Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Judging a book by its cover...

Over on Archosaur Musings Dr. Dave Hone just reviewed the 2nd edition of The Complete Dinosaur. In the comment section an interesting an exchange between Dr. Hone and SVPOW's Dr. Mike Taylor caught my interest.

Dr. Taylor's voiced his dislike of the book's cover due to the art being "cartoonish" in his opinion, and Dr. Hone disagreed with him on. I'll quote the whole thing in a moment, but here is the cover for your contemplation first. Pay attention to your reaction to it. Does this strike you as "professional" level art or something else...
By Bob Walters & Jeff Breeden
Here is the exact discussion (keeping in mind they are friends and this was in a joking tone)...

Mike Taylor- It’s a real shame that the 2nd edition, like the 1st, has a cartoon cover. When I started to be seriously interested in palaeo, I passed over the original TCD because it didn’t look like a serious work. When I finally read it a couple of years later, I realised what I’d been missing — probably the single most useful book I could have read at that stage. I hope the new cover doesn’t lead too many others into making the same mistake.

Dave Hone- I don’t think it’s a cartoon Mike. It’s a proper piece of dinosaur art, and certainly no less ‘serious’ than a great many dinosaur book (The Dinosauria has something not too dissimilar). A simple flick through should make it obvious about the content too given all the references and technical figures..
Nope, I just disagree. I really don’t think it is.
Well, then our profound debate seems to be at an end.
Unless a third party would like to break the tie?

Well it is simply a matter of opinion/ taste. Though to continue just a little Mike, in your original comment you do rather imply that you judged the book by it’s cover. I can’t help feeling that phrase rings a bell somehow… ;)

A few "third parties" ended up weighing in, myself among them. The final verdict on whether this piece was "good" or not is not really important, as Dr. Hone accurately pointed out it is more a matter of taste and opinion. What interested me was the issue Dr. Taylor touches on. How stylization of palaeo-art can affect people's opinion of it (and in this case the book it is attached too).

Overall the composition of this cover art is pretty standard and, apart from perhaps some thickness issues with the Diabloceratops forelimbs, isn't a bad reconstruction. What Dr. Taylor is mostly picking up on is the colour palette choice by the artist. Every colour is bright and vivid, giving it the "cartoony" appearance.

When you take the colour away there is nothing cartoonish or simplistic about this drawing. With colour though I do agree that the palette choices give this piece a surreal and unrealistic appearance.

Whether this is good or bad is up to you. It can be said safely to not be photo realistic.

Does this sort of stylization hurt you or your pieces credibility though?

Obviously if you were trying to impress someone like Dr. Taylor it would.

Yet I know many scientists who currently don't hold an opinion like Dr. Taylor. Dr. Hone obviously being one of them. In addition to him, I know of at least three more that in the past year approached me for possible book covers due to my own stylized work.

I personally was floored when they approached me, and I wonder if the Complete Dinosaur artist had a similar request for this book. In my world if you are a palaeontologist seeking a book cover you'd ask for some of the very best palaeo-art from the top names.

It turns out for years this is exactly what authors have been doing. In the rough words of one of my potential clients "Sure we could go for a more conservative and 'realistic' piece by say Micheal Skrepnick or Julius Csotonyi, but everyone has those these days. You're book just blends into the crowd that way. Lately we've been going for artists and pieces with some character and quirkiness to make our books stand out."

I'm not complaining about this trend in any case myself :P However I found Dr. Taylor's reaction to such a quirky piece very interesting. It certainly attracted his attention, but not in a good way. That said I think I see what my clients are thinking this (and I suspect this book's team were thinking as well). Any attention is good.

In looking through my own books I find that Micheal Skrepnick can be found on nearly 1/3 of all the covers. I certainly adore his art, and I personally was noting how he is the king of modern palaeo-book covers, but from the individual book's point of view this could be a bad thing. I do find when I'm, too rarely, presented with a bookstore self with a wide selection of Dinosaur volumes the Skrepnick covered books don't leap out at me. I have to read the titles and blurbs to be attracted. (Sadly I can only think of three bookstores where I can cite this "test", two were in museums and one a university bookstore... if only it were more common).

I can only speculate on whether the Complete Dinosaur's cover was chosen for this reason or not, but I have suspicions.

Does this covers unusual colour scheme catch your attention? What is your reaction to it? Overall do you judge or pick your palaeo-books in any part due to their covers?


Mike Taylor said...

Let me just remind everyone that I said, right up front in my first comment, that I was wrong to judge the original The Complete Dinosaur by its cover. I know that.

The problem is: other people will make the same mistake.

The problem with the cover isn't so much that it's "bad", more that it's misleading about what kind of book it is. So it will attract the attention of people who aren't going to buy it, and discourage those who might.

Craig Dylke said...

Sorry I also didn't mean to imply that in the post. So if I can fix anything please let me know where...

David Orr said...

The cover is by Walters and Kissinger, is it not?

David Orr said...

To actually pitch in my opinion...

I personally respond to stylized dinosaur art and feel that the diversification of styles that the shiny digital future has brought us is a good thing. Some of the pieces I've responded to immediately and strongly catch my breath because of stylization, not photorealism. To me, it ties paleoart to the history of art in general.

As one example, the Velociraptors by Apsaravis ( I saw it and felt that I'd stumbled across a lost painting from an old master who had actually observed the animals in life. It evoked the physical reality of the Velociraptors in a different way than a photorealistic piece might. Not better, just different.

Mike's point that it's the wrong style for this book... that's interesting. I would not have a bad reaction to it. But that doesn't reflect the public at large. This seems to be something that would be open to empirical analysis, though. My gut feeling is that people are more open to stylization than Mike suspects (or less prone to being put off), since artistic reconstruction is one of the chief ways we come to know extinct animals. As a book cover designer, I'd love to know what other concepts were explored for this book, since a large piece of paleoart is only one option.

Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. said...

The cover is by Bob Walters & Jeff Breeden. Bob has long admitted his color palette is inspired primarily from Maxfield Parrish.

Craig Dylke said...

For the record I did my darndest to try and find out who the cover artists were. However not owning a copy of the book can make that really hard I'm finding. I know the subjects the book covers and that Doug Henderson was involved in the art chapter through my various google searches.

Craig Dylke said...

David- Thanks for the input. I was curious to see your take in particular, being a former book cover creator.

I'm neutral on this piece. It is a purely personal thing, but I don't like orange. So while I otherwise don't mind the piece, the orange has me favour it less.

That said I do like and appreciate how I immediately took note of this cover.

It forces attention, and stays in your mind even after viewing it. Photorealistic pictures of small feathered Dinosaurs are a dime a dozen these days, and I hardly blink seeing them on covers.

This combined with my own stylized techniques leave me also in a pro style palaeo-art category (I own a Mellow original being testament to that as well ;P).

Craig Dylke said...

Dr. Holtz- Thank you very much for letting me know it was Mr. Walters and Mr. Breeden who created your cover. I've gone in and correctly credited them.

Hope this counts as good free advertising for the book ;) I'd hate to make a banned list or something...

davidmaas said...

Very interesting discussion...
there's no word that look developers hate more than "photo-real" or "cartoon" because they say nothing specific about the look. And there's nothing (many) animators dislike more than the presumption that animation (ie. toons) are for kids. A point in common with dinosaurs?

I agree with Craig's targeting of the high saturation values as a trigger for the 'cartoon' perception. And while I love the cover art I bet that if the values were blended into the surrounded palette just a tad, it would read that much more as decision of animal coloration and not as style. At any rate very interesting, and I for one will be pursuing drawn looks as I find they are much better suited to communicating the constructed nature (and the excitement) of these ancient animals than do looks that try to be too realistic.

Emily Willoughby said...

I don't mind stylization when it comes to dinosaur book covers. All things considered, I probably prefer a more realistic style in paleoart, but I wouldn't pass over a book because the cover was too stylized. Certain kinds of stylization in dinosaur art can be quite attractive.

However, I would (and have) pass over a book if there is some major inaccuracy that leaps out at me. One that comes to mind is Dinosaurs: A Concise Natural History by Fastovsky and Weishampel. When I first came across this book, I passed it up because of the inaccurate hand orientation and hand feathering on the dromaeosaur's hands. I just subconsciously assumed that a paleontology textbook with such an oft-maligned inaccuracy as hand pronation wasn't worth my time.

In any case, I'd choose excessive, cartoony stylization over inaccuracy any day.

BlacknickSculpture said...

I have no problem with the colors. The cover is definitely eye catching! Besides I wouldn't buy a book just because I liked - or disliked the cover art.

Mike Taylor said...

Craig, I didn't at all mean to suggest that you'd misrepresented me. No need to alter the post!

David Orr, I agree that that Velociraptor piece is striking. If that's what you and others mean by "stylised", I am all for it. For me, the TCDv2 cover doesn't even come close to the quality of that piece, and looks clownish in comparison.

Still, plenty of people who know way more about palaeoart than I do have been defending it as anatomically accurate, so I guess my reservations about the balloon-like forelimbs and torso must be wrong.

Craig Dylke said...

Dr. Taylor- I just wanted to make sure on the representation issue. ;)

I follow your anatomic issues. The forelimbs bug me too (as noted in the post itself). When compared to some popular books out there though this is still a very well composed.

This is partially where the stylization gives them some wiggleroom I think. I see that bright orange, and it disarms my higher level analysis.

I also find that the more correct you get a head the more leeway people give you. Walters and Breeden really nailed the skull. That could be part of it too.

Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. said...

Craig: no problems.

David Orr said...

"Stylized," a troublesome word if ever there was one. I unfortunately lack the academic background to discuss it in any more depth than to say "gradations of realism." In graphic design, we use "abstraction" to refer to levels of fidelity to life (for instance, a photo of an eye on one end of the scale and the CBS logo on the opposite end []). But "abstract" brings with it a whole bunch of baggage when talking about art.

To me, the Velociraptors I linked to in the previous comment from me and the cover to this book are about the same "level of stylization," though not the "same style." Ultimately, we can probably chalk this up to personal preference and leave it at that, but I'd be interested in seeing something that "ranks" (without value judgment) the work of paleoartists from "most photorealistic" to "most stylized." I have a feeling that most would fall into a difficult-to-rank middleground.

Walters' work is particularly effective at large scale; if you can get to Dinosaur National Monument here in the states, Mike, you'll be able to see his Morrison mural. I wonder how you would react to his style seeing it in large scale rather than on this book cover?

Great post Craig, much to chew on.

riotgirlckb said...

I will say it looks like the cover to a children's dinosaur information book, but it does not look cartoonish, The Land Before Time is cartoon dinosaurs not this, it is good art, better than I could ever do and it is just being over judged for its purpose