Collect Call of Cthulhu, Part 2: Mark Witton’s greasy, flowing mass

Well, this “Collect Call of Cthulhu” thing is working out even better than I’d hoped. Today’s entry comes from paleontologist and paleoartist Mark Witton. It’s an original piece he’s been working on for some time, and he finished it up just for my little Cthulhuthon–thanks, Mark! He also sent a writeup which is so good that instead of embedding it in my post, I’m turning it into a guest post: everything below the first image is Mark’s writing. Mark’s forte is pterosaurs. When he’s not pondering reality-distorting alien geometries, he’s one of the mad geniuses behind, he keeps a separate blog for his paleoart, there’s an old Flickr stream that he used as a blog, and, oh yeah, he wrote a book on pterosaurs (physical, Kindle), so you can get your mind blown by real denizens of deep time.

Mark Witton - Cthulhu3

This piece has been a long time in the making with a base sketch done on New Year’s Eve 2010, virtually no activity on it for years, and the final colours added last night. It’s pre-dating of this project is why it’s an image of the being itself rather than an idol, but the positioning of him on a pedestal at least puts it in the same ballpark.

So what of the image itself? I found myself nodding in agreement with the comments and suggestions in your blog posts. Cthulhu shouldn’t look like a Toho creation, but frequently does in Mythos artwork. I wanted to avoid that and came up with a lot of the same solutions you suggested: asymmetry, gangly limbs, maximum creepiness and a look of malevolent intelligence. At the same time, I wanted to homage the little sketches of Cthulhu done by Lovecraft. I always thought they were too cute and jar somewhat with the descriptions in The Call of Cthulhu story, but given that they come from Lovecraft’s brain, I figure they serve as a useful starting point. Hence, my image took the basic anthropoid bauplan with a bit of a belly, some wing-like structures and a cephalopod-like face as a base plan and worked from there. The view and pose are also very obviously Lovecraftian.

I tried not to draw on any single organism for reference. Cthulhu’s not a local, so he needn’t look like anything on Earth. This version has no obvious eyes and his appendages are a little all over the place. He has some depressions in his chest which almost look like arthropod trachea, although that’s not necessarily what they’re meant to be. I made his outline quite globby and messy, almost like it’s a moving, greasy, flowing mass rather than a neatly packaged set of tissues. I don’t think you’ll ever see him look exactly alike twice. He’s pouring over the margins of his pedestal and his ‘wings’ – made to look more like a cape in a nod to the Lovecraft original – are particularly gloopy. Because we never hear of Cthulhu using his wings (at least, as far as I remember) I figured they could represent other structures which are only interpreted as vestigial wings because of their location on his back, so wasn’t worried about making them look functional. I figure there should be a lot of anatomy of this guy that, because of his completely unique evolution from our own, isn’t immediately explainable. Presumably, his movement was achieved by falling, lurching and flowing from place to place, as there’s no way that body shape looks stable enough for more typical forms of terrestrial locomotion.

I’ve tried to nod to the weird geometry associated with his pad in R’lyeh (‘all wrong’, ‘non-Euclidean’ and ‘loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours’) by making the image quite twisted and distorted. It’s beyond my ability to do this properly, but it seems he should look like a portrait M. C. Escher may have produced if he was on a really awful acid trip. Bits of my Cthulhu almost seem to be floating away while other bits are flowing down, and it’s hard to make out where some features end and others begin. The background was added not only for colour, but to almost look like an messy extension of him, so you can’t really tell his exact shape or position. As you and Mike noted, it’s important that you’re never 100% certain what you’re looking at with this guy and, if his appearance is going to be absolutely maddening (as it should be, according to TCoC), he probably needs to be not only terrifying but also reality distorting. I always thought that had to be a big part of characters being sent mad in Lovecraft literature: it’s not only the creatures they encounter, but undermining of their perception of reality itself.

And gosh, that’s a lot more than I meant to write. Best get on with other things. As a fun closing point, it occurs to me that this is the second time I’ve made a run at Cthulhu. The first, a much cruder effort from 2007, can be seen here:

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8 Responses to Collect Call of Cthulhu, Part 2: Mark Witton’s greasy, flowing mass

  1. Nathan Myers says:

    If you would entertain a shallow observation, a more geometrical (if still nauseatingly irregular) plinth would both make it easier to tell which bit is supposed to be Cthulhu, and offer contrast with Its squamose pustularity.

    I like how what suggests a hypertrophied, toothy mouth resolves into a chest and arms, and the nightmare nose turns into a nightmare head. Maybe it should eat with its chest.

  2. Nathan Myers says:

    Oh, and tentacles sprouting tentacles is a nice touch. Curious that we haven’t seen that anywhere else.

  3. Mark Witton says:

    Thanks for the comments, Nathan. Part of the objective here was to make Cthulhu difficult to see clearly, which is why his definition from his seat and several other features aren’t particularly sharp. It’s part of my attempt to show that he’s not really obeying the same physical laws that we do, as suggested by the ‘wrongness’ of his local geometry.

    “tentacles sprouting tentacles is a nice touch.”

    Ta. I’m not a fan of putting suckered octopus tentacles on Cthulhu. That seems like too literal an interpretation of Lovecraft’s work. I figure his words are best attempts to rationalise what he was imagining, not describing the exact features of his creations.

  4. Matt Wedel says:

    To me, both Cthulhu and the background give the impression that he is burning. As if contact with our limited spacetime is causing pieces of him to break off and fly back into the megadimensional Beyond from which he is projecting himself. That also meshes rather nicely with Mike’s idea of Cthulhu being in torment.

    Further thought: Cthulhu and his star-spawn have to wait “until the stars are right”–until the universes come into alignment, perhaps–to push back against our continuum. And when the stars are right, they will carry the mind-destroying hypergeometry of their home continuum all over the Earth. It won’t just be the rise of alien things, it will be the rise of alien space.

  5. Markus says:

    Every time I take a look at Mark´s C´thulhu, I have a plant in mind. Not a boring harmless plant, but something like a nasty mix between a venus flytray, a sundew and poison ivy. That´s really a great effect if it causes such strange associations. BTW, am I the only one who thinks that one of the original drawings of C´thulhu by Lovecraft somehow resembles a flea?
    I think one of the main problems of his two sketches is, that Lovecraft was a master in writing, but an amateur at best in drawing. We have to keep this in mind when we look at this sketches, and have to consider that he had surely drawn it in a different way, if he would have had more artistic talent.

  6. Mark Witton says:

    Good call on the burning, Matt: that’s what I had in mind too. I had the concept of some weird organic ‘flames’ in mind when drawing him, a sort of transient, ever-changing mass which is never quite still. Sort of like a lava lamp, turned up to 11.

  7. Mark Witton says:

    Thanks for the nice words, Markus. I can see where you’re coming from on the plant front. Sort of like someone put a plant and Brundlefly in a telepod together.

    “Lovecraft was a master in writing, but an amateur at best in drawing”

    Yeah, I’ve thought about this too. It doesn’t help that most of his creations – including Cthulhu – are basically impossible to illustrate anyway because they’re so out there. I wonder if Lovecraft felt a sense of frustration with people trying to confine his creations to artworks?

    On a related note, I just stumbled across this gallery of 101 images of Cthulhu, many of which are pretty good and unusual interpretations of him. Well worth a look.

  8. Pingback: “Phat air meets wide gauge” meets color | Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week

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