Thursday, August 30, 2012

Dinosaur Art: 'Time Machine Enough'

I am at a considerable disadvantage, following up David, Marc and Asher. Not only am I in possession of an inferior brain to those of the authors of this blog, I also happen not to have a copy of Dinosaur Art to hand, and am having to rely largely on my recollection of leafing through this gorgeous book from when Marc kindly shared his copy with me.

Given its title, I had initially imagined the book to be not dissimilar to Dinosaur Imagery in presenting almost a miscellany of renowned names in contemporary palaeo art. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of its focus on just ten artists, which affords a more in-depth look at their oeuvre and methods, as the others have already pointed out. This was especially welcome to me as an illustrator myself. On the purported premise of its featuring the very best in the genre, however, no doubt everyone will have their own quibbles as to who was left out of this exalted group. And in this, I have to agree with David that the absence of Mark Hallet and Michael Skrepnik is a notable one.

Raúl Martín; Sauropods

Of the ten represented though, it heartens me to see that there does seem to be a degree of variety in terms of style and approach, and to see what might be regarded as 'newer' names in the palaeo art world sitting alongside the long-established greats. I confess at once that Robert Nicholls and John Conway, for instance, were artists whom I had only discovered within the last year or so. It is refreshing to contrast the latter's more stylised but highly atmospheric -- sometimes even elegiac -- digital illustrations with the exquisitely detailed and resolutely traditional gouache paintings of John Sibbick (to whom I kowtow); or to see two quite differing sides of the same coin in the works of Todd Marshall and Luis Rey, both of whom relish the opportunities for dramatic perspectives, postures, and wilder speculative features in their animals. Whilst Douglas Henderson's 'truly artistic approach to paleoart' breathtakingly ravishes every scientific and aesthetic sensibility with his evocative landscapes, convincingly populated by fauna. I do take Asher's point that the greater weight does still tend to fall on the naturalistic or photo-realistic approaches on the whole, and fully agree that the inclusion of William Stout would have added yet another facet of this world to this gem of a book.

Todd Marshall; Kaprosuchus

Allow me, if you will, a brief moment of self-indulgence from the perspective of a traditional artist. I readily admit that I myself am guilty of the 'hand-wringing' which David mentioned with regard to digital media changing the craft. The exquisite watercolours and coloured pencil pieces of  Julius Csotonyi were what made me fall in love with his work in the first place, and as much as I admire his stunningly wrought digital paintings, I lament that they seem to have supplanted his traditional work both in actual terms and insofar as they are represented in this book. A watercolour of Einosaurus is the sole instance of this here. I should so much have preferred several more in lieu of one or two of his less successful combinations of photography and digital painting.

Julius Cstonyi; Brachylophosaurus. Awarded The Lanzendorf PaleoArt Prize for Two-Dimensional Art (2010) by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

I do agree with Marc that a little more light could have been shed on some of the decisions for certain idiosyncratic features the artists gave to their depictions. Though the whole science and art of restoration are so broad that I see how difficult these would be to bring into each interview, and one which would be better served by focusing on an individual work in its entirety than by random questions in amongst each section. But this would require many more pages and much more expense. For me, the 'highlight taxon' for each artist as mentioned by David suffices comparatively well enough in this effort for the book's purposes. I also recall that at least one blog reader was concerned that more is not made of dinosaur lives and evolution itself; but this, too, would be to make even more of an attempt to be 'all things to all readers', as Asher aptly pointed out.

My overall opinion, however, is quite simple: secure yourself a copy of this book with what despatch you may! Of its production values, I have little else to add. As has already been mentioned, the quality of the printing is sterling and the book is a treasure, appealing fully to the bibliophile and the dinosaur art lover in me. I even had to remonstrate with Marc regarding his customary cavalier handling of books when he brought his copy along. Even if does not, indeed, quite succeed in being all things to all readers, what it does offer in terms of insight into the artists' processes together with the wealth and quality of the images ought to earn it a place on the bookshelf of any dinosaur enthusiast of whatever degree.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dinosaur Art: The Agony and The Ecstacy

I have some fairly mixed feelings about Dinosaur Art.

I've been carrying it around for a few days, browsing it in coffee shops, making random notes, and generally just drinking in the beautiful art and layout. There's no question that the book looks and feels spectacular. The art is crisp, the colors lush, the text margins pleasingly aligned. It's also worth noting that a lot of the selections for the various contributors are fantastic choices and do a great deal to show them off in their best light, and even those that miss the mark do so in an interesting way. If what follows seems to get a little bit nit-picky, it's because I don't really have any complaints about the book as a product--it's a beautiful package and its well worth your money.

Right up front, I think that Raúl Martín, John Conway, Douglas Henderson, John Sibbick and Todd Marshall all come off splendidly. Martin's deep canvas digital paintings are far and away the most successful of their kind, evoking photo-realism without ever straying uncomfortably close to it. Conway's stylistic playfulness (and fondness for flowers) is a wonderful jolt, and Marshall's work resembles nothing so much as a heavy metal solo played with paint and prehistoric subject matter. Douglas Henderson and John Sibbick, of course, are two of the current giants of paleoart, and their galleries reflect that standing excellently.

Elasmosaurs  and Pteranodon  ©  Douglas Henderson

There are a few things in Dinosaur Art that don't work quite as well, though. I'm a huge fan of digital work when it's well integrated or stylistically experimental, but some of the examples used aren't as successful as they could be. For some reason, even the best photo-manipulations just don't seem to be well served by print. Julius Csotonyi comes the closest to escaping this trap, using as he does digitally manipulated backgrounds and animals alike to build his murals. A few, unfortunately, do tumble headlong into the uncanny valley, but on the whole his style is hyper-detailed enough that he pulls it off more often then not.

Luis Rey, unfortunately, doesn't pull it off a single time. His awesomely bombastic style meshes badly with digital effects, and produces a sloppy looking mixture that does more harm then good to the actual pencils. Perhaps most seriously of all, it makes his contributions look generic and cheap in comparison to the other artwork in the book. Robert Nicholls, likewise, has a lot of the good will from his gorgeous underwater paintings undone with a single digital collage. Frankly, I'm a little puzzled that some of this was considered worthy of putting up next to, say, Douglas Henderson.

Sanajeh and juvenile dinosaur © Julius Csotonyi
Another thing that bothers me about Dinosaur Art is a little more abstract. Some of the art selections seem to blend together after a while, and I wonder whether a greater stylistic variance would have helped alleviate the problem. The book pays a lot of attention to the same well loved, hyper-natural school of paleoart, and the inclusion of people like William Stout would go wonders toward giving the book a more varied feel.

The inclusion of Gregory Paul is to the book's credit, though. I differ from David here, of course; as Marc pointed out, he is an important progenitor of a lot of the current trends in paleoart, for good or ill, and having his gallery as an example of that baseline style is useful and informative. Both John Conway and Todd Marshall in particular seem to be reacting to his legacy in their own art, commenting on it and spinning it in fun ways. That kind of artistic communication gives the book a spark other compilations don't have, and it's worth wading through Paul's tetchy taxonomy to get it.

Finally, I feel more time should have been spent either elucidating the science behind some of the artistic choices, or going further into the process behind the artwork itself. Dinosaur Art tries to split the difference, and as a result spends little time discussing either process or science. The interviews are interesting, but not always terribly informative, and they tend to cover fairly similar ground. I wish the book had focused a little bit more on exploring one facet well, instead of trying to be all things to all readers.

© Raúl Martín
On the whole, though, I think Dinosaur Art is a success. My issues with it aside, it's a book filled with overwhelmingly gorgeous art of awesome extinct creatures, well made, well curated, and absolutely worth your time and money.

You can read Marc and David's takes here. Next up, Niroot!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dinosaur Art: it's quite pretty

Following David's review (not to mention Dave Hone's and Brian Switek's, whoever he is) is going to be quite some work. At the back of my mind is the persistent fear that I'll lose what respect (if any) you lot already had for me when you finally realise that I really don't know what I'm talking about. Far more importantly, publishers might not feel inclined to send me any more shiny shiny books in the mail for me to gloat over on Facebook.

Never mind, though. Wish me luck! And remember, all images are © the artist concerned and are used with the kind permission of Titan Books. Steal them and they will deploy the Lawyer-Bots.

Diplodocus by Raúl Martín
Dinosaur Art is a coffee table book par excellence; it's huge, glossy and every single page is slathered with visually arresting artworks. Both David and Dave have remarked that the book's title can occasionally seem something of a misnomer; on a few occasions, that ever-popular diapsid reptile clade takes a break that lasts a number of pages. Indeed, Mauricio Antón's (beautiful) chapter only contains one of the blighters across no fewer than sixteen pages (oh yes it does - it's in the sky, page 62). I have no quibbles with this, however. Let's face it - dinosaurs are inevitably the headline-grabbers, and it's a struggle to think of a snappier title. What's more, it's also quite a provocative title that marries two words rarely seen side-by-side in the popular media.

As has already been noted, the print quality is excellent, and shows off some artwork in a new light. David has remarked on some of the photo-composite work suffering a little, and I'll have to agree - while of course none of it approaches If Dinosaurs Were Alive Today levels of "Look, ma! Photoshop!" cringe, the contrast between the photographic elements and the animals can be jarring. On the other hand, some artists' work benefits hugely from such a quality reproduction, and that includes John Conway, who works predominantly in the digital medium. Having only ever seen his work online, it was a revelation to view it in this book - it really comes alive. Sibbick's work is even more mind-boggling than usual, and it's simply marvelous to see his hyper-detailed preliminary sketches.

Aucasaurus attacking titanosaur nests, by John Sibbick
The choice of artists is bound to be rather divisive. I know a lot of people have mixed feelings about Luis Rey's work (I'm a fan), and David mentioned that maybe Greg Paul should've been left out (or switched for someone else) as he doesn't really 'fit'. While I might be tempted to agree simply because he casually dismisses my beloved Zdeněk Burian (the cad!) and espouses dodgy taxonomy (yes, even here), his artwork is still bloody gorgeous. In particular, I found it fascinating to see the evolution of his Giraffatitan piece over the decades - from rubber-necked '70s-o-pods to the more robust-looking, spiny beasts as featured in his Field Guide.

If there was something that I wish I could have seen more of in this book then it would have to be the science behind the art, and more particularly the artists' reasoning behind some of the necessary speculative decisions they had to make when creating a piece. For example - why does John Conway illustrate his theropods with 'lips', whereas Robert Nicholls opts for exposed gums? Why does Julius Csotonyi only feather the arms (and very minimally, the backs) of his tyrannosaurs? While it's absolutely fascinating to learn of the artistic techniques being deployed, and how they have evolved over time, a little more of the history of some of the pieces - and the decisions that went into them - wouldn't have gone amiss.

Brachylophosaurus and Daspletosaurus, by Julius Csotonyi
Of course, this is all a reflection of my own biases and interests - which might seem like an Attack of the Obvious, but do allow me to explain. Given my lack of artistic training and insight, I am naturally more interested in the scientific side of things. If you have a keen interest in the art from a purely artistic perspective, you are bound to get more from this book than if you are simply a comparatively ignorant and uncultured dinosaur nut suffering a quarter-life crisis.

Still, I am very keen to make it clear that I am not really complaining; you can never please everyone, but absolutely anyone with an interest in dinosaurs, or prehistoric animals more broadly, will get something out of this book - even if they just stare at the flabbergasting Raúl Martín cover for days on end. I very much enjoyed reading it, and still regularly peruse the pages and find something new in a work I thought I was very familiar with.

So buy it. It also has Todd Marshall, who is awesome and that's the end of it.

Rugops primus by Todd 'Awesome' Marshall

Monday, August 27, 2012

Dinosaur Art week begins

Reviews of the new Titan Books publication Dinosaur Art: The World's Greatest Paleoart have been springing up around the dinosaur blogosphere lately in anticipation of its release (September 4 in the US, September 28 in the UK). Including the work of ten contemporary paleoartists, it is edited by Steve White. This week, Marc, Asher, myself, and special guest star Niroot will be teaming up to share our personal perspectives on the book. I'll be starting off with a general overview and my own thoughts, and then passing it off to Marc.

I'll start off by saying that most paleoart fans should find this an excellent addition to their book collection, and it has been priced to be attainable by most of us, available for $21.38 for US customers at Amazon. The reasonable price does not bring poor production values with it; as befitting an art book, it is sturdy, printed on nice, thick stock with excellent color reproduction, and the dust jacket is all pretty-fied with a foil stamped title and a spot varnish for the John Conway piece featured on the back cover. It's presented with a quality befitting the subject matter, and makes a terrific conversation piece (I've tried it). Sharing dinosaur artwork with friends is my favorite way to discuss current paleontological thinking, as the focus is on art rather than a stream of facts and fossils. When looking at artwork with someone, you can casually point out bits that are pure speculation and bits that are backed by good evidence; it's pretty fun to tell someone that the seemingly absurd or fantastical image they're looking at has some real science behind it.

Dinosaur Art covers a wide range of approaches: exhaustive murals, "white room" compositions which isolate an animal from its environment, exploratory sketches, and my favorite, animals as incidental components of a landscape (an approach well demonstrated by Douglas Henderson, who is rightfully included in the volume and indeed one of the highlights). Each chapter includes an interview with the artist, much of which covers familiar ground ("When did you start drawing dinosaurs?"; "What do you think of digital techniques?"). White also asks about the artists' evolving technique and touches on specific pieces. To that end, each chapter includes a feature highlighting one taxon which has been important in the artists' career. One of my design critiques is that all of these features should have been consistently placed at the ends of chapters; it's occasionally difficult to follow the flow of the chapter itself when a feature is placed in the middle of it. A background color or different typeface for these features would make them stand out more clearly. That aside, these features are illuminating in general, especially the one dealing with the evolution of John Sibbick's Scelidosaurus.

Polacanthus, © John Sibbickused by permission of Titan Books

One of the most surprising aspects was how poorly some of the digital artwork translated to print. It shed a new light on pieces I have only known by viewing them online. Throughout the interviews, there is a fair share of handwringing over how digital methods are changing the craft, and save for Raúl Martin and John Conway's work, there are few strong demonstrations of compelling digital technique. I personally find the use of digital motion blur filters and photo composites to be jarring; some of Nicholls' and Csotonyi's "mixed media" pieces sit in an uncanny valley in which the photographed environments and animals in them don't quite seem of a piece. It seems to me that photography is its own craft to master, and the subject matter is better served by landscapes rendered in the same medium as their denizens.

Now for the requisite niggling over who was and wasn't included, acknowledging that it would be impossible to satisfy everyone and come in on budget. As major names, Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger, Michael Skrepnik, and Mark Hallett are notably absent. While Maurico Antón's Cenozoic mammals are jaw-dropping, he's really not known as a dinosaur guy. As it is, his chapter is an odd inclusion and while I'm all for expanding the general publics' view of prehistory beyond the Mesozoic, it doesn't give Antón's subject matter the respect it deserves to be in a book explicitly devoted to dinosaurs. Many of the chapters include non-Mesozoic work which serves to round out the artists' dinosaur work, and that's fine. But a whole chapter devoid of dinosaurs is a bit of a stretch.

Heretically, I also might not include Greg Paul in the book - or at least change the selection of his work. A major voice to be sure, but his color work simply is not of the same caliber as the other artists in this book, and it's to the detriment of his lovely pencil work and skeletals. In a book like this, I suppose it's difficult to justify devoting a giant spread to a black and white piece, but that's Paul's strength and would serve him better.

Pterodactylus kochi, © John Conway. Used by permission of Titan Books

These quibbles aside, the book is a clear success, delivering many lovingly reproduced modern classics of the form. Readers who have never seen these pieces in person will gain much from seeing them in print. Conway's elegant graphic depictions of ancient life, Sibbick's obsessive attention to detail, Marshall's explosions of vitality, and Henderson's aching elegies to the Mesozoic are treasured additions to my bookshelf.

I've got so much more I could write, but I've gone on long enough. I know that my co-bloggers will bring much to this conversation, so now I will hand this mega-review off to Marc, whose own post will follow tomorrow. I'll be back at the end of the week to sum up the LITC crew's thoughts.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Jersey boy paints dinosaurs

As a New Jersey native who works with animals, studied at Rutgers and is a real dinosaur nut, it was only natural that Chris DiPiazza became involved in hunting dinosaurs in his home state with Gary Vecchiarelli, the founder of 'Project Dryptosaurus' - Dryptosaurus, of course, being a most important basal tyrannosauroid from said state. Their adventures (alongside fellow contributors Terry Alan Davis Jr. and Andrea Bilardi) are chronicled on the Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs blog, which also runs regular educational articles on various prehistoric animals.

Chris churns out artwork like nobody's business, and has been commissioned by various publishers and institutions, including Rutgers. What's more, he even delivers lectures (with the help of some of his animal pals) on dinosaurs and evolution to hordes of (what I'm sure are) adoring kiddiwinks. As such, he's a busy guy, but I managed to have him answer some of my questions on his art, field work and New Jersey. All artwork is copyright Chris DiPiazza and used with permission, ya hear?

Chris (right) with friend.

You're currently a writer for the Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs blog. Your biography on there claims that you've been "dinosaur obsessed with birth" - a remarkable achievement. Did the midwife confirm that you performed a convincing impression of a hatchling titanosaur shortly after emerging into the world?

What do you mean “impression”? Doesn’t everyone hatch from eggs? I don’t understand…

Your artwork has really been gaining some interest recently - as is noted on JBHD, you've managed to get commissioned by museums and publishers. What's the feedback been like from fellow palaeoartists and from palaeontologists? Has there been a lot of encouragement?

As far as I know, nobody particularly dislikes my work so that’s good! If they do they haven’t told me (ha ha).  I post a lot of my work on Facebook and sometimes paleontologists will comment on it or 'like' it (Dr. Thomas Holtz most notably when it comes to paleontologists). I have also recently met up with Larry Felder, co-author and illustrator of In the Presence of Dinosaurs, when he attended one of my lectures at the zoo and he had nothing but complementary things to say. Paleontologist/paleo-artist Bruce Mohn has been casually coaching me on my art since I met him at Rutgers as an undergrad as well. There have been other instances but those are the most notable I feel.


Your preferred media are definitely pencils and watercolours, and the latter certainly is quite an unusual choice among palaeo illustrators. What is it that draws you to watercolour painting?

I have been formally trained in a lot of mediums including oils, acrylics, inks and even sculpting to a degree but for some reason watercolors are the one that really stuck with me. I won’t lie to you, it’s a huge pain in the butt to work with since it requires patience - one false brush stroke and you could very well have an irreversible mistake on your painting! My grandmother (also an artist) would keep a hairdryer with her when painting with watercolors. Every time she applied something she liked she would immediately blast it with the hairdryer to preserve it and to make it dry more quickly! Once I got the hang of it though, I found it extremely rewarding.

Unlike a lot of other media, watercolors sort of force you to make almost every color you use on your painting. This made me a master at mixing colors and it also gave me an interesting new outlook on subjects that I am painting. Nothing in nature is ever one solid color. You may look at something like a leaf for instance and say that it’s green. But if you look at that same leaf more closely you may notice that in addition to green it has all sorts of other, more subtle, hues and shades to it as well. Same can apply for any animal, plant, and even a rock can possess quite a wide pallet.

Hadrosaurus and Dryptosaurus
Which palaeoartists have been your primary influences, and whom do you most admire?

Oh wow so many! I’d have to say that from my childhood I got a lot of inspiration from artists like Doug Henderson and Greg Paul. Henderson is really good at portraying different perspectives and lighting (important factors for a realism artist). Greg Paul on the other hand always inspired me with the way he would portray dinosaurs so actively. Over the years I have learned to appreciate a lot more artists. Some current favorites of mine are Raul Martin and Julius Csotonyi (who also uses watercolors I should add!). Of course I feel I must also mention that I am a big fan of Charles Knight (what paleo-nerd isn’t). I used to love (and still do) seeing his paintings up on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. 

How have you enjoyed getting your hands dirty in the field with Gary Vecchiarelli, and do you think the experiences have fed back into your art?

I really must say I don’t go out digging up fossils half as frequently as Gary does but the times that I do go I absolutely enjoy myself. Getting dirty isn’t really a big deal to me (after over a decade of working with animals it’s almost impossible to gross me out with stuff like dirt…and blood…and poop…and other stuff). My favorite fossil hunting trip so far was going to the Passaic Formation in New Jersey to excavate Triassic dinosaur footprints.
Finding real fossils definitely inspires the artist in me but even more so is my job working with living animals. Let’s not forget that just because most dinosaurs went extinct doesn’t mean they stopped being considered animals! Creatures that I work with like crocodilians and various birds give me a little window into what their extinct relatives may have been like. In fact, if you know what to look for, you can easily pick out references to the animals I work with when it comes to coloration and behavior in a lot of my paleo-art.
What's your favourite dinosaur that isn't Triceratops?

Ha ha you know me too well! Well, other than the mighty Triceratops and the other ceratopsids, I really like Pachycephalosaurus. I had always thought it was neat in general, but what really got me inspired was when I saw Pachycephalosaurus in The Lost World: Jurassic Park at the theater when I was eight years old. Ever since that day it has been one of my top favorites. I think that film did a beautiful job portraying that animal in a much more modern light than ever before. Struthiomimus I also find pretty interesting, as well as Dryptosaurus and Hadrosaurus since they are from my home state, New Jersey.  As far as modern dinosaurs go, the osprey or Pandion haliaetus, is at the top of my list.


You're also an educator, delivering lectures on dinosaurs living and dead. How have audiences swallowed all your wackaloon 'birds are dinosaurs' evolution-talk? Ever encountered any dissenters?

I get a few here and there but they usually aren’t too serious. More just skeptics and by the time I’m done with my lecture (that showcases a LOT of hard evidence that birds are dinosaurs) they understand more what I mean. Believe it or not, the kids know this more than the adults. I suppose it’s because the 'birds are dinosaurs' thing is becoming more mainstream finally and is therefore broadcast on popular TV shows that the kids watch. 
I have never had any hard-core creationists bother me or anything like that. I totally respect people with religious beliefs and I expect the same respect from them as well. 

What's New Jersey like? I've never been there.

It’s a hell of a lot nicer than most people give it credit for. Believe it or not there is a lot more to the state than the Jersey Shore. We have great roller coasters AND awesome dinosaur museums. Let’s not forget NJ is the birthplace of American paleontology (at least when it comes to dinosaurs) too! I keep telling you to fly over and visit one day! [We met once when Chris visited London with his friends. We went to the Natural History Museum and the Tower, before I got slightly drunk and started telling them lies about Tower Bridge. A good time was had by all.

A baby Dryptosaurus harasses a horseshoe crab

I'd like to thank Chris again for taking the time to answer my questions, and remind all of you that he regularly posts new artwork over at Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs. So keep an eye out!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Life before Man - Part 4 - There Will Be Burian

Burian's back, baby. This will be the last one for the time being, though - apart from not wanting you all to suffer Burian fatigue, we've got to make room for the Dinosaur Art stuff next week, followed by a post from New Guy, which should be a treat. Not only will he likely spout significantly less drivel than me, he also has a nice hat.

But never mind all that. At least the final Life before Man post sees the return of - gasp - DINOSAURS to Vintage Dinosaur Art! (Those who would argue that Cenozoic birds don't count are, of course, utterly wrong and actually a little offensive.) In the image below we have Phorusrhacos, and Burian's rendering once again proved highly influential, with hunched-over imitators being very easy to spot; I've seen similarly stooped life-size models more than once. Lovely view from up here...

More dinosaurs now - Palaelodus -  in a lovely scene exhibiting Miocene flora and fauna, including Gomphotherium (background), Palaeomeryx, and Dicrocerus (foreground). While the animals are beautiful, the painting would be equally stunning without them; Burian was a master of the wide, open wilderness.

Another 'hero' portrait now, and this time it's Paraceratherium (aka Indricotherium), the largest land mammal of all time. This piece is clearly meant to emphasise the animal's verticality, with the trees providing points of comparison, and everything directing the viewer's eye upwards. Meanwhile, the animal in lateral view in the background provides a handy anatomical guide.

Of course, magnificent as any restoration of Paraceratherium inevitably is, in the end you can never quite beat a elephant when it comes to looking magisterial (yes, I have a soft spot for them). The below painting, depicting Mammuthus columbi and Smilodon, is probably my favourite in the entire book. As I've noted previously, Burian hardly ever depicted scenes of confrontation between animals, but when he did he did so with aplomb, and never more than here, as a rearing Columbian mammoth wards off its sabre-toothed adversary while being lit up by sunbeams like a creature straight out of ancient mythology. It's quite rare to see Smilodon cast as the threatened, vulnerable animal in a scene, and its jeopardy is only enhanced by the inclusion of two tiny cubs.

Smilodon gets a straightforward portrait too, mind, and with suitable emphasis on its most famous assets. I always enjoy illustrations of animals yawning, for some reason - I suppose that, due to the sedate and ordinary nature of the behaviour being depicted, one can really perceive of this as being a moment in a real animal's life.

This next one scares me a little. Burian was quite well known for his fossil hominids, and this is Australopithecus afarensis. Primates are rather strange anyway, but one walking FULLY UPRIGHT? That's just silly - surely that plantigrade locomotion would be rather inefficient? Such an evolutionary experiment can't end well. I give 'em a few million years, tops.

Ah, that's better - more elephants. This is Palaeoloxodon, now apparently considered a subgenus of Elephas, the only extant species of which is the Asian elephant Elephas maximus. I love the colour palette of this wonderfully evocative forest scene, and yet again the surrounding landscape really helps in bringing these animals to life. There might not be any kitty-trampling here, but the individual in the foreground in particular still exudes power and grace.

It's only fitting that we end with dinosaurs, and here we transition from elephants to elephant birds (Aepyornis maximus). Again, the tropical greenery and misty morning air are excellently realised, but it seems odd that Burian opted to give the animal four quite well-developed toes; again, it might be an indication of the rather limited references that he had had available to him. Still, it's a lovely painting, and it seems apt to end with a dinosaur that has become extinct in historic time - apparently some freaky primate might have had something to do with it.

And that's all for now! No doubt there'll be more Burian in the future, but not for a while yet (I'm aware I've missed an awful lot of favourites). I hope you've enjoyed the series!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Whoopee Kind of Thing

The Washington Post reports on the discovery of a mid-Cretaceous nodosaur footprint discovered on the grounds of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. It was found this summer by fossil hunter Ray Stanford, who spends his days searching for ichnofossils in Maryland. In the story, Stanford nicely captures one of the most poignant aspects of studying the animals of distant ages.
“I love the paradox,” said Stanford, 74. “Space scientists walk along here, and they’re walking where this big, bungling, heavy-armored dinosaur walked maybe 110, 112 million years ago. It’s just so poetic.”
Included with the story is short video about Stanford's love of paleontology. Bear with the ad; after that the feature is quite charming.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

For The World That's Coming!

My name is Asher Elbein. I'm 20 years old, born and raised in the southern United States, and studying Natural History and Creative Writing at the University of Alabama. I'm a compulsive if infrequent artist, a decent acoustic bass player, and prone to leaping on reptiles when the opportunity presents itself.

I've been writing about prehistory in one capacity or another for close to six years now, in blog posts, short stories and various scribblings of intricate imagined lost worlds. I find dinosaurs not only scientifically but culturally interesting, and so I'll likely be writing about not only the latest scientific discoveries but random bits of paleo-cultural ephemera as well. Look out for Kirby Krackle tyrannosaurs, pulp fiction prehistory, and a massive LITC joint project that will blow your very mind.

Hello, Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs. It's a great honor to be writing for all of you!

The family keeps growing

Just a quick note about something I'm really excited to report: Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs is adding another author! I'm happy to bring Asher Elbein, who you may know from his articles at Faster Times as well as his own dinosaur artwork. When I found that he no longer writes for Faster Times, it made sense to extend a hand to him. Standing on at the edge of a packed semester in which I'll be teaching my first class, I knew LITC's readers would benefit from another voice bringing them more content.

In the next couple weeks, we'll be teaming up on a beast of series that will be no less than twenty metric tons of fun. I'll also be rolling out a dramatic facelift for the blog, hopefully within the month. Asher will be writing an introductory post soon, so please give him a warm welcome!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Life before Man - Part 3

From the swampy lakes, they came - such monstrosities as the world had never seen. Seeking passage across the unconquered lands of a primordial Earth, evolution granted them rudimentary limbs, bore their heads upon the first sets of shoulders and inserted lots of nasty little pointy teeth into their gaping, hungry jaws!

Yes, it's time for the Palaeozoic scenes of Life before Man. Or some of them, anyway - if you really want to see a load of trilobites, you're probably Richard Fortey, and I will ignore any comments that claim otherwise. (Also, I can't include everything - otherwise we'd have to rename this blog Love in the Time of Burian, which sounds a bit rubbish.) My bias is most definitely towards vertebrates and, in particular, tetrapods, and the below scene - featuring Ichthyostega - marks their first appearance in the book. This painting is perhaps unique in this book as it combines the elements of the animal-free landscapes with, well, some animals. Burian's skill is in making this scene, filled as it is with flora so utterly different to what we are accustomed to seeing today, look as if he just took a casual stroll out into the country to paint it.

Of course, much as my interests lie primarily in tetrapods, it's not as if I could ignore Dunkleosteus, also known as That Evil Fish. It's a popular inclusion in books about prehistoric animals and even pops up in 'dinosaur' toy lines. Of course, it's easy to see why - the thing looks spectacularly sinister, rather like the Whale of Doom only perhaps moreso, as its 'teeth' are just giant, jagged slabs of bone. It's the rudimentary appearance of its killing apparatus that makes it all the more arresting to look at. Here, much as with the Mosasaurus, Burian employs motion blur to make the scene come alive with movement.

Here we have Seymouria (bottom), a labyrinthodont, alongside Diadectes, the heavy-set king of the hill. Diadectes may have been made unduly iguana-like here, and certain details of Seymouria's anatomy are closer to later tetrapods than they perhaps should be. It should be noted that Burian often had limited access to specimens and relied heavily on what literature he could get his hands on, which makes it all the more astonishing just how well-observed and, frequently, ahead of their time his restorations were.

Poor old Edaphosaurus, the pin-headed Eeyore of Early Permian synapsids. Alongside Eryops, this is an animal frequently condemned to be Dimetrodon fodder in palaeoart. Not here, though - Burian affords the animal its moment in the spotlight in a scene of some solemnity, enhanced by a moody, evocative colour palette and, of course, the animal's rather sad-looking face.

Dimetrodon itself makes an appearance, of course, although which one of the many named species this is I wouldn't want to say. The rather sparse landscape is obviously meant to place all emphasis on its main subject, with the waterfall in the background only serving to enhance the focus on the animal's spectacular sail. That's Varanosaurus at the bottom there. Poor Varanosaurus, overshadowed by its big showy relative. To look at, you'd think it was a lizard, but looks can be deceptive.

Moschops in moody monochrome. I must admit, I prefer Burian's colour paintings to his black and white work, which often seems very sparse by comparison; of course, that does suit the environment being portrayed here.

As I've mentioned previously, while he'd occasionally paint scenes of animals confronting one another, Burian's paintings hardly ever contained overt violence, and thus he managed to avoid a lot of what are now considered palaeoart clichés (particularly when it came to dinosaurs). Here, the stocky armoured Scutosaurus faces the mammal-like gorgonopsid Sauroctonus. Again, the landscape is beautiful in spite of being barren, and seems to stretch far off into the distance with nary another creature in sight; such a sense of scale, of vast open spaces, really helps immerse the viewer in these animals' world.

And finally...Mesosaurus, another seriously frightening-looking beast. This restoration has aged rather well, from what I can gather; regardless, I absolutely love the colouration and the contorted, twisting pose, which both help sell this animal's predatory ferocity.

And that's all for now! Come back next week, when I might finally get around to those bloody Cenozoic synapsids. IF YOU INSIST.

Friday, August 10, 2012

"It seemed quite likely that the Stegosaurus and Triceratops wouldn't reach Southampton on time"

Back in May I paid a visit to Blackgang Chine, a theme park of sorts located on the Isle of Wight (off the south coast of England), and wrote of my exploits with the park's charmingly vintage and hideous dinosaur models.

It recently occurred to me that the transportation of Blackgang's dinosaur models, from the factory where they were made in Yorkshire all the way down to Blackgang, was covered by the enduringly uncool children's TV show Blue Peter back in 1972, and that someone must have uploaded the footage online. Happily, they have! (Unhappily, they've also disabled embedding, so you'll have to jump over to YouTube.)

While only the Stegosaurus and Triceratops are shown in the video, the amusing narration - complete with handy route map and the presenters stumbling over those tricksy dinosaur names - makes this short clip definitely worth watching. Hell, I'd say it's worth it for the 1970s fashions alone.

Interestingly, it seems that the Triceratops as originally shipped to the park was fang-free. Which begs the question...when did it gain that set of sinister, carnivorous toothy pegs?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Tarbosaurus Saga Continues

In May, paleontology enthusiasts watched intently as a fossil smuggling drama hit the mainstream, in the form of a high-profile auction of an exquisite Tarbosaurus bataar specimen. I wrote about it in a couple of posts (here and here), and there has been more activity since then. In late June, federal authorities took custody of the fossils after protest from the paleontological community and the Mongolian government. Now, Eric Prokopi, the fossil dealer who imported the Tarbosaurus and prepared it for auction, has declared his intention to file suit against the US government to retrieve the dinosaur.

At LiveScience, Wynne Parry writes about Prokopi's claim. Part of it is worth quoting at length:
Although the fossils fetched nearly $1.1 million at auction, the sale did not go through because of the Mongolian claim on the fossils. Paleontologists have supported this claim, saying that clearly identifiable remains for Tarbosaurus bataar, an Asian relative of T. rex, are only known to have come from a rock formation located within Mongolia.

Prokopi has questioned that, writing in a statement to the media in June that the bones could have come from elsewhere. "Other than (from) the diggers, there is no way for anyone to know for certain when or where the specimen was collected." "I'm just a guy in Gainesville, Florida, trying to support my family, not some international bone smuggler," he wrote.
Unfortunately, those two are not mutually exclusive. Walter White is both a guy trying to support his family and a meth cook. Fossils are part of each country's national heritage; they are national resources as much as minerals, oil, or timber. Why is it that fossil theft isn't seen as theft at all? The people of Mongolia deserve to hold their own natural history in their institutions, open to study by the international science community. We all deserve that. The argument that the provenance cannot be pinned down by anyone but "the diggers" is like something out of the Young Earth Creationist playbook. It's a smokescreen meant to undercut the expertise of paleontologists who can confidently infer where the bones were collected. In a statement from Prokopi released in June he says:
"It's certainly possible a new locality with complete specimens was discovered in another country," he writes. "Just because it is unknown to professional paleontologists now doesn't mean it is not possible."

Prokopi writes he purchased the bones without being certain of where they were collected.
I certainly don't want the man's family to come to financial ruin, but the burden of proof is on him. It was his responsibility to do his due diligence and ensure that the fossils were not obtained illegally. If "the diggers" or his connection in the UK, fossil dealer Chris Moore, cannot provide this supposed "new locality," what option do we have other than to go by the expertise of the paleontological community? After all, without their work these fossils would be little more than strange rocks, and there would be no market for them.

Surely, a fossil dealer is aware of the tricky web of international laws that must be navigated to do business. The desire to protect one's family seems to preclude investing all of its money into a venture of dubious legality.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Life before Man - Part 2

More Burian for your viewing pleasure, and waffle from me for your, for you to read. If you missed part one, you missed some very lovely stuff, so go back and read that first why don't you. This week, it's the turn of non-dinosaurian Mesozoic fauna (I'm well aware of the irony of including such a post in a thread named 'Vintage Dinosaur Art', so quiet at the back). Even when compared with the rather dated dinosaurs, many of these paintings have aged badly scientifically (which should please Thomas Diehl) but remain beautiful works of art.

Pterosaurs hanging upside down, like bats, was a popular art meme that has started dying out of late as people have realised that it would have been physically impossible for a lot of them, especially the larger, more advanced species with rather dainty feet. Fortunately, there are no dangling Pteranodon in this book, but these 'pterodactyls' make sure that the meme is present and correct.

I'm loathe to comment too much on pterosaur art, mostly because I know next to nothing about the animals (for shame etc. etc.), but even so one can have an intuitive grasp of how historic these restorations are. There's just something off about them - the wings look too saggy, the bodies often too spindly and lizardlike.  Still, I love this image of Dimorphodon for placing the pterosaur in a highly atmospheric setting, brooding and primordial without being exaggeratedly so; Burian was superb at painting spectacular skyscapes that occasionally threatened to upstage even subjects as charismatic as these.

Ah, the classic Burian Pteranodon - an instantly familiar image, mostly because it was copied so much. Here, an adult can be seen accidentally dropping its catch on a group of very young juveniles. Maybe. Note the way that the orange-tinged cloud layer separates the adult from the rest of the scene, emphasising its enormous wingspan.

Plesiosaurs were often portrayed over the decades as animals that emerged onto land surprisingly frequently, either to lay their eggs or to sit around sunning themselves (the cocktails with tiny umbrellas were always just out of view). Of course, it turned out that they actually gave birth to live young, and any plesiosaur that found itself in a situation similar to the one above was probably in a lot of trouble. Of course, these painterly Plesiosaurus (from 1962!) remain gorgeous, with the counter-shading of the individual in the foreground being particularly nicely executed.

Conflicts between gigantic marine reptiles have fired the imaginations of artists for as long as such animals have been known about, with the most popular clash undoubtedly being that between the mosasaur Tylosaurus and plesiosaur Elasmosaurus. As demonstrated by Burian, the two huge creatures are usually shown facing each other in preparation for battle, and the scene has an air of ancient mythology about it. This is especially true in Burian's case, as his storm-lashed ocean reflects the imagined ferocity of the animals. All it's missing is a sailing ship being thrown around somewhere in between the two beasts.

Both of Burian's mosasaurs (this one is Mosasaurus itself) are decked out in crests or 'fins' that run down their backs, another popular palaeoart meme that persisted long after the idea was debunked. This painting demonstrates how Burian excelled at creating a sense of movement in his scenes, which is very obvious here in the fleeing fish, but also in the way that the environment blurs around the mosasaur.

'Leaping' or 'breaching' ichthyosaurs have proven to be another popular palaeoart theme, but - for my money - this work by Burian is one of the most beautiful of all. Once again, the sea and skyscapes are absolutely stunning, and place these Stenopterygius in a world that feels absolutely real.

And finally...a mammal (Triconodon), shown here eating a sphenodont (Sapheosaurus). Bah, mammals, who needs 'em? It's not like Burian is famous for his paintings of fossil mammals or anything.

Coming up next time: fossil mammals! Or maybe Palaeozoic stuff, I dunno. We'll see!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

More Natuurhistorisch Museum Rotterdam

Following a look at the Whales of Doom, it's only right and proper that we take a look at what else one might find in the Natuurhistorisch Museum Rotterdam. The museum is quite small - considerably smaller than the Dutch national natural history museum, Naturalis, in Leiden - but is still stuffed with plenty of interesting specimens. The 'lobby' of the original building (it's been extended) is tall but not especially wide, and this giraffe skeleton makes perfect use of the space. Thanks to the staircase winding around it, it's possible to take in this mount from numerous angles, both above and below, which is a real treat. The mammoth mural, just visible here, is very beautiful too (shame I don't have a photo!).

Most of the museum has a rather old-fashioned feel, which is by no means a bad thing. One room has long banks of glass-fronted cabinets absolutely stuffed with taxidermy and skeletal tetrapods, including an awful lot of birds (see below for a sample), with further specimens perched on top.

More information on the individual species can be found by reading cards nearby, which means that the taxidermy displays are gloriously free of clutter.

Opposite the taxidermy cabinets there are further displays of bird skeletons, mounted side-by-side for ease of comparison. If you wanted dinosaur skeletons, here they are! In fact, for us enthusiastic laymen who don't have easy access to bird skeletons, it's always useful to be able to peer at a good mount and see just how much like other theropods these animals really are under all the distracting feathers and soft tissue. (The animal in the foreground below, Ramphastos vitellinus, is known as the 'channel-billed toucan' in English.)

With that in mind, I thought this 'cutaway' parrot was very cool. Notice the neck in particular, and consider how it appears with the feathers covering it - necks lie, after all. (Update: BrianL has identified this birdy as being an Amazona species, most likely Amazona ochrocephala, although the taxonomy of said bird is disputed. Of course, I know sod all about parrots, hadn't noted down which one this was, and was far too bone idle to look it up. That'll learn me!)

So, no extinct dinosaurs here I'm afraid. However, there are plenty of other fossil animals represented, all of them discovered in or nearby the Netherlands. As one might expect, there is a cast of the famous Mosasaurus hoffmanii specimen from Maastricht among other mosasaur material and marine invertebrate fossils.

Space is tight in the gallery, but they've still managed to cram in a number of great specimens, including this impressive wooly mammoth skull, the obligatory Megaloceros (just a skull, mind) and a big cat (Panthera) jaw. Got to love a big cat jaw.

One of the most impressive mounts in the museum is this Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) skeleton. When alive, this elephant was a resident in the zoo in Rotterdam (Diergaarde Blijdorp). In death, its bones stand alone in the circular room that has become its mausoleum. It really is just the elephant in this room, and the lack of distractions really allows the viewer to appreciate this animal's might and majesty, even when reduced to its bare bones. Thanks to the circular nature of the room, it is again possible to walk completely around this skeleton and scrutinise it from a wide variety of angles. It certainly leaves an impression.

And finally...a jackalope.

If you're ever in Rotterdam, I thoroughly recommend giving this little museum a visit. Sure, there aren't any (nonavian) dinosaurs, but there are Whales of Doom, a lot of impressive extant animals, and Mark Witton postcards in the gift shop. Entry is only six euros, so there's no excuse!