Monday, November 2, 2009

An Interview with John Sibbick

A scene from Antarctic Australasia by John Sibbick

A couple of weeks ago, a brief post at Palaeoblog about Scottish geologist Roderick Murchison used an image of a sea scorpion hunting on the floor of a Silurian sea to tie into Murchison's role as the man who named the Silurian period (about 445 to 415 million years ago). That image grabbed my attention, and I embarked on a short quest to identify the responsible artist. I found that his name is John Sibbick, and I was already quite familiar with his work.

Sibbick's artwork has been seen in museums all over the world, as well as bringing life to many articles in National Geographic Magazine; wander through the galleries on his website and put a name to the work you've surely seen. Beyond prehistory, he has done work for the role-playing game series Warhammer 40,000 and has illustrated books on mythology.

Mr. Sibbick recently took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his work.

What was your first piece of palaeoart?

The first collaboration with a palaeontologist was in the early 80's. I was commissioned to illustrate a general book on dinosaurs and other mesozoic life. There were over 40 illustrations - most of it in colour with a limited schedule and budget. I struck lucky with the author, David Norman. The title was eventually called When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and was aimed at juvenile dinosaur enthusiasts. The first painting was the front and back cover featuring a mature Triceratops posturing and raising dust in a Cretaceous landscape. Norman was great to work with and we developed a working routine which I still stick to: a lot of sketches and questions, back and forth until the detail and composition is right. The book was completed and immediately shelved for 4 years. Eventually it surfaced at the same time as another David Norman collaboration, which was The Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs.

How much time do you devote to keeping up with new developments in paleontology?

My painting technique is pretty labour-intensive and up to recent years involved working long hours. I tend to collect information on new developments as they become published, and take any new data on board if it is relevant to the job in hand and question how it affects the present work. I also take note on various differing opinions and who sides with what. In general I try and keep up to speed and gather as much material as possible.

Have any recent paleontological discoveries excited you? What about a discovery makes your neurons fire?

Many things get me going, and I try to gather all I can about the fossil material and to see the evidence for myself. Of course the relentless discoveries from China are fabulous and it was a great privilege to get to see some of the actual prepared specimens a while ago at the Natural History museum in London. These are some of the most beautiful fossils I've seen.

I am fascinated by dinosaur trackways and the recent sauropod sequences in France and other European sites are astonishing. This is as direct contact as we can get with these giants and can indicate detail of posture and sometimes behaviour if enough material is revealed. I would be very interested in attempting to reconstruct the landscapes of some of these classic dinosaur highways.

A Triassic Trackway in South Wales by John Sibbick

Do you have a favorite era of Earth's history to depict?

Not really. But there are periods I would like to revisit perhaps. The Carboniferous Coal Measures in the UK interest me and it would be nice to draw a series of scenes of the same area at times of fluctuating water levels indicating the rates of decay and growth of forests and marginal plants. The Permian/Triassic boundary is also fascinating, perhaps more than the KT event...

How were you informed that the pterosaur Ludodactylus sibbicki would be named in your honor? Did you know the paleontologists already? Do you receive any sort of plaque or ribbon to commemorate the honor?

All very informal. I had worked on Arambourgiana with David Martill previously, and a crocodile illustration with Dino Frey. D.M. emailed me or phoned me to let me know of the plan, and later I met him on the Isle of Wight at a conference and he confirmed that it was published in a paper and the volume "Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs" from the Geological Society, London 2003. There was no blue plaque or secret handshake involved - or was there?

Are there any subjects you would like to get another crack at, to incorporate new discoveries?

For some time I have hoped to focus more on marine reptiles, homing in on UK finds. I have not done much more than a few ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs up to now. The recent pliosaur skull discovered in Weymouth Bay in Dorset has drawn my attention away from dinosaurs for a while. This was an 8 ft. long skull of a proposed 60 foot long pliosaur from around 150 mya. Maybe I will try and fit it in some time next year!

Finally, are there any unsung organisms of Earth's history you'd like to bring more attention to? Some critter that doesn't have the fame it deserves?

There are so many critters that I haven't given my attention to over the last 30 years, so many. As a freelancer you don't always have a choice of subjects you want to work on. I have worked on some Burgess Shale and Ediacaran organisms and coral reef assemblages but there are great gaps. I would also like to get back to the mammal like reptiles - gorgonopsids and dicynodonts, and the evolution of whales from Pakistan. Not to mention the dinosaurs...

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