Friday, 30 May 2014

Book review: The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi, Csotonyi and White 2014

From Titan Books.
The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi: Dinosaurs, Sabretooths and Beyond (Csotonyi and White 2014) is another palaeoart-focused book from Titan Books, who brought us the acclaimed Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart two years ago (White 2012). Anyone familiar with this book will immediately note the very similar format and high production quality in this recent Titan release. Although slightly smaller than Dinosaur Art, this will - again - leave readers wondering how the extremely affordable price (£25) covers production costs. Csotonyi was, of course, one of the artists featured in Dinosaur Art but, this time, is entirely running the show. Fans of his work will have little doubt that he can carry an entire book by himself. For the last decade Csotonyi has been establishing himself as one of the world’s premier palaeoartists, illustrating countless press releases, books, articles and museum walls with intricate paintings or digitally-manipulated photograph composites. His work is in such demand that he is one of the few individuals globally who can make a living out of palaeoart, a status which is testament to the quality of his work.

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.
Right, big-picture stuff out of the way now: what of the book itself? At its most basic level, The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi is effectively an expanded version of his chapter from Dinosaur Art, juxtaposing imagery alongside an interview about Csotonyi’s art, influences and background. The interview, confined to the first 23 of the 156 pages, features intelligent questions and the interesting responses from the artist. Csotonyi’s passion for art and science are clear even before his images are displayed in earnest, as is the amount of work required to produce the large, ultra-high-quality imagery he is famous for. He leaves no doubt that many personal sacrifices are required to work as one of the world’s leading palaeoartists. This section also contains rarely-seen early works and non-palaeontological artwork, including some dedicated to astronomy. Some of the interview responses and other text features words which may be unfamiliar to lay audiences, but a glossary is provided to help readers navigate these terms.

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.
Csotonyi himself gives some works longer explanations about the processes involved in the reconstruction. These often highlight works with unusual compositions or viewpoints (such as the excellent ‘fish-eye’ sauropod view) and describes the way each piece was executed, often with alongside draft versions. These provide some insights into his process and will doubtlessly be useful to budding artists. My personal take-home message from these is the exhaustive consideration and research required to understand not only fossil animals, but to also reproduce realistic landscapes and lighting, particularly when odd perspectives and water are involved.

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.
My favourite images in the book are digital paintings (below), such as the dancing Guanlong, the mothering polycotylid and the ceratopsid portrait gallery on pages 102-103. Not only do these show the trademark Csotonyi attention to detail but they’re wonderfully lit and composed: they feel more ‘of a scene’ than the photo composites. A neat touch is that alternative versions of well-known paintings are sometimes included. I actually prefer the near greyscale version of the Acheroraptor press release image on page 43 to the original, its dusky palate and the removal of the mammal from the hero animal’s mouth creating an entirely different tone to the more familiar version.

Digitally painted Brachiosaurus by Julius Csotonyi, from The Palaeoart of Julius Csotonyi. Image from here.
Of course, scientific accuracy is also essential for palaeoartworks to be considered successful. In this respect, the book also delivers. Thoroughly modern reconstructions of fossil subjects are presented: extensively feathered maniraptorans, diverse integuments in other dinosaurs, correctly orientated limbs and so on. In light of All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2013), Csotonyi’s approach to extinct animal reconstruction may be considered conservative - there are no outlandish, speculative audacities here in terms of appearance or behaviour. Most of the depicted animal interactions are predatory, and the soft-tissues of the reconstructed species are not especially elaborate. Perhaps this is because nearly all of the artworks were commissioned by researchers and museums, clients who tend to favour safer, more conservative palaeoartworks. We should not lose sight of how progressive even ‘conservative’ modern palaeoart actually is. Many sights now familiar to us would have been considered heretical just a few years ago: Csotonyi shows several tyrannosaurs with variable amounts of feathering in the book with little fanfare, for instance. For dinosaurs at least, it’s becoming harder to produce wholly shocking palaeoart without unreasonably bending palaeontological science or speculating wildly. While Csotonyi’s book may lack the accessory frills, wattles and elaborate behaviours of some modern palaeoart, it acts as a fantastic milestone for how far palaeontology and palaeoart has moved in recent years. Moreover, I do not want to give the impression that the images are not interesting or novel: fishing Dimetrodon (above), Polycotylus nuzzling its offspring to the water surface to breathe and reptiles swimming between the dredging fronds of rafting crinoids are just some thought-provoking Csotonyian innovations.

The unkillable skim-feeding hypothesis lives on. Art by Julius Csotonyi, from The Palaeoart of Julius Csotonyi. Image from here.
I do have a few issues with some science behind the artwork. I’m told that an unfortunate misunderstanding resulted in the extensive discussion of Rhamphorhynchus skim-feeding on pages 136-139 (Hone, pers. comm. 2014; above. See the comment from Julius below for the sull story). This was, in fact, meant to reflect dip-feeding or surface-gleaning. Folks who keep up with pterosaur research will know that skim-feeding habits in flying reptiles has been looked into several times, consistently found problematic (e.g. Chatterjee and Templin 2004; Humphries et al. 2007; Witton and Naish 2008, 2013), and widely publicised. It’s a surprise and a shame, then, that this idea made it into the book without someone noticing, and particularly so because the science elsewhere is pretty tight. I also wonder if some of the photo composite crocodyliforms are shown with entirely accurate scute patterns, as most seem to have been taken from modern crocodylians – many Mesozoic crocs had very different, often simpler scute morphologies. And while we’re moaning, I do wonder if some more complex images would have benefited from small ‘key’ illustrations demonstrating the position of each animal. This is not only because the animals can be hard to spot in the complex, detailed scenes on offer (this is not meant as a slight – remember that many of the more complex images are intended to be hundreds of times larger on museum walls), but because linking a list of unfamiliar names to specific creatures can be difficult. Individuals intimately familiar with genera of all major vertebrate groups should be OK (they exist, honest), but I suspect they will only make up a fraction of this books audience.

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.

References

  • 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).

13 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this insightful review, Mark! I very much welcome and appreciate all the constructive comments on it, and I feel I should clarify something in order to exonerate Dave Hone. Regarding the Rhamphorhynchus/squid image, the error was actually mine, as Dave had in fact made it very clear that he was referring to gleaning (we even use the term gleaning in the book text). In fact, the lower jaw of the animal is meant to have just entered the water prior to grabbing the squid, resulting in a short rooster tail from the high speed pass. The error occurred when I, being relatively less familiar with modern skimmers per se, had not realized the distinction between the terms gleaning and skimming, and as I was wrapping up the text for this part of the book, I added the text "a 'gleaning' feeding strategy, similar to modern skimmers", which is the source from which the misunderstanding stemmed. Dave did propose gleaning, but I thought that skimmers gleaned as well. Anyway, I thought it might be helpful to have this information. Thanks again!

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    1. Thanks Julius, and congratulations on the book: you should feel really chuffed with the finished product. I'm going to direct readers to this comment for the full story on the skim-feeding bit.

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    2. Thanks so much, Mark! I appreciate it, and wanted to make sure it was clear where the fault lay. :-) Yes, it's very exciting to have the book out, and once again, thanks for the excellent review. By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed your recent Pterosaurs book as well!

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    3. I must admit to being quite chuffed with the nod Pterosaurs next to the re-posed launching Dimorphodon: glad you liked it!

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    4. I did very much enjoy seeing the dynamic postures that you've introduced with your pterosaur depictions, and I'm happy to promote the excellent piece of beautifully illustrated writing that Pterosaurs is!

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  2. After having seen the book in person, I’m very conflicted about whether to add Csotonyi’s new book to “My Serious Dino Books” ( http://www.amazon.com/lm/R2H4F8H299AK8M/?_encoding=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&linkCode=ur2&tag=dinoshop-20 ). I really want to, but there are a few things that make me unsure.

    1stly, I’m unsure of whether there’s enough scientific commentary to make the book a worthwhile read. Don’t get me wrong as paleoart is very important to me (Besides being a visual learner who needs visual aids, I love seeing fleshed-out dinos interacting w/their environments like living animals). However, the text is just as important, especially when it puts the paleoart into a scientific context.

    2ndly, a lot of the text is ridiculously tiny, which makes me unsure of whether reading the book will be too much trouble. Seriously, whoever’s idea it was to make the text that tiny should be punched in both eyes (No offense to Csotonyi; I know it wasn't his fault).

    3rdly, I’m unsure about the foldouts, which make it easier to damage the book. Maybe they wouldn’t be an issue if I didn’t have to open them to read some of the ridiculously tiny text.

    AFAIK, Lanzendorf’s “Dinosaur Imagery” is still the overall best paleoart book.

    Mark Witton: "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"

    You see, if that had been the case, I probably wouldn't be conflicted.

    -Hadiaz

    P.S. If this comment looks familiar, it's b/c I've been sharing my concerns w/other reviewers of Csotonyi’s new book in hopes of resolving my conflict.

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    1. Hi Hadiaz,

      I'm not sure I'm with you on some of the problems here. Firstly, if the text was larger, wouldn't there be less space for the artwork, which is primarily what this book is about? I appreciate that we all have preferences for text size of course, but I didn't feel it was smaller than necessary, and I think the art has to take priority in a project like this.

      On the foldouts: why do these make the book easy to damage? The paper quality is good so it won't flop about or crease easily. I can't see why this is a problem so long as owners are careful, as I expect people are with any large, glossy art book. The alternative, of course, would have been to shrink the mural images to much smaller sizes or substantially crop them, neither of which is a better idea than the fold outs.

      On Cotonyi's volume vs. Lazendorf: does one book being 'better' really matter? Despite sharing a theme, they're quite different products (i.e. a solo outing vs. a compilation of artist's work). My thought on ranking these things is, well, that we shouldn't be ranking them, instead purchasing them for their own merits. The Csotonyi and White book offers a lot of high quality content which is not available anywhere else, and accessing that is the best reason to buy it, irrespective of whether it's the best palaeoart book out there.

      Finally, on scientific content: there is a lot of good stuff in here. It's probably on par with something like All Yesterdays in this regard. But ultimately, this is an art book with science, not the other way around. I will point out, however, that the science in this book is a lot more contemporary than many of the books on your Amazon list, many of which are now decades out of date.

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    2. Many thanks for getting back to me. Your reply does help some

      "Firstly, if the text was larger, wouldn't there be less space for the artwork, which is primarily what this book is about? I appreciate that we all have preferences for text size of course, but I didn't feel it was smaller than necessary, and I think the art has to take priority in a project like this."

      I get what you're saying. To be fair, though, the text could've been a bit bigger, given how much white space there was on the pages w/text.

      "The paper quality is good so it won't flop about or crease easily."

      Fair enough. I guess being obsessive compulsive (among other things), I tend to worry about seemingly little things like that.

      "On Cotonyi's volume vs. Lazendorf: does one book being 'better' really matter?"

      Again, fair enough. In retrospect, it isn't really fair to compare 2 different books unless they actually claim to do the same thing better than other books.

      "Finally, on scientific content: there is a lot of good stuff in here. It's probably on par with something like All Yesterdays in this regard. But ultimately, this is an art book with science, not the other way around."

      Again, that does help some. I figured that maybe the text size threw me off in terms of how much scientific commentary there actually is.

      "I will point out, however, that the science in this book is a lot more contemporary than many of the books on your Amazon list, many of which are now decades out of date."

      To be fair, all dino books are outdated to some extent. Besides, you have to read the older stuff to appreciate the newer stuff.

      -Hadiaz

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  3. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Mark (and Julius for dropping by to clarify). If I hadn't already ordered this book I think you would've convinced me to do so. (I bought it together with a book on Pterosaurs by some fellow called Witton ;-) . Actually, it's the first Pterosaus-only book I've purchased since Wellnhofer's companion to the Normanpedia so I'm looking fwd to having something a bit more current in my library).

    I would've been happy to pay £25 for either but picked them up for less than £28 for both thru a seller on Amazon UK. Similar pricing was advertised on Amazon US. Just waiting for them to be delivered...

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    1. Glad to hear you've scooped up both books for very respectable prices! I'm glad that so many new palaeo books are very affordable even at their cover prices: I remember times when they were a lot more expensive.

      Hope you enjoy Pterosaurs!

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  4. "I hope that Csotonyi’s solo album sells well enough to kickstart a series of books featuring other artists."
    Says the palaeoartist... we all see what your going for... xD

    --Sean

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    1. "we all see what your going for... xD"

      I don't know what you mean at all [cough].

      More seriously, I imagine the most likely candidates for this potential series would be those in Dinosaur Art. I'd really like to see a whole book of Doug Henderson or John Conway work. Those chaps need more dedicated exposure.

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  5. Hello Mark,

    I was guided here by Scientific American that suggested your excellent book about pterosaurs and was guided by your blog again by this book. When I was young I was a dinosaur lover, and still am. I have a book on dinosaurs of the natural history museum still in possession. I have fond memories of Walking with Dinosaurs, in fact sometimes I watch it and I have the soundtrack downloaded to listen to it. The land before time was also something I enjoyed watching as a child.

    My fascination of dinosaurs has had a time of "brumation", but thanks to people like you it has become back alive again. I am 22 and have no connection to dinosaurs other than a burning desire to know. I think what you and your colleges do is worth doing. Some might not see the value in it, and that is okay, but I do. I think it gives us a better understanding of life and its future. Besides it is also has non-practical value, but that is still value.

    I hope we can continue to inspire people to care about dinosaurs, pterosaurs and palaeontology. I was disappointed by recent productions such as Dinosaur Revolution, Dinosaur Planet and Walking with Dinosaurs, but that could be a matter of taste and if it keeps dinosaurs in the picture than it pleases me.

    I am sure I will not be disappointed by this book, and that it is money well spend. What I see is a lot of devotion, devotion to create art that is both stunning, exciting and as scientifically accurate as possible. If that means the text is on the little side, I don't care.

    I want to thank you and Csotonyi for keeping dinosaurs and its fellow reptiles alive and awesome. I spend much time in bookstores, and it saddens me that it is filled with a lack of quality and I feel it is all the same - much words, so little meaning. There is of course little room for dinosaurs, pterosaurs and other animals of the distant past. I hope that the interest will return, if only a little.

    I will keep track of your blog and visit it once in a while. You know what I would like, an artsy paleo-art t-shirt. Something with balls and a bit of class - a nice jacket on top of it and my cargo pants and I can make dinosaurs look cool and trendy.

    So keep on going, you got yourself a worshiper.

    -Nick

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