Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Interview with paleoartist Nobu Tamura

Sericipterus by Nobu Tamura. Used with the artist's permission.

If you've ever googled a prehistoric critter, you've more than likely seen Nobu Tamura's work. Besides his work on the website Palaeocritti, which serves as a repository for information on all sorts of extinct creatures. Nobu has also contributed mightily to the Wikimedia Commons, providing his work for use by just about anyone on the web under creative commons licenses. Read on to find out about his work, his feelings on creative commons, and what inspired him to artistically resurrect so many of Earth's lost inhabitants.

Is art a hobby for you, or do you do art in a professional sense, too?

Oh no, it’s just a hobby. I would probably not be able to do a living as a professional artist!

Your work has become pretty ubiquitous on the web. Was it a conscious decision to make it as widely available as possible?

Not really... it all started late 2006 or early 2007 when I stumbled across a few dinosaur articles on the english wikipedia and noticed that there were no illustration in them. Articles on the same dinosaurs on any other website had lots of images, so why not in wikipedia? I understood that it was for copyright reasons.You can’t upload images on wikipedia without a written permission from the artist, but there is no problem if you are the actual author and choose to release it for public use. So I’ve decided to give it a shot. I haven't drawn anything since childhood and young adulthood, and certainly not dinosaurs, so I was a bit rusty on that front but I’ve decided to try nonetheless. I bought a few pencils and grabbed a few books on dinosaurs to make a few sketches based on other artists, and especially skeletal reconstructions by Greg Paul.

I posted them in the relevant articles on wikipedia but saw them quickly removed by more knowledgeable contributors because they were mostly inaccurate and based on outdated representations from the 80s and 90s. But these contributors helped me to get them right and I am greatly indebted to them to have taught me the ABC of dinosaur anatomy. After that I’ve submitted more and more drawings and this became a little hobby of mine, a very enjoyable one in fact. So to go back to your question, it was not a conscious decision to make my work widely available and the fact that you now see my illustrations all over the web stems more from the success of wikipedia, than my own. Since wikipedia requires all its images to be licensed for public use, anybody could in principle use them provided that the license terms are respected.

When a new taxon is announced, do you respond pretty quickly by beginning work on a restoration?

This depends on how busy I am at the moment of the announcement. It took me a few months before reading about Concavenator and Linheraptor and make their restorations last year, but I responded pretty quickly over Koreaceratops and Titanoceratops because their respective papers got published online when I was on vacation or something. As any paleo-enthusiast, I become pretty excited when a new taxon is announced and this generally triggers the need to draw it, but I have to deal with other priorities in life as well.

What was your initial idea behind starting Palaeocritti?

The initial idea behind Palaeocritti was a website where you can find all the most relevant information on extinct taxa. Before doing a reconstruction of a prehistoric animal, I generally do a bit of research to be able to draw it as accurately as possible. And where do you look for these information? In the primary sources, i.e. peer-reviewed scientific publications. For instance somebody asked me to do a reconstruction of, I think, the temnospondyl Peltobatrachus. At first, I couldn’t find anything on the web or on any popular books at the library save a few dubious representations (which turn out to be very incorrect). So I’ve hunted down the scientific literature by consulting different database such as paleodb.org, palaeos.com, jstor.org, bioone.org and this was quite a time consuming process. I thought it would be nice to have a website where you can find all these information concentrated in one spot. Besides general info such as size, location of discovery, phylogenetical placement, etc., I also wanted to see how much of the animal was actually known and how much was inferred from related taxa, and I wanted to be able to retrieve easily all the most relevant publications on the subject, especially the most recent ones, that can be consulted for details, get the measure of the animals by studying skeletal reconstructions made by specialists and see different up-to-date artist views, find at a glance which animals lived at the same time and same location, what was the environment, etc.

In sum, a website that would be a cross between Palaeodb, Palaeos, Dinodata and the now defunct Dinosauricon and Paleograveyard. That’s why I have created Palaeocritti (the name has been actually suggested by my fellow paleoartist and wikipedian Stanton Fink) in the hope that it would be useful to others. The problem with this project is that it turns out to be a daunting task for only a few individuals to perform and and I am always on the lookout for potential contributors.

Halisaurus by Nobu Tamura. Used with the artist's permission.

You've drawn a huge variety of animals. Are there any that are particularly fun to illustrate?

That’s a tough question. Dinosaurs, especially the feathery ones, are of course always fun to draw but I also have some fondness for the lesser known animals such as prehistoric fish, invertebrates and amphibians. I also like drawing animals in series, such as the one I made on ceratopsians, ancient whales, prehistoric frogs, basal tyrannosaurids, etc... which add a bit of continuity in my work. I don’t think I can actually say which critter I enjoyed drawing more than another. They are in fact all quite different, some are more challenging to draw than others, some requires more work, but they are all pretty fun to illustrate.

Building on your first answer - As an artist who presumably feels some parental feelings for your creations, what's your take on the new territory of creative commons licenses and copyright on the web? Glendon Mellow has been very vocal in trying to raise the awareness of bloggers when it comes to crediting artists whose work they use, and has come to your defense specifically.

Many thanks to Glendon for taking my defense on that issue. All my images are licensed under creative commons, and anybody can use them as long as proper credit is given. This is a very simple thing to do since you don’t even need to contact the author (although it’s always nice to know when your artwork is being used somewhere). I find that most people act quite respectfully on that matter and some even goes to the trouble of specifically asking permission to use particular artworks (which I always grant gracefully). However there is always these few others who either by ignorance of the rules or just plain laziness don’t even bother to pay the artist the courtesy of acknowledgment. Such behavior is, I think, akin to copyright infringement. This is a bit sad and a creative common license can’t unfortunately prevent this to happen. But in the end, it never pays off to use artwork without permission. This is a recipe for trouble, because in the wild world of the world wide web, somebody is bound to notice sooner or later, as in the case you just mentioned.

Are there any instances when you've asked someone to remove your artwork from a post or web page?

I don’t think I ever did that. To tell you the truth, I don’t really skim the web to see where my artwork get posted. But as an anecdote, I once stumbled on somebody trying to sell on ebay tee-shirts with dinosaur illustrations from different artists including one of mine, without any sort of acknowledgment. By the time I figured how to file a formal complaint, it was gone. Somebody else has probably noticed it too and had the sale removed.

What artists in this field of paleontological restoration do you look up to the most? What is it about their work that inspires or challenges you?

I think, as a paleoartist, I’ll never be thankful enough to all the artists who specialize in skeletal drawings and reconstructions. They provide the backbone for any accurate scientific reconstruction of an extinct animal. Among them, Scott Hartman is my favorite, but I also greatly indebted to Greg Paul, Ville Sinkkonen, Jaime Headden, John Conway, Mike Hanson, to cite a few. As for inspiration, I admire the visionary views of the precursors Charles R. Knight and Rudolf Zallinger. Some of my favorite artists are John Sibbick, Mark Hallett, Mauricio Anton, Doug Henderson and Raúl Martín. Among the newcomers, Julius Csotonyi, Felipe Elias and Tuomas Koivurinne have my vote. I am inspired by the way they are making the animals believable by putting them in a context and rendering them seemingly natural rather than giving them a fantastic look by overdoing on dramatic effects, adding an abundance of unnecessary details or using flashy colors.

Balaur bondoc by Nobu Tamura. Used with the artist's permission.

For more of Nobu's work, please make sure to browse his DeviantArt gallery and Wikipedia, as well as Palaeocritti, of course. You'll see that he's already done reconstructions of new taxa such as Teratophoneus, Neptunidraco, Leonerasaurus, and Linhenykus. He's like a one-man paleoart quick-response task force!


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