The Last Great Auks

Great Auk

‘The Last Great Auks’ Illustration by Shane Swann

Medium: Fine line pen and pencil

Original : Frame: Charcoal painted wood, off white museum quality mount, glazed with museum glass. 22″ x 30″ (56 x 76cm)

Story of the Great Auk and write up on my drawing


(In tribute to the Great Auk, wiped out by man in 1844). The 5th in my UK extinction series, after the wolf, the brown bear, the large copper butterfly and the lynx. I am aiming to create a collection of wildlife drawings of species that we have lost in the UK due to human activity. More than 400 species have been lost in the last 200 years alone. I hope that these illustrations promote awareness.
There was a time when the Great Auk was common throughout the North Atlantic. It was found on the coasts of continental Europe, the UK, Iceland and on the east coast of North America. But the high demand for it’s down lead to a devastating depletion of it’s population. By the 19th century the only place they still existed was on a rock (Geirfuglasker) off the coast of Iceland, which was unreachable to humans. However a volcanic eruption in 1830 forced the birds to move to Eldey (this is the rock seen on the horizon of my drawing). The colony was rediscovered in 1835, but unlike Geirfuglasker this island was accessible to people.

The rarity of the Great Auk, made it’s specimens very desirable to collectors and museums. This lead to poaching of the bird for specimen preservation and display purposes. An early environmental law was put in place to try to protect the last remaining fifty, however this was not enough. The last two Great Auks, who were incubating an egg were strangled to death by smugglers Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson. In the struggle the egg was crushed under Ketill Ketilsson boot, which destroyed the last attempt of breeding them.

Creating the artwork
I felt it was important to include the Great Auk in my UK extinction series, as it was not only a creature that was wiped out in Britain, but completely eradicated from the earth. I was originally only going to draw a single Auk with a plain background, as I had done the previous extinct creatures. However the simplistic form of the bird, surrounded by white, caused the composition to look rather sparse. The previous drawings had worked well with an absence of a background because I was able to put so much detail into the animal’s fur, therefore creating enough visual stimulation to hold their own. If anything, a background on the previous drawings would have over crowded the image.

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Reading up on the Great Auk, I felt there was a story that could in some way be represented in the illustration. This would also give me the ability to add extra features and create a more interesting composition. It then occurred to me that the message could be more potent and emotive if I could portray the animal sentimentally, so I decided to depict the bird as a mother caring for its young, in a real setting, in its natural habitat. I also thought it was important to feature Eldey (the small island rock where the last few Great Auks lived). Therefore I redesigned the compostion to include a chick by the side of the adult auk, both perched on a rock, surrounded by sea, with Eldey on the horizon. In adding the rock they are seated on, I was able to add intense detail, which I thought this drawing was lacking compared to my previous extinction pieces. To create extra texture and tone, I began using graphite as well as my usual pens. I also researched the type of sea creatures and seaweed that can be found in Iceland, and in doing this decided to add a native crab, starfish and limpets to the rock in the aim to create an accurate wildlife scene. I also happened to visit an island off the cost of Malaysia just before starting all of this, so made sure I collected lots of reference material of sea rocks for when I came back to the drawing. The rock ended up taking me far longer to complete than anything else in the picture, but I think this was understandable, due to how much work it needed.

Before I began work on the rock, I started on the young auk. It was actually more difficult drawing the baby then it was the adult, as I could barely find any reference pictures of them. So I had to use what I had to create as close a resemblance as I could. A lot of old studies of creatures drawn by explorers are quite inaccurate, but I think the ones I found were good, as they had portrayed the adult well.

The sea was quite a challenge, as I originally wanted to make it look transparent. I wanted to create a sense of the rock and other objects beneath the water, as well as adding more sea creatures such as swimming fish. However in attempting this, it soon became apparent that this would not work, as it would create a compositional overload. For instance there would be the intense detail of the rock against the surface ripples of the water, then intwined with that would be the sea creatures, then lastly there was the issue of making everything under the water look distorted by the ripples. Basically lots of mad detail all merging together into one indistinguishable mess. So I decided to keep the rock very detailed and the sea very simple, to create definition between the two.

My next UK extinction series project will be The Eighteen Extinct Bees Of England. There is currently concern at the worlds rapid declining bee population, as they are an essential part in sustaining the earths vegetation. In the UK at least 18 species of bee are already extinct, I plan to draw each one individually as a set.

Thank you for reading, I would really appreciate any comments below 🙂

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