Thursday, December 20, 2012

All Yesterdays: Some Thoughts


We've been focusing a lot on All Yesterdays here of late, partially because we're all very artistically minded, and partially because it's just a gorgeous, thought provoking little book. I'm not going to review it here; you've seen enough by now to know that we're all pretty wild about it. Instead, I'm going to list some thoughts inspired by the book, and shamelessly tease you all with promise of a future, All Yesterdays style event.

Paleontological art has always been at its most valuable when it gives us a glimpse, not only into how extinct organisms looked, but also how they lived. Reading through All Yesterdays again prior to writing this, I was reminded of how my favorite pieces combined bits of soft tissue speculation with interesting and novel behaviors. Elasmosaurs waved their necks over the turbulent ocean, struggling to out-display their rivals. Heterodontosaurs wandered out of their burrow, adorned with spiky tails, eyes narrowed against the sun. Therezinosaurs sat like bristly, clawed mountains in the dim light, feeding placidly from the branches. All of these illustrations had an immense amount of character to them, and I think character is what's been missing from a lot of dinosaur art.

Leaellynasaura copyright John Conway
Animals aren't all the same. Not all herbivores are placid, and not all carnivores voracious. Some lions are tolerant, some cows insanely aggressive. There's huge individual variation among most species, whether of appearance or behavior, but most paleoart doesn't capture that. Every Tyrannosaurus becomes the same Tyrannosaurus, every Triceratops becomes the ideal spokesman for its species, every reconstruction rendered as a platonic ideal.

There's a huge opportunity sitting here for artists, and it's mostly been ignored. So much imagination already goes into paleoart; why not go even further, and create individualized creatures? Scars and bumps, behavioral quirks, even bits of expressive body language can go a long way toward characterizing an animal. There's something deeply immersive and realistic about this kind of reconstruction; it offers a harmonious blend of soft tissue speculation and behavioral imagination, and results in memorable art.

This kind of art doesn't have to be done in a photo-realistic manner, and I'd argue that it probably shouldn't. Excessive realism often ends up being  a trap; it constricts us into thinking of extinct organisms in the drabbest, most conservative terms. Like stuffed museum specimens standing in barren dioramas, the results often feel lifeless, choked by their own detail, petrified by repeated cliche. Zoological illustration has a long tradition of abstraction, gesture drawing, loose sketches and mixed media, all of which seek to capture the idea of movement or character in ways unrelated to the direct and detailed. A lot of paleontological illustration shies away from this, and I can't help but wonder if more experimental styles wouldn't help break us out of the the current, endless cycle of memes.


Giraffe style Barosaurus by Bakker, which begat...
...Giraffe style Barosaurus from Burian, which begat...
...whatever the hell this is.
This call for stylization shouldn't be mistaken for an excuse to get anatomy wrong; if anything, it's going to require better anatomical knowledge on the part of artists attempting it. It's important to know something very well before you attempt to capture it in the abstract. I'd be interested in seeing what artists choose to focus on when freed from the prison of trying to set down every wrinkle and fold of skin.

Over all, I found finishing All Yesterdays to be deeply frustrating, because it left me with an almost dizzying sense of possibility. I didn't want it to be over. I wanted more of a look into a world who's strangeness I'd taken for granted. So I did the only thing I could--I picked up a pencil...

Keep an eye out, dear readers. The LITC crew has a special announcement to make in the coming days, one that will make the more artistically inclined among you very, very happy! Stay tuned!

16 comments:

  1. The very points I'd been mulling over myself, Asher. Hopefully I can expand on a few in due course.

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  2. Good and important stuff here.

    BTW., it's a tragic irony that Bakker's Barosaurus illustration -- itself a superb piece of art and at the time as paradigm-breaking as anything in All Yesterdays should have begotten the abject "giraffoid" meme. Let's hope nothing similar happens to any of the AY pieces ... I dread finding in 2032 that every Leallynasaura picture executed in the last twenty years has the tail straight up in the air!

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    1. I'd hope some of the art in AY is sufficiently out there to inspire imagination and not direct copying, but the book is bound to inspire some memes on its own. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, if the memes are broad enough (i.e lets not have vicious fight scenes all the time)but there are always going to be people who look at something like AY and draw the wrong message from it. It's the nature of an artistic movement, I suppose.

      That said, I would totally buy a plush little Leallynasaura. In a heartbeat.

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  3. Oh! New income stream for Conway and Kosemen: All Yesterdays-themed toys. I would like to invest in a small group of erect-necked floating elasmosaur bath-toys.

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  4. P.S. Dear LitToC, please get rid of your vile, impenetrable double-capcha.

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    1. Done. Had upped security due to a rash of trolls and spammers earlier this year. We'll see if only requiring an open ID will suffice.

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    2. Oh, thanks! That's what I call service :-)

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    3. My pleasure! Blogger's commenting is a major drawback, so I do want it to be as easy as possible. One day I'd like to migrate to WP, but it's a bit daunting at the moment while I have so much else going on.

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  5. Completely agree with most of the points you raise. I have to disagree, however, with the idea of moving away from photorealism - or that it is somehow responsible for the meme problem.

    In my opinion photorealism has been one area where palaeoart has excelled, while other artistic disciplines have lost their way. It has had to: disciplines such as portraiture and landscapes have the distinct advantage of only having to convince your senses that what they see is real; prehistoric reconstruction is a war against the senses and the logical part of the brain, convinced as it is that what it's looking at is no longer with us. We must suspend the disbelief of both. We have our work cut out for us and this keeps us safer from reaching a plateau where we are tempted to personalise to the detriment of realism. This can be likened to peace-time legislature: "shall we widen the motorways by 6 inches?" One year; "let's narrow them" the following.

    No offence meant to disciplines like portraiture or landscape but I do think, if you illustrate the present, you meet the urge much sooner.

    To my mind, a hide that doesn't catch the light the way skin does is just as anatomically incorrect as a disproportionate forelimb or a backward facing hand. I'd hate to see us surrender one quality while striving for another.

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    1. I agree, although I couldn't have phrased it as eloquently. In addition to, as you say, having to fight against the knowledge that the scene represents a vanished world, the frequently 'unreal' (or at least very unfamiliar) appearance of prehistoric animals - when reconstructed with the utmost anatomical accuracy - makes fooling the eye incredibly difficult.

      In arguing in favour of photorealism alongside other approaches, I think one only has to point to the work of Raul Martin, and in particular the mind-blowing front cover of Dinosaur Art.

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    2. I'm saving my responses for when I come to write my bit, I think.

      There is a place for Photorealism; but treating it as the be-all-and-end-all is something I would rebel against.

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    3. Of course it shouldn't be the be-all-and-end-all, and I do think more artists aim for it than probably should. Only a very tiny few can pull it off.

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    4. I think I may have phrased my point badly, actually. I was trying to argue for a general expansion away from photorealism, instead of abandoning it. I'm a huge, huge fan of Raul Martin, precisely because he's really, really good at photo-realistic approaches. But I think the conventional wisdom is that Photorealism is the only "real" form of paleoart. Ideally, I'd see Photorealism be one of many approaches instead of dictating the entire market.

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    5. My sentiments exactly, Asher.

      Haha, at this rate, we'll have discussed that point thoroughly here and I shall have nothing else to write about. :P

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    6. @Marc Vincent

      I'd argue that Skrepnick's work in general & the cover of "Feathered Dragons" in particular ( http://imgs.inkfrog.com/pix/lakecountrycollector/feathered-dragons010.jpg ) is an even better example of photorealistic paleoart (although I like Martin too).

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