|From Titan Books.|
Before we get into the review itself, I want to stress how much of a milestone this book is. Palaeoart and palaeoartists suffer a PR problem where artists are considered unimportant and interchangeable: individuals who are secondary to the scientists pushing palaeontology forward and the audience who – often superficially – experience their work. Titan Books showed that palaeoart could be tackled more seriously and respectfully with Dinosaur Art and are cementing this idea in dedicating a whole book to a leading palaeoartists. Csotonyi's position as a working palaeoartist with major publisher support is rather exclusive, but exactly the sort of treatment palaeoart needs. I hope that Csotonyi’s solo album sells well enough to kickstart a series of books featuring other artists. Intentionally or not, Julius’ artwork is a good place to start this hypothetical series: aesthetically pleasing, extremely high quality, and blending traditional palaeoart approaches with some more complex and radical compositions. As a means to test the market for these sort of books, Julius is one of the strongest candidates currently available.
|As an industy, palaeoart needs all the help it can get, starting with this logo.|
The real meat of the book is relatively text-light so as to provide maximum space for Csotonyi’s art – large format is the only way to appreciate the detail it contains. The art is roughly arranged in chronostratigraphic order, with Palaeoazoic, Mesozoic and Cainozoic subjects separated into different chapters. As usual within palaeoart, the bulk of the artworks depict Mesozoic dinosaurs, and theropods are particularly well represented. Each piece is accompanied by brief details of the composition and commissioners, and some featuring additional comments from scientists about the subject animals. These comments mostly complement Csotonyi’s talents or spin yarns about research associated with the depicted species and, I guess, are designed to boost the scientific content of the book. I do feel a trick has been missed here because none pass particular comment on the decisions made when reconstructing the animals. Seeing as a lot of Csotonyi's art is produced alongside consulting scientists, I’d like to know what input they had. Even the most tightly constrained reconstructions of a fossil animal requires a lot educated guesswork and speculation about palaeobiology and life appearance and - in my own experience at least - not all of this is left to the artist. After all, this is a primarily a book about scientific art, and it seems that these comments could be more insightful than discussions about fossil localities, chance discoveries, or another complement for Julius' artwork (meant with all due respect, of course, but we know he's good. That's why we bought the book!).
|A busy day in Permian Texas. Photo composite by Julius Csotonyi, from The Palaeoart of Julius Csotonyi. Image from here.|
On the art itself: Csotonyi’s images are created using a range of media, including traditional and digital painting, sketches and – most commonly – digital photographic manipulation. I’m going to come clean here and admit that I’m not enormously fond of photographic manipulation. Many such works often fall into palaeoart’s own variant of the ‘uncanny valley’ or, all too often, present oddly-proportioned, strangely posed creatures which have little in common with their known anatomy. Julius’ photo composites are easily among the best, if not the best, attempts at photo-realistic 2D palaeoart out there however, and present reasonably reconstructed animals at either photo-realistic quality, or within inches of it. Some images, particularly the more ambitious, crowded scenes (fans of ‘a busy day in deep time’-type images are well served here) do bear niggles which jar the illusion, such as animals appearing too sharply defined against the background. To a certain extent, this is unavoidable: photomanipulation is incredibly difficult to pull off even remotely well, and even Csotonyi’s lesser successes are still amazing efforts. There are no overused photographic elements, no blurred skin textures, no cloning of animals to create herds of the same individual. When the photomanipulation does work well – and it frequently does – the effects are nothing short of stunning (e.g. below). The image of the resting Edaphosaurus on page 33 could easily be mistaken for a genuine, beautifully shot photograph. As with Dinosaur Art, some panoramic scenes unfold to show enormous vistas stuffed with detail. Many of these fold-outs allow those of us with empty pockets our first detailed look at the many murals Julius has created for North American and Australian museums.
|Photo composite Acrotholus audeti and Neurankylus lithographicus by Julius Csotonyi, from The Palaeoart of Julius Csotonyi. Image from here.|
|Digitally painted Brachiosaurus by Julius Csotonyi, from The Palaeoart of Julius Csotonyi. Image from here.|
|The unkillable skim-feeding hypothesis lives on. Art by Julius Csotonyi, from The Palaeoart of Julius Csotonyi. Image from here.|
These are only minor issues in the grand scheme of things, however. The intelligence and quality of The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi makes it essential for anyone interested in palaeoart, as well as more general aficionados of palaeontology, natural history, or natural history art. I have no doubt that palaeoartists will be keeping a close eye on its success, and hoping that it presents the first of a wave of similar tomes from Titan Books. That’s all to come, though: for the time being, The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi cements Csotonyi’s status as a world leader among the current crop of palaeoartists, and this book will only further his success.
- Chatterjee, S., & Templin, R. J. (2004). Posture, locomotion, and paleoecology of pterosaurs (Vol. 376). Geological Society of America.
- Csotonyi, J. & White, S. (2014). The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi: Dinosaurs, Sabre Tooths and Beyond. Titan Books, London.
- Humphries, S., Bonser, R. H., Witton, M. P., & Martill, D. M. (2007). Did pterosaurs feed by skimming? Physical modelling and anatomical evaluation of an unusual feeding method. PLoS biology, 5(8), e204.
- White, S. (2012). Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart. Titan Books, London.
- Witton, M. P., & Naish, D. (2008). A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS One, 3(5), e2271.
- Witton, M. P., & Naish, D. 2013. Azhdarchid pterosaurs: water-trawling pelican mimics or" terrestrial stalkers"? Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. (In press).