Wednesday, April 7, 2010

LITC Interview: Matt Van Rooijen


Chasmosaurus by Matt Van Rooijen, used with his permission.

The latest LITC interview subject is Matt Van Rooijen, an Australian artist introduced to the paleoart world by Dave Hone of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. In the last couple months, Matt's reconstructions of Linheraptor and Xixianykus, two new Chinese theropods, were published with their initial descriptions. Readers of this blog have probably noticed my fascination with the intersection of art and science; paleontology has an especially deep relationship with the arts. Paleoart well done communicates science in a vital way, and serves as an entry point to further knowledge. Matt's pieces exemplify this, and as I've previously noted, I'm happy that his unique voice has been added to the mix. Please be sure to read his blog, Optimistic Painting, as well as Hone's Archosaur Musings, which contains plenty of information about these recent discoveries. Onward, then.

You write about a pretty diverse range of projects on your blog. Can you tell us a bit about your artistic background?

Studied Fine Art at Uni in South Australia, which was pretty diverse covering traditional painting, drawing, sculpture. Fine Art is (or was) all about "concept" and "interpretation," so I didn't quite fit in because I liked what they described as "Surrealism," which was really fantasy/sci-fi illustration.

Then I discovered the Commodore 64 computers in the film department, running 'Deluxe Paint 4'. They didn't really know what to do with them, they didn't teach us how to use software or anything (it was the late 80's/early 90's). There's an even longer back story here, but suffice to say it lead to me ditching most of the other classes and making animation pixel by pixel.

That lead to a career in animation, with a smattering of illustration and concept design thrown in. I've worked medical animation, online realities, short film, and animation for TV.

Illustration has been a recent revival for me, so I haven't done much and compared to a lot of the talent out there I'm pretty rough 'round the edges.

Did you have a favorite museum when you were growing up, or a similar place where your love of science began?

Unfortunately I grew up in country South Australia, closest museum was in Adelaide, 8hrs away by car. They did have a cool mount of Allosaurus and a tyrannosaur skull cast, as well as a cast of the Winton Stampede dinosaur tracks. I was made painfully aware of the lack of Australian dinosaurs looking at the case of tiny fragmentary bits that, until that time were the only discoveries.

How big a deal were the Wintonotitan, Australovenator, and Diamantinasaurus in Australia? Announcing three big dinosaurs at the same time is pretty significant.

The media did pick it up well, with pretty good coverage. There was also a great 3D animated reconstruction of Australovenator on TV by Travis Tischler, who also did their 2D stills. Some nice stuff of him working in Z-Brush, the tools for reconstruction are marching along with technology!

I was in the middle of a real life painting of some polar allosaurs taking on a muttaburrasaur. For years we'd had this tantalising astragalus (an ankle bone - ed.) which had been identified as [coming from] a 'dwarf' allosaur, so it was great to have such a complete find which described a more individual animal. Of course, now I have to change the painting.

Has natural history always been a big part of your art?

Thinking back it was there all the way. Much of school was spent making drawings of things that all had a suspiciously William Stout slant to them. My final painting at Uni was a 10 foot tall mural with the scientific name for humans interspersed with painted developmental stages of the human foetus ending in a human skull. I saw science as a way to bring perspective to our place in the world.

I also did a painting with a bag lady riding a T. rex through city streets. One of the first things I animated was a Hypsilophodon running (I think I was supposed to be animating a car at the time).


Linheraptor exquisitus by Matt Van Rooijen, used with his permission

Both of your Chinese dinosaur paintings are quite striking, and I love that they both capture a moment in an animal's life. Was it an early decision to depict moments of action rather than a "posed" creature?

Thanks! Yeah, both Dave Hone and I were keen to depict living animals. I looked around at wildlife photography a lot, living animals are the best place to start to get a feel for what seems natural. Linheraptor was going to be a bit more static, but I'd had an image of a lion locking onto it's prey from an old National Geographic or documentary from years ago in my head. What had struck me was the way a predator's body can be going berserk chasing something but the head would be completely focussed and level, like it was on a gimbal. Dave liked the sketch.

The thing I wanted not to do was have "side on" dinosaurs, which seem really common since artists like Greg Paul have been giving us such excellent skeletal reconstructions.

The alvarezsaurs are a bit more obscure than dromaeosaurs. Were you very familiar with the group when you started on Xixianykus?

I knew about the alvarezsaurs for quite a while, I try and keep track of new natural history discoveries and they stuck out because they were quite bizarre. There were some great photos and reconstructions around.

Did the processes for each of these first two pieces for the IVPP differ greatly?

Not really. I was given the paper (resulting in anatomy overload, I thought I had a reasonable grasp of anatomy, palaeontologists work at a much higher resolution) then had to research and ask lots of questions about anatomy, habitat etc. I guess the main difference was Linheraptor was "exquisitely" preserved while Xixianykus looked like a crushed roast chicken.

One of the things I've enjoyed as I've read more scientific papers are new, strange words for my vocabulary. Do you have any favorite words from the scientific jargon of anatomy?

Not really, but my 4 year old son has started measuring distances in "Klonkimeats."

Is the process much different, working with scientists rather than anyone else who might commission a piece?

Scientists, or at least Dave Hone, seemed to know what they're after a bit more clearly than other clients I've worked with. Revisions come about more because of accuracy issues or lack of (my) research rather than aesthetic considerations. For my process I wanted to know if there were specific features they wanted to depict, whether it be anatomical, physiological or behavioural.

Linheraptor went from having a couple of months to complete to a week as the paper was unexpectedly accepted early! So while that certainly wasn't the fault of the people who'd commissioned the piece, it seems like pretty standard stuff in the world of commercial art and animation!

Would you like to branch out from dinosaurs in future scientific reconstructions? What other ancient creatures interest you artistically?

I could give you a list but instead I'll just say: all of them. Seriously though, I think I'm a science junkie. I love the thrill of discovery.

What paleoartists do you admire most?

William Stout, Greg Paul, James Gurney.

William Stout was probably the artistic influence on me growing up. His animals have personality and vigor, even when they're just standing still. I still love his stuff. He depicts things in such a bold way.

Greg Paul really started people thinking about actually fitting the bones in the flesh; reconstruction became a more serious business. His reconstructions are all about accuracy and anatomy. Paul's style is reproduced so much that I get a bit tired of seeing the knock offs, but then I look at his original stuff and it's just great.

I suspect James Gurney isn't taken all that seriously in paleoart circles? That's just a guess, as he's so well know for 'fantasy' portrayal of dinosaurs, but the man has such fantastic painting chops, and his animals live and breathe even if they're not portrayed behaving accurately.

There's so many people out there doing great things besides, your Luis Reys and Raul D. Martins are just fantastic.

Dinosaurs are a pretty diverse group of animals, but from an artist's point of view, do they seem to have some inherent quality that makes them so interesting? I guess what I'm getting at is, what makes them so fun to stare at?

They're quite grandiose as a group of animals, like nature putting on a show. "The biggest! The meanest! The scariest!" The idea that we shared the same world with these incredible, but quite scary creatures, is also appealing. Especially from the safety of 65 million years away.

Last, and maybe most important is the mystery. It seems every day we discover more, but we're likely never to discover everything about dinosaurs. So everyone has a take, or an interpretation. That said, that they've deduced colours for some species simply blew my mind. It was something that every book I ever read, since I was a child, said would never happen.

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