Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Philosofossilising- What is Palaeo-Art? (Nima)

This is a reply to the question:

What is Palaeo-Art?
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.

Well, this is a very interesting question, "what is palaeo art?" A lot of people perceive it different ways, and I figure that since I've been busy for a while, now's a perfect time to share my thoughts on it. As always, expect a spicy dose of controversy here ;)

I suppose we should start at the beginning!

I'm a big fan of dinosaurs. Always have been. Well, almost. I hated them for about 3 weeks in kindergarten, then I ran across a dinosaur book that had much better illustrations than the boring one my teacher was reading to class - and immediately I loved them and I've never turned back!

If it wasn't for exciting and vibrant paleo-art (living in the US, I'm more used to the American spelling), dinosaurs would have meant little to me other than old bones and the Flintstones, so my thanks go out to all the artists who have put good effort into showing us through art, the fantastic world they lived in. And this applies to not just dinosaurs, but all extinct creatures from ages past.

But not all art involving extinct animals is good paleo-art. And there's the biggest paradox - the very drawing or painting that first got us all into our dino-mania (or rather, paleo-mania) was often simply colorful, exciting, or told an interesting story but was AWFUL when it came to actually came to showing real believable animals acting in believable ways in their true habitat. We all know the ones....

Dinosaurs side by side with mammoths and Dimetrodon, brazenly munching and fighting without any concern in the shadow of massive composite-cone volcanoes which mysteriously belched runny kilauea-style lava instead of explosive Mt. Vesuvius ash... T. rex ripping into "Brontosaurus" or Stegosaurus across an inexplicable time-warp millions of years long and yet only a few inches wide. They made for great edge-of-your-seat excitement as a kid, but we all soon realized, some before others, that real paleo-art doesn't need to mutilate time and invent its own haphazard rules to be creative and eye-catching.

Images by unknown painters

As years passed I took a more intense interest in dinosaurs and what was the "best" way to draw them. I looked through The Dinosaur Heresies at age 8, more interested in Bakker's  numerous detailed pen drawings than in any of the text in the book. But soon, reading more about dinosaurs made it clear which authors and artists knew their stuff and which clearly didn't. Bakker got a PhD from Harvard, and it shows. Your average colorful kid's book on the library shelf obviously doesn't come close. But it paleo art really a cut and dry line in the stone? Can we say for sure what is paleo-art and what is simply a picture of an extinct animal?

If you look at classic paintings by Knight, Zallinger, and Burian, you see that these are obviously paleo-art and were top-notch for their time, but are outdated and cartoonish by today's standards given all that has been learned and discovered since their time. What can be said for modern-day painters (I'm loath to use the term "artists") who simply copy their style and even their exact paintings and market the stuff as their own original work? Can they still be considered "artists", let alone paleo-artists? Do they even care about the "paleo" aspect, or are they simply trying to make a quick buck off of the popularity of Old Masters?

I'm inclined to think that paleo-art should not only be inspiring (as opposed to dull solid-shade textbook diagrams), but also accurate to the best scientific standards of its time. Obviously we can't bash Charles Knight as an artist merely for his errors, because his work was based on the most current published research of his time. But in our time, it's really hard for me to take a "paleo-artist" seriously if he or she doesn't at least make an EFFORT to stay up to date on the latest research and scientific thinking. Paleo-illustration can be as false and outdated as possible since you are only trying to fill a space. It could be a textbook page, a scientific plate, or a book nobody older than ten will ever bother to remember or praise highly. But paleo-art is expression of a higher standard, which can be whatever you want, provided you have one. Set it yourself, once you have mastered the basics of what can and can't go into the time period you are showing.

Omeisaurus and Shunosaurus - detail from Dragons of Dashanpu Quarry (my work, 2009)

It may seem downright counter-intuitive and mad, but working within the basic rules of anatomy and geologic time actually makes for far more interesting and diverse possibilities in your work. This is the basis of all true paleo-art. Now it's not some generic "spikes 'n volcanoes" image - it's your unique expression of a living, breathing animal. And then you can take the visual experience as far (or as short) as you wish.

That doesn't mean paleo-art has to get it right all the time, because even with the hard science there are always disagreements between experts. a Horner-style T. rex and a Bakker-style T. rex may not be equally valid today, but there was a time when the scientific community was deeply divided between them, and artists often illustrated both just to give an idea of what the animal's lifestyle might have been in either scenario - even the scavenging T. rexes are still paleo-art. And there's still no doubt that T. rex did scavenge or steal kills every now and then... just nowhere near as often as Horner would have liked. Greg Paul originally considered Therizinosaurs to be basal ornithischians and thus illustrated them with naked skin (this was many years before Tiyanulong threw a wrench in the whole "ornithischians can't POSSIBLY have insulation" concept), but later adopted the now-universal view that they were advanced theropods - and the fact that at least one species bears feather impressions has made his original illustrations outdated (though he often updates them).

But even without updates. they are still valid paleo-art in my view. The attention to detail and accuracy is awesome, and the skill in showcasing the aesthetic appeal of a real dinosaur's form more than makes up for the dated skin.

Tarbosaurus and Therizinosaurus by Greg Paul. A superb example of modern paleo-art (though as it turns out, the feathers went on the wrong dinosaurs!)

I won't stick feathers on T-rex arms - although these days a lot of people do, despite having no direct evidence. Is my art no longer paleo-art? I doubt it. When you get into speculative areas like that, moderate interpretations are always easier to modify than extreme ones. I won't deny that something is paleo-art just because I don't agree with the style or the hypothesis.

I'd say so long as you stay true to the bones and whatever muscles can be reasonably inferred from them, I would say paleo-art actually has a lot of different possibilities. You could go smooth like Donna Braginetz or rough and gnarly like Brett Booth, either way it's still paleo-art. Bakker and Luis Rey teamed up to produce a series of children's books that are both entertainingly colorful and scientifically accurate - these aren't your dad's dinosaurs, and they'll surely excite a lot more young people in the coming years. When I was growing up, I read the books of David Peters, whose art was phenomenal and (recent pterosaur faux-pas not withstanding) incredibly accurate and lifelike, and far ahead of most published paleo-illustrations of its time. Certainly not "adult-level" reading by any means, but very serious high-quality paleo-art all the same.

Elasmosaurus by David Peters

So in short, Paleo-art is the fusion of science and art with the unique aesthetic twist of the artist giving the scientific framework their own take. At the very least I see it as requiring that you have the science in there, it doesn't need to be perfect but at least people should be able to tell that someone made a real attempt to follow at least the general conclusions of current scientific literature (which most commercially produced dinosaur illustrations ignore completely) without bleeding the art dry (as most textbook pictures tend to do).

But as for what makes good paleo art.... you not only have to be an artist and an expert of 3D forms, but also a good choreographer and cameraman, as well as a lighting expert. The right stances, light, movements caught in a moment (not merely "poses"), and angles of view can turn an "alright" paleo-art piece into a downright phenomenal one. Is a battle scene or a flood scene any more interesting artistically than a mother tending her hatchlings? Not necessarily, depending on how you arrange the image. A skilled paleo-artist can take even seemingly mundane behaviors, like a herd of sauropods munching on trees, and make it vibrant, epic, and seductively photogenic to watch. You'll wish it was animated rather than still, and then you'll smack yourself and realize that while you're at it, it would be far more awesome to wish you could actually go back in time to the world of that drawing or painting, and see them live for yourself.

 Ceratosaurus resting by Wayne D. Barlowe

Imagine you're watching live dinosaurs in a safari show on the Discovery channel. Not the animated stuff they have now... but the real live thing. As if TV existed 150 million years ago. Smell the ferns, hear the snorts and growls and sniffles of tons in motion. Imagine the series "life" but this time instead of fish and frogs in slow-motion HD, see animals long since disappeared. Look at the work of Larry Felder, Wayne Barlow, Greg Paul and Doug Henderson. And now imagine those worlds come to life and move.

 Larry Felder's young T. rex catches the first light of the dawn.
(from the cover of In the Presence of Dinosaurs by John Colagrande)

 Edmontosaurus and Triceratops by Larry Felder

Look away. Do not trace. Do not stop at simply studying their shapes and forms. See that world move, capture it in your own words, your own thoughts, in your own brushstrokes, your own graphite lines and shades. It's all up to you. Choose the lighting and the texture yourself, don't merely copy someone else's. And then you are truly making, indisputably, paleo-art for the ages.

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 "What is Palaeo-art", please read the brief criteria here, and send your essay to


NedaD承蓁 said...


Rachael said...

Very passionate Nima and interesting to read. I did enjoy this - Research of the creature and environment and the application of this knowledge is evidently fundamental to you.

Would you not include any twist within the subject, or element of humour, within your palaeo art definition? Glendon's trilobite with wings for example?

Just being devil's advocate here! This is a well presented insight into your thoughts, backed up with relevant examples.

davidmaas said...

Very cool stuff, Nimo. That Barlowe image is intense. His other work at his site doesn't seem to indicate a preference for paleoart... more fantasy or creature formats. Do you have more links / images to share?

Dinosaur Wall Stickers said...

My kids always ask me about Dinosaurs, if they were true or not. When I read your blog, I have now an idea what to say to them.

The Savvypenguin said...


Paul's drawing, the version I have in his book says Tyrannosaurs and Therizinosaurs. You have it labeled as Tarbosaurus. Just thought you might want to check that out.