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Friday, 28 July 2017

Palaeoartist interview: Johan Egerkrans

Palaeoart has never been a particularly diverse artform. Since the early 1800s most palaeoartists have pursued art attempting to depict fossil animals in realistic ways, with stylistic variation mostly along the spectrum of how obvious our brush strokes and pencil lines are, and how much detail we add. In recent decades we've seen artists deepening their dedication to realism with hyperrealist palaeoart, artworks which look like they've been snapped by high-speed cameras with crisp focuses and ultra-high levels of detail.

But not all palaeoartists are taking this approach. Some take a step away from not only high levels of detail but also realism, producing palaeoart with a more stylised and even abstract bent. Though few in number, the growing roster of ‘stylised’ palaeoartists represent an exciting new frontier for palaeoart. In varying artworks along spectra other than tidiness and detailing, these artists are producing unconventional works recalling pop art, classic western animations, heraldic crests, perspectiveless Medieval art and more. Among the most fascinating aspects of these works is their capacity to maintain respect for scientific credibility even when producing stylised, non-realist art. The forms may be simple or sharply angular, the colours may be garish, but we can still tell what the subjects are, what they are doing, and get a sense of their anatomy.

...which brings us to Johan Egerkrans's Alla tiders dinosaurier. If you like stylised palaeoart, you should check out this book. 
Swedish artist Johan Egerkrans is part of this emerging group of unconventional palaeoartists. Emerging onto the online palaeoart scene only recently, his work has already generated a fanbase and widespread acclaim. It's easy to see the appeal of his creations. Distinctively angular, full of personality and recalling great works of American animation, his digital artworks emphasise and almost caricature the form of fossil animals without undue distortion of their form or disregarding fossil data. Attention to details, anatomy and colours make his work interesting to look at despite it's simplicity compared to traditional modern palaeoart. We're not just seeing generic cartoons of fossil animals, but highly stylised versions of contemporary, scientifically credible palaeoart, informed by a clear appreciation for modern wildlife and the natural world. Notice the pupil colour change between his adult and juvenile Microraptor (below), variable integuments on Gorgosaurus (above), fine attention to animal poses and behaviour, and so on. His use of traditional compositions and poses prevent his work becoming overbearing: in this regard, his work is less intrusive, and even perhaps less cartoony, than some artists employing ‘realistic’ animals in hyper-dynamic poses and compositions.

Egerkrans' parent and offspring Microraptor. Look past the stylisation and this is a pretty accurate take on Microraptor anatomy, right down to the iridescent black plumage. Note the pin feathers and dark pupil on the juvenile - very sensible speculations for juvenile maniraptorans. © Johan Egerkrans.
Each Egerkrans work radiates personality: his animals have real character, and it’s almost impossible not to imagine them taking part in animated vignettes. Several of his works have a strong sense of mischief and dark humour, another rarity among palaeoartworks. I’m particularly tickled by his scene of a capybara running away from terror bird Titanis (below): the bird has a mania that captures real birds at their most frantic and chaotic, while the drab mammal looks overwrought, panicked, but also like it’s going to write a strongly worded letter to the Daily Mail about all this. Comparisons of Egerkrans’ creations to stylised fossil animals rendered for the big screen are inevitable, and mostly leave us wondering what the heck everyone else is doing wrong. Hollywood, give this man a job!

Titanis and capybara star in Hilarious Scene of Violence. Capybara won an Oscar for its eyebrows. © Johan Egerkrans.
Johan was kind enough to send me a copy of his recent book, Alla tiders dinosaurier, which I thoroughly recommend you check out. There’s no English translation at the moment (one might happen at some point) but the artwork speaks volumes alone and the design and print quality is excellent - it's a nice book to have, even if you're unable to read the text. The follow up, Flygödlor och havsmonster, which focuses on marine reptiles and pterosaurs, is due out later this year. Both are published by B Wahlstroms, and can be purchased from Bokus and other Swedish book retailers (sorry, American readers, there are complications around shipping these books to the USA at the moment). You can check out the art of both books on Facebook, Artstation and Johan's blog. If you're Stockholm-based, you can also check out a dinosaur exhibition featuring the Alla tiders dinosaurier work, which is running until the end of September.

Earlier this month I asked Johan if he’d like to chat to me about his art, books and palaeoart philosophy, and he’s taken time out of his schedule to give the following interview. With thanks to him for taking time to respond to my questions, it’s time for me to stop gushing about his work and hand you over to the man himself…

MW. You’re quite new to the palaeoart scene, but have landed an instant fanbase with your highly distinctive artwork. Can you give us some insight into your artistic background and what brought you into restoring dinosaurs, pterosaurs and so on?

JE. Hi Mark! Thanks for having me on the show!

I started out as a concept artist and, like most people in that field it seems, I´ve nursed  a deeply rooted fascination for paleoart since... Well, forever I guess. At the age of four my dad gave me Burian´s seminal art book “Life Before Man” and that was it; I was hooked and filled countless A4 sheets with scribblings of dinosaurs, therapsids, pterosaurs and other extinct beasties. I´ve still got that same cherished tome in my bookshelf, worn and coming apart at the seams.

Fast forward to the early 2000´s when I got my first fulltime job as an illustrator concepting for a small computer game outfit called Idol here in my hometown Stockholm. There I did designs for monsters, robots, spaceships and stuff like that. A high point was when I got to draw a series of - listen to this - demonically possessed cyborg dinosaurs!  That´s about as awesomebro as things can get. Take that Michael Bay!

I was always had a talent for mimicking different art styles, which came in very handy at that job - one month you did a superhero game in a highly stylised Bruce Timm style, another month it was horror inspired by Clive Barker, Frazettaesque fantasy or something completely different. I really got to flex those versatility muscles in that environment.

Anyway, after a couple of years Idol went belly up, as small computer game outfits are wont to do. I became a freelance illustrator and found myself working more and more with children´s books. In 2013 Nordiska väsen/Vaesen was released - a book about creatures from Scandinavian folklore that I wrote and illustrated. That really was a watershed moment, as the book did rather well (still does - it's sold over 40.000 copies in Sweden alone so far). After that success I had a certain amount of freedom and one of the things I wanted to do was to go back to my paleoart roots in some fashion. The first such project was a children´s picture book called My first book of dinosaurs. It was originally intended to be a rather tongue-in-cheek affair and the initial pictures were intentionally tropey (large theropod roaring on cliff, cassowary Oviraptor). I did take care to stay off the beaten path though so, unusually for a book aimed at young children, there wasn't a T. rex or Triceratops in sight - I went with Giganotosaurus and Styracosaurus instead.

Mention the tropes, and they shall appear. Egerkrans' Smilodon bellowing off a cliff (or maybe suffering a major case of lockjaw). It's difficult not to see this as satirising the most traditional means of restoring sabre-toothed cats: the lower jaw stretched so far as to make its tissues near invisible, and the skull arcing upwards to attain more ferociousness. Image © Johan Egerkrans.
Pretty soon my science geek side kicked in - I did more and more research and realised I wanted the reconstructions to have a certain amount of scientific accuracy, even if the book was aimed at toddlers. The cartoony stylised style I had chosen for the book could be tweaked into some something more “serious” while still retaining the whimsy and charm of those first illustrations. My first book of dinosaurs was followed by a another one about Cenozoic beasts and by this time I had gotten wind of the All Yesterdays movement and had started following a bunch of paleoblogs (this one and Tet Zoo among them). This new wave of paleoart and the philosophy behind it appealed to me. My editor and I decided to do a “real” pop science book about dinosaurs which was released as Alla tiders dinosaurier ("Dinosaurs of All Ages") earlier this year. I´m currently racing towards the finish on the follow up about pterosaurs and Mesozoic marine reptiles.

MW. Strongly stylised palaeoart is rare, perhaps because we focus so rigidly on precision and scientific credibility in our reconstructions. Where do you draw the line between style and adherence to science, and are there cases where you’ve thought ‘screw science, this looks cooler!’

JE. My aim, in a way, is to do what Disney animators did in films like The Jungle Book or The Lion King. Now, Shere Khaan might not be realistic per se, but the design is informed by a deep understanding of tiger anatomy, and what tigers are like - their “essence” if you will, with the risk of sounding a tad pretentious. Thus Shere Khaan becomes the tigeriest tiger around as far as I´m concerned. My paleoart sort of tries to do something similar - only with extinct animals (though I´m nowhere near as talented as those old school Disney animators). To capture that “essence” you sometimes got to break the rules a bit. It´s a “know the rules to break the rules” kinda deal.

It´s a bit like caricatures come to think of it. People often find it easier to recognise a celebrity from a (well made) caricature than from a photo because the drawing exaggerates that person's distinguishing features. In a similar way stylisation allows me to focus on what’s distinctive about a certain species/genus and bring that up to front.

Parvicursor, from Alla tiders Dinosaurier, is a great example of Egerkrans' capacity to find the essential elements of form in an extinct animal and project them through a strong visual style. © Johan Egerkrans.
Another advantage is that it allows me to remain vague when we’re uncertain about some feature of an animal's anatomy. Take for instance the recent dispute whether tyrannosaurs had lips or croclike exposed teeth. The simplified style allows me to draw something in-between, should I so wish, and leave it open to interpretation. That doesn’t mean I do this all the time and never takes a stand, but it remains an option.

A lot of paleoart seems rather overworked. I´m hardly the first to voice this opinion but meticulously rendering thousands of  tiny scales in a dinosaur picture doesn't necessarily make said picture more accurate. Sometimes it´s the complete opposite where hyperrealism only serves to create the illusion of scientific accuracy. I tend to prefer sketchier, looser paleoart - by artists like John Conway, Simon Stålenhag and of course Zdeněk Burian - where the emphasis lies on movement, mood and communicating that aforementioned essence of an animal - what it felt like.

My most common “screw-you-science” is probably the eyes. The peepers of my stem-birds are more mobile than they probably were in real life; they move around and look at things in a human, or at least mammalian way. Avian eyes are usually fixed in a perpetual stare which makes them come off as either vexed or insane (or both). That might be precisely what you’re after, but often you’re looking for something different. I almost always give the animals discernible pupils as we humans are geared to interpret that as more affective than-all black eyes. Windows to the soul and all that.

MW. Your reconstructions are full of personality and humour. I find it very easy to project emotion onto your subjects. Is this something you deliberately seek with your work? Do you render each image with an idea about what each animal is thinking?

JE. I´ve always had a flair for characterisation. It just sort of happens no matter what I draw, be it a robot, a dragon or a lone animal hanging about doing nothing. They always end up seeming to be up to something (my subjects often look rather smug for some reason, apparently it´s my go-to emotion). There´s a hint of anthropomorphism but I try not to overdo it. It´s just little things like an eye ridge tweaked to look as if the animal is raising it´s eyebrows or the hint of a smirk at the corner of the mouth. It should only be just enough to help the viewer empathise with the subject.

MW. The colour choices of your artwork are interesting, blending ‘realistic’ animal colour schemes with background hues rarely seen in palaeoart. It works very effectively, creating a strong sense of atmosphere. Can you take us through your approach to choosing animal colouration and blending these with often contrasting backgrounds?

JE. I always start with the animal itself and let their colouration dictate the tones of the background. The aim is to give them striking, simple colour schemes that still comes off as believable. Once the animal is painted I start with the surrounding environment, which on the whole is a rather intuitive and organic process. I play around in Photoshop until I land in something that works.

The colour choices and compositions are highly influenced by animation backgrounds, especially in the way the scenes are framed. There´s a lot of colour theory at work as well - complementary colors (often good old orange and teal) or split complementary colours (like red and blue) in different overlay layers make the animals “pop” from the background. A cool coloured animal will be framed by a warmer environment and vice versa.

Dimorphodon meets a neighbour (notice the keratin crest on the lower jaw of Dimorphodon - most artists miss that). In addition to showing the personality common to Egerkrans' work, this piece also shows the mix of realistic animal colouration with striking, pseudorealistic background colours. In fully realistic art, this might not work, but here, it does. © Johan Egerkrans.
MW. To me, your palaeoartworks recall some of William Stout’s illustrations. Both have a distinctive, non-realist style, interesting colour schemes and emphasis on the animal subjects. Is Stout an influence on your work?

JE. Very much so. I've always loved his work and his approach to paleoart. His creatures have tons of character and the draughtsmanship is sublime. They’re admittedly a bit skeletal at times but they make that up with personality. That I’m partial to Stout is hardly a surprise, as we're both inspired by the same old masters. Even if it's not obvious in my paleoart, a lot of my work takes cues from turn of the century illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Dulac and John Bauer, just like Stout's art.

MW. The work you produce is included in educational books. How do you think style impacts the scientific or educational prospects for palaeoart?

JE. The illustrations are not intended to be photoreal and that´s sort of the point. It´s obvious that they're an interpretation which forces the viewers to do part of the reconstruction in their own heads. That hopefully gets their imagination going which is the ultimate goal - to connect and get people interested. To make science fun.

The chosen style also saves me from meticulously rendering those thousands of tiny scales and retain my sanity, so that´s a huge plus.

MW. Do you ever stray from your signature style? Will we ever see a ‘realistic’ Egerkransian dinosaur?

JE. As I´ve mentioned before I always adapt my technique to the project at hand and this is just one of several styles I utilise. It´d be interesting to do a paleoart project in a more realistic vein, though I think there´ll always be a certain amount of stylisation. I´m not a realist painter and never will be - others have got that down already.

Umoonasaurus and chums. The barnacled fallen trees turns this image from just another Mesozoic marine scene into something much more atmospheric. © Johan Egerkrans.



MW. I’ve seen that you get a lot of scientific feedback on Facebook posts, a source that many palaeoartists – professional and amateur – can be wary of because of misinformation and confrontational internet users. How useful do you find social media to shape your art, and have you encountered much hostility?

JE. I was flabbergasted at how overwhelmingly positive the response was when I posted my first drawings on the Facebooks. Especially from the academic community. There´s been very little hostile or dismissive remarks - in general people seem to take the works seriously, as ‘proper’ paleoart.

The feedback is often extremely helpful - there´s lots of very well informed academics hanging about (you yourself and Darren Naish to mention just a few) and you quickly learn to sift the good advice from the bad or opinionated. I approach the forums as a sort of quick and dirty peer review; I´m not an expert and get things wrong all the time and if there´s something wonky someone is bound to point it out. As the ambition is to be as accurate as possible, within the limitations of the style, I try to surround myself with people who actually truly knows about this stuff. As luck would have it a lot of people I admire have proven to be more than willing to help out with comments, constructive criticism, links to papers and by just being supportive in general.

MW. When are you going to get Hollywood on the phone to make your work into a movie? They already look like they’re stills from some epic animated film about Mesozoic life. And they owe us, frankly, after The Good Dinosaur.

JE. I´m still waiting for them to get the straws out of their noses and give me a call. Bastards.

Guanlong and some sort of impudent Mesozoic mammal. Note how the Guanlong is strikingly and variably coloured, and yet still looks grounded. Bringing bright colours into the Mesozoic doesn't necessarily mean painting entire animals in lurid shades. © Johan Egerkrans.
MW. Finally, where’s the best place to find your art and support your work? And how long do we have to wait until your next book?

JE. You can follow my public facebook account “Johan Egerkrans - Illustrator” where I post about new projects and upcoming events like signings. Then of course there is the Paleoartists Facebook group where I´m pretty active.

I´ve also got a blog at http://johan-egerkrans.blogspot.se/ and an Artstation page https://www.artstation.com/artist/egerkrans.

My books can be bought from www.bokus.com or any other Swedish book retailer. You should be able to order them from there if you live in Europe but it's trickier in the States due to the fickle nature of the U.S. customs. Hopefully Alla tiders Dinosaurier will get an English edition at some point, but nothing's set at the moment.

The next book Flygödlor och havsmonster, about your favourites the pterosaurs (and their marine contemporaries), will be out in Sweden this fall. At some point I´d very much like to do a book about Permian and Mesozoic stem mammals (gorgonopsids are hands down my favourite prehistoric animals), but sadly it is a rather tough sell…  

MW. Johan Egerkrans, thanks very much!


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