Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Interview: Paul Heaston

monolophosaurus color
Monolophosaurus by Paul Heaston

Another artist whose work delights me every time a new piece is posted, Paul Heaston recently garnered some notice for his Deinonychus sculpture, produced for his employer, Dinosaur-Quest in San Antonio, TX. He's now moved to Denver, but has not left dinosaurs behind. We can all be thankful for that; while Paul plays across media, employing, graphite, ink, oil paint, digital modeling, and sculpture, his style is unmistakably his own.

What is your background? When did you first get into serious reconstructions of ancient life?

My artistic background is in figurative painting and portraiture, which is how I got my MFA at Montana State University. When I left grad school I started doing architectural sketching and drawing. I used to love drawing dinosaurs as a kid, inspired first by Bakker and then by Greg Paul, with the other inescapable and ubiquitous '80s and '90s influences of Hallett, Henderson and Sibbick. My art was basically a bunch of terrible copies of Greg Paul-style work. Midway through high school though, my interest had kind of reached its apogee and competing interests took over. I don't think I can say paleontology was ever my biggest passion, and the same is true now, but I still love it.

I got back into dinosaurs when I got a job as a guide for Dinosaur-Quest, a small private dinosaur exhibit in a mall in San Antonio, Texas. At first I thought it would be a part time gig explaining the differences between meat-eaters and plant-eaters and explaining extinction theories and bird evolution to little kids. In no time though I had renewed my interest in dinosaurs, gotten caught up on new events, and became assistant manager, revising information at the exhibit and designing new displays. That's when I started doing paleo-art again. I would be the first to admit my reconstructions are far from rigorous. I prefer to work with skeletal drawings and measurements around if I can (and always do for any commercial projects), but some of my sketches are done for fun without any references handy at all. I know that's profane for some paleo-art enthusiasts, but sometimes I get an idea and I just have to draw. I feel like my experiences making other kinds of art over the years sometimes make it hard to notice the inaccuracies in my paleo-art, which is fine by me. A little confidence in execution can help you get away with a lot of otherwise glaring errors ;)

Do you think you'd like to tackle a big scientific illustration project?

Funny you should mention that. I may have the chance to tackle a legitimate scientific illustration project soon here in Denver, if I get it. I feel like I would love the challenge of something more rigorous and deliberate. I don't feel like I have really applied myself to a truly rigorous project. Even with the Deinonychus sculpture, I was wrestling with the technical challenges of a new medium and had to weigh practical decisions against my desire for accuracy. Of course, I also used my medium of choice for any paleo art yet, which is oil paint.

t rex
Tyrannosaurus by Paul Heaston

Dilophosaurus by Paul Heaston

mamenchisaurus color
Mamenchisaurus by Paul Heaston

Stegosaurus by Paul Heaston

styracosaurus color
Styracosaurus by Paul Heaston

Do you find that your experience with architectural drawing informs your dinosaurs at all? One thing I love about viewing mounts is looking at all of the nearly-invisible structure that holds it all together.

I hadn't thought of that before, but that's gotta be true. One thing I definitely consider now is the way the mass sits on the frame, and shifts in different positions. Something I probably never considered doing profile after profile back in my Greg Paul days. I think a better knowledge of perspective has helped in figuring out issues of foreshortening as well, though sometimes profiles are irresistible.

deinonychus sculpture closeup
Close up of Deinonychus, sculpted by Paul Heaston

best friends
Paul poses with his completed

I'd like to hear more about your Deinonychus sculpture. How did the project come about?

The Deinonychus sculpture was my boss Xavier's idea. He sent me a link to a guy who had sculpted a JP-style T. rex head out of styrofoam, and since I'm a smartass I told him I could do that easily, even though I'd never really done an organic sculpture before. We had been thinking about upgrading the exhibit (which was all skeletons and skulls) with a model/diorama or even leasing a dreaded animatronic dino. My boss asked me to figure out how feasible it would be to actually build a full-scale dinosaur out of foam, so that's how it started. We though about T. rex, but the one thing our exhibit didn't really have was a "raptor," which all the kids and adults asked about all the time. I thought it would also be a good time to shock them a bit and show them something with feathers. The whole thing is made from blue insulation foam covered in plaster cloth, with polymer and epoxy clay used for teeth, claws and scales. I ordered rooster hackle from a farm in California (most commercial craft feather dealers had pretty lousy selections) and they were by far the most expensive single element that went into the sculpture. It's far from perfect, and I had to rush to the finish line when I found out we were moving to Denver, so there are some things I would change, but for my first sculpture, it could be worse.

Did the process of sculpting Deinonychus offer any new revelations about their anatomy to you?

You know, going by Ostrom's published measurements, I realized even Deinonychus, a fairly large dromaeosaur, is pretty small. Working in three dimensions presents you with problems you don't often encounter drawing or painting. You have to think about the shape of the inside of the mouth, how deep the nostrils go, etc. You're responsible for every scale and feather, whereas you only have to "suggest" them in a drawing. I would love to be able to build around a skeletal cast next time and see what happens.

At your gig with Dinosaur-Quest, did you ever find yourself getting burnt out on dinosaurs?

As a guide there I would find myself repeating basic information over and over, but it's always someone new getting a chance to hear about dinosaurs, so it never got too boring. And of course, the kids are always sharper than the adults and ask the best questions, so I'd have a bunch of things to look up at the end of the day. If I got burned out on anything, it was the obsession the everybody has with T. rex and "raptors". I love those dinosaurs as much as anyone, but you'd hope people were more curious about other dinosaurs, too. Kids and adults would often identify our mounts of Torvosaurus, Yangchuanosaurus and Saurophaganax as "T. rexes" and any small theropods (and even our Thescelosaurus) as "raptors" despite our labels, such is the dominance they have in the world of popular culture.

gomphotherium at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science
One of Paul's sketch pages, a Gomphotherium mount at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

fossils at denver museum of nature and science
Another of Paul's sketch pages from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

You share a lot of sketch pages, including some wonderful work from fossil mounts. How fast do you work? Is it easy for you to work in public?

Every artist has to have a hopeless compulsion, and my location sketching is mine. Since grad school, I've filled dozens of pocket-size Moleskine sketchbooks. My one rule is that I only draw from direct observation, not from photos or my imagination. I have other sketchbooks for that. I love sketching in public, and depending on the situation (or availability of a comfortable seat) I can sketch really quickly or much more deliberately. In recent years I've had to stop sketching at restaurants so I can pay attention to the people I'm with. In museums I generally sketch standing up, so quicker is better. 5-10 minutes is the average amount of time I spend on a small sketch of a fossil or exhibit. I'm not too shy about it (which probably comes from 2 seasons drawing caricatures at Six Flags a long, long time ago) and I love when kids ask me about it.

Besides the greats who influenced you when you were younger, whose work do you enjoy today?

There are so many good artists, It's hard to keep up! Of the people who claim to just "fiddle around" like I do, I think Niroot Puttapipat is up there with every "established" paleoartist, but your readers already knew that. I find that I prefer artists who make other art besides dinosaurs. Working in a vacuum is so debilitating, and having a more well-rounded background in drawing and painting (and sculpting) and understanding the elements and principles of design is crucial. I also love artists with different takes on things we think we know. I love John Conway's art. His point of view is just so fresh. Julio Lacerda and Andrey Atuchin (Karkajou1993 and Olorotitan respectively on DeviantArt) and Stephanie Abramowicz are fantastic digital artists. Frederik Spindler's stuff is cool and weird. Same with Alexey Monzhaley (Monopteryx on DeviantArt). A.J. Trahan and M.C. Barrett are people from the concept-art industry who do amazing feathered dinos. There's too many others I can't remember right now. I'd like to be where they all are at some point.

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Thanks to Paul for doing this interview and allowing me to share more of his work here. Keep up with him at his website, Flickr, and DeviantArt. All images shared with Paul's permission.


  1. I repeat: I am not worthy. *Kowtows and remains prostrate*

    Wonderful interview. I am a huge, huge fan of Paul's.

  2. Impressive 1st sculpture. I wouldn't have guessed it's made of foam just by looking at it. I especially like the color scheme.

    BTW, is the striking resemblance btwn the above Styracosaurus & a certain Centrosaurus ( ) just a coincidence or did someone copy someone else? No offense meant, Paul; Just curious.

    1. Looks like coincidence to me, though the credit on the story doesn't make it easy to find out. Nor does the NHM site (

    2. I looked at the centrosaur. It's possible I've run across it before, but it just a coincidence they look alike. I don't know that they have too much in common except for a ground level 3/4 POV, which I do with a lot of my dinosaurs. The poses and positions of the limbs and head are different, and so is the color scheme. I really like it, though. Beats my styracosaur all to pieces.

    3. 'Beats my styracosaur all to pieces'

      I protest. Both are equally beautiful in their own right. From an entirely personal aesthetic, however, I much prefer yours.

    4. I also suspect that the Centrosaurus might be by Julius Csotonyi. In which I'm now in trouble with myself for declaring a preference. *Goes slightly mad*

    5. O for heaven's sake; 'case'. 'In which case'


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