Monday, March 28, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Gino D'Achille

This week, we'll look at the 1988 Golden Book Tiny Dinosaurs, written by Steven Lindblom and illustrated by Gino D'Achille. D'Achille is a renowned illustrator of book covers; browse through this portfolio of selected works, and you'll see that he's adept at natural, historical, fantastical, and mythological subjects. He's especially renowned for his terrific covers for the John Carter of Mars and Flashman series.

Considering the current discussion among the paleoart community, this is a great opportunity to look at the work of a "fantasy artist" who dips into dinosaur artwork. While not denigrating the skills of these artists, in his recent emails to the Dinosaur Mailing List, Greg Paul distinguished between these artists and dedicated paleoartists. The difference, as Paul stated, is academic rigor and a deep knowledge of - as just one relevant example - dinosaur physiology. Any illustrator worth his or her salt possesses the anatomical knowledge necessary to sell their subject, but the reconstruction of extinct forms naturally requires more research to ensure that the final result is as sound as can be hoped for.

Tiny Dinosaurs title page

Tiny Dinosaurs passes over thundering grudge matches between T. rex and Triceratops, shining a light on some less-celebrated dinosaurs. Psittacosaurus appears on the title page, above, perhaps reflecting the influence of scientific consultant Paul Sereno, who published a few works on the genus in the eighties. It's a real treat to see the rarer Heterodontosaurus, who is also the cover model.


Tiny Dinosaurs clearly aims to be more than a simple childrens' title and deliver a bit of education by fleshing out kids' idea of the Mesozoic as more than a monster's playground. It prominently lists Sereno as a consultant, so it can be presumed that Lindblom sought to publish a book that was up-to-date. The poster child for the dinosaur renaissance, Deinonychus, makes an appearance. D'Achille poses the beloved dromaeosaur sitting down, an interesting, if unsuccessful choice that takes one of the most vibrant theropods and makes it look static and as dull-eyed as a rubber Halloween mask.


Note the hands - this Deinonychus, in the memorable words of Dave Hone, is a slapper, not a clapper. I'm not sure if D'Achille would have had Paul's Predatory Dinosaurs of the World as a source, as they both came out in the same year. In PDW, Paul made the repeated mistake of pronating theropod hands. It's one of the most common mistakes you'll see to this day, and seems to be the "default" setting for folks who are simply drawing dinosaurs for fun. But it would be nice to see it go away. Since the ulna and radius of a dinosaur's arm don't cross, their hands can't be twisted so that the palms face the ground. This is probably because not much work had been done to really work out the biomechanics of the dinosaur forelimb, and therefore is an understandable error. Other theropods in the book have the same issue, including the skulking figures of Tyrannosaurus and Compsognathus below.

Tyrannosauus rex


In this Archaeopteryx, however, you can see one way the palms of a theropod's hands could face ventrally, which was by flexion of the arm - er, wing - at the shoulder.


At least Archaeopteryx got his feathers, which is more than one can say about poor naked Deinonychus. But it's just as drably adorned as all of the other beasts, all in muted greens and browns.

Mind you, the point of these posts is not to pedantically nitpick old illustrations. D'Achille's work here is be among the best of the less formal dinosaur illustrations I normally feature, though it melds traditional ideas with those of the dinosaur renaissance. As I said above, it's a good chance to illustrate one of Paul's recent points. To draw a distinction between a paleoartist and any other kind of illustrator is not to make a value judgment, but a necessary distinction. I'm not sure how intensely D'Achille went about his research, but the result seems perfectly suited to a Golden Book.

Onward, then. Sauropods, the largest dinosaurs, are featured prominently, with the small sauropodomorph Ammosaurus -now thought to be Anchisaurus - and a bit on sauropod babies.


Baby 'Pods

If sauropods make out a bit better than theropods in this title, it's due to my favorite piece: a trio of young sauropods frolicking in the surf. Rarely in these old books are sauropods shown expressing such joie de vivre.

Playful 'Pods

Definitely an upgrade from the artistic forbears of these guys, who were consigned to lives of half-submerged drudgery. For more of D'Achille's work, see his take on an "extant" plesiosaur, in this old TetZoo post, a portfolio of his work here, and his work on the sci-fi yarn West of Eden, showcased and discussed by the author here.

I'd like to thank reader Scott Hodges for letting me know about this cool title and sharing images with me. Check out plenty images from old dinosaur titles at the Vintage Dinosaur Art flickr pool.


  1. One rarely sees play in dinosaur art of any age. Actually, I really like that last picture. It shows a completely new side of sauropods: enjoying themselves instead of getting eaten all the time. It just became my new desktop background.

  2. As a kid in the >cough!< 70s, I always loved titles like this that went beyond the usual T-Rex/Triceratops/"Brontosaurus" axis.

    The choice here seems obvious: "Kids like tiny things, so how about Tiny Dinosaurs?" But the execution could have focused on baby versions of the Big Three, so it was good to see that they made the effort to branch out.

    It worked for the intended audience, too. Little Jack had a phase when he was thrilled by Tiny Anything, so Tiny Dinos was a natural staple of his bedtime story repertoire for much of his Terrible Threes.

  3. Cool art! I really like the pic of the juvenile sauropods "frolicking in the surf." Although apparently D'Achille was under the impression that sauropod hind legs were very digitgrade, with "hocks."

    Also, I couldn't help noticing that the Compsognathus and Archaeopteryx poses are lifted rather literally from paintings by Zdenek Burian. Tsk.

    Still, I've never seen anything like the "surf" illustration.


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