Artist profile: The incredible Kennis brothers

Few people, if any, have impressed me more during my career than the Dutch twin brothers Alfons and Adrie Kennis, also known as Kennis & Kennis. Specialized in meticulous, extremely accurate and awe-inspiring beautiful paleontological reconstructions and paintings, the talent of the Kennis brothers is as amazing as their personalities.

Adrie Kennis, Wilma, and Alfons Kennis

Alfons and Adrie started publishing in the magazine in the early 2000’s, brought in by former Art Director Chris Sloan (see Chris’ new company here). I remember vividly the lasting impression their series of paintings of extinct mammals of the Jurassic left in me, a couple of years before I started working for National Geographic. I wanted to meet them right away!

Adrie and Alfons work simultaneously in all their paintings in an organic process where it’s impossible to know which one of them worked in the different phases or areas of a canvas. Their feature textured white backgrounds are beautiful and the exquisitely lightning and sculptural feel of their figures reveals their technique: they first build every animal they paint as a three dimensional, small-size, clay model for reference of volume and lightning.

As it turns out the Kennis brothers are terrific sculptors and their anatomical knowledge is sought by natural history museums all over the world.

Most paleo-reconstructions of extinct hominids feel stiff and lifeless to me, but not theirs. The emotion and expression of their figures is unique. As examples, see their “Lucy’s baby” below. The playful 3 year old Australopithecus afarensis was our cover in November, 2006. Below it, the weathered face of a Neanderthal male:

I was fortunate to work directly with the Kennis brothers in the reconstruction of a female Neanderthal we created for our October 2008 cover. The story had it all. Terrific science (the neanderthal genome was being decoded, offering new clues), picturesque fossils sites in Siberia and Spain and the unfolding drama of a species being cornered into extinction in Europe as homo sapiens quickly occupied their former range in Europe.

Alfons and Adrie worked for 6 month on our female Neaderthal, in a meticulous process that started with the reconstruction of an entire skeleton based on the existing fossils of different specimens scattered around the world. I art directed from Washington, and visited in their amazing studio-warehouse near Amsterdam during the process.

Since the best existing reference for the thorax was a male specimen, Adrie and Alfons painstakingly disassembled a model of the thorax, shaved off a few millimeters off each rib and each vertebra and put it back together to obtain an appropriately sized smaller female thorax.

We worked closely with scientists at Duke University, the University of Washington in St. Louis and the Natural History Museum of London for accuracy. Despite the enormous amount of work involved in creating a life-size, articulated and scientifically accurate skeleton, at the end it would not be visible. The purpose was to serve as a base for the external layers of the body, knowing that the proportions given by the bones were right. The next step was to add all the muscles and skin, in layers of plasticine clay:

And this is the external appearance of the clay model before casting it into the final silicone figure:

The finished model incorporated real red hair of Scottish Highland cattle (DNA evidence pointed to many neanderthals being red-haired) and a carefully crafted outer layer of skin that included wrinkles and pores the Kennis brothers obtained by transferring skin impressions of their own faces into the model. Alfons and Adrie finally added black pock marks, a tan face tonality and reddened cheeks after studying the faces of Mongolian nomads and other populations that spend a lot of time outdoors in climates as cold as Europe was when it was inhabited by Neanderthals.

Being National Geographic, we couldn’t just photograph Wilma (our reconstruction’s nickname) in a studio. The Kennis brothers took her all the way to Spain in the back of their truck, and I joined them there along with photographer Joe McNally and our Creative Director to do a photo shoot next to the cave where some of the evidence was found.

The adventures of the photo shoot were best narrated by then Design Editor Oliver Uberti in his former blog. Among other things, we were evicted from a National Park by guards for conspicuously carrying a large naked female figure without permission to do so, and chased by a wild bull on the way to the cave!

And all of that just to show a cover and two other pictures in the magazine, plus the accompanying graphic I did with artist Bruce Morser. You must think we are crazy, and we do feel that way sometimes!

In case you are curious, here are three of the many sketches the Kennis brothers did at the beginning of the process. The first takes were too feminized and idyllic to my taste. We wanted a neanderthal female that was defiant and strong, as some of the new scientific evidence pointed to the fact neanderthal may have participated in hunting along with males, unlike homo sapiens.

I’ll finish with another painting by Alfons and Adrie for a more recent stories on extinct Australian megafauna. As in any art direction project involving this odd pair of geniuses, there were some heated arguments about the direction of the project, with me and former Graphics Editor Hiram Henriquez working on it from Nat Geo’s side. It’s not unusual for them to refuse ANY changes to their artwork but I see that as an expression of how deeply they care about the integrity of their artwork and the scientific accuracy behind, and we always ended up agreeing. Can’t wait to do it again!

Check the Kennis brothers’ website here, I hope you’ll love their work. Also, here is a video where they narrate their process for a reconstruction of Otzi the Iceman. This one was not commissioned by National Geographic, be we used a picture of the model in our November 2011 issue.

4 thoughts on “Artist profile: The incredible Kennis brothers

  1. Pingback: Alfons and Adrie Kennis | Uber Patrol - The Definitive Cool Guide

  2. Hi!
    I had the huge previlege of knowing the Kennis brothers is 2006, about the time they were working on the Neanderthal Feldhofer. I witnessed the entire process of creation and still today I cannot forget their amazing personalities, the truly amazing talent and the love for the detail. Truly one (two) of a kind!

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