Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Great Debate in Paleoart

"Why are dinosaurs so popular?"

It's one of the perennial questions you'll read in interviews with dinosaur experts. For my part, I think that dinosaurs' staying power has to do with their reality. They lived. Certain other pop cultural memes (zombies, vampires, mythological beasts) depend on inventions of the imagination or new strains of analysis for vitality. Dinosaurs are remote enough to retain their allure as monsters, yet close enough for us to observe through the tools of science. Paleontology is a science that depends on artists to communicate its findings to the general public. Pop culture offers an outlet to popularize the science and attract new blood to the discipline. Paleontology provides new raw materials for pop culture to craft stories. The cycle repeats.

If you doubt the artist's vital role in this interplay, look at a paleontology article in National Geographic. Now strip out the paleoart. Not nearly as compelling, is it?

For the last week and a half, a discussion has been occurring within the online paleoart community, spurred by Gregory S. Paul, one of the giants of modern paleoart. That's almost an understatement. Beginning his career working with Robert Bakker, Paul was a key player in the dinosaur renaissance, the overturning of stale, limiting ideas about dinosaur physiology that reached its popular peak with Jurassic Park. Now, it's fairly common that a layman with little interest in dinosaurs will at least be familiar with the idea that they were much more dynamic creatures than the grim old paradigm held. "Dinosaurs are not boring," Paul wrote in his landmark book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, "and one can only make them so via ignorance." Now that the old concept of sluggish, brutish reptilian creatures has been cast off, scientists have the freedom to follow the evidence where it leads.

On Thursday, March 11, Paul sent an email to the Dinosaur Mailing List firmly requesting that other paleoartists cease emulating the "Greg Paul look."
My specific problem is that some other artists who utilize my work as the basis to generate their art to a significant degree are underbidding yours truly on a regular basis. I know that my work is being used because I have received requests to access my material by others to use on their projects. Making it worse is that it seems that some product producers knowingly or unknowingly wish to utilize the GP look, and are turning to lower priced artists to obtain it.
From there, the discussion quickly forked off into complementary paths. One concerned Paul's assertion that he in some way owns the characteristic pose of his skeletal diagrams, in which a bipedal dinosaur is depicted "pushing off" with the left foot in the greatest extent of the animal's stride. Paul writes:
Do not pose it in my classic left foot pushing off in a high velocity posture. Not because I am inherently outraged -- it would be rather nice if not for some practical issues. For one thing I have succeeded in getting some big payments for unauthorized use of this pose by major prjects [sic] that should have known better.
At this, most have balked. Artist Nima Sassini wrote at his Paleo King blog that Paul's request is "nothing short of megalomania." I think it's silly at the very least, but though I felt it warranted mention, I'm not going to expound any further on this. I bring it up mainly to say that I fear that this aspect of Paul's argument, as well as some folks' dislike of his tone, distracts from the more important points he's made.

Paul stresses that the illustration of a dinosaur isn't simply a drawing. Every stroke of the pen is underlain by hours of research. He writes:
I do a whole lot of work for every dinosaur I do, and it requires considerable time. Traveling hither and yon. Digging up all those old obscure papers. Cross scaling elements. Raising my blood pressure trying to cross scaling elements when it is not working out for some damn reason. Years of becoming familiar with animal anatomy and function (notice how I turned out to be right about giant theropods having flexed legs after all). Keeping up with the increasingly massive literature. Reworking old skeletal restorations as new information comes in and the occasional oops about a prior effort.
How should paleoartists be compensated for their work? There are many enthusiastic amateurs, some of whose talents approach the professional masters of the craft. Paul has a long-standing reputation for academic rigor (the flip side of which is his penchant for making broad taxonomic pronouncements in the popular press). So protecting the Greg Paul Brand is in his best interest. But as Mike Taylor states in the comments of Nima's first post on this issue at ART Evolved, this is almost a Utopian argument: Paul may not like it, but the reality of any market is that experienced professionals who command high prices can be outbid by plucky up-and-comers.

Clearly, Paul is absolutely within his rights to call other artists on their appropriation of his work. The most flagrant example of this I've seen appeared about a year ago. There are certainly amateurs who use Paul's work as they learn the craft and develop their own style. Paul has acknowledged that this is not an issue, as it's an important part of an artists growth and a practice he himself used when he was younger.

Taylor's comment brings me to my major concern, and the one thing I want to focus on today: How many paleoartists can the market sustain? Money for paleontology is hard to come by, a perennial problem made more acute by the current economic climate. Though I have a special place in my heart for paleontology, I admit that other areas of science are more vital to mankind's well-being. This is not to discount the important insights about life's history paleontology continues to offer; it's merely a pragmatic acknowledgment of its place relative to other disciplines such as medicine and energy. Paleoartists get a small slice of a small pie when working for scientific clients, and here, Paul's point is that folks who need paleoart for a project need to budget properly to pay the artist fairly. Hopefully that's possible.

As I've been writing this post, the discussion on the mailing list has come around to addressing my big concern. Mark Witton has said it perfectly, and I doubt I can improve on his phrasing.
The harsh reality may be that it may be almost impossible to eek out an existence on palaeoart alone in modern times - even if you are one of the best in the business - and live comparably well, much less support a family. It is an extremely dedicated, specialised branch of art, after all, so there isn't a massive amount of work to spread among even the handful of artists already out there.
So. Is this truly the reality we're faced with? Are the days of dedicated professional paleoartists fading away? None of these artists is getting rich off of this, so it's important to remember that for all of the veterans complaining about losing money, this a matter of livelihood, not greed.

While paleoartists certainly fit well within the Graphic Artists Guild or the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, their specific needs might warrant a guild of their own. Mike Habib has indicated in an email to the Dinosaur Mailing List that he's in the process of planning a paleoartist gathering at this year's Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting where he'll propose an informal paleoartists' society, writing that he "plans to formally suggest some organization and future goals at that event." He hasn't revealed much more than that, and I'm sure I'm not alone in eagerly awaiting more information. Similar attempts have failed in the past, but hopefully this will be more successful and improve the lot of paleoartists.

One thing's for sure. The entire community, from journal editors to exhibit designers to artists to working scientists to representatives of academic presses, needs to be heard to figure out the most equitable and feasible way forward. The lay public and those working in science-related media, such as documentaries and pop-sci magazines, should also know what's going on, for the simple fact that paleontology and pop culture have the symbiotic relationship I described above.

I do have some personal stake in this as a graphic artist. I'm not a scientific illustrator, but I do hope to base at least part of my future livelihood on doing graphic design for scientific clients, whether they be journals or popular magazines, for pure research or popular science communication. I desperately want paleoartists to have the power to make the kind of living that any skilled worker deserves. But I worry about the dilution of the field as money-crunched media producers drive compensation lower and lower. I'm following along with all of the threads of this conversation as an enthusiastic learner. Though I sometimes feel like I've been writing this blog forever, I'm reminded every day that really, I'm a rank newb. As always, I invite constructive criticism of anything I write.

I've mentioned it on the Dinosaur Mailing List and I'll bring it up here - any paleoartist who doesn't have a blog of their own and would like to talk about this issue publicly is invited here to do an interview or guest post. As this conversation evolves, I'll do my best to explain the issue and offer what little help I can.

Relevant Links:
Included as a reference to statements made by Gregory S. Paul, as well as my main topic above. Not comprehensive, but important to the issues discussed in this post.
GSP statement on use of my dinosaur restorations
RE: GSP statement on use of my dinosaur restorations (follow up)
RE: GSP statement on use of my dinosaur restorations (more follow up)
Another important point
Actually Doing Something About the Great Paleoart Ripoff
Reductio Ad Absurdum. It is 1984 Dinosaur Time..!

Some of the conversation, especially in the final thread linked, is continuing today, and won't be archived at the DML site until tomorrow.


  1. It's funny, I actually avoid the pose referred to in Greg Paul's art as much as I can for the simple reason it's been used in *everything*. As to your concernes about paleo illustrators earning a crust, this applies as much for general purpose illustration. There's so much talent out there that the market is flooded and buyers can name their price.
    Since there's also a dilution of the integrity of copyright and images are so easy to copy there's little value placed on the authorship of content.

  2. There are certainly "problems" with up-and-coming paleoartists shamelessly ripping off GSP's work, but it's usually a stepping-stone to finding one's own style. That was certainly my experience. You might say that his "Predatory Dinosaurs of the World" book basically taught me how to draw theropods, but I quickly came into my own (crappy) style.

    You could say the same thing about Charles Knight. He's the only other paleoartist I can think of who has so substantially influenced subsequent paleoartists. Immitation is the highest form of flattery, of course. I can see where GSP is coming from, but he's going about his complaint the wrong way.

    The market is, of course, extremely small for quality paleoart. As with any market, I think it'll work itself out. GSP fails to mention all of the other, arguably better professional paleoartists out there who are not being duplicated: Mike Skrepnick and James Guerney among them. A cynic might tell you that GSP's style is easy to replicate because it's so basic and similar picture-to-picture. Iconic? Yes. For the wrong reasons? Maybe.

    (I am by no means docking his skill as an artist--GSP is amazingly talented. I'm saying his irritation over immitators might stem from his own tecnique).

  3. Points well taken, gents. I have yet to hear why organizing paleoartists into a guild will grow the market. It will help them, and I am 100% in favor of it. But will it grow the market? There's not much money in paleontology. I think it will work out eventually, too. Hopefully the organization Mike Habib will be proposing at SVP will help in this regard.

    If he wants to open this up to discussion, the critiques of his style you both bring up are going to happen. Hopefully he can handle it.

    If GSP wanted to be part of a community on the web, he certainly could. Doesn't cost money to start a blog. Pro accounts on Deviantart and Flickr are cheap. He sticks with his site and apparently believes that tossing a couple books up there with emails to listservs counts as making a good attempt at self-publishing. Yeah, right...

  4. Dinosaurs are just really fun to draw! Also, to quote a certain BBC animator, "Dinosaurs haven't got all the fur that's so hard to deal with."

  5. What planet is Greg Paul on!? You cant copyright a pose, let alone one that is something that is a natural commonly occurring one!? So everyone else has to draw them in inaccurate unnatural poses or pay him rights money!?

    Looks to me like Greg Paul's last desperate grab for importance before he's replaced by better, less self-important. more modest and more polite palaeoartists who are actually able to accept criticism.....

  6. I had written a comment that was perhaps too long, tried to preview, it failed, now it's gone, and I feel like going to the streets and killing a random person.

    Anyway, instead, a more succinct version* of the comment.

    I think GSP is often being misinterpreted. I've not read everything that has been written, not even everything he wrote, but to me it seems he's just making an appeal for common sense standards of copyright, not so much "copyright of poses" or proportions or anything. Only that people charge for the work themselves do, and don't claim someone else's work as their own, charging for it.

    I suspect that there's a distinction that should have been made between professional works and amateur, hobbyist work. Some people seem to have had the impression that he said that only pros should do paleo-art, not amateurs. I don't think it's the case, I think it's the same situation. Is not the problem of copying him in itself for a hobby that bothers him, but selling it. If one really want's to call himself a paleo artist and charge for a paleontological reconstruction, then one really should do all the actual work of seeing the fossils, taking pictures, examining the proportions and drawing, not just copying someone else's work.

    Not that copying him for a hobby is 100% free of criticism. I don't think everyone needs to draw dinosaurs only running at the exact same millisecond, 100% perpendicular to the point of view, with an open mouth. It may have been "common", but so are many other positions, even when a dinosaur was running. If one really likes making images of dinosaurs, he or she should put some effort on making something more original. That also does not imply in not using GSP's or someone else's restorations for proportions or any anatomical aspect, or deliberately drawing wrong. For the sake of decency, you should also put something "after Whoever", the more heavily you've based your picture on someone else's picture.

    With "just illustration" work, things are a bit in between. You'll be paid for it, but you won't be asked to do some blatant rip-off of an schematic or just draw some muscles and skin over it, and hint some background. That's plagiarism, just like it would be with art of any other topic. But like amateur/hobbyist paleo-art, you still can use references to produce something new. "Derivative" in copyright terms is not using reference properly, but actual plagiarism. If you look for illustrations and other information on the costumes of ancient Egyptians and Romans to draw a complex scene with Caesar and Cleopatra, that's not derivative. Derivative would be looking at a picture of Caesar and Cleopatra and re-making with some twist or just with your style.

    You can use GSP's work as reference, specially the schematics, and create different scenes, based on the dinosaur's proportions you saw. You can do that using as many of his skeletal reconstructions as you want in a scene. But one can't look at the final picture and see just a dozen dinosaurs running at the same moment of the step, perfectly perpendicularly to the viewer with their opened mouths. Even if you "mirror" a bunch of them. It can't be something that screams "GREG PAUL" to anyone familiar with his work.

    I think these were his real points, and this isn't unreasonable at all.

    * I'm sorry, it didn't end out significantly shorter than the previous one. And much worse, I guess.

  7. DSC: I basically agree with you here. That aspect of his argument is pretty solid. And he does make a distinction regarding amateur work, acknowledging that "copying" is something he himself did when learning the craft. It was a valuable discussion to spark, as aspiring paleoartists must grapple with the realities of the work.

    My only quarrels came when he would not allow for that discussion to explore the idea that full-time work as a paleoartist may not be the most reliable way to earn a livelihood. No one argued against trying to make the profession as equitable as possible, but things got nasty when folks made suggested that working in other, more marketable genres as well may be necessary to keep food on the table. At that point, it seemed to hit a nerve with him and discussion was derailed. A pity, because I'm very interested in this, as noted in the post above. Suffice to say that now that things have cooled down, I'm eager to see how paleoartists organize themselves and work to strengthen the profession.


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