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.


  1. I used to check this book out from the local library as a child over and over again. I loved these paintings. I forgot about it as time went by, but a couple of years ago I began digging up old paleoart books and found this one on ebay for a cheap price. I love the reproductions on the matt paper. That way you don't get a glare like most of todays books with their glossy paper.

  2. Wow, that Scutosaurus painting was totally the model for the wall monster in People that Time Forgot.

  3. I love Burian's landscapes. I remember seeing them as a kid and thinking that they were strange and alien. They really do convey that things were very different way back then (before the Triassic, not when I was a kid).

    Yes, please.

  4. While on the subject of pop culture references, the 7th picture is clearly the reference used in desgining the Wild Safari Scutosaurus and Inostrancevia.

  5. Re: "This painting is perhaps unique in this book as it combines the elements of the animal-free landscapes with, well, some animals." There's another one later in the book of the Siberian taiga with a lonely bear in the near distance.


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