The Tale Behind The Whale

The Tale Behind The Whale

4 min read

humpback whale artwork, created in partnership with Lonely Whale as part of the latest screenprint in the Under the Skin series.

What is it about whales that makes them so captivating? These iconic ocean giants have cropped up in countless folklore tales and mythical stories as far back as the old testament, where the biblical tale depicts Jonah—a man who chose not to heed gods warning—swallowed by a giant whale. In the 1851 classic novel Moby-Dick Herman Melville drew on his real life experience as a common sailor, creating a fictional narrative about the captain of the whaling vessel seeks revenge on a sperm whale. Fast forward 150 years and Pixar’s Finding Nemo (the best-selling DVD of all time) features a giant blue whale which engulfs the protagonists of the film (in the form of two little reef fish) and carries them all the way across the Indian ocean to help them search for Nemo. These fictitious narratives of old and new are testimony to the deep fascination humans have held with whales throughout history.

As brothers, James and I have been captivated by these iconic ocean mammals for as long as we can remember. Reading colourful childhood picture books, pop-ups, colourful, educational, learning about the largest animals on the planet. Visits to the natural history museum, standing below life-sized models and skeletons of these mighty ocean giants, dwarfed by the sheer scale of their bones and limbs. And of course, the legendary David Attenborough BBC documentaries brought the wonders of the ocean right into our living room.

These childhood experiences, as well as our passion for surfing, have fed into our imaginations as young artists. Our school sketchbooks regularly featured ocean-themed projects with wobbly drawings of whales and watercolours of waves, pages peppered with collage cutouts chopped from those iconic bright yellow National Geographic magazines, drawing inspiration for our ocean-themed art projects.

As we've grown up and ventured to new parts of the world we have been lucky enough to have a few magical real-life encounters with whales in the wild. The first was during my time living in Canada on the wild coastline of Vancouver Island, at what I considered then to be one of my local surf beaches. During an early morning surf, I spotted a humpback breaking the water on the horizon line. It was just for a split second but it was enough to make my heart leap with joy.

In 2018 we travelled to Mexico to board the M/V Farley Mowat with the Sea Shepherd crew on their mission to save the critically endangered Vaquita Porpoise. Within minutes of leaving the harbour, the crew spotted a fin whale and calf on the horizon, bringing smiles and cheers of delight to the ocean activists onboard. Despite being momentary glimpses, these moments will be engrained in our memories for as long as we live.

So it was only a matter of time until we came together as brothers to create a unique piece of artwork to celebrate our love for whales.

Over the past 5 years, I have been developing a series of interactive silkscreen prints of animals with my brother, collaborative partner in crime and co-founder behind our creative entity Under the Skin.

I primarily work in pixels on a laptop, tapping and clicking and dragging my fingers across the trackpad, eyes fixed on my laptop as I trace with a pen tool across the screen. James primarily works in physical space, colour mixing inks with palette knives, swiping and spreading wet ink with squeegees to translate our designs onto paper. The whole process takes about 6 weeks from start to finish, from idea to execution. But it is the combined satisfaction of our craft and purpose of our mission that fuels our collaborative efforts to get the piece finished.

“I try all things, I achieve what I can.”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Together, we are a hybrid of digital and physical, balancing modern techniques with traditional, with a shared love for modern, minimal design and nicely balanced typography. From start to finish our process is a long-winded brotherly back and forth rooted in attention to detail and shared love for the screenprint medium. There is something about screen-printed ink on paper that you simply can't get in any other print format.

The geometric workings in Adobe Illustrator...

...and bringing the design to life through colour.

It is two months since the early sketches of the Lonely Whale design and I am sat in my studio in Wales with a sturdy cardboard tube in my hands. I have with mixed feelings of anticipation and excitement. James has posted the physical artwork from Glasgow which I am yet to lay eyes upon the result of his handiwork from weeks behind the print press. I unseal the lid and pull out the artwork which has been rolled in wrapping paper. Hundreds of silhouettes of ocean creatures envelope the print, tiled together in a curling wave amidst a sea of ocean plastic. James always includes handprinted wrapping paper for two reasons; functionally, to keep the artwork safe and conceptually, to visually communicate the mission of our partner charities who protect the species inside.

I unwrap the artwork and pull out the all important UV torch that arrives with each of out prints. This is the tool that brings the interactive artwork (which has been printed with a layer of transparent phosphorescent ink) to life. I point the torch at the artwork and turn it on with a ‘click’. Instantly the humpback skeleton is illuminated, the intricate anatomy burning brightly in a phosphorescent blue-green glow. I feel a childlike sense of wonder and curiosity light up inside of me.

I think back to our days as children, exploring the polished floors and cabinets of the natural history museum, gaping up at giant dangling frame of a whale skeleton hanging from the entrance hallway. I trace the torch around the immaculately printed whale with a smile, illuminating the intricate anatomical parts as I go. I follow the long, curving spine, lighting up each vertebrate one-by-one. A pair of shoulder sockets hold two short arms, extending out with five fingers branching out into what looks like a pair of giant five-foot long hands. I discover a tiny pair of pelvic ‘hip’ bones, evolutionary remnants from when their ancestors walked on land more than 40 million years ago, slowly withering away from the obvious lack of walking from these deep water mammals. It suddenly occurs to me that we really aren’t too different to whales.

From the outside these ocean giants appear so far removed from us that one might expect they have surfaced from the depths of another world. But on close inspection of their inner anatomy these oxygen-breathing ocean-dwelling animal are so close to humans.

Further reading has led me to discover that our similarities with whales are so much more complex than our inner anatomy. Today many scientists believe whales, like humans, have distinct cultures. Sperm whales, humpbacks, belugas and killer whales have shown signs of having their own specific dialects, nursing behaviours and greeting ceremonies. These are all cultural differences once thought to be unique to us humans.

Now I don’t want to run the risk of anthropomorphizing whales in this post. But the idea that cetaceans also share distinct cultural traditions may help us to reshape our world view of what separates us from them. As science progresses and we learn more about the deep ocean (an alien world that we have explored far less than the moon) hopefully will become closer to understanding the secret lives of these marine mammals that live beneath the waves. And if we get to know whales better, then perhaps we will look back on tales such as Moby Dick and Jonah in a completely different light and begin to live more in harmony with these mysterious ocean giants too.

Further reading:

My main sources of inspiration for this article include Beyond Words: What Animals Think And Feel which is a beautifully written book by Carl Safina. It provides an intimate view of the behaviour of highly intelligent species, with touching stories and encounters about killer whales, wolves and elephants. Another highly useful article was from the latest printed edition of National Geographic (which I happened to receive through the post as I was halfway through this piece). The front cover was titled ‘Secrets of the Whales' and it was jammed full of useful facts that I hadn't known before.

Buy the print:

Available via our online print shop, this exclusive artwork is both a celebration of ocean life and a reminder of the role we all have in protecting it. To do our part, we’ll be donating 20% of the proceeds from this print to help fund innovative solutions to the problem of plastic pollution.

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