Monday 29 September 2014

'Support Original Palaeoart': we take it to the mainstream

The industry of reconstructing extinct animals in illustration, sculpture and animation - we all know it as 'palaeoart' - is a paradoxical place. One the one hand, there is more demand for palaeoart than there ever has been, increasing recognition of the role of palaeoart as a scientific and outreach tool and, because of the internet, more interesting and thought-provoking palaeoart being produced than ever before. This would make it seem that palaeoartistry is a flourishing, economically viable and interesting place to work within. On the other hand, much of our widely published, well-paid and/or high profile palaeoart work is rife with plagiarism, is creatively stagnant, has limited commercial appeal and presents gross inaccuracies to the fossils it is meant to represent. Given the elevated public influence and larger economy of these high profile artworks, it might be argued that this less interesting, ethically-questionable and scientifically dubious side of palaeoart overrides the independent sphere as the current 'status quo' within the palaeoart industry.

These issues are not new: since at least the late 1990s, artists and palaeoart aficionados - including well known artists like like Bob Walters, Tess Kissinger and Gregory Paul - have made noises about generally poor working practises in palaeoart and called for change - sometimes in radical ways. However, most of this commentary has been published in esoteric online venues with limited prospects for reaching those involved in palaeoart production. Moreover, because these discussions have taken place in online forums, mailing lists and blogs rather than more 'officious' venues such as magazines or journals, they may be largely discredited or ignored by those who only have time for 'real' literature appearing in mainstream venues. This is a genuine and relevant problem: many scientists - including individuals involved with the production of palaeoart - see little value in the online palaeontological community or the opinions it expresses.

Today, Darren Naish, John Conway and I are attempting to bring the problems within the palaeoart industry into the light via an open-access commentary piece at Palaeontologia Electronica. We hope that by publishing this piece at a respected online venue that it will be more visible and credible to the academics and financiers involved in palaeoart production, and help stimulate the discussion needed for changes desired for years. Much of what we cover in our article will be familiar to regular denizens of the online palaeontological community. We outline why we think palaeoart is important (its long history, importance to science and the millions dollar industries it underpins); what we think is sour with modern working practices (that copied, objectively inaccurate art forms the majority of high profile/commercially produced art, while truly original and progressive artists are overlooked and sometimes deliberately ignored) and what we think can be done about these issues (artists being more circumspect about their trade; palaeontologists being more prudent in their consultancy roles; and art patrons improving their knowledge of and financial approach to palaeoartistry). There's a lot more to say on each of these issues, but I do not want to simply rewrite our article here: head to PE or download the pdf version for more details. There are a few comments and questions I want to nip in the bud, however:

The money issue

Yeah, we suggest artists take a firmer line about their costs. Cue comments about dictating industry workings, comparison to infamous 2011 Greg Paul palaeoart debate, etc. But look at what we say carefully: we encourage artists to be more realistic with their costs beyond a certain career stage, and we give no opinion on what their art should cost. We suggest working standards will improve if folks who've proven their palaeoart mettle, and are 'getting serious' with their palaeoartistry, appreciate that their work is worth something. Of course it is: it takes hours or days or research and labour to make. We should be proud of that, and not undervaluing it. Ultimately, palaeoart will continue to be treated as a disposable commodity - a point we make time and again - until the collective producing it makes it worth something to those buying it. There's a lot more to say on this point, so please read what we say over at PE before leaping to the comments box below.

So, palaeoartists need to be cold, heartless businessmen now, right?

No: we just arguing that there needs to be greater respect all round for the palaeoart trade. Like any industry, there will always be room for personal favours, 'mates rates' and that sort of thing, but these should be exceptions, not the standard. We're not asking for people to be inhuman, or trying to take the enjoyment out of producing palaeoart, only for standard business practises to be more routinely applied to palaeoart production and financing.

You guys are hypocrites. You've asked for/given free art, for instance, and been involved with products featuring awful palaeoart

Yep. Like all human beings, we're a mess of hypocrisy and mixed-messages, and we fully admit to being associated with behaviour which we suggest is detrimental to palaeoartdom. However, we can also honestly say that we try to implement our 'best practises' where we can. Darren, for instance, pushes for using independent artists wherever he can in his books and articles, and fights for payment for image use. Both John and Darren (along with Memo Koseman) have been important voices in the call for more interesting palaeoart with the publication of All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2012). John has also outlined earnings for his art and explained how, realistically, art needs to be costed to make a living from it. Given the cultural taboo associated with declaring earnings and salaries, that's a bold but important set of figures to release to the public. Along with John and Darren, I do my best to promote excellent palaeoart, work genuinely hard in my consultancy roles, and endeavour to strike realistic costs with my patrons (it's been a long time since I've done art for free, for instance). We're not always successful in these bids, but we push hard wherever we can for the better standards we would like.

I don't see a recommendation for any 'good' palaeoartists in the article. Who do you recommend?

We each have our favourite artists - modern artists who do great work, past artists who broke new ground and so forth - but we have deliberately avoided promoting any services in the PE piece, including our own. The only artwork featured therein are a few incontrovertibly classic pieces of vintage palaeoart or modern works used to make specific points (e.g. John's reptile cat from All Yesterdays, which we use to mirror the inaccuracies present in many modern palaeoartworks). We want people thinking more about what makes palaeoart good and bad, and using their own research to make informed decisions about palaeoart services. Stating who we think are the 'best' artists conflicts with that message.

So what can we do?

Regular visitors to this blog or related works may have seen this image knocking about in various posts:

From Witton et al. (2014).

This is actually a figure from our article, and is our way of making it easy for you - a member of the palaeoblogosphere - to promote this cause. The three elements listed along the bottom touch on the cornerstones of our arguments:
  1. Accuracy: adherence of palaeoart to fossil and biological data; realistic depictions of contemporary palaeontological hypotheses; excellency in consultancy
  2. Creativity: ending of the widespread issue of palaeoart plagiarism and the production of meme-worthy art; promotion and appreciation of artwork and individuals who bring new perspectives and insights to the depiction of extinct animals
  3. History: appreciation of palaeoart as a 200 year old institution with its own important fashions, movements and individuals; realisation that the 'when, where and who' of palaeoartworks are as important as the artworks themselves
We want our graphic on blogs, articles, videos and even conference presentations as a means of promoting these issues as widely as possible. Remember that the whole reason for writing the Palaeontologia Electronica piece was to break these issues out into the wider world. The way to do that is through promotion in as many places as possible. We want it Facebooked, Tweeted, blogged, Tumblr'd and whaever else you can do on social media. We want it on respected, widely-read websites so those who don't frequent the depths of the palaeoblogosphere can't avoid it. We want SVP 2014 audiences seeing this in so many presentations that Berlin erupts with discussion of 'what's with all those palaeoart logos?'. However you do it, we're simply asking for a bit of a fuss. Ultimately, we want this widespread enough that the folks involved in palaeoart production can't ignore it, and will hopefully start thinking about palaeoartistry and its practitioners with the respect they deserve.

That's enough from me on this: head to Palaeontologia Electronica for more. Again, if you agree with what we're saying, please help us promote this widely and, if you're in the lucky position to be influencing palaeoart projects, please consider what we're saying here especially carefully.


  • Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M., & Naish, D. (2012). All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books.
  • Witton, M. P., Naish, D. and Conway, J. (2014). State of the Palaeoart. Palaeontologia Electronica Vol. 17, Issue 3; 5E: 10p;


  1. "Given the cultural taboo associated with declaring earnings and salaries" which is something that rarely serves any but the interests of buyers/employers. Transparency about salaries almost always ends up raising them.

  2. I also support good typography and not squishing or stretching text graphics. Paleoartists should learn more about type to avoid creating logos that can make a typophile cringe.

    1. I'll take that on board, but I think slightly compressing Aerial Narrow is a minor offence compared to the bigger picture here.

  3. I think this is an excellent article Dr. Witton. Bravo! to all of your fine gentlemen.

  4. Support paleoart? agreed! check your FB inboox... ;)

  5. "We each have our favourite artists - modern artists who do great work, past artists who broke new ground and so forth - but we have deliberately avoided promoting any services in the PE piece, including our own. The only artwork featured therein are a few incontrovertibly classic pieces of vintage palaeoart or modern works used to make specific points...We want people thinking more about what makes palaeoart good and bad, and using their own research to make informed decisions about palaeoart services. Stating who we think are the 'best' artists conflicts with that message."

    The above quote is my only problem with either this blog post or the PE piece. If there's 1 thing I've learned from experience, it's that regular ppl need certain things pointed out to them. Said ppl not reading the signs right in front of them at zoos & such is an especially good example of that ( ). In this case, it's not enough to tell them "what makes palaeoart good and bad". They need you to show them specific examples (like your slide comparing Willoughby's Microraptor to Pixel-shack's). I've been trying to do that in my Amazon Reviews & such (E.g. My "Good, Semi-good, and Bad Dino Sources" series: ), but I'm just a non-expert dino fan. It means a lot more coming from a real actual expert like you.

    BTW, I recently submitted my review of Brusatte/Benton’s “Dinosaurs” (“A representation of uninformed laziness”: ). As you can see, I referenced Naish's AY work, listed several alternative books, & focused on paleoart. With that said, I hope I did justice to AY in particular & “Support Original Palaeoart” in general.


    1. We discussed whether to 'name and shame' and showcase good art throughout the writing process - the Brusatte and Benton volume had its head on the chopping block - but we opted for leaving them out because...

      1) Publishing in a journal means we need to think of their reputation as much as our own. An early draft did include some shaming, but we were advised against this by our editors, and I think they were right to do so. We certainly didn't argue with their suggestion.

      2) Who could we chose as our example of 'objectively accurate' art? There's so much to choose from, and we don't want to give an impression that we're trying to set a benchmark as goes format, style or composition. The text outlines what we consider to be scientifically sound palaeoart, and John's scaly cat does a fine send-up of lousy palaeoart (with the exception, of course, that it's well drawn). I think that makes the point well enough.

      3) Finally, some change is better instigated by encouragement to do things right rather than humiliation and criticism. We want those involved with palaeoart to look at this in a proactive, positive light, not as three snobs being bitter and nasty.

  6. Call me cynical, but a push for setting paleoartist income rates higher will probably lead to an increase of the amount of plagiarism (especially in the style of the quetzalcoatlus/giraffe image ripoff in the press you had mentioned at one point).

  7. Also, I read John's blog, and I think he submits to the "effort = profit" fallacy. I have background in... well, something else... and the bad news is that the amount of effort you put into something, or even its popularity, doesn't translate into it being *profitable*. Nor should it. I love John's art, for instance, but am I going to buy his prints just so he can keep creating it? No.

    1. "a push for setting paleoartist income rates higher will probably lead to an increase of the amount of plagiarism"

      How? Sure it also gives those owning the copyrights the impetus to stamp plagiarism out. People will start to care about plagiarism when it undermines a product they bought at cost.

      On your second point: I don't agree that you shouldn't support artists if you like their work. Do you pirate movies, TV shows and music too? If you like what people do, and want them to keep doing it, it's a good idea to help them out. Of course, competent palaeoartists like John shouldn't be reliant on charity really: the commercial end of palaeoart needs resetting, with talented artists like him front and centre. Until that happens, buying a print or t-shirt isn't a bad way of helping him keep making things you like.