Monday 9 March 2015

Torvosaurus tanneri and the progressiveness of Knight and Burian

Mother Torvosaurus tanneri, reclining in Late Jurassic North America, wondering when her life became all about the kids. See the original version of this painting here, and check out my store to buy a print.

Regular readers will know that I've been overhauling some of my favourite bits of artwork recently. It's a process I recommend to any digital artist attempting to better themselves. Rather than starting from scratch, modifying older work provides a foundation to critique and expand on, as well as revealing the the results of new techniques or styles relatively quickly. I've found it not only helps generate get old bits of work to higher standards, but that it helps produce stronger work more rapidly when starting fresh images.

My latest revisions are to an image of a nesting Torvosaurus tanneri, first published in 2013 atop my post on daleks, xenomorphs and palaeoart. The initial inspiration for this piece was the then-recent discovery of Torvosaurus eggs and embryos in Portugal (Araújo et al. 2013), and the misfiring palaeoart accompanying publication of the discovery (Jurassic Park Velociraptors stood in for Torvosaurus, which - even though the art was well produced - still constitutes a major palaeoart fail). In 2013, and moreso in this 2015 revamp, I attempted to render the nest-guarding Torvosaurus as obviously scaly and 'reptilian'. There are lots of spikes, folds, bumpy textures and sags of skin - sort of like some modern monitors and iguanas. This is a deliberate nod to both the fact that not all theropods would have looked like overgrown birds, and that some dinosaurs were indeed scaly, but also to the work of classic palaeoartists: Zdenek Burian and Charles Knight. Both, of course, worked under the impression that dinosaurs were fully-reptilian animals (as opposed to stem birds combining classically 'avian' and 'reptilian' characteristics) and it's clear that modern reptiles were primary references for their work, maybe even moreso than the underlying skeletons! Their dinosaurs are frequently adorned with all manner of wattles, dewlaps, frills, skin folds, and elaborate scales, and make for striking, memorable takes on many extinct species. I think their highly detailed dinosaur integuments were a big part of their success as palaeoartists.  As much as we look at their work as scientifically dated now, Knight and Brian really knew how to make their subjects look like real animals of unique, interesting and characteristic appearance.

In revisiting some Knight and Burian work recently, it struck me that their depictions of dinosaur skin were actually quite progressive. Pre-Paulian palaeoartists are often viewed as presenting inaccurate, over-conservative depictions of extinct animals. That observation is not entirely without merit, but at least the integuments of these 20th century depictions show this work was not devoid of elaborations and speculations on extinct life. Some of their portrayals of dinosaurs include heavy armour, elaborate frills and spines, as well as smooth or wrinkled skin without any indication these structures existed - Knight's 'Agathaumus' or Burian's Chasmosaurus are classic examples of such reconstructions. The skin is so striking that it is just as memorable and interesting as the animal itself and, if such animals existed today, their skin would be a talking point or namesake. We can only assume that Knight and Burian based these integuments on those of modern animals while also avoiding contradicting fossil data about the life appearance of these animals known to them or their advisers. It's difficult not to view this as reasoned speculation within the data limits of their respective eras and, in this respect, these outlandish integuments might represent early embodiment of the speculative, progressive attitudes now lauded in modern palaeoart and All Yesterdays. 

Indeed, there's a discussion to be had about whether later 20th century Paulian palaeoart, which might be summarised as using quite literal interpretations of fossil data, was a step backwards in this regard. As much as Paulian art promoted a much-needed emphasis on fossil data and meticulous reconstruction methodologies, and produced some classic art in it's own right, its over-reliance on the fossil record is a known problem. The fossil record is not only full of gaps, but also presents a very selective, distorted view of even well-known species. Perhaps this is why some pre-Paulian artworks still look, for all their scientific flaws, like renderings of real animals, whereas some Paulian-era pieces look less convincing, even when the artworks are excellent themselves. Again, I find myself returning to well-trodden thoughts about the fossil record not capturing everything an artist needs to portray extinct animals with the same conviction as modern species. If that's true for us now, it was even truer for Knight and Burian, who were working with a far less complete picture of extinct life than we currently enjoy. Perhaps they deserve praise for not only being excellent artists and influential figures within palaeoart, but also for the ways they speculated and experimented - even if only a little - to make their restorations as compelling as they are.

Wrinkly old Torvosaurus 2015, in detail. 

As is par for the course now, prints of the Torvosaurus painting can be bought from my store along with a bunch of other recent work. If you enjoy seeing my work and articles online, buying prints is a great way to ensure more content follows!


  • Araújo, R., Castanhinha, R., Martins, R. M., Mateus, O., Hendrickx, C., Beckmann, F., Schnell, N, & Alves, L. C. (2013). Filling the gaps of dinosaur eggshell phylogeny: Late Jurassic theropod clutch with embryos from Portugal. Scientific reports, 3.


  1. I agree, Burian and Knight's work has a definite life-like quality. Now that I am working on videos about the Dinosaur Renaissance (and all the...artistic intensity that entails) I am finding myself missing the palpability of some of the older work.

  2. I know just what you mean about 'Paulian' vs. 'pre-Paulian' palaeoart. There's no doubt that the some parts of the palaeoart world needed a kick up the backside with regards to the actual shapes, proportions and articulations of mesozoic animals; but I always thought there was something a bit stiff about some of GSP's own art. Like a collection of mechanical lines, or contours. Whereas Knight's Dryptosaurs, Agathaumas, Tyrannosaurs etc. look pretty solid, natural and relaxed in the midst of their Monet-like landscapes.
    Obviously that's not to say all palaeoart was better before 1980! But yeah, I agree that some small thing was... not so much lost, as overlooked, in more recent times. Certain tropes got more attention.

    Torvosaurus look excellent, by the way. :)

  3. Great post, and the revised Torvo painting looks much better to me!

    Knight was a world-class painter and sculptor of living animals before he ever delved into paleoart. He had a great understanding of animals - not just anatomy, but posture, movement, expression, behavior - that translated into his reconstructions.

    Burian was not an animalier as such, but he was one of the greatest general illustrators in the Golden Age of Illustration; these were the guys who inherited all the knowledge of the Academic artists of the 19th century after the modernists killed realism in fine art. So, he had great knowledge of what makes a picture work.

    The two of them contrast greatly with the majority of modern paleoartists, who (I get the impression) are paleo-enthusiasts first, artists and animaliers second. I think of all the moderns, Csotonyi and Gurney come closest to the old masters. They're as concerned with making the picture work and making the animals seem real as they are with getting the anatomy correct.

    1. EXACTLY. Great artists make " paradigm shifts" in the Kuhnian sense. We need a Knight for feathered dinos.

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