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!


  1. Fantastic interview. I'm also a fan of all of Chris' work (of course)! Not just his palaeo art but his work with animals and education too.

    Watercolourists aren't that unusual among palaeo artists (ahem). Though I suppose we are fewer in number...

    (And I'm still envious I couldn't make it all the way to the Tower with you guys that day... -_-)

  2. Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Darn blogger so confusing but anyway yes thank you Marc for the great interview!

  3. Digging the color scheme on those styracosaurs! Great interview, cool artist. And, yes, watercolor ain't easy. I avoid it like the plague.


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