It was December 2001 that I received a phone call from the Saint Louis Zoo. Liz Reinus, an Interpretive Exhibits Coordinator in the zoo’s Education Department, called regarding a new exhibit the zoo was in the midst of ground-breaking called “Penguin and Puffin Coast.” The zoo had already hired an architect and an outdoor exhibit designer to begin building a new facility which would house several species of penguins and puffins. Included in the design were to be one outdoor and two large indoor naturalistic habitats for the birds. In addition, the design group planned to build an interactive hands-on display with multiple panels which would teach visitors about the birds as they walked through the exhibit.

Liz had decided to “cold call” a number of studios, and since I was one of the first calls she made, she inquired about the process of how to work with a scientific illustrator on the new exhibit. After about a half-hour of discussion about the new exhibit, the scope of potential work involved, the field of scientific illustration, and some of my professional experiences, I let her know I’d be interested in helping out.

The Grand Plans:

To give you some background into how this project all began, here is a little zoo history: This is not the first penguin exhibit at the Saint Louis Zoo. In fact, several years ago, the zoo needed to loan out its penguin populations in order to demolish and eventually replace the original 1960’s building in which the population was cared for. Being a zoo favorite, the Saint Louis Zoo would frequently be asked, “When will penguins be back?” It took the zoo a commitment of four years before they could rebuild the penguins’ home – the zoo needed to raise funds for a multiphase renovation of an entire new section of the zoo next to another section of the zoo called “Fragile Forest.” The new Penguin and Puffin home is located in the north part of the Zoo near the popular grizzly bears and polar bears. With the generosity and support of funds donated to Penguin and Puffin Coast, the penguins, accompanied by puffins, king eiders and brown pelicans, will have a new place to call home this May!

The Tour:

As visitors enter the exhibit, they are greeted by two friendly Humboldt penguins perched on the rockwork. Of course they are so friendly, you can walk right up to them and take a picture with them – they are very realistic, life-size sculptures! One is perched near the rockwork just outside the barrier. The other is nested within the rocks. The first stop on the tour is a rocky outdoor exhibit with waterfall called Humboldt Haven. One of the historic Bear Pits, constructed back in 1922, has been transformed into this grand entrance to Penguin and Puffin Coast. This outdoor exhibit is the new home to about 30 Humboldt penguins, an endangered species of penguins that are used to drier climates. The Humboldt penguins share their habitat with several elegant brown pelicans, a common Peruvian coastal neighbor.

After visiting the Humboldt penguins, visitors enter two domed indoor rockscapes, both depicting rugged naturalistic coastlines. Visitors pass through the new animal homes with only acrylic railings as barriers. This allows for intimate and unobstructed views of the birds as they swim, climb and socialize. The Penguin Cove is the first walk-through sub-Antarctic penguin exhibit ever in a North American zoo. Sophisticated filtration and climate systems will keep the water clean and maintain the environment at a constant 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This display is the home to 70 animals representing three penguin species – King, Rockhopper and Gentoo. Ultimately, the colony will grow to 100 birds. Within the dome-covered exhibit, theatrical lighting simulates the reversed seasons of the Southern Hemisphere – what the birds are accustomed to in their natural habitat.

In addition to the penguins, puffins from the Northern Hemisphere make their new home at Taylor Family Puffin Bay. Puffin Bay houses an equal number of Horned and Tufted puffins, about 50 animals in all. Visitors enter the puffin habitat through a cave and step into a coastline like that of Kodiak Island off Alaska. Puffin Bay also includes rocky cliffs and frigid water.

Behind the scenes:

Second to building a new home for the long missed penguins, the zoo wanted to incorporate a hands-on exhibit that visitors could interact with and learn from. In addition to finding an architect, a graphic design firm, an exhibit fabricator, and a sculptor, the zoo sought out to find an illustration studio to produce over 65 habitus illustrations, cartoons, interactive panel art and icons for signs and buttons. Penguins and Puffins are intelligent, comical and amusing.

How the zoo found me:

Liz was my first contact with the zoo, and in fact, she had found me by doing a search on the internet for illustrators with some ornithological art experience. She mentioned she had seen my portfolio online and mentioned a project I had worked on in 2000 for WGBH on evolution. She liked my illustration style and , after some discussion, asked if I would be interested in bidding against other illustration studios on the project. Of course, excited about the prospect of working on such a fascinating topic, I accepted the invitation.

About two weeks later, I received a call from Mary Brong, also in the Department of Education. After speaking to her further and answering some of her questions about illustrations style, I soon learned that the zoo was looking for an artist who could bring an understanding of the subject matter, a creative attitude, a colorful palate and a sense of humor to the table.

Later in January of 2002 I received an email from Ten8, the design firm that the zoo had contracted, to submit a first bid on design specs they had sent electronically. Several months went by and it wasn’t until early June that I received a call form PGAV, the architecture firm building the new exhibit. Doug Nickrent, a member of the PGAV team, called to introduce himself and then explained that a new and very detailed bid packet would be sent to me through the mail. To my surprise, I received what looked like a “coffee-table” sized bid packet that included blueprints, design specs, color chips, detailed descriptions and measurements of the entire exhibit. With this in hand, I was asked to submit another bid along with a hardcopy portfolio of samples. Finally at the beginning of August, I was told that the zoo had narrowed their decision down to 2 illustrators (including myself). I wasn’t until September when I received a call form PGAV that the wait was over..I got the job!

Negotiations etc.

According to the final bid packet, the zoo was interested in commissioning original artwork that they would not only own copyright to, but also own the artwork itself. Eventually we came to an agreement for a fair price which included exclusivity within the zoo and museum market, with usage for within the exhibit only. I retain copyright to all of the artwork. I also retain ownership of all of my sketches and drawings.

The interaction process:

There were so many players in this project: the education department at the zoo, the architecture firm, the design firm, the exhibit fabricator and myself. We all had to communicate with each other to make sure everyone was in sync with the exhibit requirements and the timeline. Since the architecture firm was in contact with each of us and needed to take detailed records of what was being done by whom and when, Doug became the conduit through which I sent sketches and finished drawings to the zoo. Between PGAV, myself and the zoo, we all were in contact with each other to ask and answer questions about various aspects of the project so that everyone was on the same page. Toward the end of the project, I was in direct contact with the zoo as well as with the fabricator. All communication, including sketches and finals, were sent electronically.

Work flow:

As soon as work began in my studio, I began doing extensive research on the differences between each species. I was lucky enough to have visited the Dallas and New England Aquariums during the year to observe several penguin species. Because of the bulk of the work, I began sketches systematically: first habitus illustrations, then interactive illustrations, then cartoons, then symbols and icons and maps. As each sketch was reviewed, revised and approved, I began working on the final. All of the artwork had to have a “traditional” look-and feel, almost like watercolors or acrylics.

Unusual & Unexpected:

There were a few unusual things that happened during the process of creating the artwork: The zoo and the design group had their eyes on a particular style before the exhibit project had been assigned to me. They wanted pastel/colored pencil look on a toothy charcoal paper. At the last minute the zoo changed their minds and decided on a completely different style (more traditional watercolor look and feel, but digitally produced) This helped as they had only given me 8 weeks to complete the project (and I had other projects outside of this project to work on as well).


Among the approximately 65 illustrations, several types of illustration were created: habitus illustrations of the animals, cartoons, maps, interactive art, diagrams and other graphic elements. The style of the illustrations needed to be consistent throughout the exhibit, though there were various types of illustration to be done. The zoo requested artwork executed with a traditional look and feel. The illustrations also needed to be not only didactic in nature, but also humorous and bold in approach. In order to give each species unique character, I decided to take advantage of the New England Aquarium during the research stage of my animal sketches. Boston’s own aquarium houses Africans, Rockhoppers and Little Blue penguins. I had anticipated watching them for an hour or so, but ended up standing at the penguin pool for about 4 hours! This was helpful as a majority of the gesture drawings I created of these lively animals became incorporated into the final poses for each species. I wanted to bring out the individual personality of each species based on what I observed from life as opposed to just drawing more academic looking lateral or frontal views of the birds. After going through my gesture drawings, it was time to hit the drawing board with some larger, more detailed sketches. I also needed to start thinking about style and execution of the final illustrations.

The zoo pointed to some sample ornithological illustrations I had done for another client and assumed the pieces were rendered in watercolor. Actually, they were drawn traditionally using graphite, but painted using digital “washes”. I use the word “wash” because I like to incorporate a gradual wet paintbrush approach when it comes to rendering the color illustrations. Though I use this technique in my work often, in this case I used a few more Photoshop layers than I usually do. This is because penguin feathers are much denser than your average bird: penguins have 80 feathers per square inch, whereas chickens only have 20. So instead of shooting for something that looked transparent like a watercolor, I went a little more opaque.


This technique always starts with a sketch that is refined into a clean transfer drawing that is then scanned into the computer and imported into Photoshop. The sketch is then colorized to a hue that will blend well but still show through the final rendering. Rendering is rather simple and pretty quick. I like to use the “paintbrush” tool as opposed to the “airbrush” tool . I usually set my cursor to a soft brush, or a textured brush, depending on the drawing. The brush itself is set to something less than 50% opacity. I also click on the “wet edges” selection. Then I start building the drawing with layers that are multiplied one on top of the other. The layers I use tend to be the following: sketch layer (either 1 or 2 colorized layers), local color layer, highlights layer, multiplied shadows layer, a white or textured background, a details layer, and other textured or multiplied layers. I try to use the same thought process when I am painting on the computer as I do when I do a traditional watercolor. This technique is similar to glazing. After layers of color are gradually built on top of the sketch, I will then take the airbrush tool to smooth out a few details here and there. Sometimes I will use the smudge tool as well. For the most part, though, I render the entire drawing with paint strokes created by a wet, fuzzy digital paintbrush. I also avoid making paths around areas in the image, unless a definitive hard edge is needed. This gives the image a softer look.

If the habitus illustrations weren’t fun enough, I was also asked to draw some cartoons. As cartoons go, these illustrations were meant to call attention to especially humorous or exaggerated characteristics penguins and puffins often exhibit. For example, penguins have especially keen eye-sight, or “goggle-vision” when searching for prey underwater. They also have an affinity for speed and accuracy when swimming using their rudder-like feet. The architecture firm and I threw sketches back and forth via email. Finally we decided to keep each cartoon simple and too the point with minimal color. I also decided to use color only within the focal point of each piece. Cartoons were also created to show the difference between the fact that puffins can fly, but penguins can’t. I decided to draw this somewhat literally, placing a Horned puffin in the seat of a bi-plane, while putting a Gentoo puffin behind the wheel of a taxi cab – I used toys (a Ford Fliver and a checkered cab) as my models for each. I had a lot of fun with these.

The technique used in rendering these cartoons always starts with a rough sketch. The sketch is refined and simplified, then scanned and imported into Adobe Illustrator. I place the sketch on a separate template layer that is locked and set to 50%. I create my own custom brushes by double clicking on the brush palate (or using the brush palate’s pull-down menu, one can select “Create new brush”). Using the calligraphic paintbrush tool, I set the angle, roundness and diameter of the brush with varied character that is pressure sensitive with my stylus. With this set, I simply trace my template sketch with vector-based line. Once the entire drawing has been “inked”, I will turn the sketch layer off, then add a third color layer in between the inked-line layer and my sketch. On this third layer I will add spot color under the back line, much like cell-painting. The final file is flattened, and my pencil sketch is discarded from the file.

The remaining illustrations consisted of maps, diagrams and graphic elements, all of which were either rendered using either the Adobe Photoshop wash technique, or the Adobe Illustrator ink technique. The maps themselves are meant to be part of the interactive exhibits. Of these maps, two included the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, each approximately 2.5 feet in diameter. As visitors explore the panel showing all of the penguin and puffin species, they can press a button next to each species. When depressed, the geographical location of each species is illuminated by points of light on each of the hemispheres.

An additional map of the world was drawn that would then be converted into a giant 3-foot diameter 3-dimensional globe of the world. The zoo had hired a fabricator that could take my digital painting of an equirectangular projection of the world, digitally wrap, or image-map it around a sphere, print the converted map on a special mylar, and then apply it to the inside of a clear sphere made of durable material that could be handled and spun by zoo visitors. As the globe is spun, visitors can see the distribution of penguins in the Southern Hemisphere and puffins in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Finished Hands-on Exhibit:

As part of the Penguin and Puffin Coast, visitors are able to view and interact with the illustrations as well as photographs of all 17 species of penguins and 4 species of puffins. There are a total of approximately six large 5-foot-by-8-foot interactive exhibit panels that include my illustrations.

“Where in the World are Penguins and Puffins”

This panel displays the habitus illustrations of each species as well as the 2.5 foot wide polar projection maps of the North and South Poles. As visitors press buttons attached to each species, points of light are illuminated on the polar maps, illustrating to visitors where that particular species can geographically be found.

“How Penguins Stay Warm”

A second panel teaches visitors how penguins stay warm, A life size illustration of a king penguin displays a pelt that visitors can view and touch to see how thick penguin feathers look and feel. Penguins typically have 80 feathers per square inch where as chickens typically have around 20 per square inch. Three-dimensional diagrams comparing the pelt of a chicken to that of a penguin will illustrate how the penguins keep warm. On the contrary, not all penguins live in freezing climates. In fact, some, like the Galapagos penguins live as close to warmer climates as the equator. This same panel illustrates for visitors how penguins stay cool using either photographs or humorous cartoons.

“No They’re Nor Related”

Like their penguin counterparts in the Southern hemisphere, puffins are black-and-white birds skilled in diving and swimming. Unlike penguins, puffins have colorful bills and feet. A third exhibit panel illustrates how penguins and puffins anatomically compare to each other. Though penguins and puffin have many similar features, phylogenenetically speaking, they are not relatives.

“Secrets of Liquid Lifestyle”

A final interactive panel teaches visitors about penguin and puffin lifestyles in and around the water. Called “clowns of the sea,” puffins spend most of their lives in the open sea, visiting land only to breed in the summer. They also swim underwater using their wings as propellers and their webbed feet to maneuver. Their black and white coats help them to stay camouflaged as they are viewed above and below the water by predators. This is shown with an interactive flip-board exhibit where visitors can match up the dark back of a puffin with the dark water of the ocean as it is viewed form above, or vice-versa, where the puffins white belly is set against the water of the ocean, backlit by sunlight when viewed form below. On land puffins can walk nimbly on their toes, or, using a running start, they may dive from the cliffs in order to become airborne and taking flight. Penguins, on the other hand, cannot fly. However, they are very skilled swimmers. Because of their dense bone structure, penguins dive deep depths and stay underwater for minutes at a time in order to search for food.

About the Zoo:

From the first exotic animals which came to Forest Park in 1891 after the demise of the zoo at the St. Louis Fair Grounds, the Saint Louis Zoo has grown into one of the world’s most renowned zoological parks, displaying close to 5000 animals representing more than 700 species in 90 acres (Note to entomology lovers: This does not include the zoo’s 120,000 leaf cutter ants.) The Saint Louis Zoo was one of the first to build open, moated enclosures as opposed to barred cages. The Zoo is fortunate to have the support of residents of the St. Louis area who have voted repeatedly to tax themselves to support the Zoo, thus making the zoo one of only a handful of free zoos in the world,. Many of the zoos animals, including the Peruvian native Humboldt penguins, are on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species List. The Saint Louis Zoo is helping these animals reproduce so they will not become extinct.


For more information:

The Saint Louis Zoo
One Government Drive
Saint Louis, MO 63110
Telephone: (314) 781-0900

Fairman Studios
(781) 647-7510


Announcement in GNSI News, March 2003.
Saint Louis Zoo Penguin and Puffin Coast Information

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