Friday, September 16, 2011

Andrea Cau's Palaeo-art Commandments

So I'm way behind on things I wanted to say in our recent discussion on accuracy in palaeo-art(funny how a move to Hong Kong with less than 4 days notice can really disrupted everything in your life... this is why I've been pretty quiet as of late if you were wondering by the way!).

I wanted to touch on a tangent of palaeo-art discussion from earlier this year that didn't really take off (which is due to the tremendous year it has been in meta palaeo-art topics!). These are the commandments of palaeo-art...

In his essay, Taylor Reints touched on the "ten commandments of palaeo-art" drafted by Italian blogger extrodinare Andrea Cau. This list of directives is intended for us artists, and they have sat somewhat untouched or discussed within the palaeo-art community beyond David Maas and Stu Pond.

I thought why not throw the spot light on the commandments right now. Do artists need such a code for palaeo-art? More to the point is this code the one we should be using?

In case you don't know the commandments here they are as translated as I could collect. The fact these were originally written in Italian is probably why they were missed or skipped by most. The original set that hit the net in English was very babblefishy, and many of the commandments were unreadable. Hopefully I haven't botched them too bad, and if any of our Italian readership could correct me on mistakes or misinterpretations in the comments that'd be appreciated!

  1. Science is the source of paleoart

  2. 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

  3. Thou shall not make an idol, model or inspiration out of any paleoart, and you will only be inspired by living creatures

  4. Thou shall not call a work “paleoart” in vain

  5. Thou shall honor anatomy and ecology

  6. Thou shall not plagiarize

  7. Thou shall not create mythology

  8. Thou shall not create false reconstruction

  9. Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s techniques

  10. Thou shall not desire to impress others

So there they are again. Soak them in and please do let us know your thoughts in the comment section or your own post (send us an email at with your essay on the topic if you're not a member of the blog). Are these the rules we palaeo-artists should all be following?

For what their worth here is my two cents... I don't think these are particularly helpful. They read to me as a desired rule set imposed by an outsider. While I can understand the motivation behind them, as the one who actually has to follow them I just don't like them at all!

I also really dislike the connection to the 10 commandments. Sure it is a cute literary reference, but I have problems with trying to connect palaeo with something so overtly religious. I'm also not a big fan of dogmatic rule sets. In my opinion THE palaeo-art rule guide should approach the artist like their a descent human being, and talk to them not at them.

Much like David Maas I had problems with 9 and 10 as an artist. Every artist I've ever encountered seeks praise and recognition for and through their work. Otherwise we'd hide it from the world and you won't know we were an artist! I can't see this ever flying in face of artists being some of the greatest attention seekers out there!

Number 9 might suffer from translation issues, but to me the not coveting what other people are doing or how they're doing it doesn't work. I'm going to be using the same techniques recreate prehistoric critters (painting, CGing, sculpting etc). Not being able to copy style is equally meaningless. How different do the pieces have to be? How do you judge? Why does it matter anyways? To me the issue is if I'm copying someone to the point where we're indistinguishable. In that case I'm plagiarizing, and that is a real problem!

Speaking of plagiarism, rule #6 is a pretty no brainer for any creative field (whether it be art or science or whatever), and I don't think we need to codify it. Those who are violating this rule are beyond a simple 10 step set of guidelines in their moral conduct in the first place, and we probably need to engage them a bit more aggressive manner.

Number 4 not calling something Palaeo-art in vain... means what exactly? This verges on scientific snobbery in my opinion. Being palaeo-art does NOT mean something has to be a scientific reconstruction...

Number 2 while I understand an infusion of living analogues is a good thing, misses the point. Fossils should be the number one reference, and the living animals should merely be additional inspiration. Looking through many of the palaeo-art memes that people complain about it is funny how most are due to the artist referencing ONLY a modern animal (here for an example)!Number 3 is okay, but again very preachy. While you shouldn't outright stick to someone else's reconstruction, taking some direction or inspiration from them is fine.

Numbers 7 and 8 I will tackle in my next post. I really am skeptical of this attempted paradigm for palaeo-art (as I'm sure you've noticed over the years!), and I think a proactive approach (rather than retroactive name calling/criticisms) is needed. This I will be getting to in my next post.

I do really like number 1, and it can stay (however I consider any picture or a Dinosaur, no matter how bad based on science if I can tell what it is supposed to be... it is funny how much even terrible pictures still get right)! Number 5 is also a reasonable request (though I don't know if I'd want to REQUIRE it of non-scientific illustrations... and people this can not be over emphasised, there are scientific illustration pieces of palaeo-art, but not all palaeo-art is a scientific illustration!)

These are just my thoughts, and totally feel free to disagree...


Alessio said...

Yeah, Andrea Cau is a very talented expert on theropods, granted, but sometimes i guess he's too much "dogmatic" regarding science... Agree with you, by the way, i don't like this sort of snobbery which is lurking these days in paleontology, among scientists and non-expert dino fans either.

Scott Hartman said...

In all fairness to Andre, he's clearly trying to write his guidelines in a King James English sort of format (as popularized by the famous biblical translation) and he's doing it in Italian, so I'd hesitate to read any snobby intent into it.

Personally I think they are good guidelines, although most artists are in fact influenced by the techniques of others, so expecting all paleo-artists to not examine or imitate the techniques of other paleo-artists is basically telling them to find non-paleo artists to learn from.

Not that people should try to immitate a specific style (and again there may be a translation issue), but emulating a technique is usually how people learn.

By the way, I think I have a different understanding of the terms "paleo-art" and "scientific illustration" - I consider scientific illustration to basically be a synonym of "technical illustration", but one that more frequently refers to the diagrams used in research papers (as opposed to engineering, architectural, or medical illustrations). I don't generally see paleo-art as a form of scientific illustration, but rather as an artform which incorporates paleontological data into an art piece.

This may seem like nitpicking (and maybe it is), but in paleo-art you worry about composition, lighting, and a host of other aesthetic concerns that are totally separate from conveying data. In scientific illustration the entire point is to convey specific data as clearly as possible and without anything else obscuring it.

So in my opinion it's the intent and demands on the illustrator that separates them (although there are probably some shades of gray in there).

I also tend to think that paleo-art must be based on paleontology, so if you're incorporating dinosaurs or other extinct animals into a non-science image then it's fantasy art (which is a perfectly valid genre). Many fantastic dinosaur illustrations (e.g. most of James Gurney's work) are fantasy art, and people shouldn't take that as a slight.

Robert Sloan said...

I think I'm with you on this. The ninth and tenth points annoyed me immensely. Since when do the motives of an artist come into it?

Is a good accurate reconstruction done solely because the artist wanted to post it online somehow less worthy than if that artist was hired by someone who needed an illustration? What if the artist did the work for attention and then someone offered to buy it? Did it change at all between the version on the artist's blog and the version on the book cover?

I also appreciated your point that the fossils are the primary source for paleo-art. Living animals are a secondary source - important because fossils don't usually have skin, muscle, fur or feathers, but not as important as accuracy to the remains of the animal you're drawing.

So this is another list. I'm sure Andrea Cau meant well by it and borrowing the King James wording is traditional for people using that hook. It's just that he wound up way too narrow in his definitions of paleo art.

I prefer yours - the simple outlines I drew for my granddaughter to color are still paleo-art even if they're not that detailed. They were still reasonably accurate to the best of my current knowledge and they interested her in paleo-art. So I suppose that's another higher motive, my coloring pages were educational.

They were also good practice for me because I did so many of them. I created livelier poses and scenes with that much practice. I often did them from memory and that trained my memory to better accuracy. I checked some later out of curiosity against photos of skeletal mounts and can see a lot of improvement over the years since I started doing them.

Most of those never got posted. I still did them for attention and praise though. My granddaughter's smiles and the hours we spent happily drawing and coloring while dino-documentaries ran on my computer screen are some of the best memories of my life.

Brett said...

Far to strict and ridged for any artist to stick to, unless you want un interesting sterile images with no charm or interest to anyone outside of paleontology. That I would say would be Scott's Scientific Illustrations. Artist will push, or they will get bored and move on.

All the crap with Dinosaur Revolution is a prefect example, that wasn't made for the 'pros' it was made for the general public and I thought (with a few exceptions) it was brilliant and fun, and why was that the outside the box thinking. Sure they may have been a bit over the top but I've seen my animals do far more human things. I think this 'facts only' thinking is going to make fore some of the most un interesting dino art around. And boring science as well. We're only a few steps away from slow and sluggish again...

My 2 cents, and maybe a few pennies more;)



Andrea Cau said...

I'm not "dogmatic" about science: that's would be nonsense. At the same time, I separe science and non-science based on science, even in paleoart.

I suspect some of you misunderstood my "commandmenst".
My concept of paleoart is less inclusive than most of yours: when I say "paleoart" I say "scientific illustration" of most of you.
I'm not talking about pop-art based on paleontology, or other forms of art inspired by paleontology but outside scientific illustration.
Therefore, don't read my words for things I has never included in my paleoart words.

Traumador said...

Alessio- For the record I don't think Andrea is dogmatic about science, nor dogmatic at all himself.

All I was saying is I found THE rule set dogmatic.

So this is not a personal attack against Mr. Cau. I was just pointing out why as an artist I don't think this rule set is very helpful.

Scott- I want to emphasis all my commentary was restricted to the commandment set and NOT Mr. Cau in any way. I do not find him snobbish. I did find rule #4 to be though. This is definately due to the biblical language (and the translation probably didn't help either) This rule is saying there is correct or incorrect palaeo-art out there (otherwise how do I call it so in vain). What exactly is this critera? Who set this criteria? How does one objectively evaluate it?

Short answer there is no such agreed upon critera (even among the experts), so to me it is just a matter of opinion, and that than voids it as a universal rule...

Now as for scientific illustration vs. palaeo-art vs. technical illusrtation, I'm borrowing from Glendon's definations (which I'm finding are loosely agreed upon within the professional field). Most of the pros I've talked to (including 4 big name palaeo-artists) a scientific illustration is aomething that assists illustrate findings, data, or information in a scientifically accurate manner.

So following this rough defination, the technical illustrations you mention would fall under this, but as noted fall under. They themselves would be a subgenre/category of scientific illustration. A friend of mine draws pictures for use in bird watching books, and they are considered by those in the bird watching community as scientific illusrations.

The sticking point becomes how do we varify accuracy is present or not. The professionals I've talked to often consider being commissioned and published in a formal document (whether it be paper, book, press release etc.) the key to being a scientific illustration. So where there becomes an interesting discussion is the importance of this being commissioned. The professionals are of the opinion unless you are hired by an expert (who essentially does artistic peer review on your work) anything you do (no matter how researched or accurate) is just amateur work, and in essence could be thrown into the "fantasy" scrap bin... as it has not been vetted by a real scientist.

Now I personally don't agree with that automatic fantasy classification. However I do recognize they are on to a key point when we are talking about accuracy in palaeo-art. Unless your work is accompanying a scientific publication of some sort, there can be no gurantee of accuracy or science. Yes it could be in there, but there is no actual proper validating criteria. Being used by an actual scientist to me is a seal of approval, and there at moment isn't any other reliable one out there.

So do we get in knife fights about unpubished works, as to who work is more palaeo-art than everyone elses? Or do we just accept that outside the properly vetted work there will always be very degrees of accuracy (and quality).

To me if your piece has something recognizably prehistoric in it, it is palaeo-art... What sort of palaeo-art is the better question!

Robert- I wish my grandfather did that for me!!! Those sound awesome!

Brett- If we pool our cents maybe we can buy something cool :P

I agree about the scientific backlash of the past 3 or so years. It seriously feels like some people want us to regress to the slow sluggish days! Sure some of the Bakker stuff isn't correct, but that doesn't mean these weren't dynamic critters...

Traumador said...

Andrea- Thank you for your reply. Just for the record I didn't mean any of this as a personal attack against yourself. I simply was approaching your proposed framework as an active palaeo-artist.

So knowing what you had in mind by "palaeo-art" helps a lot. the defination of palaeo-art seems to be one of the biggest contreversies in the field...

To me palaeo-art should be the greater umbrella term for any work with prehistoric subject matters in it. Otherwise what are these works of art to be called? We already have a fantastic, but yet nebulous name for them "palaeo-art" (speaking from my recent debates with the paleontography crowd in private emails in which they assert this term shouldn't be used as it was originally used in the 1800s for cave paintings). There is certainly room for subgenres within this to determine works of fantasy or pop culture vs. more scientific endeavours.

So I argue instead of battling everyone over the defination of palaeo-art, attempt to erect a taxonomy or classification system within this greater term...

Taking your rule set within its intended context, scientific works of palaeo-art, I STILL have the same problems I outlined in this post.

I think the problem really lies in the spirt of the 10 commandments (as in from the bible... but passes over to yours by way of structuring and philosophy). They are telling people what not to do, so are in esssence deconstructive of human behaviour. The problem is art is constructive in its nature. We aren't looking to be limited by boundaries. Rather art by its nature is looking to knock over all such constructs.

I think the rule set should be in the spirt of "do this" rather than "don't do this" if you want to address an artist in a manner they'll respond too.

Some of the biggest sinners in the past have been artists. Commandments then are probably not the best route to go ;)

Andrea Cau said...

I've never considered this post an attack against me. It's an interesting discussion between a less inclusive (mine) and a more inclusive (your) concept of paleoart.
I think both can and must co-exist: I'm mainly a scientist, and I usually am interested on scientific illustration. This does not mean that I'm against forms of art inspired by paleontology.
Art, by definition, has no rules. At the same time, scientific illustration (my "paleoart sensu stricto") has to follow some rules, not necessarily all those listed in my commandments.
This is what I meant when I wrote that post.

Last note, I think there's not at all snobbery in paleontology. What someone considers "snobbery" is love for the scientific method and desire to popularise dinosaur science beyond a "childish" stereotype that, in my opinion, is the way most people outside the paleontological (and paleo-fan) community see this science.

Traumador said...

Andrea- Cool! I just wanted to emphasis that non-personal point (I love your blog, I should have added :P). Sometimes emotional context gets lost on the web, so I like to really make a point this was meant as a civil discussion. (The only person I've ever been directly hostile to is Gregory Paul after his email debacle a few months ago).

There certainly is something to expanding the public's view of the science and prehistory itself. I find it is the tone one does it, and the methods that are important in the snob versus non snob issue.

I'm in the midst of writing up a post on how I think we should be addressing more science in palaeo-reconstructions. I see yourself Andrea as a key figure in helping us blaze a path into a glorious new palaeo-art future!

So please stand by...