November 30, 2012
The dinosaurs I grew up with were both intensely exciting and incredibly dull. They were creatures unlike anything I had ever seen, but their drab, scaly flesh was always fit snugly to their bones with little embellishment. For decades, this has been the paradox of prehistoric restorations. Reconstructed skeletons are gloriously magnificent and introduce us to strange creatures that we never could imagined if we did not already know they existed. Yet the art of reviving these organisms has often been incredibly conservative. Dinosaurs, in particular, have often been “shrink-wrapped”–their skin tightly pulled around a minimalist layer of muscle distributed over the skeleton. This may be part of why dinosaur restorations look so weird. As John Conway, C.M. Kosemen, Darren Naish and Scott Harman argue in their new book All Yesterdays, no living lizard, fish, bird or mammal adheres to such a limited “skin on the bones” fashion. Dinosaurs were not only skeletally distinctive, but they undoubtedly looked stranger and behaved more bizarrely than we have ever imagined. The recently-published Dinosaur Art started to realize these possibilities, but All Yesterdays goes even further in melding science and speculation about dinosaur biology.
On a superficial level, All Yesterdays is a gorgeous collection of speculative artwork. Divided into two sections–the first featuring Mesozoic life in new or little-seen vignettes, and the second imagining how we would restore modern animals if we only had partial skeletons to work from–the book features some of the most wonderful paleoart I’ve ever seen. Scott Hartman’s crisp skeletal reconstructions form the framework from which Conway and Kosemen play with muscle, fat and flesh, and, following Naish’s introductory comments, Kosemen provides scientific commentary about how each illustration is not quite so outlandish as it seems. A curious Camptosaurus approaching an Allosaurus at rest is a reminder that, much like modern animals, prey and predators were not constantly grappling with each other, just as a snoozing rendition of the Tyrannosaurus “Stan” shows that even the scariest dinosaurs had to snooze. The gallery’s feathered dinosaurs are especially effective at demonstrating the fluffy weirdness of the Mesozoic. Conway’s peaceful scene of feather draped Therizinosaurus browsing in a tree grove is the best rendition of the giant herbivore I’ve ever seen, and his fluffy, snowbound Leaellynasaura are unabashedly adorable.
The second half of the book continues the same theme, but in reverse. How would artists draw a cat, an elephant or a baboon if we only had skeletons or bone fragments? And what would those scraps suggest about the biology of long-lost animals? If there are paleontologists in the future, and they have no other source of information about our world, how will they restore the animals alive today? They might have no knowledge of the fur, fat, feathers and other structures that flesh out modern species, creating demonic visions of reptilian cats, eel-like whales and vampire hummingbirds.
Working in concert, the two sections will give casual readers and paleoartists a jolt. While some might gripe about Todd Marshall adding too many spikes and dewlaps to his dinosaurs, or Luis Rey envisioning deinonychosaurs at play, the fact of the matter is that dinosaurs probably had an array of soft tissue structures that made them look far stranger than the toned-down restorations we’re used to. As All Yesterdays presents in various scenes, maybe sauropods liked to play in the mud, perhaps hadrosaurs were chubbier than we ever imagined and, as depicted in one nightmare-inducing panel, Stegosaurus could have had monstrous genitals. None of these scenarios are supported by direct evidence, but they are all within the realm of possibility.
More than a gallery of speculative art, All Yesterdays is an essential, inspirational guide to any aspiring paleoartist. Those who restore prehistoric life are limited by the evidence at hand, this is true, but “more conservative” does not mean “more accurate.” Using comparisons with modern animals, artists have far more leeway than they have ever exercised in imagining what prehistoric life was like. We’ve seen enough Deinonychus packs tearing apart Tenontosaurus, and far too many malnourished dinosaurs. We need more fat, feathers, accessory adornments and scenes from quieter moments in dinosaur lives that do not involve blood and spilled viscera. Professional paleoartists are beginning to embrace these ideas–Jason Brougham’s recent restoration of Microraptor is an appropriately fluffy, bird-like animal rather than the flying monster Naish and collaborators decry–but All Yesterdays is a concentrated dose of prehistoric possibilities that are being artistically explored.
Some of the book’s restorations may turn out to look quite silly. As lovely as Conway’s rendition is, I still don’t buy the “bison-back” idea for high-spined dinosaurs such as Ouranosaurus. Then again, depending on what we discover in the future, some of the illustrations might seem quite prescient. The important thing is that All Yesterdays demonstrates how to push the boundaries of what we imagine while still drawing on scientific evidence. The book is a rare treat in that each section explicitly lays the inspiration for each speculative vision, providing references for those who want to dig deeper.
If anything, All Yesterdays shows that we should not be afraid of imagination in science. Even though we know far more about dinosaur biology and anatomy than ever before, there are still substantial gaps in our understanding. In these places, where bones might not have much to tell us, science meets speculation. The result is not anything-goes garishness, but an exploration of possibilities. Somewhere within that murky range of alternatives, we may start to approach what dinosaurs were truly like.
You can purchase All Yesterdays in any of its various formats here.
August 8, 2012
Museums are where dinosaurs rest, but art is where dinosaurs live again. No press release about a newly-discovered dinosaur, or some new fact about an already-known dinosaur’s lifestyle, is complete with a beautifully-rendered artist’s restoration. And dinosaur art keeps improving. Since the time of the Dinosaur Renaissance in the late 20th century, artists have taken ever more care in rendering the prehistoric creatures and the habitats they called home. Truly, dinosaurs have never looked better, and the new coffee table book Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest Paleoart showcases some of the best fossil restorations by today’s foremost paleoartists.
When I first received Dinosaur Art in the mail, I wondered how it was going to set itself apart from similar books. The glossy Dinosaur Imagery showcased some of the most exquisite dinosaur art created since the 1970s, Allen Debus’ Paleoimagery tracked the changing images of dinosaurs during the past century and Jane Davidson’s A History of Paleontology Illustration documented the scientific and popular aspects of accurately portraying dinosaurs. Where Dinosaur Art differs, I found, is that the book puts the emphasis on the artists themselves–from their favorite prehistoric creatures to the techniques they use. And while veteran paleoillustrators such as the incomparable Doug Henderson and the highly-influential John Sibbick are included in the book, the focus is on relative newcomers who have only recently started to shape our image of dinosaurs.
Dinosaur Art speaks to two audiences. If you can’t get enough restorations of prehistoric life–the book focuses on dinosaurs, but also includes ancient mammals and other non-dinosaurs–then Dinosaur Art is an absolute must-have. Even though I had seen much of the artwork before, I didn’t fully appreciate Raúl Martín‘s gorgeous Mesozoic landscapes or Todd Marshall‘s spiky, intricately-detailed dinosaurs until I saw them laid out in high-definition right in front of me. There are even a few fold-out panels, showing the stunning murals by artists such as Julius Csotonyi. Dinosaur Art is an absolute pleasure to pore over, and almost every page is a window into a vanished world.
The book is more than a gallery, though. For many aspiring dinosaur artists, the artist interviews make this book an essential resource. Each artist describes their process, preferred materials, whether digital or more traditional, and how they fill out creatures that we often only know from bones. Many of the questions asked to the artists are consistent from one interview to the next, which easily contrasts the styles and personalities of each. While Gregory S. Paul‘s answers are short and curt, the interviews with Douglas Henderson and Luis Rey feel warmer and more conversational. Together, the lavish art and interviews will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of great paleoartists.
But there’s another reason why Dinosaur Art is an essential book for any dinosaur fan. The collection is a printed milestone of what we currently understand about dinosaur lives, and will act as a baseline as our knowledge of prehistoric life changes. Artists have been altering their work and racing to keep up with the latest discoveries for well over a century; that trend will almost certainly continue. As we discover new dinosaurs and investigate the biology of those we already know, dinosaur art will continue to evolve.
Dinosaur Art is set to debut on September 4, 2012.
September 24, 2010
In order to understand the ecology of any environment, past or present, you must be able to change the scale of your perspective. Large animals are readily apparent, but what about the interactions between the plants they eat, the insects on those plants, the pollen on those insects, the many microorganisms in the habitat and so on? It is practically impossible to keep all these parts of an ecosystem in mind at once, but if we alter the scale of our perspective, we can better appreciate a greater array of interactions that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Artist John Conway has just created a stunning example of the nested levels of interactions between organisms in a new video. The scene is of prehistoric China’s famous 133-million to 120-million-year-old Jehol biota. At first only the dinosaur Jinzhousaurus and a pair of the pterosaur Jeholopterus can be easily seen, but as the camera zooms in the wasp Tanychora beipioensis comes into view, and it is covered with the pollen grains Protoconiferous funarius. The painting is an amazing reminder that there was much more to prehistoric ecosystems than dinosaurs and the plants they ate, but how did Conway create it? In an interview with paleontologist David Hone on the Archosaur Musings blog, Conway briefly explained the method and motivation behind the piece:
It’s a series of paintings done in Photoshop at successively smaller scales, then stitched together and animated in After Effects.
I was looking for a way to get across the sheer breadth of scale in the fossil record, from dinosaurs to pollen in this case. I was also looking for a way to make picture of a biota without having to do a “menagerie” painting, which is otherwise a necessary evil if you want to get a lot of animals in the one scene.