Monday, August 1, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Fossil Factory

In 1989, Addison-Wesley published The Fossil Factory, a collaboration between famed paleontologist Niles Eldredge and his sons, Gregory and Douglas. Twenty two years later, I'm turning my eye on it for this installment of the Vintage Dinosaur Art series, thanks to the mad uploading skills of Terry Thielen, who lately has been adding greatly to the Vintage Dinosaur Art Flickr pool.


While nine-year-old Terry was a bit disappointed in the cartoony dinosaurs contained between the covers, it will be a good chance for us to look at that style from an interesting point in dinosaur knowledge: while the dinosaur renaissance was picking up steam in the public awareness, it would be a few years until China started churning out one gorgeous feathered dinosaur after another. I've been working on my own illustrations lately, and while not in the funny-pages style True Kelley and Steven Lindblom employ in The Fossil Factory, my work is definitely stylized to a similar degree (I know this is terribly cryptic, but I promise to start sharing my work in the next couple of weeks).

What I'm interested in is preserving fidelity to the anatomy of dinosaurs while pursuing simplified forms. What must be pared away? What must be kept in order to stay faithful to the beauty of the form that inspired me in the first place? This is not a novel problem, but one that any illustrator must explore at some point, and the inherently speculative nature of any dinosaur reconstruction complicates matters. In The Fossil Factory, Kelley and Lindblom handle this potentially sticky issue very well. If they exist, I'd love to see the initial sketches with Niles Eldredge's notes steering them towards greater accuracy.

FossilFacory 4

In a recent Vintage Dinosaur Art post, I praised Borje Svensson's juvenile Parasaurolophus while wishing it had been depicted with a crest with proper juvenile proportions. As you can see above, this is not an issue in The Fossil Factory. The juveniles' head crests are clearly shorter and squatter than that of their parent.

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With Eldredge as author, it makes sense that The Fossil Factory makes no bones (pun intended, get over it) about the fact of evolution. In the above text, it states that birds arose from theropods. "That's right," the Eldredges say, "birds are really just modified dinosaurs." The Archaeopteryx above does a nice job of balancing the simplicity required of the cartoonist with the fidelity required of a paleoartist.

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The dromaeosaurs still get to run around in the nude, however. What the heck. We all made regrettable fashion choices in the 80's.

FossilFacory 1

While now we're looking forward to the next research that may reveal the colors of a long-dead feathered dinosaur, in the 80's, this was nearly unthinkable. Eldredge uses this as a handy way to invite young readers to make their own speculations about the color of dinosaurs, with a few practical concerns to keep in mind.

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Though there is a bit of outdated information in this book, it's one I'd gladly share with a child today, as it demystifies the process of paleontology and provides a great way to spend time away from the television. Just be careful you don't poke yourself.


  1. I had a feeling this one might get chosen. It's really a fun book. I've had a few books lying around for years and in recent years have been collecting a lot of them. It was a wonderful treat to be able to find the pool and finally put these books to good use! I still have more to offer. I just need a good weekend to sit, scan and upload.

  2. Birds are dinosaurs in 1989 is epic win.


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