Seattle Times graphic artist Emily M. Eng takes you through the process of making a 3-D model of an orca so we could better explain the animals in an ongoing series about them.

Share story

If you’re lucky enough to see a killer whale out in the wild, it’s mostly just its dorsal fin sticking out of the water. That’s why, in the first story in our Hostile Waters: Orcas In Peril series, we wanted to show readers the entire body of an orca.

But due to their size and the fact that they spend the majority of their time underwater, getting a photograph of an entire killer whale is nearly impossible.

That’s where I come in as a graphic artist.

For most of a week (I had other assignments, too), I sculpted a realistic model of a female southern resident killer whale so we could show an up-close and full-body view. I then paired the sculpture with essential orca facts, range maps and population data to create a complete primer on Pacific Northwest killer whales.

Curious how I made the sculpture? Here’s my step-by-step process, and how I added it into the infographic.

Step 1

I built a wire armature based on skeletal diagrams, and then stuffed it with foil. I used foil to fill out the body because it’s lighter than clay, and less expensive.

Step 2

I covered the wire and foil with a layer of polymer clay. I then added more clay onto the body to get the right slender, football shape.

Step 3

Next, I created the appendages separately, stretching clay over the wire. Their fins aren’t very thick.

Step 4

I made and baked small details — like the eyes and teeth — then added them to the main body.

Step 5

Then, I stuck the appendages into the main body and covered their joints with clay.

Step 6

I baked the model in a newsroom toaster oven to harden the clay.

Step 7

Once fully cooled, I smoothed the rough spots with sandpaper.

Step 8

Referencing photographs and science illustrations, I sketched out the killer whale’s patterning in blue pencil before painting.

Step 9

Next, I painted the model with acrylic paint. (This model required three layers of blue and brown to create a deep black tone.)

Step 10

Once I was happy with the painting, I enlisted help from colleague Ramon Dompor to photograph the model. We took several photos with me holding the orca from above and below, and then I edited the pictures together to remove my hand.

Step 11

I also removed the background from the photo so I could incorporate the image of the model into our infographic.

Step 12

I then added the other data, maps and text to the layout. And to make sure that everything was accurate, this graphic and model went through several rounds of review with orca experts. One comment was that the eye was a little too large on my model. So, I used editing software to shrink it for the final piece.

Follow along with the Hostile Waters series to see how else we use our killer-whale model.

Learn more about Emily M. Eng here.