Search This Blog

Loading...

Monday, January 21, 2013

Pyrography/Woodburning Tutorial Part 3. - by Erik Brush

absolutearts.com Portfolio

An in depth woodburning tutorial by Erik Brush. Part 3.

Continuing on with our discussion on techniques that we started in part 2 we will look at more ways to get the image to appear as you want it to look in the final product. So first let’s cover some art fundamentals before we jump into doing trickier natural elements like water, clouds, smoke, fire, metal, etc.

As you may or may not realize all visual art that is photo-realistic is an illusion. We are fooling the eye of the viewer into seeing shapes, textures, and images that (ideally) look 3 dimensional, but on a very one dimensional surface. Unless you are sculpting and using pyrography to enhance this, our artwork is a dimensional illusion. So forget David Copperfield or Chris Angel! If you want to see a real illusion look at the best photo-realistic art and you will be seeing the masters of the art of illusion.

But our magic is in understanding the way that the eye sees light, shadow, and form. I am not going to focus on teaching you perspective, scale, balance, values, and other art essentials. This is pyrography and for a more extensive art lesson you will need to find other resources.

LIGHT

However one of the primary things that ALL pyrographic artists should have a good basic understanding of is light and shadow. Know that light may illuminate in what appears to be an omnipresent radiance or it could be in a narrow focused beam. But no matter what, light always moves outward from its point of origin.


This means that if you wish to have good shading you will need to have two skills. The ability to create a tonal or value gradient, AND a continuous awareness of the direction that the light source in your image is coming from. If you think of this with a mental arrow that can hover or float anywhere around the image, the shadows will always appear on the far side of an object away from light.

When doing drops of water however light is refracted and often a shadow can be seen on the same side of the drop as the light source is coming from. Water and other clear 3 dimensional sources can and do reflect and refract light within them causing the normal rules to be thrown out the window. Light will often seem to bend or appear in unusual places as compared with other surfaces.

A good way to get better at doing such elements is to make a transposition of drops of water and practice doing these in a uniform way. The more that you practice the better you will get. Then try doing a still life of a clear crystal sparkling in the light.

Basic art exercises have students use a form to draw a perfect circle and then ask students to draw an arrow outside of the circle which indicates the direction of the light from its source. The students then start on the opposite side of the arrow inside the circle and begin to practice shading in and building an even value scale as they fade the shaded areas into those that are illuminated until they have created a sphere. Easy right?

But afterward the students are checked to see if they really understand the way light moves and the arrow principle. The student is asked to now add an oval hard shadow (hard meaning dark) directly under the ball shape that they have created with their shading. Now this student has to make a visual estimate as to where the light would cause this shadow to fall. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Try it some time.

WATER

So let’s discus Water. Water is often touted as the most difficult element of all to draw or woodburn properly. I disagree. I think that we are setting ourselves up with the expectation that it will be tough or even worse than it is when we start a project with that mindset.

Water is all about hard and soft contrast. Still water for example has no surface tension distorting it in the form of waves. This means that reflections from the sky or anything that overhangs the water or appears neat it will be seen on the surface of the water. To burn this you will only need to use an image with such a reflection or imagine it in your mind.

Using a low heat setting and a shader tip/wire or in my case the flat of the universal point make soft circular motions to leave a light tone when creating a base value for the water surface.

Once you have evenly covered this then turn up the heat a little and burn a slightly darker value in the reflections. If the water is clear and shallow like a pond or still pool, add whatever debris, substrate, animals, and plants you are going to have in the water first. Then add the initial surface area, and then the reflected images over this.

It is not easy to simply describe water and how to burn it, but a strong and helpful tip is to make sure that the image you use for your transposition and even when you burn it is black and white if possible. You will see the true soft and hard scales of the water surface in this manner. Colour can confuse the eye, which is why I emphasize this point so heavily.

SMOKE & CLOUDS

Smoke and clouds. These are very easy to do though to hear many beginners lamenting the addition of clouds or a smoking chimney or fire one would think that the world had come to an end. This is because many folks like to try to make a hard edge to define their clouds or smoke and then fill it in afterward. But this makes it appear cartoony.

So how does one make clouds? Again using a flat on a universal tip or a shader tip or wire you can make clouds (depending on the type and dark or lightness of the clouds by FIRST doing the non-cloudy areas of your sky. Make this in a nice even tone. As dark or light as the black and white transposition image or your imagination (if you are working without an image) dictates.

Once you have added the areas that are NOT containing clouds you can lightly shape the cloud edges with the burner on a low temperature. It will take some time and patience but you’ll be able to lay down an even tone this way.

This works well IF your clouds are white puff cumulous clouds and you texture and shade them sparingly. Remember that the wood itself is your “white” or lightest colour. Therefore places that must be light will need you to refrain from burning there.

Now let us suppose that you are making storm clouds or smoke. The same technique is applied but turn the temperature up. (But not too high! If the wood burns too fast it will ruin the effect so be patient and take your time.) Using small circular motions build up the cloud layers until they have the tone or value that you need or wish.

If you are doing fog remember that the more thick the fog is the more blurred or distorted background images are and the further away that they get the more blurry they become. Avoid hard lines for anything in the background. Far away = less definition.

FIRE

Fire is done by using wisps of smoke along with negative spaces in the appropriate shapes such as “C” and “S” curves. You may wish to lightly sketch a faint guideline from a French curve ruler. My best advice on fire is to remember high contrast with layered shapes, and use a photograph as a guide to borrow elements from.

A VERY good cheater, even though it is not pyrography at all, is to go to youtube and look at airbrush techniques for what is called “real fire” painting. As you watch the way that airbrush artists apply these layers, you will get the idea for how a pyrographer may do similar artwork using the method applied for clouds and smoke.


I always suggest looking at photos and using photo references when you work. Because you cannot beat nature for realistic textures, use what others or you have captured on camera to practice perfecting your art with.

BARK/WOOD

For doing wood you will want to emphasize hard edges. Use a knife-edge to outline your wood first. Remember that VERY little wood grows in a straight line. Most wood twists and branches into all sorts of forms. Bark creates a variety of fun and interesting textures. Keep the point of your burner moving and fidget it a bit as you move to create uneven and irregular edges and marks into the wood. If you hold the burner at a 45-degree angle and move the knife edge of a universal tip or flow point or detailer tip along the bark edges you can build up texture in the wood.

Do yourself a favor. If this is a tree or a log first shade the trunk or log to accomplish its shape. THEN start adding wood bark and texture to bring it to life. This will allow the natural indentation process that woodburning leaves on the surface of your project as a raised relief whereas if you shade afterward it will compress the fibers of your burn surface reducing detail for the viewer.

Again photos are a great resource for both practice and the final project.

PHOTOS FOR TRANSPOSITION/PATTERNS & LEGAL WAYS TO USE THEM

This brings me to an interesting discussion on the use of photographs as a source for artwork from a legal standpoint. Now the very first thing that I will tell you is that it is ALWAYS a really good idea to contact a photographer first and ask their permission to use their photograph as a basic model for your pyrographic art.

Many photographers are more than happy to let you use their photos. In fact many have dealt with people hijacking or trying to steal their images or use their images for advertising or profiteering purposes without any royalties or recognition for the photographer. Asking for permission to do a one-time piece from one of their photos will flatter them in many cases. Some may even wish to buy your artwork when you finish it if it looks similar to their photograph.

Others will flat out refuse! Sorry! No! No way! Get lost! Etc. If they do so it’s best to just move on and find another image that you can do with permission of the photographer, or without their condemnation.

So what if you can’t find the photographer? Let’s say that the image has been shown on many websites and appears in many search engines under many different sources. You can go and try to hunt for the source of origin, or simply shrug it off and use the image anyway.

In such cases where an image is widespread and an originating source difficult or impossible to find the image is considered in legal terns to be “common domain” meaning many people have access to it and are using it for many purposes. Therefore you may also use it as a transposition reference. The original photographer cannot legally go after you without also going after every single person using the image. Though it is unlikely to happen anyway.

So what about the old “change the image” discussion? An image that is not a trademark may be transposed from one medium to another if the image undergoes a 10-15% change from the original and IF the image is not being mass marketed.

You may not take a photo of a photo and call it your own work. That is illegal. You may however take a photo and make a sketch or a painting of the photo if you omit or alter the image by a small margin. This is easily done and it invalidates legal complaints regardless of National or International laws. Copyrighted material is not protected from media shifts with this alteration or what is called “Fair Use” which allows for material to be reproduced from any copyrighted material in part, provided that it is being used for educational purposes.

Here is the actual statement for “Fair Use” from its source.

Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

So how does this apply to our using a photograph? If you create the image and first post it in an area dedicated to teaching someone something about the image such as on a wildlife site if it is an animal, or in a historical discussion forum if it is a steam locomotive image, you have just fallen under the protection of “Fair Use.”

UNDERSTANDING TRADEMARKS VERSES COPYRIGHTS

Now understand that there is a very big difference between copyright law and trademarks. A trademarked item is a logo, mascot, symbol, or other representation that is specific to a particular business or entity. You may NOT use Trademarks without permission under any circumstances or you are subject to the full weight of the law should the trademark holder come after you for using their trademark without permission.

Years ago NBC Nabisco Corporation tried to create a mascot in their “Drops guys” to represent their Oreo cookies brand. This company is one of the largest and most powerful food conglomerates on Earth. They began showing commercials on TV featuring the “Drops guys”. But shortly after this Pillsbury Dough Company complained that the “Drops Guys” looked too similar to their “Pillsbury Dough Boy” and they sued NBC Nabisco who refused to stop using the “Drops guys” as a mascot. Trademark laws are VERY stringent and intolerant of any infringement or unauthorized acts and NBC Nabisco lost this case and their attempted counter suits to the much smaller Pillsbury franchise.

So, Copyrighted images may be used even without permission provided you either 1). Do an alteration and do not use digital or photographic copying to reproduce the image, and alter it by 10-15%. OR 2). Make the image and first share it in an educational capacity as allowed for under the fair use act.

OTHER IMAGE SOURCES

Another source for images is what is called "Clip art" or copyright free images. Many resources exist that do not mind you using their images for whatever you wish to do with them. Clip art photos are generally copyright and royalty free images that you may wish to look into.

Free wallpaper is another way to use a royalty free image, as there are many sites that offer great photographs that are free to use.

You can also use images that are taken from historical archives or out of print books or magazines. You can find such sites online and download images from there.

Sometimes an artist will allow you to use a photo IF you are willing to either pay them a small fee or to buy a print of this image. If you truly love the image and the cost is reasonable this can be a great way to get a permissible nod of approval from the artist.

Always ask first whenever possible. Courteous and polite behavior will get you far and you would be surprised how many photographers not only say yes, but wind up purchasing the very image of theirs that you burned.
By the way that is another way to bargain with an artist if they happen to have several images that you would enjoy doing, offer them a trade.

“Hey Photographer ________, I really love these great landscape shots you take! I’m a pyrographic artist and I would like to use some of your images to make woodburned art. But in trade for you allowing this I will do my first burn of any image that you would like and give it to you. What do you think of this?”

“What a wonderful idea artist _________! I know just the piece that you could do for me. Then feel free to use my other images as you see fit.”


THE SPLIT SHOT IMAGE METHOD

This brings me to a technique called “Split shot” transposition. It is another way of MASSIVELY altering an image so you can use it without any permission of worries. Te way that the “Split shot” method works is that you take major elements of 2 or more photos from 2 or more different photographers and combined them. Remember you only need a 10-15% alteration or omission to be legal when transposing an image.

Let’s say I see a wonderful landscape by photograph Joe Shmoe. I love the landscape and think to myself, “This would make a scenic backdrop for an image.” So I copy the image down for making a transposition. But I have no intention on JUST using this image.

You see I saw a picture of a bull elk standing in a low ridge by photographer Jane Schmane. I love that elk and the foreground. Again I copy the image for a transposition. Now I lay down the elk and foreground ONLY from the image that Jane Shcmane took. Then I add the background landscape from Joe Schmoe’s image as the backdrop for the elk.

This new image is 50% of one image and 50% of another. Very simple.



The bottom line when you are dealing with art and photography is always try to respect others and avoid legal issues or conflicts. If you are courteous, and creative, and know what you can legally do or not do you will never incur any problems and will have a wealth of images and subjects to work with. If not you could just get into some very hairy situations where it really should never have happened. So think and act accordingly.


More to come in Part 4. We will be covering colourizing pyrographic artwork, mixed media, stippling, and correcting errors, also sealing and protecting Pyrographic art.

absolutearts.com Portfolio

Thursday, September 15, 2011

IN THE SHADOW OF THE BULL!

Walking along a stretch of beach without my snorkel gear or trunks on I find myself almost alone. As usual when I do these treks there is a trash gathering bag in hand. And as usual the bag is full and heavy. Now and then a tourist wanders past. But I am roaming more desolate stretches of beach. An older couple passes me reminiscing about the good times. I pass a lone fisherman with 2 white plastic tubes sunken into the pack sand to hold his fishing rods as he sits watching them in a folding chair. A tall woman and a heavy elderly man sit under an umbrella in lounge chairs while a gawky pair of kids play in the sand near the breakers. They are building a sand structure of some sort and trying to channel waves into a trough to fill a would be moat. Farther down a pair of very attractive bikini babes in their mid to late twenties are getting shell hunting tips from a young teenage boy who takes every opportunity he can to study the women from behind when they bend over to grab or wash shells in the shallow water. Seeing is believing I suppose. An older man with a pipe in his mouth is reading a novel in a lawn chair and drinking a lot of beers. At least he has a trash bag handy, though half full. The waves pick up as the wind and surf shift a bit in intensity. And there in the shallows is a shadow. At first it is just a murky shadow that looms nondescript almost on the edge of my awareness. But as a shark advocate and biologist I am aware of this shadow. I have trained myself to notice shadows that seem like nothing more than wave crests to most eyes. The shadow follows me as I move. Slowing and stopping when I stop. But it is not a shadow of my making. The rough chop churns the water enough that it is some time before I can make out the form with any clarity. It is a fish. A big fish indeed. A shark. That much is quite obvious after a short while. But the shape is nondescript with no tell tale markers at first. It is also staying just a short ways off as if it is teasing me. It is like the animal seems to understand the limits of my vision and chooses to keep just beyond the periphery of my ability to make out the form. My impulse is to enter the water and get a closer look. It is a habit and urge that is well ingrained into me. Go forth and study Erik! Find answers. Have a closer look. But inside of me there was a second voice. One that warned me, be cautious. Be aware of what it is before you go out there or get too close. Something seemed amiss or just a little bit "off" in this scene. I elected to err to the side of caution. What is the good of having "warning" feelings if you are going to ignore them right? I continued to walk along the beach. The shadow continued to follow me. It stopped when I stopped and moved when I moved. Sometimes it moved away and seemed to disappear. But then it would reappear only a short distance further up. My interesting and interested shadow. I wondered what the draw was? What had attracted this mysterious lurker to me? Hard to say. My shorts were blue jean/denim shorts. My top was a black shirt. A tank top in fact. I had a black cap on my head. It could not have been the colours. Maybe it was my vibe? ( Hey anything is possible ). Maybe the fish had some sort of feeling or sense of my love of sharks. Maybe I am getting fat and don't know it? Could I have been mistaken for a juicy sea lion? Nahhhhhhhhhh,... I honestly do not know what it was? For all that I know it could have been the bag of trash and that a diver had fed it before weaing black and blue gear. Anything is possible. I watched as a man walked past in the opposite direction. No switch on behalf of my shadow. I guess green shorts and a white and red top was not its thing. Great, a shark with discriminating tastes in humans. Whatever the case was it had a thing for me and continued down the beach to follow me as I walked and pause where I stopped. It was interesting to say the least. Suddenly the water depth and clarity changed. I could now see my shadow for the first time. An 8-9 foot bull shark loomed just right there. It grabbed my attention and focus. Beefy and respectable looking animals like this are generally out farther. I wondered about it? What was it's story? The saga of a shark cruising through the shallows on a warm day in broad daylight. It did not seem to be in need of a meal, though it is hard to say with bulls. They all look stocky and well fed. It could have been sick or disoriented, although it was swimming just fine. Had it eaten something laced with dispersant from BP's oncoming soup of death a bit farther up the coast? I even had a funny thought about the shark. I wondered ( allowing the silly and over sun-exposed side of my mind perhaps to goof around ) if this shark recognized me? Could it tell that this was a shark friend? Had my lemon and nurse shark pals spread the word? "That guy over there likes sharks! He has on rare occasion even fed us! Go check him out!" A funny if whimsical thought about the big bull shark. It kept following me for another 70 yards or so before moving off into deeper waters. I did not go and visit it any further than the waters edge. Perhaps it was disappointed? I doubt that. In all seriousness I could not say what had drawn it to shadow me for a while along the beach edge? I will never know for sure. But it sure was a magnificent looking animal for the brief time that I was afforded a closer view. This morning there was no trace of the wayward bull. No great majestic shadow that followed my motion like a dog on the other side of a fence. I swam with 2 nurse sharks and a very cute little bonnethead shark that was maybe 2 - 2.5 feet long at the very most. It was on the move and did not stay around for very long. The water was clear and warm with a slight cooler upwelling from the shelf a short ways out. Perhaps out there, the bull shark was now cruising and hunting fish. And just maybe it had a reflection of it's adventure in the shallows with a blue and black shadow from the overworld above it's own? - Erik

Sunday, September 19, 2010

THE SIAFU

The Siafu ( Pronounced ; See - ahh - foo )



It is dusk in the West African forests of Gabon near the Congo border. The forest that has resonated throughout the night with the chirps, and buzzes, and calls of insects and frogs and birds is now still. Birds still call as do a few distant primates. But the insects and amphibians are still. It is a strange and uneasy stillness. The locals know what is happening. In the understory of the dense jungle, small life forms are on the move. Some flee North and South. Others flee East and West. But many others do not realize the danger or know to vacate the area.



Tension is growing as something moves silently along the leaf litter. Tiny forms scour out across the region. Medium sized ants that seem in a race. They are swift moving and all heading in the same general direction. A few song birds fly down to feed upon these first few ants. Tasty snacks for those with such an appetite. But soon the leaves stir and rustle as more ants swarm in a strange living blanket. The birds that are experienced fly off. They understand that the meal is no longer safe to eat. One or two birds however hop around in the leaf litter. Determined to gorge on this tasty treat. They do not notice the swarm on their legs. By the time that they feel the first few stings and fly off to a nearby branch it is too late! The birds try desperately to pluck the swarm out of their feathers. But they have been tagged with a chemical signal and the stinging ants venom burns and disorients the songbirds. Suddenly an eye is pierced and the bird in a panic attempts to rub it's face on the branch upon which it stands. But the branch is now a highway for more ants and the bites weaken and shock the bird. It's heart races and it suddenly falls to the floor of the jungle. Fluttering helplessly as it is overcome and dies. The second songbird has also suffered the same fate.



Insects and arachnids are hunted down and overcome in the leaf litter or on the tree bark. A young black mamba thrashes violently, even biting itself in an effort to bite it's aggressors. It dies in a combination of ant bites and its own venom. Another casualty of the relentless invasion. A large rat soon suffers the same fate as a frog and spider. The forest floor is black and red with ant bodies. The swarm moves like a great giant alien organism. It is eighteen feet wide and will take three and a half days to cross the area.



As the swarm continues, it overwhelms any animal unable to swiftly get out of its path. Nothing is immune. Great trumpeting pain and crashing of trees fills the air for miles as a massive bull elephant is attacked. The great bull did not feel the ants on his thick skin. Was not much aware of them until he was covered and the first bites filled him with pain and venom. The ants swarmed into his trunk, mouth, eyes, and ears. Their bites swelling his trunk shut and his mouth and throat until breathing was virtually impossible. His eardrums are penetrated and ruptured by powerful mandibles and his inner ear is attacked. The beast looses equilibrium as he thrashes and runs into trees in a painful blind rage. He is off balance and knocked senseless in his diminished breathing and panic. He falls to the floor where more ants await the giant and attack. He thrashes in agony, but his system is going into shock and his heart slows. He will not get back up. He is food for the colony. This is not some army ant colony of South America eight hundred thousand strong. No, this is the African Driver ant. The swarm is over forty million animals.



It hunts as a single organism rather than forty million individuals. It is a sisterhood of blind ants. They do not see the prey. but they can feel and sense and taste the food. They work in concert to bring down anything in their path. The Siafu are the most deadly predator in all of Africa. You yield to them, or you die. Those are the only options.







They are also my favorite analogy for those folks who come to me with doubts. I have often had people approach me after a lecture or book discussion on conservation issues and marine concerns who related to me that they really loved what I have written about and explained. They tell me how wonderful the work is that I am doing. But they then go on to share with me that they really want to get involved. But they have 2 issues that are holding them back. The first is that they don't believe that anything that they could do will amount to much help in the grand scheme of things. They feel tiny and helpless to affect changes.



The second issue is that they are working and trying to raise a family in a troubled economy and that they do not have the money or where-with-all to help out. And I smile as I then relate a more basic version of the story that I have just shared with you about the Siafu.



I explain to them that we are in the conservation movement like the Siafu. We are a blind collective. An individual driver ant is a medium sized ant with a painful sting. But not too severe or deadly. Easily squashed or killed by many things. But the Siafu, like the growing colony of conservation minded people is not just a single ant. It is many individuals acting in concert. And like the Siafu we need not see what all the other ants in the group are doing. We only need to put forth our own effort and together we can fell the largest opposition that there is! Just as the Siafu kill insects to elephants, so too can and will we overcome all that is in our path.



So all that anyone has to do is to participate on some level. It does not necessarily mean that you have to donate money. You can help in many other ways. Spread the word about sharks and the oceans. Educate the children and the public. You would be amazed at how powerful an aid that this is. Many people do not understand the law of 2 degrees of separation. This is the law that states that you are only ever two layers of friends away from someone who knows a celebrity or person of influence. So you never know which one of the people you share the message with might then share it with a relative or friend of a law maker or celebrity or person of influence who can be quite an impact in making a powerful change.



You can also do other basic things. Sign petitions online. It takes usually 2-3 minutes to sign a petition. It is generally 2 pages. A basic info page so that they know you are not the same person who signed a moment ago, and a second confirmation page. That is it. Simple. There is a third page in case you wish to share with friends, but even there, you do not have to if you feel uncomfortable doing so. But at least sign it yourself. It is easy and quick. I sign 30-150 petitions a month. Some of them have only a mild affect. Others have HUGE impacts. I am proud to know that I was one of the thousands of conservation Siafu who got shark products entirely banned in the state of Hawaii! A landmark in shark conservation measures. I am proud to know that I was one of 5560 Siafu who caused the Florida Fish and Game Commission to vote for Unanimous protection for Lemon sharks in Florida. So sign them and share them. Your voice matters.



You can educate your kids. Teach them conservation measures and get them involved in school and social events that support conservation and wildlife education. After all it is their world next. They should have a strong say and desire in protecting our world and theirs.



Pick up trash. Take a bag with you when you go out hiking, or walking. I often do beach clean ups. I like to hunt for shells and chunks of coral on the beaches in my area. But I always have 2 bags. One for shells and one for trash. I get the trash first, and on my way back up the now clean beach, I shell at my leisure. And it feels good too! Pick up the trash around the area. You will be saving fish and sea turtles and birds and us too. We are all interconnected. Start a group in your area and make it a fun social event. Conservation efforts do not have to be work or boring.



Support conservation organizations. Small cash donations help out as much as big ones. Skip a coffee or extra expense and take that $5 and donate it to an organization of your choice. Use Charity navigator or the advice of trusted conservationists to determine where or who to support. Do not waste money on corrupt pseudo conservation groups like Green Peace or World Wildlife Fund. Instead support groups that use the money soundly and actively. Support the Environmental Investigation Agency or Oceana or Shark Savers or Sea Shepherd Conservation Society or Wild Aid. Be selective and even small donations matter. It all adds up.



And so too do all of our efforts. So what are you? Some tiny ant wandering alone, insignificant, and easily squashed? Or are you one of us? Are you the scout or soldier of an unstoppable colony of Conservation Siafu? If your heart and desire are there, it only takes action to join the group. And know that even if you cannot see what all of your other colony members are doing, it is a small matter. For together, we WILL fell the greatest of problems and entities that stand in our path! The choice for your opposition ( and ours ) is a simple one,.. Yield or be overcome!



I hope that you will join the Siafu all around you!





- Erik

Sunday, September 5, 2010

BEYOND JAWS, THE TRUTH REALLY BITES!

When JAWS came out in the 70’s peoples lives in the oceans changed forever. The movie grabbed the attention of audiences everywhere and cast a horrific feeling of danger in waters and beaches that people had never considered imposing before.

Suddenly there were sharks lurking in everyone’s mind as Jaws sold us on the idea that nature’s apex marine predators were out there, looking for careless swimmers who seemed deliciously oblivious to the great hunters of the deep! People were terrified of the water and sharks were on everyone’s mind for many years to come.

Even today, the stigma of a man eating mindless killing machine lurking in wait for unsuspecting swimmers is ingrained into our consciousness when we consider the oceans. People fear sharks. People hate sharks. People kill sharks and fish for them with a certain taste for adventure and vengeance that is unprecedented with most marine species.

The truth is that most people have never seen a wild shark. Most never will regardless of how often they swim in the oceans. Most people know nothing or close to nothing about sharks in general. But the picture that they do have, is so far from accurate that it is sad and amazing to those people who spend time with and studying these animals.

The thing that I always wanted to do was learn more about the animals and how they really were? Were sharks really mindless killing machines that ran on instinct like some deadly auto-piloted nightmare? Or was there perhaps something a little intrinsically deeper about these creatures? How smart are they? What are they like?

The best way to answer any question in life is to first ask, and then to seek out the best sources of information or the best experts in the subject in order to answer the question. I have done just that. My greatest allies were curiosity, intention, and a burning drive to learn everything that I could. I started to read and study on an academic level first. But this soon grew to a mass media study. Then in time I sought out the experts.

But the next powerful tool was to discover for myself. I began to swim and wade and dive with sharks. I needed to learn more and to figure out the truth. And it was not long before I began to discover just how little I really knew about them. I thought to myself, if I can have this many misconceptions and gaps in my mind about sharks, and I enjoy and seek them out as a subject of interest, then what must the common person who is oblivious think about them? The average person is still going by Jaws often enough, rather than the reality, which will paint a far different picture.

The average person does not know just how frightened of us most sharks are. They do not associate words like “shy” “scared” “mellow” or “nervous” with sharks. Nor do they associate sharks with concepts such as “intelligence” “versatility” “playfulness” or “aware”. But again, this falls hand in hand with their experience level and degree of study. The sensationalized stories are far more interesting and fuel our hungry negative stereotypes than the truth about mistaken concepts and maligned animals.

In my studies and work with sharks I have uncovered an animal that is not easily approached. A shy and elusive predator that is so incredibly sensitive and scared of us that it takes a very concerted effort to be able to approach them. I have found a creature that rewards association and patience with a kind of curious interaction that astonished and amazes anyone lucky enough to share such moments.

I know sharks that are so distinct in their behavior that they are easily picked out of a group because no matter how similar the group may appear physically, the actions speak louder than words. Some will approach and swim close, looking at you to see who and what you are. They will test you, not as a meal, but as a fellow ocean denizen to see how you react to them. It is interesting to see them and know that there is enough thought going on that they have the faculties to experiment in their interactions with you.

I know sharks that are quite social and seem to enjoy the company of divers or swimmers with whom they are familiar, while they will shy away from all others. They have their favorites and you can always tell who that person is. These sharks will willingly spend time very close to such a person. They always seem to sense the people who enjoy them the most. There is a sort of cross species friendship and enjoyment that is very rewarding and magical when it happens.

I have seen sharks take their personal relationships or interactions with a favorite diver, one step beyond. Large sharks who have actively threatened and chased off other medium to large sharks who approached too close to their human companion. I smile, as I know that this is most certainly not the image that most people have of these animals. But experience opens a world that no amount of big screen bullshit and myth can override. The Jaws idea is simply not in my thinking.

I wish that I could share a new truth about these creatures with the world. I want to tell everyone just how wrong they are about sharks and the danger levels that they represent. While one must always respect the fact that they are large predators and well capable of being aggressive or dangerous if they see a need, most are simply not inclined to treat with us on that level unless triggered or provoked.

Around the world the annual shark bite (I refuse to use the word attack because it is not appropriate for the action) rate is around 70 shark bite incidents a year. Out of these 1-5 wind up as fatalities on average. Most of these occur in water less than 3 feet deep by sharks under 6 feet in length. It is almost always in cloudy or murky water in which the shark’s vision is obscured. The bite is generally to the lower leg, foot, ankle, or hand. Most of the time the shark swiftly realizes its mistake and either releases or attempts to release and swim away. It is not always easy with a panicked swimmer jerking in one direction while a mouth full of back recurved teeth designed to catch and hold fish, is embedded in flesh and preventing an easy release. Amazingly enough, the majority of shark bites 98.9% are superficial and do not even require stitches. There is seldom ever any removal of flesh, though it will make all of the news media when such incidents happen.

The other group of shark bite encounters happens to surfers who are often mistaken for a seal or sea turtle in the surf. These are bit by the big three; the bull shark, great white, and tiger shark. In most cases the sharks soon realize that the surfer is not a fat juicy seal and they let go and swim off. The surfer returns with scare, big injuries, and again the jaws image is reinforced in the public mind. Because the public never thought to view it from the animals perspective. The public seldom asks of the surfer, “What were you thinking, surfing so close to a seal colony? Don’t you know that you look a lot like a surfing seal or sea-lion to a large predator?” It’s easier to blame the shark.

Mistaken identity is almost always the cause of most negative shark encounters. At least on the side of sharks. But the converse is quite different. More people are killed by vending machines falling on them each year ( 9 on average ) than are killed by sharks. The same holds true for car crashes, lightning strikes, dog bites, etc. But in the case of humans toward sharks the statistics are quite different. Sharks have far more to fear from us than we have to fear from them.

Right now in the worlds oceans there is a war going on. Humans verse everything else. And the biggest casualty of this war is the world’s shark population. 2/3rds of all species are down by 90-95% of what they were just 30 years ago. Sharks are vanishing at an alarming rate. They are the most hunted animal group in all of human history. 104 Million sharks are fished and killed each year. Of these 78 million are killed only for their fins, to supply the growing shark-fin soup trade in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Every fisherman in the world knows that there is a bounty on shark’s fins. Whether or not they fish for sharks directly or catch them as “bycatch” (the unintended species taken by a fishing industry targeting a certain type of marine life) they are quick to take the fins. It is an act often inflicted on the live animal. The fins cut away from the body and the shark is tossed overboard to die. Sinking into the depths, in pain and bleeding. Unable to swim. It will either bleed to death slowly or be torn apart by other predators and scavengers in the water.

Shark fins are the third highest earning illegal trade commodity on the planet next to drugs and weapons. The fins can fetch prices between $300 - $700 a kilo on the Asian market. The soup is considered a status symbol with great health and virility benefits for the consumer.

Once an extravagance that was too expensive for the common man, now with a booming economy, more and more Chinese and other Asians have disposable income, which they are willing to spend on luxuries such as this soup. It is a soup killing our oceans and in an ironic and sick twist of fate it is also killing its supporters.

This is due to the fact that as apex marine predators who are large and long lived, sharks and other similar predators, are loaded with massive amounts of toxins and pollution that have moved up the food chain. Years of ocean dumping of our chemical wastes have not caused these chemicals to vanish or dissipate. Instead the food chain concentrates these elements in its top predators. Sharks are loaded with Methyl-mercury, lead, cadmium, POPs (Persistent Organic Pollution) such as DDT and PCBs, and many other toxins.

In turn shark-fin soup is also loaded with these same chemicals. We are a twisted creature in our own right it seems. So do sharks kill humans? Yes, on occasion they do. But now in their rapid demise nature is fighting back on a much more insidious level. Dead sharks are starting to kill people. Methyl mercury is the sharks avenging ghost in a sad war in which there are no winners.

And what of the remaining sharks? Is there hope in stopping the chaos and slaughter? Is there any hope in turning the tide and bringing back balance to these animals and our oceans? The answer is yes. There is still hope for a change. Still time to correct things before the balance is irrevocably altered forever. It starts with awareness and education. It starts with a simple shift of mindset and an awareness of the reality behind the myths. Healthy oceans need sharks, and we need healthy oceans. In other words, we need sharks in order to survive as a species as well.

- Erik.