Wednesday 17 July 2013

The Golden Age of Palaeoart?

Polacanthus foxii, a Lower Cretaceous ankylosaur from the Wealden of southern Britain, trying to shake some tiny birds off his nose as he strolls around a knoll of horsetails. Prints of this image are available.
It's a bad time for many industries, communities and institutions at present. Economies have crashed around the world, money for scientific research and artistic projects is at an all time low, education and human rights are being challenged by extreme social movements and the global biosphere is in crisis. To make matters worse, there's not even anything good on TV to take our minds off it all. But all is not lost. At least one institution, and likely one that folks reading this will care about a lot, is thriving. Indeed, it may be a veritable Golden Age for this industry, creatively at least, and there's no sign this boom period is going to end soon. I'm talking, of course, about palaeoart.

The recent history of palaeoart has been pretty interesting. We've seen the publication of several new books which are, for various reasons, likely to be considered seminal palaeoartistic works in years to come. New philosophies to palaeoart have emerged, and, all the while, the internet palaeoart community continues to grow and evolve. It's not only these developments which have helped palaeoart blossom particularly brightly in recent years, however. The advancement of new technologies, as well changes to academic publishing models, have also help usher in this wave of palaeoartistic splendidness. Some of these developments may sound a little humdrum, and some may be so obvious that we've not really sat to think about them before, but they may well make today one of the best times ever to be practising the art of reconstructing extinct organisms.

The Future, now!, and what it means for palaeoart
We'll start at the most fundamental end of palaeoart procedure: acquiring reference material. This has long been a problem for palaeoartists. Because palaeoart has an obvious firm rooting in palaeontological science, no self-respecting palaeoartist begins their work without developing an understanding of the anatomy of their target species. This typically involves working from scientific texts which have been, classically, hidden away behind publisher paywalls, unavailable to anyone without access to a university library, an online subscription to their services, or unwilling to part with obscenely-large sums of money for a single pdf download. There have always been ways around this - emailing authors, asking connected friends for photocopies or pdfs - but there's still an initial barrier to hurdle before work is even started.

The sign of better times. From Wikimedia Commons.
Happily, these walls are starting to crumble. The Open Access movement, which makes scientific literature available free to everyone, everywhere, has taken the academic world by storm, and even the greediest publishers are being forced to make their archived material more readily available. The battle for entirely free scientific literature is not yet over, but its victories are already making the life of palaeoartists far easier: high-quality reference material is increasingly often only a click away. It's not just the availability of literature which is a boon, either. New, online-only journals have thrown aside pesky limitations on figure numbers and image quality, permitting publication of numerous, top-quality illustrations for reference. Sometimes, we even get spinny-rotatey movies of CT scans to work from, showing anatomies in almost any view we could desire. As a bonus, the digital format of this information makes it easy to zoom up to tiny details which would be lost in print publications, allows for easily compiling our own anatomical reference sheets, and makes tracing anatomies for skeletal reconstructions infinitely easier than it's been in the past.

It's not just scientific papers that are an increasingly accessible resource, either. Dedicated websites committed to archiving the anatomical information craved by palaeoartists are becoming more plentiful. Sites like Digimorph, the Witmerlab pages, and the Bird Skull Collection are full of detailed graphics of animal anatomy of both extinct and modern species, and they're entirely free to access. Even Wikipedia is doing a fairly good job at providing references for palaeoartists. The excellent image of the sacral shield of Polacanthus, below, was sourced from the Wikipedia entry for that species for use the reconstructions adorning this post, for instance, and there's a lot more where that came from. Add this the increasing wealth of information scientists are putting online through blogs, podcasts, media releases and Youtube channels, and palaeoartists are on considerably better ground for finding reference material than we were even a decade ago.

 Woodward's 1881 depiction of the Polacanthus foxii sacral shield. From Wikipedia.
By palaeoartists, for palaeoartists
It's not only the scientific community that's feeding the blooming palaeoart scene. Several authors, many of them world-class palaeoartists themselves, have recently been producing easily-accessed works which are almost solely designed as references for fellow palaeoartists. I'm referring, of course, to the digital and printed works of the likes of Gregory Paul, Scott Hartman, Jaime Headden, Mike Hanson, and others. These chaps have published extensive libraries of anatomical orthographics for numerous fossil species, made suggestions about the most appropriate ways to reconstruct extinct anatomies, and generally helped artists transition fossil bones to restored animals significantly in recent years. (Note that a lot of Paul's guidance in this area pre-dates the Internet, and has mostly been published in books and magazines. Pdf versions of these articles, including his seminal 'rigorous guide' to dinosaur reconstruction from 1987, are available from his website). Matthew Martyniuk has also been contributing to this area recently, his excellent guide to Mesozoic birds (Martyniuk 2012)* and website detailing approaches to reconstructing avialans and their immediate ancestors. Elsewhere, I made a stab at providing a few helpful pointers to reconstructing pterosaurs in my own book, with some text and graphics specifically targeted at palaeoartists (Witton 2013). Even non-artists, like the guys behind Tetrapod Zoology and SV:POW!, are getting in on the act, regularly commenting on the possible life appearance of their extinct subjects and providing constructive criticism on certain bits of palaeoart.

The books, imagery and accessible discussions of these individuals will almost certainly inform palaeoartists for years to come. In particular, Paul's (2010) Field Guide to Dinosaurs is probably the most comprehensive collection of dinosaur skeletal reconstructions in a single volume, ever, and is of obvious utility for the high numbers of palaeoartists interested in Mesozoic dinosaurs. Pushing Paul (2010) as a key reference is, of course, complicated by Paul's insistence that his orthographics are not to be used as reference material by other artists. I must admit to finding this request a little odd and I suspect it's mostly falling on deaf ears. Still, however you want to use it, Paul's book, and other recently published resources like it, are invaluable resources for palaeoartists, and make it easier than ever for everyone to get basic anatomical data for their subject matter.

Taking it to strange new places
Is there any reason to think our conveyance of palaeontological subjects has improved in recent years? This is very much a matter of opinion, but I think it has, for some species at least. I've got to stress that this isn't because modern artists are more talented than their forebears. It's because modern palaeoartists seem to have finally got a handle on the rather dramatic new ideas and data that have coming our way for the last few decades, which has helped make newer depictions of certain species a little more convincing than those that came before. For instance, we've been bombarded with the discoveries of feathers on numerous type of non-avian dinosaurs, new considerations of soft-tissue masses (e.g. pterosaur limb musculature, dinosaur caudofemoralis mass) and novel ideas on the locomotory habits and postures of many species. That's a lot to take in and regurgitate into an image. It's not only changing scientific opinions which have altered the way we restore the ancient world, either. Radical shifts in palaeoartistic culture have also occurred, such as the well documented (including here) move away from overly conservative and 'shrink-wrapped' depictions of fossil species. It's been a changeable and dynamic few decades for palaeoartists, and I think it's understandable that it's taken a little time to work out what all this new information and philosophical changes equate to in artwork.
Perceptions of pterosaurs have changed a lot in recent years. The thin, lanky azhdarchid on the left didn't look odd in 2006, but looks positively anorexic compared to more recent reconstructions (right, from Witton 2013).
The upshot of this, in my opinion at least, is reconstructions of several species - including well-known taxa - have only started to appear in the last few years. This particularly applies to animals like maniraptoran dinosaurs and pterosaurs, species which have been classically portrayed rather outlandishly because of their unusual anatomy and some outlandish approaches to their depiction (Slasher Poses, I'm looking at you). I'm astounded at the convincingness of some of Matt Martyniuk's reconstructions in his Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds, for instance. His oviraptorosaurs look like elegant creatures painted from life, instead of the incredibly goofy forms we're more familiar with. The same applies to Emily Wolloughby's bouncy, eutherian-chasing Velociraptor, John Conway's famous squatting Therizinosaurus and many others. These animals make a lot more sense to look at now now, as do a lot of other restored ancient creatures. My feeling, at least, is that these very recent interpretations of these animals are closer to reality than anything we've seen before, and that can only be a good thing.

As an added bonus, an almost postmodern approach to palaeoart has emerged (crystallised, of course, in All Yesterdays [Conway et al. 2012]), which helps avoid the many tropes and clich├ęd artwork we see again and again. The result is that modern palaeoart may not only be more accurate to life, but is more interesting to look at. I almost get the feeling that there's greater confidence in palaeoart than there used to be. Because we know more about the animals, more about the most convincing ways to depict them, and more about our own collective foibles, palaeoart seems to be moving confidently into new and interesting areas. Again, I stress that I'm not downplaying the quality or importance of other artists and previous work - as with any artform, palaeoart is a product of its history - but it feels that a lot of modern palaeoart is trying hard to break into new territory. And that's great.

Being seen and heard
Of course, all of this work would be for nothing if it weren't seen. As a child living in the pre-Internet age, the only way I'd see new palaeoart was though purchasing new books, or sometimes in magazines and newspapers. New bits of artwork were rare, important events. The situation nowadays couldn't be more different. Most palaeoartists have online galleries or blogs (or both), and they post new artwork to Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. We don't just see new press release artwork because it's been a slow news day: if a new bit of artwork is released, there's a good chance we'll see it. What's more, the artists themselves are no longer simply represented by squiggled names in the corner of an image: social media allows them to introduce and comment on their work. While most of this is happening online, it does, on occasion, still happen in print: see Dinosaur Art: The World's Greatest Palaeoart (White 2012), and Douglas Henderson's new book detailing his early work and inspirations (here) for examples. I think this is a terrific change from simply waiting for new books to be released. There's a much greater sense of community, greater familiarity with each other's work, and very liberal exchange of ideas.

A closer look at the Polacanthus from up top. He's nothing to do with anything here, just livening up the post.
The Internet has also revealed how much terrific artwork is being done by up-and-coming artists. The only palaeoart we routinely saw in the 90s was that of a few masters: Henderson, Hallett, Sibbick, Paul and so forth. Nowadays, we know of have a much broader range of individuals producing art at very high levels. The growing number of palaeoartists seems to have ruffled a few feathers among some established profressionals who have found a lot of their work being outsourced to others (see this thread on the Dinosaur Mailing List) but, on reflection, I think growth in the palaeoart community is inevitable. Greater availability of palaeontological information, the rise of the online palaeontological community, the increasing availability of palaeoartistic guidance, the affordability of digital painting setups and the ease of uploading content online are all contributing factors here. This does mean greater dispersal of the available work among more individuals, but I'm not sure there's much we can do about that.

Besides, this greater range of artists has to be a good thing, and not just because it we get to see more palaeoart. It also allows for a wider range of styles and media than we're used to. Most palaeoart I remember from my childhood was attempting to rival photographs in detail, but a lot of modern work offers more stylised - more artistic, even - interpretations of ancient life. This goes hand-in-hand with a range of media being used. Modern palaeoart is not only being produced by traditional painting and sculpture, but also by compositing photographs, 3D digital modelling, digital painting, vector art and combinations thereof. It's great seeing how these diverse media bring ancient worlds to life in different hands, and makes working within the palaeoart community a generally more interesting and inspirational place.

On top of that, the palaeoart community itself is proving to be an active and interesting one, with events like the open source Life Galleries of ArtEvolved (sadly, these galleries are coming to an end soon after a 4 year run), palaeoart competitions at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs and from the All Yesterdays chaps, and even pooling resources to generate it's own independent products. And this doesn't even scratch the surface of palaeoart coverage and events in social media, not the mention the palaeoartist meetings and gatherings that now frequently happen at conferences. We only have to look to the rapid uptake and discussion of All Yesterdays as a good example of how lively and active the online palaeoart community is. How successful would that project have been without the online palaeoart community?

So there you have it
And that's why, all told, I think we're living in a 'Golden Age' of palaeoart. There's more of it, the artwork we have is generally better informed because of improved access to reference material and guidance from experts, we've (finally) got a a handle on ways to reconstruct some stranger ancient species and, to boot, developed a wide, friendly community of excellent artists. It's a good time to be a palaeoartist, then, and long may that continue.

  • Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. and Naish, D. 2012. All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books.
  • Martyniuk, 2012. A Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and Other Winged Dinosaurs. Pan Aves.
  • Paul, G. S. 1987. The science and art of restoring the life appearance of dinosaurs and their relatives – a rigorous how-to guide. In Czerkas, S. J. and Olson, E. C. (eds) Dinosaurs Past and Present Vol. II. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press, pp. 4-49.
  • Paul, G. S. 2010. The Princeton field guide to dinosaurs. Princeton University Press.
  • White, S. 2012. Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart. Titan Books, London.
  • Witton, M. P. 2013. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. Princeton University Press.


  1. An interesting take on it all.

    Overall I agree with you. There really has never been a time quite like this for the amount of palaeo-art being produced.

    However I find like many other areas of life, the economic times have hit palaeo-art in a predictable way. There is no money in it, and yet a huge surplus of eager artists.

    I was curious what you yourself as a "professional" see in the field (I use quotes as I know you do the art on the side of research. Honestly I think you're almost as close as one comes to being a pro palaeo-artist these days), as far as creators seeing their work used "officially". Whether it be in a paid gig or not.

    Me, I've lost interest almost altogether in the field sadly (a big part of why the ART Evolved galleries are dying... though our participation has been plummeting for past 1.5 years, which hasn't helped inspire me either).

    I have been trying rather unsuccessfully to volunteer my services to various researchers, and been continually disappointed by being told nice things to my face and than some form of shaft or another awaits me down the road. Whether it simply be not returning my emails (a simple not interested anymore would have been nice), to being yanked off one reconstruction at the last minute when the funds were secured for a pro (while I get I'm not a pro, it was not done in a remotely polite way, considering I was a BLEEPING volunteer).

    Part of me is sad, but part of me isn't (I've found a few niches in the board game industry that pay a little bit. Sure it ain't paying the bills, but it is nice to get some actual recognition for my art).

    I wonder if this current golden age with too many hopefuls and not enough opportunities will see the good times snuffed out.

    1. Hi Craig,

      That's not good news that you're becoming disenchanted with palaeoart. I know what you're saying about the numbers of hopeful artists trying to 'make it big', about the lack of roles working directly alongside researchers and so forth. It also sucks that you've been booted off projects after being involved as a volunteer in favour of someone else.

      I guess my response to these issues - which affect me as much as anyone else - is that I don't worry about them. It sounds selfish to say it, but I primarily paint for my own enjoyment. I render my images and post them online, and the essays that go with them, because I enjoy creating them, and nothing more. I try to create content that I like, and that I think other people will like, and, yeah, it is nice when people respond positively to my work. But I know the overwhelming majority of my work will not see life beyond my websites, and I've learned the hard way that there's not enough interest for commissions or for reproduction rights to make a serious play for finances or prestige. I'm well aware that my artistic skills are below those of the Martin's, Nicholls' and Csotonyi's of the world, and I understand why they (and others) are the current chaps of choice for many palaeoart projects. That's not to say I don't get any money or recognition from my artwork, but they're a bonus, not the outright goal.

      This isn't meant to sound defeatist or pessimistic: it's meant to be liberating. I'm happy enough just doing what I'm doing now, with no pressures or motivations other than my own enjoyment and any positive engagement I can bring to others. That's not a particularly deep or meaningful statement on what I see in the field of palaeoart, but that's all there is to it!

    2. @Craig Dylke

      Honestly, I feel ya man. What you described is basically my life story, career-wise (not that I'm trying to be a paleoartist, but still). However, if there's any chance of doing what you love for a living, then I hope you keep trying. I know I will.

    3. Thanks for the reply Dr. Witton,

      I understand exactly what you are saying, and don't see a single bit of selfishness in your response ;P

      I guess I'm just at the point where to find palaeo-art fun I need some constructive outlet for my work. Without that I might as well be making silly fantastic stuff like spaceships or Kaiju monsters.

    4. Hadiaz- Sorry to hear you're having the same rotten luck as me :(

      Well to make perfect clear about myself, I have no aspirations or delusions of making a living as an artist of any sort. It is a hobby for me.

  2. Very good post! I agree with your conclusion. Last February I have posted a similar palaeoart-themed piece, entitled "A 'Palaeoartistic Enlightenment': Dinosaurs as (Deconstructed) Scientific Iconography" [].
    Now that your new book is finally out I think it's time to add another post to my palaeoart series. I had the opportunity to leaf through a copy of "Pterosaurs" and I admit that the combination of your writing talent plus your amazing artistic skills is spectacular (SPOILER_ not to mention the caption chosen for the taking off Quetzalcoatlus near the end of the book: best palaeontological breach of the fourth wall ever!! _SPOILER)

  3. To be fair, I've not yet been convinced it's possible to illustrate Incisivosaurus in a wholly non-goofy way.

    Great post! I really love the composition on that Polacanthus painting, too. It definitely feels like a realistic and organic scene, and is a great demonstration of where paleoart is, and where it's going.

    I was thinking recently about how we're not only in the golden age of paleoart in general, but we're also (by my own perception, anyway) at the tail-end of the era of hand-painted paleoart (both digital and traditional). The discipline seems to be moving slowly but inexorably toward the realm of CGI and photomanipulation, and I wonder if in another few decades there will still be a niche for people like me who have no interest (or ability) in that type of illustration.

    1. Thanks for the nice words, Emily. I agree that this Polacanthus painting is definitely a product of it's time.

      I know what you mean about the decline of hand-painted art, particularly with respect to traditional media. I imagine (or at least, hope) it won't ever fully disappear. It's methodological simplicity and immediacy are hard to replace, and I imagine it's always going to have a place in all art. That said, perhaps 'professional' palaeoart gigs will move further and further into CGI and photograph manipulation because, try as hand-painters might, they're much more effective ways of producing photo-real imagery. Because photo-real palaeoart seems to be more in demand than anything else, traditional-old hand painters like us may be out of a job (er, moreso) in future years.

    2. Emily, I might be tempted to prove the non-goofy Incisivosaurus can be done, but it takes a bit of a leap of faith (refer to my discussions on extraoral tissues in exteinct vertebrates). This would be the same thing that I did for Masiakasaurus knopfleri.

    3. "I've not yet been convinced it's possible to illustrate Incisivosaurus in a wholly non-goofy way."

      I'm going to save this challenge for a rainy day.

    4. I have answered this challenge as of now. But, I will wait to reveal it as I need to finish a project that links to it tangentially. I'll link back to here when it's ready.

  4. As a Paleoartist myself, I agree! Looking forward to another great 100 years of paleoart!

  5. Mike from Ottawa18 July 2013 at 06:29

    On the CGI/photorealistic aspect, photography has been around for quite a while it has not entirely eliminated the demand for animal paintings (and I'm not referring only to the neontological equivalent of dromaeosaurs playing poker) so there is some hope there for the paleopainters.

    I think Pterosaurs would have been a lesser book if it were done in CGI. It only just occurred to me that the often breezy writing style (which I enjoy for its own sake) works better with paintings than it would have with photorealistic images.

    And, as a consumer rather than creator, I don't know whether this is the golden age for paleoartists, but it is certainly the golden age of paleoart and I offer my thanks to all of you who have made it so.

    1. Mike from Ottawa23 July 2013 at 21:25

      Replying to my own comment because I hadn't mentioned that making Polacanthus cute is quite a feat, nicely achieved as we've all had the experience of something landing on our nose when we don't have a hand available to shoo it away.

  6. Mark, I think you are absolutely right that we are entering the golden age of paleo art. It is truly amazing to look around the web at images of ancient creatures popping up all over, running the gamut from scholarly presentations to works of extreme fancy. You have crossed that range yourself, and I think the fanciful side is quite appealing. Sometimes the best insights about vanished creatures come from deep in the imagination of the artist. In my own humble, semi-skilled artistic way, I have tried to join in with my Dinosaur Tales stories. In the context of what you have said here, consider the following. Suppose some paleo outsider comes up with an entirely new insight and makes it available to the public as, say, an ebook. This can serve as a means of putting ideas and images out to the world with publication date, author credit, and searchable content. Sure, it's not peer reviewed -- or wait -- is it? Once a large body of web wanderers have encountered an idea or image and had their say as to its value or lack thereof, perhaps the peer review process has been met. Anyway, I have embarked on a small campaign of my own. Tales like "Saving Pachyrhinosaurus," showing a wooly version of the beast, or "Riding Quetzalcoatlus" describing Quetzi mating dances on forelimbs only, several odd gaits they may have used, and brooding and feeding behavior of adults. These ideas cannot be published in the orthodox scientific literature, but they are now published nonetheless. You are absoulutely right, Mark, that a golden age is here. Just wait till you see what I'm about to publish concerning Alamosaurus!

  7. P.S. Great Polacanthus image. Almost seems to be thinking, "Oh, goody! The mid-and high-level browsers have left a little treat for me down here in the low-browser zone!

  8. I hate to seem rude, but I don't think I'm that influential. This may seem self-effacing of me, but I've not noticed that my work comes cited up a lot save for maybe the occasional skeletal diagram, and that is quickly being overshadowed by Scott's and Greg's far superior work. As for my life-reconstructions, well, they are always hypothetical things, and just art, and they certainly don't seem to get cited. I'd hate to say this, but I don't think my name belongs on this list.

  9. @Jaime: you deserve the praise. Deal. :-)

    @Mark: Groovy! I do have a few points to add:
    One of the main reasons these are golden times, methinks, is that working scientists are generating graphics. And no, I'm not referring to artist-scientists such as yourself, but the usage of computer visualization technologies for research that create hot eye candy in the process (think Hutchinson, Mallison, etc.). I think this has a huge effect, as it communicates direct research visually and efficiently to a wide audience.

    Quote: "Even non-artists, like the guys behind Tetrapod Zoology" Darren does do a lot of visuals... I've always thought of him as a scientist-artist. He tends to shy away from perspective difficulties, but then, so does Paul. It would be interesting to hear what he thinks himself, but I thoroughly enjoy his book, for the illustrations as much as the writing.

  10. Many artists depict dinosaurs as skinny.I have read a study where body fat percentage is lesser than previously thought.Nonetheless,Archosaurs were probably active with a very efficient metabolism and storing fat.

    I love the colour composition,this is a bright Cretaceous landscape.The flower revolution is on the way !