Thursday 16 December 2021

An interview with Emily Willoughby, author and artist of Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs

That most obscure theropod taxon Tyrannosaurus chews on bones on the front cover of Emily Willhoughby's new book, Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs: the latest entry into the growing literature dedicated to palaeoartistry. Can we talk about how nice that tyrannosaur knee is? From the Crowood Press website.
The last decade or so has seen the arrival of several notable palaeoart books, articles and book chapters that showcase the works and voices of palaeoart practitioners past and present, such that it seems we’re in a particularly rich literary era for this specialised artform. Among these works are a slowly growing number dedicated to palaeoart methodology: the hows, whats and whys of restoring the life appearance of extinct organisms from fossil remains. In late October of this year, another book in this vein arrived to add to your palaeoart library: Emily Willoughby’s Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs.

I was fortunate enough to be sent a review copy of this new book by Crowood Press, who you may know from my own The Palaeoartist’s Handbook (2018) and the upcoming Witton and Michel volume The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (coming May 2022, vintage palaeoart fans!). Much as I wanted to write about Emily's book, my involvement with Crowood presents a conflict of interest to presenting any thoughts I may have, and the fact that Emily kindly contributed artwork to The Palaeoartist’s Handbook only complicates matters further. But in wanting to do something to promote what I think is a useful, welcome addition to our collective palaeoart bookshelf, I reached out to Emily to see if she’d agree to an interview about creating Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs. As you’ll have guessed by now, Emily kindly agreed to answer my questions and the full interview is below.

But before we get to that, we should give a quick introduction to the book in question. Split into eight chapters and two appendices, Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs is a good-sized (280 x 220 mm, 176 pages), well-produced and affordable (RRP £18.99) softback that covers the basics of the palaeoart process as well as reconstruction approaches to several dinosaur groups. Chapters 1-4 cover the basics of palaeoartistry, from restoring anatomy to recreating environments, chapters 5-6 cover restoring pennaraptorans, tyrannosauroids, ornithischians and sauropods, and chapter 8 uses the evolution of feathers as a case study for palaeoartistic prediction. Emily’s qualifications to write such a book, of course, are in no doubt. She is one of the leading palaeoartists of modern times and has been particularly influential in the field of restoring feathered dinosaurs - especially dromaeosaurs. Readers will surely be familiar with Emily’s takes on these animals from her online presence (website, Facebook, Twitter), press release artworks, museum exhibitions and inclusion in landmark palaeoart collections (e.g. Titan Books’ Dinosaur Art II). Even if you’ve been living under a palaeoart-impervious rock for the last decade and somehow missed Emily's stuff, the simple fact is that anyone who can draw and paint dinosaurs like this… clearly someone to pay attention to when they're offering pointers and advice on restoring fossil organisms.

Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs is packed with illustrations - over 250, according to the back cover. Many of them are new (at least, I didn't recognise them from other sources) and it's fun seeing Emily take on taxa we've rarely seen her restore before - giant dinosaur herbivores, big carnivores and so on. You don't need to read a word to realise that this is a must-buy for palaeoart fans: simply having page after page of Willoughby palaeoartworks on your bookshelf is worth the cover price alone. Emily’s world-leading reputation is well-earned for her attention to detail, technical excellence and eye for composition. Eschewing the open plains, giant animals and big skies that have been a staple of dinosaur palaeoart for generations, Emily’s artwork is often more intimate, frequently set in densely forested habitats with fallen logs, patchworks of light and colour, and delicate foliage. Her restorations are not only enormously charismatic but also grounded in observations of modern species, good knowledge of animal behaviour, and an appreciation for real natural spaces. Her combination of skills and approaches makes her Mesozoic dinosaur artwork fantastic to look at and also eminently believable. It's difficult not to think her paintings (especially her more recent and detailed pieces) were not drawn from scenes witnessed with her own eyes. We might not know for certain what Mesozoic dinosaurs looked like or how they behaved, but Emily’s artwork is surely in the right ballpark.

Fortunately for those of us secretly plotting to steal Emily’s artistic essence who’d like to learn to restore dinosaurs with that Willoughby touch, Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs has a greater emphasis on artistry and technique than we’re seen in most other palaeoart guides published to date. The closest comparisons I can think of are Douglas Henderson's palaeoart chapters in the first two Complete Dinosaur books but, with a full book of her own, Emily obviously has a lot more opportunity to discuss her craft. She outlines several methods used in creating her artworks such as painting from models, drawing over articulated fossils, and finding inspiration among real environments, while also giving pointers on matters such as composition, traditional painting techniques and finding basic forms within dinosaur bodies. This approach, combined with her patient, clearly-written text, will make the book especially useful to non-specialists. Technical terms are used here and there, of course (it’s basically impossible to write at length about palaeoart theory without some jargon) but in-text explanations and a glossary make the introduction of such terminology a learning experience, not a barrier to understanding. This is not to imply that the book is just for beginners, of course: there are plenty of useful ideas and takes on dinosaur palaeobiology that will be invaluable to artists of all levels. There were certainly some facts, perspectives and methods that were new to me, for whatever that's worth.

A sample page from Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs, from the Crowood Press website. This page features Emily's drawover of the Mei long holotype, a technique that helps artists not only understand the anatomy of their subjects but also appreciate fossil specimens as the remains of individuals, not as mere scientific concepts. Seeing fossils as the remains of specific creatures forms one philosophical core of the book.

And speaking of the text, I found Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs pleasant to read for its informative, slightly conversational tone. It presents a unique voice in palaeoart discourse, neither written with the disembodied neutrality of a scientist nor with overconfidence about her preferred interpretations of the past. There's an obvious respect for the work and insight provided by scientists but also plenty of informed personal contemplation and opinion on matters of reconstructing anatomy and ancient environments. The book is sprinkled with reflections on specific artworks and projects that give a sense of the enjoyments and frustrations of the palaeoart experience, such as including having artwork dating within days of its completion, the intrigue of reworking a familiar taxon with new data, and the thrill of restoring a newly discovered species. It not only reassures us that Emily is experienced at the trade she’s teaching but gives the book a sense of personality. We're also given insights into how Emily views the past, and her obvious connection to her fossil subjects stands out as something I've not seen expressed in palaeoart literature before. Emily reminds us that fossils are not mere geological phenomena or abstract concepts like species, but the petrified tissues of individuals that lived and died for us to discover millions of years later. It's a sobering, thoughtful take on palaeoart that establishes a personal connection between artist and their extinct subject matter across Deep Time.

One inescapable feature of Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs is its strong focus on dromaeosaurs and related, fully-feathered theropods - especially Deinonychus - for both artistic and case study subjects. These animals really do take centre stage - something like 80% of the artwork features dromaeosaurs or similar dinosaurs - and they serve as go-to species for demonstrating palaeoart principles throughout most of the book. Tyrannosauroids, sauropods and all ornithischians also feature in their own discrete chapters, but Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs is undeniably a show driven by feathered dinosaurs. I feel this is the only aspect of the book that might prove divisive, especially if readers are expecting a more general guide to the life appearance of dinosaur groups. There is value, however, in this doubling down on pennaraptorans. Writing any text like Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs always boils down to a question of breadth vs. depth and, in choosing the former, the book sacrifices some use as a general reference for demonstrating how a deep understanding of a fossil group can enhance our palaeoartistry. Knowing every species, every trace fossil, and every specimen of a clade allows for especially informed and nuanced palaeoartistic approaches, and that’s strongly evident in Emily’s pennaraptoran dinosaur art. For less experienced artists, the amount of information she demonstrates can be transferred from fossils to palaeoartworks may be surprising, and this would not have been so obvious had Emily discussed more clades in less detail. Seeing what can be done with dromaeosaurs and their relatives provides an impetus to learn about our favourite subjects in just as much depth, for which readers are given the right guidance for what to research and where to find it.

The (2017) Jinfengopteryx restoration Emily created for Nature. This image perfectly captures my comment about Willoughby art nailing believability: the colours, the sense of scale and the demeanour of the subject are such that I can totally buy Jinfengopteryx as looking like this. From Emily's website, © Emily Willoughby.

Anyway... this isn't meant to be a review, and here I am writing everything I like about the book. That should give you a flavour of what the book is all about and, as you can tell, I have nice things to say about it. With claxons blazing for those conflicts of interest mentioned above, I recommend anyone interested in palaeoart check it out. But we're not here for my thoughts: let's move on to what we’re actually here to read - Emily’s insights into how the book came to be, the original plans for the project, how she creates her artworks and even some free tips for us budding artists. Huge thanks to Emily for agreeing to this interview, and I hope it inspires you to put Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs on your Christmas list, if it’s not there already.


MW. It’s felt like a book such as Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs was going to happen eventually: a professional, world-leading palaeoartist imparts their experience and knowledge about illustrating the most popular and in-demand palaeoart subjects. I’ve certainly been around pub tables where artists have discussed it. What made you step up to the plate and think “yep, I’ll take that project on”

EW. It had been a dream of mine to publish a book like this someday, but my experience thus far with bringing book proposals to publishers and agents had been largely disappointing. For my first book, God’s Word or Human Reason?, I and my coauthor sent a total of about a hundred query letters to agents without a single positive response. So when Crowood Press reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in such a project, there was no hesitation on my part!

Your text has an especially patient, welcoming quality that carefully explains a lot of information for newbies, encourages readers to draw along as they read, and there are several step-by-step illustration guides. It contrasts with what I’ve come to expect from palaeoart guides, which can slide into machine-gunning anatomical facts and interpretations about extinct animals at the reader. Was this simply your intuitive approach, or something you deliberately crafted when writing your book?

You were actually a pretty big inspiration for the approach I decided to take in this book. Since Crowood also published your wonderful The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, I knew from the outset that I needed to take an approach that would not overlap too much in content and style with your own. I played with a lot of different ideas early on — including, for example, a separate chapter on each medium I typically work in (gouache, digital, pencil, and so on), but felt that approach was too “arty” and not “sciency” enough. Ultimately I wanted to create something that seamlessly entwined the scientific and epistemological bases of paleontology with the hands-on artistic techniques, and this led to a structure that attempted to educate both professional and lay readers by providing context-driven examples.

This book was an enormous education to me in how damned difficult it is to craft a coherent structure of an entirely new book without much outside feedback. The first month or so of its creation was dedicated entirely to what seemed like endless deliberation, revision, and hand-wringing over the structure, approach and focus. I think the decision I went with turned out decently enough, but I still have a lot to learn in this respect.

More terrific Willoughby artwork, The Silky Serikornis (2015). A masterclass of using depth of field to convey scale. From Emily's website, © Emily Willoughby.

Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs has a huge number of images - over 250 - and you created virtually all of them yourself. How much of that was new artwork for this book, and how long did it take to produce? A lot of them seem very recent - were you basically painting 24/7 until the book was finished?

I would estimate that over half of the illustrations are ones that were created specifically for this book, including a large selection of less time-intensive diagrams and sketches. Of the illustrations that were previously completed, many of them were progress shots or thumbnails that haven’t been put to good use until now (I knew there might a good reason someday for me to save progress shots of long-ago artworks!). A handful were also from various projects over the years that never managed to see completion for one reason or another, and some were finished up from early works-in-progress that were subsequently abandoned.

I had about a year total to complete the book from start to finish. I’m still kind of dumbfounded that I managed to get the book together during the same year in which I wrote and defended my Ph.D. dissertation! I have no doubt that’s something I’ll look back on in my twilight years and think “how on earth did I ever have the energy!”

We get to revisit some of your older artworks in Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs which have a slightly different style and mood to your more recent work. Thinking specifically about palaeoart-specific skills, how has your art and approach developed since their creation?

I still have a long way to go, but I like to think that my work has improved tremendously since I first started doing serious paleoart. For one thing, I’ve learned to enjoy reconstructing taxa I’m relatively unfamiliar with, whereas I started out painting feathered theropods and little else. While the new book still largely features dromaeosaurs and their kin, I had a lot more fun than I expected to have on the sauropods, tyrannosauroids, and various ornithischians that were included. For another thing, I’ve expanded my artwork to a variety of media I never worked in regularly early on—oil paint, gouache, acrylics, and graphite.

I’ve also become more comfortable in testing out new ideas and compositions. Recently I’ve been putting more effort into the environment and setting, which I used to think of as a chore that took away from the fun of painting the dinosaurs themselves. But once it starts becoming fun to paint environments, it also becomes easier. My experience is that the single largest improvement in my artwork isn’t so much in a piece’s overall quality per se, but in learning to work more efficiently—better quality per unit time.

As anyone familiar with your portfolio might expect, Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs has a very strong focus on dromaeosaurs and their relatives, especially Deinonychus. What’s the draw of these dinosaurs over sauropods, ornithischians or more rootward theropods?

It’s no secret that my biggest focus in paleoart has always been dromaeosaurs and other feathered coelurosaurs—I’m a feather-fancier, it’s true. Although I did enjoy branching out a bit for this book, dromaeosaurs remain the group of dinosaurs that I find most captivating and arresting. I suppose the reason for this is that feathered dinosaurs were responsible for my introduction to paleoart after a lifetime of obsessive interest in birds and evolution in general. In the early 2000s, I recall reading articles about some of the exquisitely preserved Liaoning fossils, including Sinorthithosaurus, Sinosauropteryx and especially Microraptor. When I first saw a photograph of the fossil of Microraptor in 2003, I was utterly fascinated, and it caused the realization that birds were dinosaurs to register new and profound understanding. The rest is history!

An inescapable conclusion of Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs is that Emily Willoughby ♥ Deinonychus. But her frequent portrayals of this animal are not repeats of palaeoart stereotypes and clich├ęs. In this 2013 painting, Deinonychus is shown opportunistically feeding on a fish, reflecting the less than fussy dietary preferences of living predators. From Emily's website, © Emily Willoughby.

There’s an emotional component to your book that is unusual for discussions about the technicalities of palaeoart. You write about the personal affinities and emotions you’ve developed for certain subjects, and that you regard fossils as not just specimens of not only long-extinct animals, but as long-deceased individuals. An ode to extinct animals, the poem Not Forgotten by Jonathan Kane, ends chapter 1, and you describe Deinonychus as possibly being “the most beautiful animal that ever lived”. There’s a clear attachment to many of your extinct subjects - how much of an influence does this have on your artwork, and do you feel the same about all extinct animals? Or are some subjects “just a job”?

I do think that many natural subjects are beautiful, and it’s hard to not express this when trying to communicate that beauty in my own art. Although I used to think of some natural subjects as “just a job” (especially environments and flora), I feel less that way over time—all natural subjects are beautiful and fascinating, though of course I have my own attachments and biases. Moreover, though, I think that communicating this passion to the public is important to encourage people to think of dinosaurs as real animals, and to cultivate a sense of awe and respect that I feel extinct animals deserve.

You detail both digital and traditional painting techniques in your book. Do you have a preferred medium?

Part of what I enjoy about working in different media is that it’s harder for me to become bored and frustrated. Sometimes I get annoyed at how cluttered and messy my study gets when I work in gouache and (especially) oils for a while, so I switch back to working digitally for a while. Then I may start getting annoyed at how often Photoshop crashes or how Procreate constrains layers and resolution so harshly, so back to gouache it is! Learning and practicing new media is always interesting and keeps me engaged. I need variety. Currently, my favourite medium to work in is Procreate—I love how easy it is to blend, and I can take my iPad to meetings and work. Gouache has always been my traditional medium of choice, but that may change as I work more in acrylics and oils.

I’m also curious to know if you’ve attempted to update traditional paintings when new science forces us to revise older reconstructions.

The one piece of traditional art I spent a lot of time repainting was my 2010 painting of Anchiornis, which I talk about in the book. New to oils at the time, I painstakingly painted a mottled brown and white birdlike critter dashing through a lush green jungle. It was literally days after I was finally satisfied with its completion that the first color study was published, showing that Anchiornis was more likely to be black, grey and red than brown and white. I could have justified the piece as a juvenile, subspecies, or female, but instead I repainted the animal and adjusted the background to the new contrast it required. I’m glad I did, and I sometimes do include minor updates to older pieces, but usually I prefer composing a new piece altogether when new data comes to light.

Emily's 2010 take on Anchiornis huxleyi. This is the second version of this painting which had to be redone after new data on Anchiornis palaeocolour was published shortly after the original's completion. From Emily's website, © Emily Willoughby.

The palaeoart community has long been dominated by males, both in terms of practitioners and fans, such that Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs is among the first, if not the first, palaeoart guide written by a female author and artist. With so much discussion around the lack of diversity in palaeontology, your book feels like an important milestone in diversifying the voices shaping palaeoart. Was this something you were conscious of when creating your book

I don’t think it occurred to me at the time that I was the first, given that there aren’t many paleoart guides out there to begin with. But I’m honoured to represent that milestone if so, and I hope the example may encourage others. I’ve already gotten a few emails and even an interview for a project from a few school-aged girls who want to become palaeoartists, which is frankly one of the very most rewarding things about working in this field to me.

You cover a heck of a lot of ideas and techniques in your book, from finding inspiration among natural settings to building models, to constraining colour patterns using living animals to modifying modern plant leaves to resemble those of the past… and much more. Out of this extensive toolbox, are there any that you regard as especially essential - the one or two that, whatever your approach to palaeoart is, we should all be doing?

Remember that prehistoric subjects were living things, and look to other living things (their anatomy, their ecology and evolution, their behaviour, the way they move and interact in their environment, and so on) for inspiration to capture that sense of lifey-ness that lifeless things are meant to have in paleoart. Although many prehistoric organisms were quite unlike anything alive today, they all share an important thing: they evolved to live and move in their environments. I think that this single injunction can go a long way towards facilitating accurate, interesting, and unique paleoart.

It’s not always wise to ask about the Next Big Project so soon after finishing one, but are there any big Willoughby projects we should look out for soon? Emily Willoughby’s SuperBig Dulux Coffee Table Book of Dromaeosaur Art has a nice ring to it...

So glad that you asked! I am about halfway through a new project: Marks on Time, an illustrated anthology of natural history poetry written by my coauthor Jonathan. This will be a collection of 25 poems about evolution, dinosaurs, and human nature, accompanied by about 40 full-colour and brand-new illustrations. If any publishing agents happen to be reading this, please drop me an email. ;)


Thanks again to Emily for her interview responses, and I wish her all the success her book deserves. Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs is available now from Crowood Press, priced £18.99, as well as from all the usual book retailers.

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