Paleo Art comes of age…

Which doesn’t mean gets dull and predictable. On the contrary, the abundance of “new” fossils  has given birth to a generation of artistic and scientific iconoclasts whose bold new vision is far more rooted in the past than any older generation’s was. The inimitable polymath and prodigiously productive blogger Darren Naish, a serious anatomist, was raised on the same romantic classical dinos as I was; it is hard not to admire the old lizard- tailed reptiles as art, and their artists as virtuoso painters. But, as he says in the intro to All Yesterdays, an entertaining mixture of paleontology and art that could be a manifesto for the clear- eyed new breed of artist- scientists, “Rudolph F. Zallinger’s animals– most famously depicted in the Zallinger mural at Yale’s Peabody Museum– were clearly done with only a superficial reference to the skeletons of the species concerned.” The great Charles Knight knew better, but he “…gave dinosaurs small, slender muscles that did not match their bones (dinosaurs actually seem to have had enormous, more bird- like muscles) and frequently drew dinosaurs freehand- style, again with what looks like poor attention to the proportions and nuances of the actual skeletons.”

The old paradigm was overthrown in the seventies, when I was younger than Darren is now, by Ostrom at Yale and the flamboyant Robert Bakker out in the Badlands, and by John McLoughlin’s first brilliant attempts to illustrate the dinos as, well, birds. But neither Bakker’s description of Tyrannosaurus as a “Roadrunner from Hell”,  nor McLoughlin’s deadly genetically reconstructed Imperial pets in his his 1983 novel The Helix and the Sword , the Deinonychids Moscow and Washington, penetrated pop consciousness; Jurassic Park’s big “Velociraptors” (not really), sisters of the Emperor’s killers, were as reptilian as lizards, which made as much sense as having naked chickens or eagles walking around. Raptor types actually had feathers more like a goshawk’s than a kiwi’s, never mind scales– we have found the feather insertions for big asymmetrical quills in their arms.

Bakker with dinosaur

McLoughlin self- portrait with “social hybrid of man and wolf” (his phrase)

Researchers and artists like Greg Paul and Luis Rey have since blown the old paradigm to hell with their properly birdy angular anatomy; Rey in particular adds wild primary colors and patterns, not because he knows what color they were but because both birds and for that matter lizards tend to use pattern and color in their rituals; the few fossils that show Mesozoic feather patterns indicate he is leaning in the right direction.

There are three new books that exemplify the new tradition. All Yesterdays is at once the most explicitly theoretical and “in your face”, but also the most whimsical; Pterosaurs , by Mark Witton (who also has an excellent blog) is a genuine monograph by a expert, using the same rigorous standards, showing us what is known to date about creatures most people would assume were from another planet than ours, contemporary with not only dinosaurs but perfectly recognizable birds; A Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and other Winged Dinosaurs by Matthew Martiniuk is the first book I know that simply poses various theropods and other later animals as though they were birds as to body carriage, how they hold their arms or wings– something I see with relief and consider overdue– and puts them in “Bird Guide” format.

The one for all naturalists with a sense of humor is All Yesterdays; after Darren declares that “this book is firmly grounded in a skeptical, rigorous, evidence- led effort to study and depict anatomy: the approach promoted by Paul, Anton, and the like…”,  he reminds us that things like fat and feathers and integument, “manes, ruffs, , thick furry coats…”; not to mention behavior, can all affect appearance. Then he hands over the reins to artists John Conway and C.N. Kosemen and lets them run.

Every one of these reconstructions is original; some look rather like dinosaurs, some like odd little mammals (see the fluffy little Leaellynasaura, with its lemur tail held upright in a snowstorm); some are fairly conventional but doing unfamiliar things; one is fat, two invisible, and the Elasmosauruses in neck-swinging contests look more like sea worms in a colony than the Loch Ness monster. Perhaps my favorite is their reconstruction of the Therizinosaurus, the first depiction of this ridiculous beast that has made any sense to me at all: an upright, long-tongued avian giant sloth with kiwi feathers*, browsing high branches with a prehensile tongue.

The last chapter is hilarious: reconstructions of present-day animals by future paleontologists. The cat resembles a carnivorous iguanoid with mammalian teeth and staring eyes; swans and hornbills are reptilian and slick like yesterday’s dinosaurs; the elephant has immense tusks but no trunk, the python legs, and the baboon is venomous. The most ridiculous, though no more so than some of today’s versions, is a manatee that looks like a vegetarian lion, imaginatively reconstituted from a single bone, standing in its mountain meadow.

Pterosaurs is a serious scientific monograph illustrated by the author, with a thing on the cover that looks like an alien aircraft racing through a Martian sky.

 I am not qualified to judge it, only to read it in awe; I have read all the modern books on these flying creatures, and this is far and away the best. I do believe these are the oddest vertebrates ever to live on earth. They ranged from the size of a tiny songbird to the span at least of a large aircraft, and were astonishingly successful. The science is rigorous, the speculation intelligent, and the illustrations, though Witton is not a great artist, are breath-taking. Either you like this kind of thing or you don’t. But I’ll most likely keep this book until I die. Look at the examples here for a clue.

The last book is is striking in part because it is so familiar; the main difference between it and any bird guide you use is that a lot of these birds are scaled with a human figure, because some of them are pretty big. I have been looking for bland, placid silhouettes of things like Deinonychus and Velociraptor ever since John McLaughlin asked me (almost a dinosaurian eon ago) why the hell every carnivore in prehistory is shown with mouth agape, roaring. And why don’t artists see how bird-like the hand structure of raptorial dinosaurs is? I don’t mean to use the word “bland” as a criticism; what I mean is normal, unexcited. I expect if you were watching these creatures through binoculars and they didn’t know you were there, they would look just like this.

Second from the top is that notorious fowl, Deinonychus herself

*Here is an almost believable version that is more courting pigeon than sloth.

4 thoughts on “Paleo Art comes of age…”

  1. I read Tetzoo every chance I get. I also listen to the podcast. Darren and I have been on some "interesting" discussion on Facebook with creationists in "cryptozoology circles."

    "Social hybrid of man and wolf" is a pretty good species.

  2. How appropriate a subject after I just returned from a gathering that had the fascinating paleontologist Philip Currie from Alberta as the main speaker! I was fortunate enough to get to talk with him and his wife a good bit, and I had to ask what he thought of the "Jurassic Park" movies. He generally enjoyed them(despite some disagreement with certain aspects of the portrayals, although a LOT more has been learned since the first in the series came out!), but he gave the movies great kudos for what they did for public perception, saying that in an instant, the general public was FINALLY brought up to date on more modern perceptions of dinosaurs, and his museum attendance jumped up instantly by 40%! He said that the very nature of questions he got from people changed(for the better) after those movies came out!(and "Jurassic Park 4" is in production as we speak! Yee-Haw!) He also said that artists have an extremely important role in the whole process of learning about and understanding dinosaurs…..L.B. P. S.–hope this gets through–yer blog isn't coming up entirely on my computer–don't know what the problem is. I can't access and read Cat's Lesotho adventures just now, dangit!

  3. Knight knew better but made all his dinosaurs have skinny legs? Hmmmmmm….some yes, many no. Perhaps you should peruse some more Knight pics before you speak. Zallinger got more details right than he got wrong. Just glanced at the skeletons? If he just glanced and produced what he did, he was a genius. You can try it out if you want; probably are no armed ogres stationed in your house to prevent you. I can say a lot more, both bad and good, but no need.


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