Tuesday 31 July 2018

Introducing The Palaeoartist's Handbook: Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art: out next month!

In just under a month I have a new book out: The Palaeoartist's Handbook: Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art, published by Crowood Press. This is a big (280 x 220 mm, 224 pages), full-colour, densely illustrated soft back entirely dedicated to the subject of palaeoartistry: its history, methods, execution and philosophy. It's going to be available internationally from the 27th of August in both physical and digital formats, and online retailers are already taking pre-orders for the cover cost of £22 or less (Amazon sale links: UK/US). I plan on having stock to sell signed copies from my website very soon, and a signing event is planned for TetZooCon 2018 - get your tickets for that here.

With the release impending, I figure it's time to start talking about the book to generate some buzz. The handbook is essentially a palaeoart textbook, containing a history of the genre, an overview of the process of reconstructing an extinct animal, notes on the life appearances of popular extinct taxa, discussions about the artistic and scientific requirements of the discipline and giving practical advice to aspiring palaeoartists. The goal of the book is to be accessible to newcomers while also interesting to veterans and enthusiasts. Sections demystifying geological and palaeontological jargon or introducing important concepts (finer divisions of geological time, phylogenetic bracketing etc.) should be useful to those just entering the discipline, while the detailed discussions, diagrams and citations should interest enthusiasts and professionals.

Emily Willboughby's Microraptor welcomes you to the first chapter of the handbook. I'm very happy with the overall look of the book: it has a good text/figure ratio, is suitably 'dense' without being cluttered, and has lots of nice details like the colour graded panels beneath the chapter openers. The designers have done a really good job.
The idea for the handbook came in January 2016 when I was reading Jackie Garner's excellent Wildlife Artist's Handbook (2013, Crowood Press). It occurred to me that, like conventional natural history art, palaeoart has a long history, its own theory and methods, good and bad practise, as well as a large body of practitioners, and yet we lack texts which discuss palaeoart as a learnable skill or discipline. Virtually all palaeoart books are collections of artwork, historic overviews or 'how to draw dinosaur' volumes, the latter often being of dubious scientific merit. The most detailed discussions of palaeoart theory are found in book chapters or articles, but they're limited in detail because of their lack of space. In writing this blog I've found that there's scope for long, detailed discourses on everything palaeoartistic: if even arcane topics such as extra-oral tissues or predicting horn shapes can justify a few thousand words a piece, then writing about the entire discipline would easily fill a book. Being impressed with the quality of The Wildlife Artist's Handbook, I contacted Crowood about creating a palaeoart equivalent and, 2.5 years later, we're almost at that August release date.

As you may expect from a book about artistry, the handbook is heavily illustrated. It has about 200 figures, photographs and paintings, as well as a large number of annotated diagrams. Not all the artworks are my own, however. Though happy to handle the diagrams and many of the paintings myself, I felt it would be inappropriate to illustrate the book exclusively with my own work - I fear giving the impression of putting my own work on a 'here's how to make palaeoart' pedestal. To that end, I reached out to eight of the most talented and interesting palaeoartists working today: Raven Amos, Julius Csotonyi, John Conway, Johan Egerkrans, Scott Hartman, Rebecca Groom, Bob Nicholls and Emily Willoughby, each of whom graciously donated several pieces of artwork. Their contribution not only makes the book a heck of a lot prettier but also demonstrates a broad stylistic range. The list of contributing artists could easily have been twice as long but, as I'm sure you can appreciate, finding content for this book was never a problem: fitting it all into a reasonably sized package was. Indeed, I had to request more words from the publishers midway through writing and the project ended up being 20,000 words longer than originally intended. This is not to say that the book is cluttered or over-stuffed - to the contrary, I actually find the layout quite comfortable to look at - but simply that we really pushed this one as far as we could go.

Contents page for The Palaeoartist's Handbook. Much of the book is devoted to the reconstruction process, but many other topics - history, composition, professional practise etc. - also feature.
Questions about the handbook's content are best answered with a tour through its chapters. The book opens with a chapter introducing the genre: its scope and depth, its bias towards charismatic fossil vertebrates and how we might distinguish palaeoart from other visual media pertaining to extinct animals. Much focus is given to the line between palaeoart and palaeontologically-inspired art. This subtle distinction is an important one, being the cause of much frustration and confusion among those of us who care about realistic depictions of the past and public education. Ultimately, we have to concede that the creative forces behind the prehistoric animals of movies and toys are rarely on the same page as us: they aren't making 'palaeoart', but 'palaeontologically-inspired art'. These are works that use preferred and marketable aspects of palaeontology to achieve a goal, but ignore components that conflict with their objective. A take home from this is that anyone seriously wanting to be considered a 'palaeoartist' needs to create art of extinct subjects based on evidence and data, not gut feelings, what the latest Jurassic movie is doing, or what we think looks cool.

Chapter 2 is one of my favourite parts of the book: a history of palaeoart from the pre-scientific period right up to the modern day. So many histories of palaeoart are short and selective, often jumping from Duria Antiquior to Hawkins' Crystal Palace models, saying hello to Knight and Burian and then calling it a day. Such treatments omit many important details in the development of palaeoartistry - and I'm not just thinking about the reinvention of palaeoart inspired by the Dinosaur Renaissance. It should be more widely appreciated, for instance, that De la Beche's Duria Antiquior is not the oldest piece of palaeoart. It is widely labelled with this title but a number of works undeniably qualifying as palaeoart pre-date it by 30 years. De la Beche's painting broke new ground in some respects, but the terrain had already been cracked by several other scholars and artists. Another example: historic overviews often focus so much on Knight that they overlook other significant developments taking place in the early 20th century, such as the invention of hybrid 'scientist-palaeoartists' and their strong influence in the genre. While Knight was painting murals Harry Seeley was publishing Dragons of the Air (1901) and Gerhard Heilmann was producing The Origin of Birds (1926), books which contained very progressive takes on pterosaurs and dinosaurs and are clear precursors to the way we illustrate these animals today. I've tried to cram the handbook's overview of palaeoart history with as much information as possible and I feel it's a more comprehensive treatment than you'll find in many venues. It also features a brief section on palaeoart prior to science - my recent blog posts on griffins and cyclopes stemmed from research for this section.

Hendry De la Beche's 1830 artwork Duria Antiquior: A more Ancient Dorset: definitely a landmark illustration for palaeoartistry, but not the first piece of palaeoart. The pre-1830 history of palaeoart gets a lot of discussion in the handbook. Image in public domain.
The third chapter is a crash course in how to research palaeoart. This part of the book will hopefully benefit folks who're new to the discipline and struggling to make sense of the often technical information that informs a palaeoartwork, an especially daunting task for those lacking a background in geology or palaeontology. There's a lot of explanatory text in this chapter, explains (for example) what terms like 'functional morphology' and 'stratigraphy' are, giving advice on how to read a cladogram, and outlining why researching geology and fossil provenance are just as important as understanding anatomy. There are also discussions of where to find information relevant to palaeoart and how to verify it reliability. There's a lot of junk and erroneous information out there, especially online, and these tips should help you to sift some useful information from the detritus.

We talk a lot about epidermal correlates at this blog (see here and here for recent examples) but they aren't as widely used as they should be. They're best known in centrosaurine horned dinosaurs thanks to Hieronymus et al. (2009), but occur widely across tetrapods. We're probably getting a lot of reconstructions wrong by ignoring them. Image from Witton (2018).
Chapters 4-8 outline the process of reconstructing extinct vertebrates. Collectively, these chapters represent a major chunk of the book. They start with the prediction of missing anatomies, building skeletal reconstructions and determining plausible postures. Muscles and fatty tissues are then considered, followed by skin: how we can predict skin types when they aren't present in fossils as well as what we can determine from fossil skin itself. A whole chapter is devoted to facial tissues: extra-oral tissues (lips, cheeks etc.), eyes, ears and noses. Our precision for reconstructing animal faces is something of a mixed bag as some features are much easier to predict than others. We have robust means to predict how much eyeball tissue should be visible, the likely positions of reptile nostrils, and when trunks or proboscides were present, but ask about the shape of extinct mammal ears or what sauropod noses really looked like and we're less certain. Chapter eight deals with hot topics like shrink-wrapping and the role of speculation in soft-tissue reconstruction. Both have roles to play in palaeoart, but both can be 'overdone': the handbook has some food for thought about when, and when not, to make use of these conventions.

Chapter nine drills down into the specifics of restoring tetrapod taxa. I originally envisaged this section as being bigger and encompassing more animal types, but non-tetrapods had to be cut to save space. The alternative would have been to include very brief notes on more taxa, but I fear the sin of error through omission: more detail about popular palaeoart subjects seemed the best compromise. Most major tetrapod groups are included, with specific sections on dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles, different 'grades' of synapsids, temnospondyls and others.

'Rictal plates' - the structures that cover the corner of tetrapod mouths - are among the topics discussed in the handbook. Though often mentioned in discussion of dinosaur 'cheeks', they also have relevance to suction feeders, such as the placodont Henodus chelyops. Understanding a subject's functional morphology can guide speculative reconstruction of unknown anatomies. Another image from Witton (2018)
The tenth chapter moves away from restoring animals to considering their environment. As with chapter three this section is aimed partly at newcomers, bringing them up to speed on how ancient environments are understood through sedimentology, stratigraphy and palaeoclimatology. This is not to say Chapter 10 is a geology lecture however: it's more a bluffers guide which explains useful terms and phrases to allow non-geologists to glean information from research papers on the palaeoenvironment of their subject species. Plants are also briefly covered in this chapter. I'm afraid the handbook is not the text that overturns palaeoartisty's general short shrift to palaeobotany, but there is guidance for how to research ancient floras as well as some need-to-know information about plant evolution.

Raven Amos' Nemegt Sunrise shows an entirely typical palaeoart topic - a foraging dinosaur (specifically, Conchoraptor) - but in awesome style. Palaeoart which is scientifically credible but strongly stylised is relatively new to the discipline. Will it become more widespread in future? Raven's excellent image features prominently in the book.
Chapter 11 addresses the 'art' in 'palaeoart', talking about the interplay between science, composition and style. Discussions of palaeoart rarely stray into these areas, but they're important: there's no point getting your scientific details spot on if your artwork is an uncompelling mess. This chapter covers how our ideas about animal behaviour, their arrangement in a scene and relationship to the viewer are critical to making effective artwork, it being argued that some common palaeoart practises - extremes of perspective, and unrealistic shoutyroaryfighty behaviours - can make artwork less credible. Through liberal use of art by the contributing artists, choices of style and the advantages of different approaches are discussed. I'm a big fan of artists who push the stylistic boundaries of palaeoart and, after two centuries of relatively conservative approaches, consider bold stylisation to the next frontier of the medium. The utility of such styles is discussed, including whether they may sometimes be more 'honest' than our default approach of photo-realism (or, at least, in the orbit thereof): when animals are poorly known, is it more representative of our knowledge to use simpler, or looser styles than to hone every scale or hair to precision? This is becoming more of an issue as some species become incredibly well known to scientists and artists. Do we risk 'diluting' the impact of discoveries where we can plot every scale and pigment cell with certainty if we restore every animal as if this were the case?

The final, concluding chapter takes a look at the professional world of palaeoartistry. This section is aimed at those who commission artworks as well as those who create it, tackling subjects like what information artists need to plan and price a commission, the importance of feedback, and that all important topic: how to make a living from palaeoart. I'm afraid this chapter doesn't have an easy answer for the latter: hard work, talent, luck and shameless promotion remain hurdles between us all and palaeoart success. What a jip.

A page from Chapter 9's mosasaur section. Diagrams or illustrations such as these appear on almost every page of the book. When I started the book I figured I'd mostly use 'off the shelf' art, but I ended up creating a lot of new images to illustrate points made in the text. This is why is took two years to write, folks.
And that probably tells you everything you need to know if you're wondering whether this is a book for you. My ultimate aim was to make a book comprehensive enough to cover most questions anyone could have about how palaeoart is made, or at least give some idea where the answer could be found in other literature. It is, of course, impossible to cover everything about a topic as broad as palaeoart in a single book, but by placing an emphasis on methods as well as raw information I figure readers should gain sufficient knowledge of the field to answer questions on their own. And that's probably the most important lesson in the handbook: palaeoart is reliant on an evolving, changing set of data, so what's considered 'accurate' in 2018 may not be in ten years time. Training yourself to think scientifically, and to check information no matter where it's from, is just as important as learning how to paint or sculpt in palaeoartistry. If that's the message you take home from this project, I'll consider my job done.

The Palaeoartist's Handbook: Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art, will be available internationally on August 27th, published by Crowood Press. Pre-orders can now be made at Amazon (UK/US) and at other retailers.

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  • Garner, J. (2013). Wildlife Artist's Handbook. Crowood Press.
  • Heilmann, Gerhard (1926). The Origin of Birds. London: Witherby.
  • Hieronymus, T. L., Witmer, L. M., Tanke, D. H., & Currie, P. J. (2009). The facial integument of centrosaurine ceratopsids: morphological and histological correlates of novel skin structures. The Anatomical Record, 292(9), 1370-1396.
  • Seeley, H. G. (1901). Dragons of the air: an account of extinct flying reptiles. Methuen & Company.
  • Witton, M. P. (2018). The palaeoartist's handbook: recreating prehistoric animals in art. Crowood Press.