Monday, August 27, 2012

Dinosaur Art week begins

Reviews of the new Titan Books publication Dinosaur Art: The World's Greatest Paleoart have been springing up around the dinosaur blogosphere lately in anticipation of its release (September 4 in the US, September 28 in the UK). Including the work of ten contemporary paleoartists, it is edited by Steve White. This week, Marc, Asher, myself, and special guest star Niroot will be teaming up to share our personal perspectives on the book. I'll be starting off with a general overview and my own thoughts, and then passing it off to Marc.



I'll start off by saying that most paleoart fans should find this an excellent addition to their book collection, and it has been priced to be attainable by most of us, available for $21.38 for US customers at Amazon. The reasonable price does not bring poor production values with it; as befitting an art book, it is sturdy, printed on nice, thick stock with excellent color reproduction, and the dust jacket is all pretty-fied with a foil stamped title and a spot varnish for the John Conway piece featured on the back cover. It's presented with a quality befitting the subject matter, and makes a terrific conversation piece (I've tried it). Sharing dinosaur artwork with friends is my favorite way to discuss current paleontological thinking, as the focus is on art rather than a stream of facts and fossils. When looking at artwork with someone, you can casually point out bits that are pure speculation and bits that are backed by good evidence; it's pretty fun to tell someone that the seemingly absurd or fantastical image they're looking at has some real science behind it.

Dinosaur Art covers a wide range of approaches: exhaustive murals, "white room" compositions which isolate an animal from its environment, exploratory sketches, and my favorite, animals as incidental components of a landscape (an approach well demonstrated by Douglas Henderson, who is rightfully included in the volume and indeed one of the highlights). Each chapter includes an interview with the artist, much of which covers familiar ground ("When did you start drawing dinosaurs?"; "What do you think of digital techniques?"). White also asks about the artists' evolving technique and touches on specific pieces. To that end, each chapter includes a feature highlighting one taxon which has been important in the artists' career. One of my design critiques is that all of these features should have been consistently placed at the ends of chapters; it's occasionally difficult to follow the flow of the chapter itself when a feature is placed in the middle of it. A background color or different typeface for these features would make them stand out more clearly. That aside, these features are illuminating in general, especially the one dealing with the evolution of John Sibbick's Scelidosaurus.


Polacanthus, © John Sibbickused by permission of Titan Books

One of the most surprising aspects was how poorly some of the digital artwork translated to print. It shed a new light on pieces I have only known by viewing them online. Throughout the interviews, there is a fair share of handwringing over how digital methods are changing the craft, and save for Raúl Martin and John Conway's work, there are few strong demonstrations of compelling digital technique. I personally find the use of digital motion blur filters and photo composites to be jarring; some of Nicholls' and Csotonyi's "mixed media" pieces sit in an uncanny valley in which the photographed environments and animals in them don't quite seem of a piece. It seems to me that photography is its own craft to master, and the subject matter is better served by landscapes rendered in the same medium as their denizens.

Now for the requisite niggling over who was and wasn't included, acknowledging that it would be impossible to satisfy everyone and come in on budget. As major names, Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger, Michael Skrepnik, and Mark Hallett are notably absent. While Maurico Antón's Cenozoic mammals are jaw-dropping, he's really not known as a dinosaur guy. As it is, his chapter is an odd inclusion and while I'm all for expanding the general publics' view of prehistory beyond the Mesozoic, it doesn't give Antón's subject matter the respect it deserves to be in a book explicitly devoted to dinosaurs. Many of the chapters include non-Mesozoic work which serves to round out the artists' dinosaur work, and that's fine. But a whole chapter devoid of dinosaurs is a bit of a stretch.

Heretically, I also might not include Greg Paul in the book - or at least change the selection of his work. A major voice to be sure, but his color work simply is not of the same caliber as the other artists in this book, and it's to the detriment of his lovely pencil work and skeletals. In a book like this, I suppose it's difficult to justify devoting a giant spread to a black and white piece, but that's Paul's strength and would serve him better.


Pterodactylus kochi, © John Conway. Used by permission of Titan Books

These quibbles aside, the book is a clear success, delivering many lovingly reproduced modern classics of the form. Readers who have never seen these pieces in person will gain much from seeing them in print. Conway's elegant graphic depictions of ancient life, Sibbick's obsessive attention to detail, Marshall's explosions of vitality, and Henderson's aching elegies to the Mesozoic are treasured additions to my bookshelf.

I've got so much more I could write, but I've gone on long enough. I know that my co-bloggers will bring much to this conversation, so now I will hand this mega-review off to Marc, whose own post will follow tomorrow. I'll be back at the end of the week to sum up the LITC crew's thoughts.

8 comments:

  1. "When looking at artwork with someone, you can casually point out bits that are pure speculation and bits that are backed by good evidence; it's pretty fun to tell someone that the seemingly absurd or fantastical image they're looking at has some real science behind it."

    That reminds me of a question I have for you AWA the other LITC bloggers: Does the text include what we know about dino lives/evolution? For example, does it "point out bits that are pure speculation and bits that are backed by good evidence"? I wanna hear from as many ppl as I can b-4 deciding to get DA. Many thanks in advance for your help.

    "As major names, Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger, Michael Skrepnik, and Mark Hallett are notably absent."

    I was especially surprised that Skrepnick & Hallett weren't included while Antón & GSPaul were.

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    1. Not so much. The feature sections do include some of the process of working with new science, but it's really not geared towards that end of things. More about the artists' processes and opinions on different techniques. A bit on updating old thinking, but it's not a focus on the book.

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    2. 1 more question I forgot to ask in my previous comment: Why doesn't "THE MESOZOIC BLOGOSPHERE" include "BEYONDbones" ( http://blog.hmns.org/ ) or the working version of "Everything Dinosaur" ( http://blog.everythingdinosaur.co.uk/ )?

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    3. Mere oversight. They're on my Google reader though, so I am aware of them. Will add.

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  2. Eh? Isn't that John Sibbick's Polacanthus, not Scelidosaurus?

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    1. Thanks for the catch, fixed that caption.

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  3. Hi David, thanks for the praise! And a nice review overall, that I mostly agree with.

    I have to disagree on the subject of Greg Paul though. I think his colour work can be great, and unique amongst palaeo stuff. I especially enjoy his flat collage-like style that you see in the Omeisaurus in a forest painting and the Shunosaurus-Gasosaurus fauna piece (both of these are in the book). I would love to produce some things like that. Also, including anyone but Doug henderson over Greg Paul would have been a massive error, in my opinion. He's clearly the most influential palaeontological artist, leaving him out would be silly.

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    1. Fair enough; ultimately he does need to be in there, but I thought it was worth proposing to see how people feel about it. Different strokes and all. My co-bloggers will hopefully have reactions to my thoughts.

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