientific accuracy and artistic precision, but what is less known is that all of this work is based on over thirty years of dedicated research, with the clear aim of creating a definitive set of scientific illustrations of the world’s elusive cetaceans.

The story behind Noel’s Morphological Research

This process, which he pioneered in the mid-eighties, brought together various diverse disciplines in a quest to create the most accurate scientific illustrations available and began with the Heaviside’s Dolphin, a species endemic to the African west coast of the Benguela current ecosystem, commissioned by Dr Peter Best of the Mammal Research Institute, University of Pretoria on behalf of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission. This was the first published scientific illustration in the world of this elusive and little-known species. The subsequent publication of Noel’s illustrations in scientific journals has given his research international recognition.

Left: Heaviside’s and Dusky Dolphin Scientific Illustration, Middle: Killer Whale Morphological Map, Right: Illustrations of some of the world’s cetacean species

Noel explains the process :

When I began illustrating the global species in 1984, the literature at the time showed enormous variability in the quality and accuracy of the available images, so my challenge was to develop a technique that would effectively and seamlessly combine the accuracy of science with the most advanced methodology of art.

The stages of airbrushing on a coloured background using masks

For the full colour rendering, I developed and adjusted specific airbrush techniques that enabled me to capture the nuances and gradual tonal and colour blends evident in most cetaceans, but it was when I started looking specifically at the science and form of each species that I realised that I had to go back to the drawing board!

Anatomical studies: Humpback Whale, Blue Whale skeleton, common dolphin tonal study

Noel developes and refines his Morphological Mapping technique

Over many years I developed and refined a technique that enabled me to map the morphological ratio’s of each of the world’s species in order to gain a very detailed and accurate understanding of each species characteristics – the comparative size of dorsal fins, tail, length, position of eye along the lateral plane, girth etc. These dimensions were available from researchers around the world who fastidiously collect this data, as well as at stranding events where I could gather the data firsthand (here I was also able to record the subtle colours and blends which disappear soon after death). I then collated definitive data by establishing the mean data set for each species, as well as the differentials between adults, male and female, and juveniles.

The Killer Whale data schematic and lateral morphological map with curves

This data was then transcribed into physical maps and schematics which would enable me to begin the process of adding the complex curves which define each species, and only then could the process of illustrating begin. So it was back to the drawing board with all this data, the shape, form, outline, colour and tone profiles and all other details so that I could begin the process of actually painting each species, with many of them being done in various life stages, as well as male and female dimorphism. After this each illustration was scanned and digitally archived.

A special set of commissioned original illustrations were created for the 12 De Beers Oceans of Africa Panels which are on display at the Two Oceans Aquarium, Cape Town.

Computer generated 3D forms of Southern Right Whale for ARD Television, and 3D form of Free Willie for Warner Bros.

An unexpected application of the morphological research was consulting for Warner Bros as the scientific and behavioural advisor for Free Willy 4, as well as Right Whales for ARD German Television, using the latest Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) programmes and techniques.

In 2012 Noel was invited to present his research methodology and findings at the Lectures of Excellence, Rhodes University, Grahamstown