|Polacanthus foxii, a Lower Cretaceous ankylosaur from southern Britain, trying to shake some tiny birds off his nose as he strolls around a knoll of horsetails.|
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.|
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.|
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).|
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 clichéd 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.|
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.