Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Philosofossilising- Is it Science or Art?

This is a reply to the question:

Just how important is scientific accuracy in Palaeo-art? Is palaeontology, and by association those who follow the technical side of the science, becoming too judgemental towards the artistic efforts of palaeo-artists?

This is an individual opinion on this topic. To read a number of different peoples' answer to this question click this link here. If you have your own answer, read the last paragraph of this post for details on how to get yours posted on ART Evolved.

This post is brought to us by guest contributor Taylor Reints of the blog Beasts Evolved.

I've never really discussed palaeoart, or paleoart, which is the art (or science) of reconstructing, restoring, drawing, sculpting, painting and even animating prehistoric creatures before. We do know, however, that paleoart is restoring prehistory, but its a subdivision of... what? Art... science... paleontology - all of these come to mind. Is paleoart science or is it art?

Science or Art?

The amount of scientific involvement, paleoart's necessities and criteria are all discussed here. It seems that paleoart is a type of science and should be more like that, being cut to the scientific edge of correctness and accuracy. When paleoart is associated with art, usually there is more inferred speculation or even just some fantasy drawings. I'm a believer in science-paleoart, for without science and paleontology what is it?

Speculation in appearance, behavior and even coloration needs to take serious consideration into the science-art of paleoart. Without accuracy, what would the purpose of paleoart even be? This reminds me of Andrea Cau's wonderful ten commandments of paleoart:

I - Science is the source of paleoart.
II - Thou shalt have no other reference to the outside of the living creatures, because they represent the first extinct animals, you must be able to represent existing.
III - Thou shalt not make any idol, model or inspiration from the past or living paleoartist, because only nature is your inspiration.
IV - Do not call a work "Paleoart" in vain
V - Honor the anatomy and ecology
VI - Do not plagiarize
VII - Do not create mythology
VIII - Do not create false reconstruction
IX - You shall not covet other technique
X - not the desire to impress others

It is important paleoart is not biased towards art, for what is the reconstruction without science? Stu Pond of Paleo Illustrata wrote an excellent post in April about the purpose of and what is paleoart. Two commandments surprised him, as well as many other people,

VII - Do not create mythology
VIII - Do not create false reconstruction

Mythology refers to inferring behavior and extra ornamentation. Reconstructed behavior, in my opinion, is fine and adds pizzazz to a paleoartistic piece. "False reconstruction"... you wouldn't place an Iguanodon and Coelophysis coexisting in a grassy field, right? That's the thing being described here.


There should be much scientific involvement in restoring a prehistoric animal. All of reality should go into it, in my personal opinion. There are various differentiations in this term's definition from artist-to-artist. I just like restoring animals with a white background, not guessing or inferring a lot. However, behavior can be inferred, coloration can, ornamentation... As long as its not too extravagant.

Taylor Reints- Coauthor of Beasts Evolved

ART Evolved is very interested in other opinions on this topic, and would welcome your answer to this question. If you would like to enter an article on "Just how important is scientific accuracy in Palaeo-art? ", please read the brief criteria here, and send your essay to


hypnosis benefits said...

I must say both science and art.

Taylor Reints said...

Thank you for featuring me on Art Evolved! I really appreciate it!

Traumador said...

Right off the get go, I must admit, I've always had a problem with these commandments as some of them are showing signs of just being babblefish (or google) translated. Number two in particular is just utter nonsense.

I hope someone who speaks Italian could help us out by tranlsating them into solid English. I'm sure in their native tongue these all were very good sounding, but when I hit number two I stop taking the whole list seriously.

Now onto what you're saying Taylor. I like how you've nailed the scientific ties to palaeo-art. I totally agree with you... If we're talking SCIENTIFIC ILLUSTRATION palaeo-art!

These guidelines work well for scientific illustration, but again I think we should be cautious in trying to impose the standards of this one subgenre of palaeo-art on the whole field. For one it'll never happen as we can't police or control people's creativity, and more important I personally advocate there is a lot society and the sciences can gain from not as scientific restorations. (Think of all the bad Dinosaur movies, inaccurate books, and terribly wrong pictures that helped fuel your love of palaeo!). We just be clear they are NOT scientific illustrations.

I think too many people have a knee jerk reaction when some of us artists on this site say there is no such thing as accuracy in palaeo-art. We're not saying there isn't any science to be had. I totally acknowledge there are definately some solid theories and hypotheises floating in the field of palaeo. However speaking as an artist who has tried to wade through the literature trying to bring what I found there into a fleshed out critter, it is impossible to come up with a concensus on what these animals looked like. I'm talking about a concensus between the experts!

This makes it impossible for an artist to find "the scientific edge of correctness and accuracy". We can pick one of many scientifically backed opinions, but this is not the same as accuracy.

My favourite example from my own working with palaeontologists is from my effort to reconstruct a Shark-Toothed Dolphin for the Uni of Otago.

I want to point out right away I had problems with a whale... An animal for which there are plenty of living analogues and a lot of contemporary research with which to compare the fossil ancestors to. There is still no concensus between the three experts I've read and talked to on what the Shark-toothed Dolphins looked like.

I couldn't find a single agreement on anything from the soft tissue (all three disagreed), musculature (two opinions), organ size or placement (three different opinons), and EVEN the bone alignments and attachments (two conflicting views)!!!

In other words the only universal considered accruate by all three scientists were the measurements of the fossil bones themselves (and in the case of two incomplete bones, the estimated lengths from my three experts were all different!!!).

So it is here I take serious objection to the commandment "Do not create mythology". To claim we know enough to know what is "too extravagant" on things like colour and orienementation is not only dishonest for most critters, but dangerous for the science!

There is no end to the number of creatures alive today that we'd never be able to "accurately" recreate from just a skeleton. If you get even just the colour wrong, we'd consider it inaccurate (think Peacocks or Zebras).

That having been said (in very long form!) I do like your defination Taylor, but just for scientific ilustration.

davidmaas said...

Had a brief discussion about Cau's google translation back when... not absolute, but did present a 'bettered' version:

Andrea Cau said...

Thanks for quoting me.

The II should be translated as:
"II - Thou shalt have no other reference than the living creatures, because they represent the only available animals; before representing those extinct you must be able to represent the existing".

Taylor Reints said...

Sorry Mr. Cau.
I saw David Maas' link, for a much better version, and now, your decalogue makes a lot more sense.
Darn Google Translate. ;)

Maija Karala said...

Andrea Cau's rules are good enough when talking about strict scientific illustration. But there are other kinds of paleoart, and even though one might not like it, it's not going away just claiming that it should not exist.

So, if making non-accurate or wildly imaginative paleoart is not to be called "paleoart", what is it? I mean cartoon dinosaurs, Jurassic Park fanart, paleo-related jokes illustrated, completely paleo-ignorant fine artists using extinct creatures as inspiration, creating hypothetical species... The list is endless.

Does anyone have a name for these genres? Paleo-inspired art? Or could we just call everything paleo-related paleoart, and reserve the term "scientific illustration" for strictly accurate stuff?