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Friday, 17 January 2020

Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art: a new palaeoart short course for March 2020


Here's some pleasant news for the start of 2020: it's time to announce that I'm running a palaeaort short course in association with the University of Portsmouth: Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art. That's right: a three-day intensive series of lectures, workshops and seminars all devoted to reconstructing fossil animals in art. What's more, it's happening soon: the 4th-6th of March, 2020*. It's time to get excited and book your place if you'd like to come along.

*Yes, this is a short notice announcement - factors beyond our control have meant we've only just recently been able to sell places on the course, hence this 11th-hour post.

The idea for this course came about after writing The Palaeoartist's Handbook. Palaeoart, the artistic process of reconstructing extinct organisms and landscapes using a combination of geological and biological data, is such a deep and complex discipline with its long, rich history, array of conventional techniques and practises, and varied philosophies and approaches, that it's surprising we don't already have courses of this type all over the globe. As regular readers will know, palaeoartworks are not created by merely draping skin over the bones of fossil animals but through a long and detailed restoration process and the application of specialist knowledge. Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art will be an introduction to all these topics, packing our three days with information, discussion, and practical exercises to help us understand all that goes into rebuilding ancient worlds and species. Over six lectures, one seminar, and five practical sessions, we will cover:

1. An introduction to palaeoart theory
What are the limits and achievable goals of palaeoart? Do all depictions of extinct organisms or fossils qualify as palaeoartworks?
2. Palaeoart history
The evolution of palaeoart from pre-scientific ages to the modern-day
3. Reconstruction principles
Core palaeoart methodologies and essential research skills
4. Reconstructing animal anatomy
Including skeletons, musculature, fatty tissues, skin, facial organs, colour, and tissue depth
5. Reconstruction case studies
Group discussion of life appearance of select fossil groups, including key controversies and debates
6. Restoring ancient landscapes
Using geological data to place reconstructed subjects in appropriate settings
7. Restoring the behaviour of extinct organisms
How fossil data and modern animals can guide choices of animal pose, behaviour and attitude
8. The art in ‘palaeoart’ - composition and style
The interface of art and science: what do decisions of style, composition and colour say about our hypotheses of extinct animal appearance and demeanour?

Some of the skulls we'll be using in the course, from my personal collection. I won't be bringing the Star Trek models on the middle right, though. My wife would ground me if I tried to play with them.
What makes this course different to, say, reading about palaeoart in a book or online, is that we'll be working as much as possible with modern and fossil specimens (both real and replica) to augment our learning about the science behind palaeoart. We'll be learning how to interpret imperfect or incomplete fossils and turn them into convincing-looking restorations; how to identify key muscle attachment sites on skeletons; how to reliably interpret function - and thus movement and behaviour - from bone proportions and shape; and checking out epidermal correlates of living animals to identify them in their extinct relatives. I'm designing the course to be as hands-on as possible rather than simply three days of talking.

While I'll be running the course for the majority of the time, we'll have a couple of hours set aside so that students can decide what topics we cover. This will be a great chance to thrash out some of those major palaeoart controversies, such as debates over anatomy, philosophical questions like "how speculative is too speculative?", or to simply work through some difficult reconstruction questions for weirdo groups.

The azhdarchid pterosaur Hatzegopteryx, and use of the phrase 'weirdo groups'. I draw no links between these, but leave you to draw your own conclusions.
It's also worth stressing is that, while artists will obviously get a lot out of this course, non-artists and palaeo enthusiasts should also find a lot to enjoy. Most palaeoart theory concerns interpreting and understanding fossils and anatomy, so folks who are interested in learning about extinct animals, and how we are able to reconstruct them, are welcome too. There are a few times when students will be asked to pick up paper and pencils but we should be working in an informal, fun setting where artistic ability is secondary to learning. Nor will I be expecting everyone on the course to be fluent in scientific jargon and an expert on fossil animals. All content will be delivered at the same level as my books and blog posts, and it will be absolutely fine to stop, backtrack and make sure we're all on the same page when needed. So long as you have an interest and basic understanding of natural history, you'll be fine.

Where, when, and how much?

We'll be running Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art entirely from the University of Portsmouth, which has its campus located close to Portsmouth's high street and major train station. If you've never visited before, Portsmouth is a small city located centrally on the UK's south coast. The city has a long and rich history (with particularly significant military and literary aspects) and its coastal walks offer some very pleasant views across the Solent and Langston Harbour.

Portsmouth and the Solent from the air. The sun always shines here, and it never rains. Photograph © University of Portsmouth.
A number of sites around Portsmouth will be of interest to visiting palaeoartists too. Langstone Harbour and Farlington Marshes are both rich in waterfowl and wading birds, and are great for viewing and sketching modern dinosaurs from life. The excellent Marwell Zoo is just a 40-minute drive (or accessible via train and a short bus ride) and offers additional animal viewing and sketching opportunities. Further afield, the fossil-rich Isle of Wight is just a 10-minute hovercraft ride away, and the island's trains will expedite you (in a rattly, hold-on-to-you-butts sort of fashion) to the famous dinosaur-bearing sedimentary rocks of Yaverland and the associated museum, Dinosaur Isle, in under 30 minutes. The island has many more fossiliferous outcrops and some terrific scenery, all of which can be accessed via buses. The awesome, scenic and richly fossiliferous Jurassic Coast of Dorset is commutable from Portsmouth with a c. two-hour travel time, and the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs - historically important Victorian-age reconstructions of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals likely very familiar to readers of this blog - are a similar distance away in southeast London. The fantastic natural history museums of London and Oxford are also easily reached from Portsmouth. The course dates conveniently back up to a weekend so there are options for some palaeo-filled days in and around Portsmouth after the course. Heck, I might even be persuaded to visit some of these places myself, if collective interest was sufficient.

The three-course days run Wednesday - Friday, 4th-6th of March, 2020. These days are pretty full with a provisional schedule running from 9:00 on the first day and 9:30 thereafter, with finishes around 17:00 each day. In short, please plan on being in Portsmouth for three full days if you want to experience the full course.

Of course, we need to talk about money. We've managed to whittle the Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art fee down to £200 for the three days, or £160 if you're a full-time student of any institution. This is at the lower end of pricing for specialist short courses as many are well over £1000. The low cost means that we are not able to cover accommodation or meals (other than some obligatory tea, coffee and biscuits, which are palaeoart essentials) but Portsmouth is full of hotels, restaurants and bed and breakfasts catering to a range of bank balances, and we figure that gives attendees options to budget accordingly. Our venue is also five minutes away from Portsmouth and Southsea train station, making commuting an option for folks living close by.

How to book

And that, my friends, is Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art in a nutshell. I'm really looking forward to our first stab at this and am thrilled to see people are already signing up - I look forward to seeing you in March. The aim to run Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art annually and develop a distance learning option eventually, but I stress that these are success-dependent. What I'm saying is that, if this sounds like it is of interest, I encourage you to come along in case it never happens again!

My take on Paraceratherium musculature, based on Greg Paul's skeletal. Learning about the relationship between skeletons and muscles will be a big part of day 2.
This brings us neatly to the most final, and most important point: if you want to book a place on Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art, you can purchase your place using the University of Portsmouth online store. I really hope to see some of you in Portsmouth in early March!