Friday, June 29, 2012

What I done been up to

I haven't been able to post much lately, mainly because I had an influx of much-needed freelance work this month. I'm also working on a huge batch of photos I took during my trip to the Western US. I'll be doing some posts about that as I get the time and the photos uploaded to Flickr. I've also been getting ready for something I'm really stoked about, my upcoming exhibition at Wonderlab, a children's museum here in Bloomington, IN. I'll also be doing a science-art night there on August 3, which will be a lot of fun - every kid who comes by will get to ask questions about dinosaurs and the evolution of birds, and will take home their very own printed "fossil" feather.

I've started sharing some of the illustrations, which will be on exhibit from the middle of July until the end of August. I've been working on these since last year, when Wonderlab first approached me. I've learned a lot about my process as an illustrator in how these have evolved. So, here are the first three in the series.

First, a trip to Cretaceous China to visit a thirsty Beipiaosaurus. There's a Psittacosaurus in there, too.
Beipiaosaurus with Psittacosaurus

I couldn't resist the bizarre Epidexipteryx, and included a golden orb weaver, which are known from its Jurassic habitat. I shared it on Facebook this week, and found that I'd inadvertently made a very caption-able illustration, which I'll take as a form of cosmic justice for the many times I've poked fun at illustrations on this blog.
Epidexipteryx (final)

Last (for now), Anchiornis. It was kind of awesome to work with an animal for which we have a decent idea of its coloration in life.

I've got more in the works, a good mix of animals that have been important in our understanding of feather and bird origins.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs: Part 2

As promised in the last post, it's now time for some Sibbick sauropod(omorph)s. There's surely nowhere better to begin than with the favourite dinosaur of people named Heinrich, Plateosaurus! Sibbick depicts the animal in both upright and rather more erroneous quadrupedal feeding postures. Interestingly, the 'prosauropods' are primarily depicted as bipeds in this book - especially in the skeletal diagrams and photos of mounted skeletons, which include the excellent Tübingen mount of Plateosaurus engelhardti. However, Norman is careful to point out that these animals were probably habitual quadrupeds, a view that became firmly established in the 1990s before being demolished by more recent research (Bonnan & Senter (2007) and that Mallison guy).

Skeletals, by popular demand! It's worth pointing out - although I completely failed to in my last post (FOR SHAME!) - that each double-page illustration is accompanied by a spread of wonderful skeletal diagrams, which are a key part of this book's enormous appeal, even if a lot of them are now rather out of date. This Plateosaurus is partaking in a strangely upright tottering walk with a rather uncomfortable-looking tail. Of course, it's notable that the hands are facing the right way here, and the smaller skeletal is clearly based on a Plateosaurus mount supervised by Friedrich von Huene that was remarkably ahead of its time. It's also worth noting that - for all their flaws - both of these depictions are more realistic than, say, a galloping Plateosaurus. As if anyone could contemplate such silliness...

I've clearly been reading Mallison's blog for far too long - time to move on to some Proper Sauropods. Sibbick's Apatosaurus clearly owes a lot to earlier work by the likes of Burian, particularly when it comes to the neck, which seems to emerge from below the shoulder blades; noteworthy is that the head is of the more correct diplodocid style.  The artwork is still beautiful, but at this point Sibbick's sauropods still tended to be rather lardy tail-draggers. Of course, his work evolved rapidly, and it's worth comparing the very 1950s Diplodocus in the background here with the extraordinary 'Allosaurus v Diplodocus' painting from the early '90s. Yeah, I know it mentioned it last time. But it's that bloody good.

This drawing's just fantastic. Excellent caption provided by Ivan Kwan (@VaranusSalvator), via Twitter:

Sauropod: Come here, give Aunt Pat a big hug!
Allosaur: DO NOT WANT

More skeletal stuff. This page is remarkable for the inclusion of 'diplodocid skulls' that actually come from titanosaurs. Given how famous they are now - the stars of TV documentaries and popular dinosaur books across the globe - it's easy to forget how much our understanding of titanosaurs has progressed in the last 20 years. The Diplodocus skeletal here is also very old fashioned, with the bones of the hand arranged in a rather strange, flat, lizardy way.

Every time I look at this Giraffatitan I think of chocolate biscuits (or 'cookies' for David and our United Statesian readers). There's a reason - back in the early '90s, the biscuit manufacturer Jacob's made dinosaur-shaped chocolate coated biscuits that were bundled with little cards featuring Sibbick artwork. Also, the big lug looks really happy, like he just ate a particularly delicious chocolate biscuit. Yes. This was also the illustration that led to my childhood perception of Camarasaurus being the little baby brother of the other sauropods; apart from its neck being unduly short here, standing next to Giraffatitan certainly never helped.

You know how I mentioned that some of these sauropods look a little...heavy? Vulcanodon here is probably the best example - modern restorations of this basal sauropod tend to be rather more slimline. Again, though, this is absolutely stunning artwork, and the animal depicted here is completely believable, dragged tail and all. It was probably the excellent execution of this picture that led to Vulcanodon's otherwise inexplicable mention in a number of dinosaur books back in the 1990s - this illustration was always there alongside.

It's the only erect-tailed sauropod there ever was! Perhaps because its tail is its most notable feature, Opisthocoelicaudia is depicted holding it aloft with nary a puff of dust in sight. Fellow titanosaur Saltasaurus is clearly aghast at this dangerous dinosaur radical. Saltasaurus itself is exhibiting a posture clearly modelled on rearing elephants. Another lovely know, by the end of this series, I'm going to have to resort to just typing "Cor! Look at that lovely Sibbick art, there! It's right nice, it is!"

And so concludes today's lesson. There'll be more! Oh yes, I'm afraid so.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

This Thursday: learn anatomy from Scott Hartman

Scott Hartman's Skeletal Drawing website and blog are a terrific resource for artists looking for reference material for illustrating dinosaurs. On Thursday June 21, Scott will be presenting a webinar with Ryan Kingslein at the website Visualarium, Advanced Creature Anatomy. It starts at 10am Pacific standard time.

In the paleontology blogosphere, we often read about the Shiny Digital Future in regards to open access journals and the broad dissemination of research via the web. Opportunities like this webinar are part of the phenomenon. While we've seen old-guard paleoartists fretting over the new state of things and what it means for their business - a worry I do not trivialize - this is the great upside. Closer contact with experts, raising the level of the practice of paleoart as a whole. If you're free, and you're looking to raise your game, check it out.

You can also follow Scott on Twitter, @skeletaldrawing.

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.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: I Can Read About Dinosaurs!

Today we feature another piece shared by Terry Thielen. We've featured a pretty wide spectrum of work during this series, and this one definitely sits on the "cheapo" end of the spectrum: compositions obviously inspired by classic work, printing that can charitably be described as frugal, text seemingly spat out from the top of the writer's head. Of course, it's also not exactly aiming high: I Can Read About Dinosaurs has a pretty modest goal embedded in its title.


It was published in 1972 by Troll, with illustrations credited to Judith Fringuello. For what it is, the art is about as good as it needs to be: there sure are some dinosaurs in this book.

Her Tyrannosaurus rex strikes a surprisingly modern posture as it chases down a Trachodon, that dependable, now-defunct duckbill of mid-century dinosaur illustrations. The duckbill seems to be sauntering more than running, but then again, with those flippers for feet, that's about as fast as it can go.

icanreadabout 4

The bird-catching Ornitholestes. We've seen this meme pop up over and over again, nicked from Charles R. Knight. It's not always Ornitholestes; sometimes another small theropod fills in. This isn't the most blatant tracing of the original, but the inspiration is clear. I also appreciate the expression on the "big meat eating dinosaur's" face. "Oh you do get into some hi-jinks, don't you?"

icanreadabout 1

I'll end with another of my favorite classic forms of dinosaur illustrations: the gory reality of nature brought to life by a big theropod chompin' away at some poor, docile herbivore. In this case, it's a duckbill of some sort watching some brute take a big bite out of its pelvis. I assume that the theropod in question is Allosaurus, given the similarity of the pose to the iconic mount at the American Museum of Natural History.

icanreadabout 3

Nodding to Burian's work, here are some snorkling sauropods. Can't beat that hungry theropod on shore, eyeing all those tons of unattainable sauropod flesh.

icanreadabout 2

I recently found that "Tyrannosaurus rex vs Triceratops" is the 12th most common search term that has led people to this blog since it began. And why the heck not? Sure, I've groused about interspecies conflict fantasies before, but I'd be telling a hefty fib if I said that I'd look away given the chance to see these two iconic saurians face off. They are like Olympian gods, the chiefs of warring tribes, destined to relive their battles for eternity. It will remain an essential part of any kind of mainstream dinosaur media - most recently the brutal treatment in Dinosaur Revolution - as long as there is sufficient demand. Best to accept it and hope it's packaged with some good science.

So, here's them doing it again.

icanreadabout 5

Friday, June 8, 2012

Shooting fish in a barrel with a gatling gun

A billboard for Kenny Ham's creationist fantasyland in Kentucky, USA was shared by Hemant Mehta on Twitter yesterday. It's an easy target, but one I can't resist. After all, while we do share some rather derpy dinosaurs in our Vintage Dinosaur Art posts, we typically try to be fair.

But we don't have to be fair to this! Click to brachio-size.

I'm pretty disappointed. I hold Hambone to a high standard, and this just doesn't cut it. I mean... the features that make Brachiosaurus recognizable as Brachiosaurus just aren't there: the distinctly macronarian noggin, the notably longer forelimbs than hindlimbs. They've given this poor beast a set of human-like teeth, and just look at those feet! Ghastly. They couldn't be bothered to look at even a poor illustration, let alone any of the decent ones that are freely available.

I mean, even this LEGO model looks pretty much like Brachiosaurus...

[Hewkii9] does this origami version.

Simple Brachiosaurus

For crying out loud, this is more recognizable as Brachiosaurus!

Brachiosaurus / Preschool Art
[Geoffrey Kehrig]

Really, I'm relieved that Hambone isn't able to hire someone with the chops to accurately illustrate Brachiosaurus.

Now, send some traffic these folks' way...
Panda's Thumb
Understanding Evolution
Stupid Dinosaur Lies

And if you're ever tempted to visit his little sideshow in Kentucky, be a dear and donate double the entrance fee to an organization that defends our responsibility to teach evolution in science classrooms.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dinosaur Isle

Dinosaur Isle is a museum located in Sandown on the Isle of Wight (England). Sandown's an odd place - a crumbling relic of a seaside resort with a neglected, abandoned-looking art deco hotel (the 'Grand') and a zoo fronted by the remains of a Second World War fortress (both of which happen to be located very close to the museum). The striking, angular frontage of the museum - intended to resemble a pterosaur - certainly stands in contrast with its surroundings, and on clear days is visible far down the coast.

But never mind all that - we're here for prehistoric beasties, and the museum doesn't disappoint.

Dinosaur Isle's a rare natural history museum in that, while it provides all the eye candy and 'interactivity' that modern museum audiences (and no-doubt adorable sugar-fuelled kiddiwinks) apparently demand, it doesn't skimp on genuine specimens and explanatory labelling. Guests are moved through the first part of the museum, conceived as a 'journey back in time', in a very linear fashion. In spite of the museum's name there is actually quite a large collection of Cenozoic material, which is very fascinating but which I completely neglected to photograph because I'm an idiot.

We are then treated to a life-size model of Ophthalmosaurus, which is seemingly made out of Walking With Dinosaurs leftovers. While this means it (inaccurately) has teeth, it's still a very nicely assembled diorama that also features some freaky 'uncoiled' ammonites (real specimens are on show nearby).

Of course, one really visits a place called Dinosaur Isle for the dinosaurs. The large, spacious main hall is very open, allowing guests to wander around at will and escape small children and their infuriatingly ignorant, confidently-spoken opinions that you really want to correct but daren't because their parents would give you funny looks, and the dad actually looks quite hard. Anyway, the first skeleton on show is this gloriously presented Megalosaurus mount, surrounded by the approving smiles of the pioneers of palaeontology. Love it.

The two best-known Isle of Wight theropods are well represented by both real material and life-size models which - being over a decade old now - are already showing their age (such is the pace of palaeontological progress). The Neovenator mount is impressive and, although behind glass, it is brightly-lit and allows for close inspection. Maybe the right leg is rather too straight, but it's still pretty awesome.

The little model in the case would appear to be a recent addition and shows off the animal's characteristic twin-ridged skull, a trait common in allosaurs but missing from...

...the life-size animatronic model, which also, unfortunately, has bunny hands. It's impressive enough, although the movements are rather feeble and it emits Jurassic Park T. rex roars, which is a bit cringey.

Eotyrannus also gets the life-size model treatment and, alas, also has bunny hands. Not sure if they'd get away with the lack of feathers these days, either, given Dilong and Yutyrannus. (And yes, Heinrich, OMG THE CAUDOFEMORALIS SHRINKAGE!!!11!!)

There's no mounted skeleton, but genuine Eotyrannus fossils are on display nearby, which is very cool and provides the chance to inspect these wicked-looking phalanges.

To Iguanodon now, the most famous English dinosaur that was actually Belgian. Actually, I believe fragmentary remains possibly belonging to I. bernissartensis have been found on the Isle of Wight, but by far the better known iguanodontian from the island is the rather smaller Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis. Regardless, I. bernissartensis forms the basis of an impressively massive life restoration that has a convincingly stupid look on its fern-chomping face. There's also a sculpted complete skeleton and various fossil bits and pieces.

Happily, much love in the museum is given to Hypsilophodon, with a mounted skeleton, various fossil specimens and a life-sized model. The mounted skeletons in London's Natural History Museum are tucked behind a Euoplocephalus and are easily overlooked, but on its home island the little ornithopod gets a chance to shine.

That particular skull is on a turntable. The inclusion of the story detailing its discovery is quite typical, and it's a great touch that really adds a lot of colour. Notice also the diagrams.

The ankylosaur Polacanthus is subject to a life restoration too, and it makes for an hilarious contrast with the Neave Parker-esque monstrosity at Blackgang Chine. Dinosaur Isle presents a rare opportunity to actually see some remains from this beast, which nearby signage commendably notes is quite poorly known, with restorations often based on its relative Gastonia. Check out the fragments of armour, including part of the hip shield (6).

How about some sauropod? The presentation (resembling a dig site, with a hard hat, notepad etc.) is a little twee (although it made me laugh), but once again the detailed description of the discovery and excavation of these fossils is very captivating, and too seldom seen in natural history museums.

There's a lot to see in this museum, and those put off by words like 'interactive' and 'experience' in the marketing claptrap needn't be - there's actually a huge collection of fossils on show, some unusually detailed signage, a bright and airy exhibition space and a very reasonable entry fee. What's perhaps best about this museum is that it successfully aims at the widest possible audience - sproglings and their disinterested progenitors can marvel at life-sized models and skeletal mounts, while dinosaur geeks can spend ages poring over both fossils and the descriptions that accompany them. What's more, its exhibitions change all the time (it currently plays host to part of Mark Witton & Co's Pterosaur Jamboree, originally displayed at the Southbank Centre, London) and there's a lot of surprising stuff squirreled away.

For example, the museum is apparently a retirement home for old Dorling Kindersley models.

...Not to mention John Sibbick's sketches.

Unfortunately, I happened to visit with someone rather nonplussed by dinosaurs who was tagging along through a sense of charity, hence my slightly scanty photographs. It's really worth going with someone who's as happy as you are to stick around and soak up every little detail. Yeah, there's some stuff that's a little awkwardly outdated (Megalosaurus as a - as per usual, but it's definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in that rather faded part of the world.

And finally, it's me with Pteranodon.