Monday, June 18, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs: Part 1


It's about time for something truly seminal. Even if you have never read David Norman's 1985 encyclopedia - and I hadn't, until last week - you will instantly recognise the majority of John Sibbick's illustrations. They are without a doubt among the most influential dinosaur illustrations of all time, inspiring countless knock-offs and derivative works that even ranged to toys and life-sized models. While the majority of them are now scientifically obsolete (with some groups of animals having aged better than others), they remain breathtakingly beautiful artistic achievements. When it comes to hyper-realism, Sibbick is the (computer-enhancement free) man.

Naturally, I plan on milking this sumptuous book for as many blog posts as possible, up to the point where I run out of content/receive a threatening letter from Sibbick's lawyer. I'll start with theropods, because they're the sexiest dinosaurs there are. They probably also constitute the most obviously dated restorations in the book, with the most shockingly strange - to modern eyes - undoubtedly being the dromaeosaurs. Sibbick's skill renders animals that are stunningly believable, but utterly alien by modern standards. Not to mention a little bit scary. Just look at the skull-like visage and rather humanoid arms on that Dromaeosaurus (foreground), or the nightmarish, probing middle finger of that saggy-necked Deinonychus. Eek! Noteworthy: the anachronistic assemblages of animals are entirely intentional.

In spite of their being closely related, the troodonts have aged somewhat better than the dromaeosaurs, even if they are naked. I love the startled, birdlike expression on the face of the Saurornithoides in the background here, and Sibbick seems particularly skilled at making the animals' claws appear suitably vicious. Of course, it being the 1980s, Norman deems it suitable to give over a considerable amount of space to the Lizard Men From Another Dimension. They loved that shit back then.

Send in the 'carnosaurs'! At the time, pretty much every large theropod was lumped into this now far more tightly defined group (the Carnosauria). To his eternal credit, Norman sticks the term 'carnosaur' in inverted commas wherever it appears in the book, noting that "we may...simply be grouping together animals which share the same design constraints, rather than those which are closely related in a genealogical sense". Nevertheless, Sibbick's illustration groups the very distantly related Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus and Dilophosaurus together in the same scene. This early Allosaurus by Sibbick is highly distinctive, making rip-offs - of which there were many - very easy to spot. It's worth contrasting with the far more dynamic and anatomically correct restorations in his later work (including a famous painting depicting one attacking a Diplodocus). This picture also demonstrates Sibbick's apparent fondness for billious dust clouds arising where his animals are moving around, which actually works very well in establishing their sheer size and weight.

OK, OK, this next one's just here because it's unfortunate. 1980s Spinosaurus ahoy! Looks like he's skipping home from school.

Tyrannosaurus now, looking very pleased with itself as it swings a huge hunk of dino-meat through the air. It's beautifully painted as ever, but the head always bothered me as a kid - it just didn't seem like a real T. rex skull would fit in there. Of course, again, Sibbick has sketched and painted many more Tyrannosaurus since then, all of which are huge improvements on this one. In particular, Sibbick has always been good at making giant theropods look suitably bulky and powerful where others have occasionally made them appear unduly skinny and puny. The upright posture here is a little odd too, but there is no suggestion that this would be 'normal' for the animal. And it was 1985.

Here we have Compsognathus and Coelophysis. The former is depicted with the classic, erroneous two-fingered hands, jutting its head out while it runs for some reason, and is probably based on a juvenile specimen. The Coelophysis is a Coelophysis. Not much to say about these, other than the brightly coloured back on the otherwise quite grey-brown Coelophysis is very Sibbick. Next!

Another reminder that 1985 was a long, long time ago and if you were alive then you're very old by now (yeah, you heard, gramps): scaly, egg-splattering Oviraptor. It's worth contrasting the highly reptilian characterisation of the Oviraptor - with its limp tail - against the strikingly agile, fast-moving Ornithomimus behind it. It's often possible in books from the 1980s and '90s to see images that are almost 'transitional' in themselves, representing the huge shift in the perception of dinosaurs that was still ongoing at the time.

And finally...the animals that never were! Actually, the creature in the foreground - Segisaurus - isn't too far removed from reality, probably because a decent enough portion of its skeleton is known (although not the head). The other two, however, represent early-ish attempts at restoring animals that were very poorly understood at the time. This restoration of the therizinosaur Segnosaurus as a web-footed piscivore looks especially bizarre given what is now known about those animals, but Sibbick has done a sterling job with the information available to him, and I love the colours. Of course, his 1980s Avimimus is just legendary, popping up in many other books (including Dinosaurs! magazine in the early '90s, which Norman was involved with). It's very, very wide of the mark - the real animal had a toothless beak and short forelimbs - but any feathered nonavian theropod in a 1980s book is always remarkable. Similar to the dust clouds, the splashes of water really help make the animal seem solidly real. It might sound daft, but such skill is too often lacking in commercial palaeoart, especially in the dire CG clag that stuffs so many books these days.

And...that's all for now. Come back next time for sauropod goodness! In the meantime, check out Dave Hone's interview with John. Some crazy Yank interviewed him too.

23 comments:

  1. One of the 'great masters' of palaeo art. I have many of these illustrations in various volumes (who doesn't?), but I'm very tempted to get this book too, now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do pick it up Niroot! What this post doesn't show is the true format of the book. First is a collage of several animals, followed by a skeletal/bone spread, and than heavy writing page full of black and white drawings (like the Spinosaur).

      The skeletals are still useful in the modern era. While not 100% accurate, I find, the skull drawings especially, they are a good supplementation of modern sources (Hartman and... *shudder* Paul)

      Delete
    2. I shall! (And I'm sure Marc is indeed planning to show those skeletal spreads in later posts :D)

      Delete
  2. How did the Allosaurus see forward? It looks like it has a ridge in front of its eye.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For more info about that, see Stevens 2006 ( http://reocities.com/Athens/Bridge/4602/theropod_binocularvision.pdf ).

      Delete
  3. Hooray for nostalgia! I used to have a poster of this book's anachronistic assemblages.

    "In spite of their being closely related, the troodonts have aged somewhat better than the dromaeosaurs, even if they are naked. I love the startled, birdlike expression on the face of the Saurornithoides in the background here, and Sibbick seems particularly skilled at making the animals' claws appear suitably vicious."

    That reminds me of a question: Would troodonts have been able to fold their killing claws back the way Sibbick drew them? I always thought that looked cool.

    "Send in the 'carnosaurs'!"

    You forgot to mention the appearance of a "Sparkleraptor" ( http://babbletrish.deviantart.com/gallery/24953321#/d2xuijl ) in the form of Archaeopteryx (or something similar).

    "(including a famous painting depicting one attacking a Diplodocus)"

    That's still 1 of my favorite pieces of dino art ever. Despite the nostalgia of Sibbick's older art, I prefer his 90s art (a lot of which appears in 1 of my favorite dino books ever: http://www.amazon.com/Natural-History-Museum-Book-Dinosaurs/dp/184442183X/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1339895483&sr=1-4 ) b/c of how much better he got by modern standards.

    "OK, OK, this next one's just here because it's unfortunate. 1980s Spinosaurus ahoy! Looks like he's skipping home from school."

    What's weird about that is that the way it's running looks more like what you'd expect from a lizard running bipedally than from a theropod.

    "Another reminder that 1985 was a long, long time ago and if you were alive then you're very old by now (yeah, you heard, gramps): scaly, egg-splattering Oviraptor."

    Don't forget about its nose horn. Ah, memories.

    "(including Dinosaurs! magazine in the early '90s, which Norman was involved with)"

    What's weird about that is that despite including a lot of real Sibbick art, there are also a lot of Sibbick art rip-offs (E.g. Both the aforementioned Allosaurus & Coelophysis).

    ReplyDelete
  4. "It might sound daft, but such skill is too often lacking in commercial palaeoart, especially in the dire CG clag that stuffs so many books these days."


    My thoughts exactly. I just don't feel as engaged by looking at most modern depictions as I do with Sibbick's older pictures, independent of accuracy.

    Thanks a lot for posting these!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ah this one brings back the memories. This was THE Dinosaur book of my childhood, and most of my early scientifically accurate knowledge came from its pages...

    ReplyDelete
  6. Ooh, yes. This was the first serious dino book that I got. I loved how Sibbick's illustrations made them seem like real animals but, as Craig said, the dinoramas are only half the story, er... art - I also loved the large detailed skeletals. And I appreciated the colour-coded phylo-trees. Plus, there was a decent amount of text to supplement the visuals.

    Apart from the Spinosaurus which looks like it has to keep on accelerating lest it fall over, this is a book to be fondly remembered rather than made fun of (I know you weren't doing that). Sure, there is a distinct lack of feathers and a lot of the theropods have bunny hands, but I think it compares very favourably with other dino books of its time or even ten years later.

    That does look like an impossibly wide stance for the Tyrannosaurus, tho'.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's now known that Avimimus had premaxillary teeth, though this information appears to be quite obscure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, this is controversial. Watabe et al. (2000) reported premaxillary teeth in an SVP abstract for new material, but Vickers-Rich et al. (2002) state unambiguously that the premaxilla of PIN 3907/1 (the famous skull) has denticles but not true teeth.

      Delete
  8. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I bet we could do a whole post devoted solely to rip-offs of that Tyrannosaurus. Just on Etsy.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I used to own this book - it's partly why I'm such a dino-nut today.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Wow, I loved gazing upon those images again, in so many glorious pixels, and I loved gazing upon those I had never seen. Thank you for all that. Precious stuff.

    (Just for the record: the Ornithomimus is in fact a Dromiceiomimus.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Has not Dromiceiomimus been sunk into Ornithomimus since? I may be mistaken though (more than likely).

      Delete
    2. Oh. Now that's sad. I've always liked Dromiceiomimus. (Yet I do like even more LITC's constant reminder that I'm lacking quite a lot in dinoknowledge)

      Delete
    3. Actually, it's only the referred species O. edmontonicus that has been sunk into Dromiceiomimus. The type species O. velox is valid. But as velox is so fragmentary, no doubt Sibbick's drawing (as an aside, looks like GSP has a time travel lawsuit to pursue) is based on a specimen now referred to Dromiceiomimus. What's irritating is that everybody's using edmontonicus for the ex-Dromiceio species, when brevitertius has priority.

      Delete
  12. What a trip down memory lane! I almost (literally) loved that book to death. . .it was the first "real" dinosaur book I had (must have gotten it not long after it was published). The pages are scribbled with my notes and slightly stained where I used the skeletals as templates for my own clay dinosaurs. The whole mass is held together by a generous quantity of duct tape, and still has a place of honor on my bookshelf at the museum.

    ReplyDelete
  13. OMG, the hideous Oviraptor. what ever did the Sibbick do to you? All squished in and ugly. Oh, wait, you were born that way ... *tosses away all feelings for it*

    This brings back memories, my second big book of dinosaurs [Lambert's encyclopedia came first], but with amazing art (at the time, for me).

    ReplyDelete
  14. OMG! I cannot believe that I found this book. I only see these beautiful dino pics on the internet. I always want to know what's the name of the book.
    How did you get the book? Where can I get it?

    ReplyDelete

Trolls get baleted.