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May 2012

May 2012 -- Sea Monsters



  • Artist Spotlight:
    Interview with Mitzi Sato-Wiuff
  • Behind the Art:
    A Sea Monster in Watercolor


  • Aquatic Monsters


  • Poem: Sorcerous Mist
  • Poem: Tears of the Nereid

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  • Aquatic Monsters
    by Alexander D. Mitchell IV and Jenny Heidewald

    For as long as humans have interacted with large bodies of water, the human imagination has conjured the presence of large monsters residing within. Popular culture has long popularized the legends and mythology of sea monsters, aquatic dragon-like creatures capable of devouring humans and even ships that happen to cross their paths. The depictions are varied -- serpentine, reptilian with limbs, horse-like, or fish-like, with dragon-like heads and adornments or simple plain heads, or alien-like.

    The above "map" of a portion of Iceland, produced in 1570 by Abraham Ortelius, purports to show many exotic creatures that mariners should have expected to find, and was typical of such early oceanic maps, which for centuries showed any number of fantastical monsters in the water. One may speculate whether such creatures were to be taken seriously, or were simply decorative features. An entire web page of such ancient monster illustrations is at

    The ancient and obsolete practice of illustrating mapped oceans with fanciful sea monsters has led to the popularly mimicked phrase, "Here Be Dragons," supposedly a phrase placed to designate uncharted waters on such maps. In reality, only one map -- the Lenox Globe, a 1500's globe now in the collection of the New York Public Library -- has ever been shown to use that phrase (in Latin).

    In other lands further from the oceans, a different manifestation of this legend appears as lake monsters, occupying large bodies of water. Undoubtedly the most famous of these creatures by far is the Loch Ness Monster, occupying Loch Ness in the Highlands of Scotland.

    How and why do these legends originate? One source of these legends, which date back as far as recorded human history, is the long history of the ocean or larger bodies of water being regarded as an "underworld," an alien world inhospitable to human life or the gateway to the underworld of the afterlife. In some cases, the "monsters" were considered manifestations of spirits that dwelt either in the water or the underworld. In later years, many such legends were driven less by spirituality and more from a simple need to make sense of unexplained phenomena, and/or to relate them to known entities such as serpents, other animals, or dragons.

    Another obvious source or inspiration for these creatures of folklore is that these bodies of water actually do, in a sense, harbor "monsters" of various sorts. The underwater world remains, to this day, a vastly unexplored and unknown environment on this planet, with any number of unknown species of fish and aquatic creatures still lurking undocumented by humankind in the oceans. Consider the spectacle of an alligator, crocodile, or caiman to someone unfamiliar with the creatures, or a wallowing hippopotamus. Or consider the enormity of the various whales, the ferocity of the various sharks and killer whales, and most of all the alien and frightening prospects of the large octopi or giant squids. In both oceans and smaller bodies of water we have such creatures as sea snakes (typically deadly poisonous), seals, manatees, eels, and various aquatic birds, from ducks to herons to seagulls, gannets, fulmars, and others. Lakes foster such creatures as otters, beavers, non-aquatic mammals bathing or paddling, various aquatic birds, and even stray branches, flotsam, and waves easily mistaken for mysterious creatures.

    A popular variation of the sea-monster myth is the mermaid. The typical shapely female head and torso mated with a finned fish bottom is said to have derived largely from the fantasies or delusions of long-adrift sailors, including Christopher Columbus, spotting the form of a manatee, dugong, or sea cow (the latter now extinct) and employing wishful thinking!

    Another variation is the "sea serpent,"a limbless, serpentine creature that typically resembles either a snake, an eel, or some variation thereof, often with decorative or ferocious fins, plumage, jaws, or whatnot. Any number of known creatures, from snakes to eels to the basking shark, fit the profiles attributed to the sea serpent legend.

    From a strictly biological standpoint, the nature of any such sea monster would be unusual. Such an aquatic creature could be mammalian (seals, manatees, otters, whales, and dolphins), reptilian (sea snakes, crocodiles, aquatic dinosaurs, etc.), fish (sharks, eels, sturgeon, etc.), amphibian (giant salamanders, frogs, toads), or even avian (albatross, loons, pelicans, penguins)! Only fish and amphibians would be able to stay under water for extremely long periods, although whales, dolphins, otters, and even birds do amazing things with limited breathing time at the surface. Since the origins of the creatures are so wide-ranging, the artist essentially has license to "design" any creature to fit the fertile imagination necessary, much in the same way as the particulars of dragons vary from region to region.

    Sadly, for enthusiasts of "cryptozoology" (the study of mysterious, unknown animals), as technology has advanced over the past fifty years, sightings and documentation of such creatures should have skyrocketed as populations grew and dispersed, better cameras were placed in far more peoples' hands (cell phone and digital video cameras, for example), and radar and sonar were developed. Instead, sightings have plummeted relative to population and accessibility.

    Nessie and Relatives

    The Loch Ness Monster, known as "Nessie" to many, had its origins as one of many such "kelpies," or water-horses, of Celtic legend. As far back as the Sixth Century A.D., the Irish monk St. Columba was said to have encountered a "water beast" in Loch Ness and warded it away from attacking a swimmer by speaking to it. After an improved roadway was constructed along the shore of the loch in 1933, sightings of the alleged creature suddenly surged, sparked in part by an alleged sighting of a dinosaur-like creature in mid-1933 that bounded across the road with an apparent sheep in its mouth. Aided by no shortage of tourist promotion, popular journalism, and "scientific" investigation, as well as many hazy and fuzzy photographs and movies and a few confirmed hoaxes, occasional "sightings" continued into the 1990s and even the present day. Lesser-publicized legendary monsters are/were said to have inhabited other Scottish lochs.

    The popular interpretation of the Loch Ness Monster is almost a case study of the sea monster legend. Earlier legends focused around the appearance of a "water-horse," or an aquatic horse-like creature. In later years, with the paleontology of dinosaurs having been discovered in intervening years, the creature's appearance morphed into that resembling an aquatic dinosaur such as a pleiosaur, which also is somewhat closely related to many dragon forms of legend. The speculation of the 1930s was heightened by the near-simultaneous rediscovery of the coelacanth, a fish believed extinct for millions of years, off the coast of Africa in 1938; speculation then centered on the possibility that an ancient dinosaur or other such creature may have survived for millions of years as well. The popularity of the Loch Ness Monster legend, and sightings attributed to its presence, expanded along with the increasing popularity of auto travel and tourism to the region in the later half of the 20th century, aided by magazines, newspapers, and television shows. Underwater cameras deployed in the 1970s supposedly photographed several forms in the murky water, interpreted as a large aquatic dinosaur with diamond-shaped fins, leading to a "scientific" name, "Nessiteras rhombopteryx."

    More recently, sonar sweeps of Loch Ness have revealed not only no large aquatic creatures, but far less potential fish and other food for such a creature to eat than previously thought. This led many "monster hunters" to declare Nessie "extinct"--which, of course raised the question of how a breeding population even remained hidden in a relatively small body of water for millennia.

    Other lake monsters have been said to occupy other lakes in Scotland and Ireland, most notably "Morag" in Scotland's Loch Morar; Lake Champlain in Vermont/New York, and various lakes in Quebec, British Columbia, Ontario, Manitoba, and scattered locations in Scandinavia, Africa, Asia, and the United States. Two of the most "famous" are Ogopogo, of British Columbia's Lake Okanagon, and Storsjoodjuret, of Sweden's Lake Storsjon.

    The latter monster is a classic example of folklore perpetuation. The first description of an unknown aquatic creature in Storsjon was made in a folklorist tale by vicar Morgens Pedersen in 1635.

    "A long, long time ago two trolls, Jata and Kata, stood on the shores of the Great-Lake brewing a concoction in their cauldrons. They brewed and mixed and added to the liquid for days and weeks and years. They knew not what would result from their brew but they wondered about it a great deal. One evening there was heard a strange sound from one of their cauldrons. There was a wailing, a groaning and a crying, then suddenly came a loud bang. A strange animal with a black serpentine body and a cat-like head jumped out of the cauldron and disappeared into the lake. The monster enjoyed living in the lake, grew unbelievably larger and awakened terror among the people whenever it appeared. Finally, it extended all the way round the island of Froson, and could even bite its own tail. Ketil Runske bound the mighty monster with a strong spell which was carved on a stone and raised on the island of Froson. The serpent was pictured on the stone. Thus was the spell to be tied till the day someone came who could read and understand the inscription on the stone."

    Another legend was written down by Andreas Plantin in an inquiry in 1685, referring speculatively to an 11th-century runestone now in Froson (the description on the stone itself does not relate to the legend below, however).

    "It is said that beneath this [rune]stone lies a dreadfully large head of a serpent and that the body stretches over Storsjon to Knytta by and Hille Sand where the tail is buried. The serpent was called a ra and therefore shall this stone be risen. Since no one peacefully could cross [Storsjon], the ferryman and his wife states, along with many others, that in the last turbulent time this stone was tore down and broken in two. As long as this stone laid on the ground many strange things occurred in the water, until the stone was risen and assembled anew."


    The Kraken is a name for another of the legendary forms of sea monsters, popularized in recent movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. The name derives from Germanic and Norwegian origins and folklore. The tales of a large, multi-tentacled creature with a torpedo-shaped body and a giant, parrot-like beak, large enough to attack and sink small sailing ships, somewhat obviously derives from the real-life giant squid, a relatively mysterious aquatic creature even to this day for its elusiveness, scarcity, and ability to lurk at great depths.

    Squids have eight rather short arms, and two longer tentacles, the arms have suckers and hooks. These hooks have caused damage to ships as well as their natural predator, the sperm whale. The octopus has eight tentacles, which they use often to move themselves around their environment. Another interesting characteristic of cephalopods is that they have special sacks of pigment in their skin, called chromatophores. These they can use to change their colors to either blend in with their surroundings, flash warnings, or send mating signals.


    The hippocampus is half horse half fish, the front feet have been depicted either as hooves, or as webbed paws. I personally think that the webbed front feet make more sense for swimming, but nothing is set in stone.
    Another mythical creature that is half fish is the zodiac sign Capricorn, in this case half fish and half goat. Just for fun I have made a new critter, the squirrelcampus, which goes to show, again, that the possibilities are unlimited in what kind of exotic sea monsters you can imagine up.

    Sea Unicorn

    A special quick note should be made with reference to the somewhat rarely mentioned "sea unicorn," a variation of the "sea horse" popular throughout sea-monster lore. It is worth noting that the only real-world creature ever uncovered with the traditional spiral horn attributed to unicorns is indeed a sea creature, the narwhal, a medium-sized toothed whale found in Arctic waters and first encountered only by Inuit settlers of the Arctic regions of northern Canada and Alaska. It is thought that ancient traders were sold narwhal tusks, which could then be foisted off as "unicorn horns" in Europe.


    Selkies are part of Celtic myth; seals that shed their skin to become human. The most common theme in tales is of a fisherman hiding a selkie-woman's skin. Since without her skin she cannot return to the sea, the maiden is essentially forced to marry and usually bears him children. These children tend to lead to the loss of man's selkie wife, as they tell her about the strange pelt their father keeps hidden. The tale ends with her snatching her skin going back to the sea in a flash, either abandoning her young, or taking them with her. There are also tales of selkie men who come ashore seeking women to dally with

    Walkthrough of "Dreaming of Aquamarine Tides"

    I was charmed by the squirrelcampus that I had drawn earlier, and decided to take it farther. I love working with flowing lines, and aquatic creatures are perfect for this.

    I decided it would be a fitting picture to do in watercolors. I use a twelve watercolor set by Pelikan, augmented with three colors, Schmincke Delft blue ( also known as Indanthrone blue), a Schmincke lemon yellow and Quinacradone red. The brush I used exclusively is a size five Raphael Kolinsky red sable (series 8404). This brush comes to a really fine point when wet, but the belly of the brush holds a lot of pigment so I can use it for washes as well as fine details. If I have to lay a large wash fast, I go with a squirrel hair mop brush. I am using an old four and a half by six inch watercolor block made by Whatman. My favorite watercolor paper to work with is Fabriuno Artistico extra white 140 lb hot pressed, Arches is another good brand.

    In the next picture, which the scanner did not do justice, I have started laying my base colors. I used the purple in the bottom left corner to contrast the bit of lemon yellow in the upper right corner, and Ultramarine blue for my initial water. I brushed a wash of water on the paper, while avoiding wetting the actual squirrelcampus in order to keep the edges crisp. If you are patient, you can also use masking fluid to preserve your whites and crisp edges. One of my favorite techniques is to drop pigment into water washes and see how the paint decides to pattern itself, this also adds an organic feel.

    I continue to build colors, adding in the warm red and yellow on the squirrelcampus to make it stand out more from the background, it is also the compliment of blue, making the critter really pop. I imagine that the squirtrelcampus has some nasty poison that this bright color pattern is warning predators about! I use a combination of the greens for the fin; the cooler green for bits that are farther away or in the shade. I also use Delft blue to push the farthest parts of the fin farther into the background. The following is a photo that shows the yellow in the upper right better than the scan.

    In the final step I continue to build colors, mainly reinforcing the bright colors of the squirrelcampus. I use micron pens to define some edges, mainly the head and arm details.

    In Closing

    Bodies of water have always been a source of mystery to humankind, as we delve deeper into its depths we continue to discover strange, terrifying, and wonderful creatures. Some of these are almost too bizzare to belive they are real, such as the gulper eel, or the angler fish. One thing is for sure: the waters of the world definitely hold many more secrets that will startle and amaze humans for years to come.


    Historical depictions/illustrations of unknown creatures:

    Giant Squids

    Squid diagram:,_ventral_aspect.jpg

    Octopus diagram

    Selection of HD video clips featuring Octopus vulgaris

    Monsters of the Sea by Richard Ellis A thorough look at the various sea-monster legends throughout history, and their relationships to real-world creatures such as squid and whales.

    In Search of Lake Monsters, by Peter Costello. Berkeley Publishing Group, 1975. An overview of lake monster legends and reports around the world.

    Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross-cultural Analysis by Michel Meurger and Claude Gagnon A wide-ranging, in-depth examination of lake monster and sea-monster folklore, traditions, and their relationship to sociology, psychology, and the biological world.

    The Loch Ness Monster: The Evidence, by Steuart Campbell. Prometheus Books, 1997. A skeptical examination of various evidence presented for the Nessie.;wap2

    The Great Orm of Loch Ness: A Practical Inquiry Into the N ature and Habits of Water-Monsters, by F.W. Holliday. W.W. Norton & Co.; 1969. A speculative examination of the Loch Ness Monster phenomenon and folk legends surrounding it, proposing the hypothesis of a giant worm-like creature.


    "Dreamscapes: Creating Magical Angel, Faery & Mermaid Worlds with watercolor" by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

    Alexander D. Mitchell IV is a writer and photographer based in Baltimore, Md. His Scottish heritage led him to follow the Loch Ness phenomenon for many decades, collecting many books on the subject of it and other mystery-animal legends, of which only a few are listed above. He is also fortunate to be married to the wonderful and talented Jenny Heidewald.

    Jenny Heidewald is one of those self-taught artists that has been drawing since she was little; she remembers the exact moment she decided that she wanted to be an artist. Interestingly enough, it was while watching her mom draw the hand of God reaching from the clouds to His followers. Jenny was floored, it seemed to be magic, an image appearing out of nowhere. She thought, "I want
    to do THAT!" In addition to writing for EMG-zine, Jenny is a prolific artist who has worked in many mediums. Her current favorite technique is working with colored micron pens, and coloring either with watercolor or Photoshop. Jenny lives in Maryland with her husband. Please check out her Sketchfest, Portrait Adoption, Deviant Art, and Elfwood pages.

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