5 Things You Didn't Know About Paleoart


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The large therocephalian Gorynychus masyutinae looks up at a tree-dwelling herbivore (Suminia getmanovi) in a scene from the middle Permian near what is now Kotelnich, Russia. Art by Matt Celeskey

"Shared passion for an obscure topic is what binds scientists and artists," celebrated paleoartist Ray Troll tells us in an email. "They're both curiosity-driven." He would know. Based in Alaska, Troll builds on scientific findings to create art that depicts prehistoric life.

Through paleoart, fossils are revived. A single drawing or sculpture can define how the public will visualize an extinct species. So paleoartists strive to keep their work as accurate as possible — a task that gets harder when the experts disagree. It's a tough job, to be sure, but it's also a dream job for loads of fossil fans and dinosaur enthusiasts. Here are five facts about paleoart and the artists who create it.

1. A "Dinosaur Renaissance" Changed the Game

Paleoart needn't always feature dinosaurs. All prehistoric organisms, from early palm trees to woolly mammoths, make worthy subjects. Nevertheless, the charismatic reptiles were at the center of a significant period in the history of this art form, the "dinosaur renaissance."

Prior to the 1960s, dinosaurs were largely written off as dimwitted, tail-dragging hulks. Most paleoart from the early 20th century reflects that view.

But in 1969, Yale paleontologist John Ostrom published a new paper on Deinonychus, an 11-foot (3.3-meter) predator akin to Velociraptor. Noting its long legs and sickle-shaped claws, Ostrom claimed Deinonychus was an athletic beast who ran down its prey and might've even hunted in packs. The scientist went on to popularize the now widely accepted idea that today's birds are descended from Mesozoic dinos.

Exciting hypotheses like these changed the discourse about how dinosaurs looked and behaved. In the 1970s and 1980s, a growing number of artists responded by illustrating the creatures in active, dynamic poses. What followed was a renewed public interest in both the study of dinosaurs and in paleoart itself.

2. A Technique Called "Shrink Wrapping" Has Met Some Pushback

Bare bones and skeletons may not tell you a whole lot about the overlying soft tissue. Hence, some paleoartists choose to reconstruct animals (reptiles in particular) as lanky beasts with ultra-low body fat, skinny tails, and heads that are largely devoid of cartilage or loose skin. The practice has been called "shrink wrapping."

"I think there are some really valid points to be made about 'shrink wrapping,'" Troll says. "Many paleoartists are reluctant to jump into more speculative reconstructions, preferring to play it safer." By keeping their animals lean and mean, paleoartists can highlight known skeletal anatomy without making conjectural guesses about an animal's soft tissues that might not have been preserved.

Back in the dinosaur renaissance, shrink wrapping was in fashion. That's no longer the case. Modern critics point out that living animals tend to look a lot different than you might expect if you had nothing to go on but their naked skeletons. "Things like trunks, ears and blubber don't usually fossilize," Troll says.

Matt Celeskey, a paleoartist and museum exhibit designer, recently offered us his thoughts on the issue. "Today's paleoartists are looking more closely at the extent of soft tissue in living animals," he says via email. Chunky limbs and necks (not to mention poofy dino feathers) have gone mainstream. "I think this 'fleshing out' of paleoart makes for heightened levels of believability in the reconstructions, and greater diversity in the way artists approach their subjects," Celeskey says.

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(Clockwise from top left) "North Pacific Cretaceous Marine Life," "Nanuqsaurus (the 'Polar Bear Lizard)" and "Mega Bears and Mighty Mammoths" are all examples of paleoart illustrated by paleoartist Ray Troll.
Photos courtesy Ray Troll

3. Scientists and Paleoartists Work Hand-in-Hand to Present New Findings

Original illustrations are a staple of paleo-themed press releases. Bone or skeletal drawings may also adorn technical papers. To get these pieces made, artists must be recruited.

"As a general rule, scientists are responsible for pulling together the artwork used to illustrate or promote their research," Celeskey says. "So the best way to get these jobs is to make sure paleontologists know your work and know that you take [it] seriously."

"I've done a few 'life reconstructions' for scientific papers about newly discovered creatures/fossils," Troll says. "I landed the 'gigs' via friendships and personal relationships, getting to know scientists either through meeting them at a conference, visiting a museum or via my own curiosity."

Once the parties reach an agreement, relevant info will be shown to the artist. Looking at fossils with one's own eyes is helpful here, but sometimes paleo illustrators have to make do with photographs.

At all rates, when you're part of an effort like this, Celeskey says "it is generally understood that no one will go public before the official research is released."

4. Skeletal Drawings Demand Tons of Research

To scientists, the skeletal drawing is one of the most useful forms of paleoart. An animal's skeleton is usually depicted in an upright (i.e.: standing or running) position and juxtaposed against a black silhouette that represents the creature's body profile. Unfortunately, in the fossil record, complete skeletons tend to be rare. When parts are missing or broken, scientists — and artists — can only speculate about what those elements looked like in life.

"Every skeleton presents unique challenges," Celeskey says, "but I find the most difficult thing is filling in the parts you don't know — extrapolating the shapes of missing bones or correcting the shapes of bones that have been damaged or distorted [by time]. Filling in each missing piece involves a complex mix of research, inference, and educated guesses, and I always wonder if there are better choices than the ones I end up making."

5. London Is Home to a Fascinating Example of Victorian Paleoart

In 1853, sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was hired to build more than 30 full-sized concrete models of prehistoric animals for London's Crystal Palace Park. The man really did his homework, consulting experts, scrutinizing fossils and reviewing the scientific literature. In short, he was a dedicated paleoartist.

Restoration projects have helped these masterworks survive to the present day. The beasts attract thousands of visitors every year — even though they're no longer deemed "accurate." Hawkins' Megalosaurus, for example, stands menacingly on all fours, but scientists now think the meat-eating dinosaur was bipedal. Nevertheless, the Victorian-era giants capture the prevailing wisdom of their time, giving them immense cultural value. Prehistory matters, but so does our history.