Tuesday 30 August 2022

Palaeoart reference review: the Beasts of the Mesozoic 1/35 Tyrannosaurus rex

"Hi, I'm the 1/35 unpainted Beasts of the Mesozoic Tyrannosaurus. You may remember me from this Kickstarter campaign and the Creative Beast Studio website. But now I'm being reviewed at this blog to evaluate my box claim of being an 'ideal 3D reference for palaeoart'. How do I fare? Read on!"

Now here’s something I never thought I’d have cause to write: a review of a commercially available dinosaur model marketed, at least in part, as a palaeoart reference. It’s testament to the rising popularity of palaeoart and the growth of the number of practitioners that products are now being advertised specifically to people who don’t just enjoy palaeoart, but enjoy creating palaeoart.

The model in question is Creative Beast Studio’s new Beasts of the Mesozoic 1/35 unpainted Tyrannosaurus, a poseable dinosaur figure with the very words “ideal 3D reference for paleoart!” printed on the box. David Silva’s Beasts of the Mesozoic (hereafter BotM) line has been creating quite a stir among collectors for bringing the detail and articulation of modern action figures to dinosaurs. The current range includes dromaeosaurs and ceratopsians, and the tyrannosaur line is inbound. The frequency of some models being sold out from online stores is a testament to their popularity and, with individual price tags mostly upwards of $50, BotM products are clearly in the realm of poseable models for grown ups rather than children's action figures.

Despite not being much of a dinosaur model collector myself, I preordered the BotM Tyrannosaurus specifically because I saw its potential as an artistic reference. The preorder price was $65 + shipping, which is the same as the preorder cost for the fully painted version that will be released later this year. I received my order earlier this month and it’s joined a small collection of other bits and pieces used in my efforts at restoring ancient animals, including model animals, replica fossils, 3D printed materials and my own crude constructions of wire, cardboard and sculpting materials. I feel that building animals in 3D before painting them is probably the best way to approach palaeoart — it was, after all, the practise that Charles Knight swore by — but the time, space, money and skills needed to create 3D models for every restoration are not available to everyone. Digital models, either made ourselves or sourced online, avoid some of these issues but are arguably less satisfying and informative to work from than physical ones. Holding and manipulating a real object conveys information about form and proportions that we may not get when viewing a 3D representation on a screen, and I find it much easier to experiment with light and shadow in the real world. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll use a digital model over nothing, but I’d much rather have a real, physical reference than a virtual one if given a choice.

I’m thus fully onboard with the sale of quality palaeoart reference models and — to my knowledge —the BotM Tyrannosaurus enters this field unchallenged by competitors offering models specifically as palaeoart reference aids. Indeed, it's rare to see an artistic reference offered for any type of reptile, as animal art guides are terribly biased towards mammals and birds. In this sense, advertising the BotM Tyrannosaurus as an art reference is quite exceptional, but being the only player on the field doesn’t tell us anything about quality. Let's get into this: how does the BotM Tyrannosaurus fare as a reference tool, and what are you getting for your $65?

Straight out of the box, it’s apparent that the BotM Tyrannosaurus is a high-quality product. The moulding detail is superb and it doesn't look or feel at all cheap or plasticky. At around 35 cm long the model is big enough to view its details without it dominating your workspace, and this was the main reason I opted for the 1/35 version and not its gigantic, almost 70 cm long 1/18 counterpart (even if that does look extremely cool). Although possessing a satisfying heft, the model is small and light enough to hold comfortably in one hand, which is a big plus for something you’re potentially drawing from.

To show off the detailing and reference potential of the BotM Tyrannosaurus, I took it outside to my garden for these shots. The sculpting picks up light and shadow extremely well and looks great even on a phone camera. Note that, among other poses, you can achieve the Prehistoric Planet courting posture if you want the first-hand experience of being flirted with by an 8-tonne murder reptile.

Not that you need to hold this model for it to retain a pose. A variety of interchangeable lower leg components are provided that can be used to create a range of postures and demeanours. The two solid legs are probably your default setting as they provide a stable base for free-standing on even slightly uneven surfaces, and you can make plenty of adjustments to the head, torso and tail before the model topples over. If you’re after something more dynamic, you can swap in the mobile leg pieces which, in addition to adjustable ankle joints, permit attachment of different feet to create distinct parts of a step cycle. The solid legs can be pinned to a base so that, when paired with an adjustable leg, the model can be positioned as if running or walking (although it's not recommended to leave it in this state permanently). Across the body, some 22 points of articulation allow for posing the jaws, head, neck, mid-torso, tail, legs and arms, often offering rotation as well as extension and flexion. The tail is articulated in several places and sports a wire-infused end piece that can continue any arc made with the more proximal, jointed segments.

I initially found the joints to be extremely stiff to the point where I couldn’t distinguish their rigidity from having reached the figure’s arthrological limits. Paperwork provided with the model acknowledges this and recommends heating the joints in water or with a hairdryer rather than forcing them, and this indeed loosens them somewhat. Happily, early fears that I was going to have to get the hairdryer out every time I wanted to adjust the pose have not been borne out as joint mobility has improved substantially as I’ve worked the model through its paces, so far without any sign of compromising stability.

As you can see in accompanying photos, the model does a great job of filling space around its joints so that we retain that classic T. rex shape no matter what pose we choose. I’m particularly impressed with the adjustable hood-like neck piece that hides the articulation for the neck and head: once you’ve twisted and rotated that head to where you want it, the neck piece can be pulled into the right place. This retention of form around joints comes at the price of some mobility, however, and the posing options are really more about varying standing and walking poses than exploring the full repertoire of joint motion available to a real T. rex. From an art reference perspective, it would be neat to have more flexibility but, realistically, there must always be engineering compromise in a figure like this, especially if we’re also expecting it to stand on its own feet. In all, given the challenges of creating jointed dinosaur models, the BotM Tyrannosaurus is extremely well-executed and looks far better than anything else I've seen attempting the same goal. Even the mouth closes nicely with a very respectable oral seal, despite a wealth of complex internal detail.

Moving on, I quickly want to mention the colour, even if this seems an odd thing to bring up for an unpainted, entirely grey model. I don’t know how much thought went into the specific shade of grey but, in any case, the choice of medium-dark grey works well: it’s neither too light or dark to obscure shadows or highlights and it photographs well. As an aside, I also think this thing looks great as a grey, uniform figure perched on a desk or shelf: it somehow looks more timeless and informative than any of the painted models I have. The option exists to paint this model yourself, of course, but I have no plans to: it works much better as an art reference if it remains a blank canvas.

More images from Tyrannosaurus trip to the garden. I was going for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science's famous high-kicking T. rex on the right, but I think I achieved something closer to Tyrannosaurus after it's stepped on Lego.

Of course, all this fine production will be for nought if the reconstruction itself is off, so what about the anatomy? In short, the BotM Tyrannosaurus is an excellent T. rex restoration for 2022. We would expect nothing less given that it was sculpted by Jake Baardse, the digital sculptor behind the awesome Saurian T. rex (among other excellent artworks). The body proportions are well captured with the laterally expanded and blocky posterior skull region, barrel-shaped torso and deep pelvis that characterise adult Tyrannosaurus all present and correct. Modern soft-tissue highlights include lips, correctly placed nostrils and ear openings, as well as well-rendered muscles of respectable position and volume. In terms of soft-tissue bulk, it hits the sweet spot looking like a healthy animal, being neither too lean nor too tubby. All this comes together so that, unlike many (perhaps most?) Tyrannosaurus models, this undoubtedly represents T. rex rather than a generic carnivorous dinosaur, a generic tyrannosaurid or — shudder — a Jurassic Park knock off.

It would be remiss not to mention the enormous amount of fine details in the sculpt. They include tarsal scutes, an individually crafted tongue, skin creases, calluses, large facial scales and bosses above the eyes. Some of these are necessarily speculative — remember that, for all its fame, we’re still mostly in the dark on exactly what Tyrannosaurus looked like — but it all feels appropriately grounded in what we know of theropod dinosaur soft-tissues. There’s nothing here that anyone can firmly point to as “wrong”. I wonder if some will lament the absence of protofeathers, but the wholly-scaly approach is probably better for an art reference than one where body contours are buried under speculative tufts. What we’ve essentially got here is the foundation anatomy you must include when drawing Tyrannosaurus, over which artists can accessorise or augment based on their own views. Perhaps the only genuine anatomical quibble I have is that the extremely fine (mostly submillimetre) scales across the body are too big for a tyrannosaur at this scale (T. rex scales were tiny, just 1-2 mm across) but I can look past this. It gives the model an appropriately rough texture rather than a gleaming, smooth finish and, hey, if nitpicking scale size is the only real complaint with a dinosaur restoration, that’s normally a sign of a job well done.

With the BotM Tyrannosaurus acing every test, we’ve reached a final question: the above is all well and good, but does anyone need a Tyrannosaurus palaeoart reference figure, what with the near infinite numbers of specimen photos, diagrams, 3D scans, model skulls and skeletons etc. that are also available? Surely this is something that’s just “nice to have” rather than essential? To test this, I returned to one of my previous Tyrannosaurus restorations to see how it stood up to the BotM sculpt and… I immediately noticed errors in my work. Not major glaring super errors, but things that I’d want to get right and was glad to fix. Our familiarity with T. rex makes it easy to forget that Tyrannosaurus was a pretty unusual theropod and, while it’s easy to draw something that approximates it, completely nailing T. rex can be an artistic challenge even with a whole folder of 2D reference material. I’ve yet to craft a whole illustration using the BotM T. rex but I can already see it’s going to be a valuable palaeoart aid when that happens.

What difference does a good 3D reference make? Comparing an image I completed a few months back with the BotM Tyrannosaurus revealed a few goofs, some gleaned from less-accurate references, and others from my own miscalculations of body shape. The biggest adjustments here concern skull shape and leg position, both of which are much better in the right image than in the original. And yes, this dark, dark image is probably the worst example I could have used for showing the positive effects of this model on refining T. rex anatomy. Slow clap.

And I think that speaks for itself as a conclusion. Is the Beasts of the Mesozoic Tyrannosaurus ideal for crafting palaeoart, as it says on the box? Absolutely, and it’s a strong recommendation from me to grab one if you’re in the regular habit of drawing king tyrants. It may, indeed, be the single best artistic reference tool for drawing adult Tyrannosaurus available and we’d be absolutely fine if the world was flooded with T. rex artwork based on it. To that end, my fingers are crossed that other species in the BoTM range get similar art reference treatment, being scaled to handheld proportions and released with a flat grey colouring. A BotM line aimed at artists would not only be extremely useful for individual palaeoart practitioners but would benefit palaeoart as a whole: like all artforms of natural things, development and investment in quality reference resources can only help our collective understanding and ability to visualise our subject matter, and stronger, more interesting art is the result.

The Beasts of the Mesozoic 1/35 Tyrannosaurus is available to preorder from here, as is its bigger 1/18 counterpart and the upcoming range of tyrannosaur figures. The full Beasts of the Mesozoic line can be viewed at the Creative Beast Studio website.

Enjoyed this post? Support this blog for $1 a month and get free stuff!

This blog is sponsored through Patreon, the site where you can help artists and authors make a living. If you enjoy my content, please consider donating as little as $1 a month to help fund my work and, in return, you'll get access to my exclusive Patreon content: regular updates on upcoming books, papers, paintings and exhibitions. Plus, you get free stuff - prints, high-quality images for printing, books, competitions - as my way of thanking you for your support. As always, huge thanks to everyone who already sponsors my work!