Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: I-Spy Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals

Last week, a canny commenter noted that, of late, I have been stretching the definition of the word 'vintage' somewhat. Contrary to what one might expect - pleasantly matured, refined artworks from the history of palaeoart - I was just peddling a load of 1990s nonsense featuring dinosaurs working for the police. Will I learn my lesson, and switch to true historical works? Of course not. So here's a book from 2001, although almost entirely (bar one page) unchanged from its original 1991 edition, and featuring a lot of art considerably older than that. So maybe I can redeem myself.

(I am a bit tired though, so forgive me if it's a short 'un...)

I-Spy Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Animals is the natural successor to I-Spy with David Bellamy: Dinosaurs. (Sometime around 1990-91, Michelin - they of the tyres - acquired the rights to the I-Spy series.) However, it is also a completely different book - while the Bellamy book featured original illustrations, much of the artwork here has been cribbed from other places, some of it even dating back to the 1950s. As in many early '90s dinosaur books, this can result in some bizarre juxtapositions, where archaic-looking art from the likes of Zdenek Burian is placed directly opposite a much more modern-looking restoration - as below.

While the Corythosaurus restoration on the left was hopelessly obsolete even by 1990 (even if it remained a superb artistic accomplishment), the juvenile Parasaurolophus sculpture on the right remains astonishing. In fact, it looks like a taxidermy specimen. Typically, there is a strange, uneasy mix of old and new at play here. 'Strange' is certainly the best way to describe some of the dinosaurs on show. The grotesque, if beautifully painted, zipper-mouthed man-in-suit tyrannosaurs on the cover are one thing, but inside we are treated to the likes of this:

Ignore the very Bakkerian Deinonychus (with only three toes) and feast your eyes on that gangly, pin-headed Struthiomimus. Still, while the animals' anatomy looks very suspect, the artist has skillfully created a stirring scene, with ominous, billowing dark clouds and a threatening tyrannosaur that is the focal point of a pale, haunting glow (which certainly increases its resemblance to Godzilla). I often think that what's missing from a lot of palaeoart today is this sort of invocation of mood, perhaps because finding someone with the required artistic and scientific talents is very rare.

Of course, some illustrations are a little more light on the redeeming features. Quite why this artist saw fit to give Protoceratops a mouth full of pointy teeth, I guess we'll never know (maybe they were inspired by bargain bucket dinosaur toys?). At least the animal is recognisable. Some of the most old-fashioned illustrations in this book - that aren't used in an historical context - enter a terrifying Twilight Zone of saurian mutants that pretty much defy explanation. Which is where the Bizarro-world ankylosaurs come in. Oh yes, them again.

Once upon a time, certain scientists thought that ankylosaurs might have had sprawling limbs. Somehow, this was transmuted into them having very short limbs. And a stumpy tail, and no neck. Either that, or they were just confused with glyptodonts. In any case, the Ankylosaurus in the above illustration looks utterly, utterly weird, and pretty much defies explanation. How did anyone ever think that they looked like this? That said, it's hard to fault the artist's technical skill - these spiky little bundles of fun look worryingly plausible as real animals. It's easy to imagine them curling up to hibernate in a bonfire.

And finally - old and new ideas in the same image.

The plesiosaur launching its snaking neck through the air to grab a Pteranodon looks hopelessly out of date, but the Pteranodon itself has a covering of pterosaur fuzz in keeping with more modern restorations. Neatly sums up popular prehistory books in the early '90s, I think.


  1. 'I often think that what's missing from a lot of palaeoart today is this sort of invocation of mood...'

    Yes. (And this from someone who very much struggles to create atmosphere)

    The hedgehog-beaver-ankylosaurs are really quite adorable.

  2. "...finding someone with the required artistic and scientific talents is very rare." This is a good point. In a world of increasing specialization, it is still important to find and encourage the "Renaissance people" who can bridge the gap between sound science and good art.


  3. honestly, I'll take good art over perfect science in these restorations. I understand if others feel differently, but we've seen what perfect science representations look like in books today with their cold, dead, computer graphics look. I'd like it to have a little bit of flash. How are you supposed to get kids interested in a boring image? Even if it's a dinosaur.
    BTW I love the cover of this book. It reminds me of the Aww Yea Guy meme (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/aww-yea-guy) and I concur with Niroot, that ankylosaur is very adorable.

  4. I adore that poor, dumpy Ankylosaurus. (The stumpy tail is probably derived from inaccurate depictions of Scolosaurus (=Euoplocephalus) that incorrectly interpreted the end of the tail to be at the broken mid-point of the caudal series in BMNH R5161.)

  5. @ththielen Most of the CG art I've seen is not only less-than-pretty, it's substantially less-than-accurate, too. (For a good example, look at that giant coffee table book with the CG spinosaur - double-crested, of course - on the front.)

  6. I think Raul Martin is an example of paleoartist who create good atmospheric scenes with accurate dinosaurs, though compared with pictures such the ornithomimid above they still might look a bit flat and "shiny". But yes, I dont understand why nobody produces more of this moody backgrounds anymore; maybe the arstists believe they don´t look realistic for today standards? its part of the post-JP syndrome? I´d like to draw some piece with that style myself, If I only had the skill..

    Oh, and that protoceratops freak the sh*t out of me! :O almost glad I didn´t own this book back then...

  7. Raul Martin's Triceratops piece is fantastic and has great atmosphere. Thanks for reminding me of his work

  8. I agree about Raul Martin. Also: Doug Henderson. Palaeo art at the highest aesthetic levels which also satisfies scientifically. Works like his almost transcend the sub category of 'palaeo art' altogether. They just happen to be about prehistoric animals.

  9. I love vintage art. I picked up the Reign of the Dinosaurs book that you showed some pages from not more than a month ago, fantastic stuff.

  10. these spiky little bundles of fun

    Damn you for that adorable image.

  11. This might be a silly question, but is the book something to do with A K Dewdney? Amazon lists him as the author.


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