We've been focusing a lot on All Yesterdays here of late, partially because we're all very artistically minded, and partially because it's just a gorgeous, thought provoking little book. I'm not going to review it here; you've seen enough by now to know that we're all pretty wild about it. Instead, I'm going to list some thoughts inspired by the book, and shamelessly tease you all with promise of a future, All Yesterdays style event.
Paleontological art has always been at its most valuable when it gives us a glimpse, not only into how extinct organisms looked, but also how they lived. Reading through All Yesterdays again prior to writing this, I was reminded of how my favorite pieces combined bits of soft tissue speculation with interesting and novel behaviors. Elasmosaurs waved their necks over the turbulent ocean, struggling to out-display their rivals. Heterodontosaurs wandered out of their burrow, adorned with spiky tails, eyes narrowed against the sun. Therezinosaurs sat like bristly, clawed mountains in the dim light, feeding placidly from the branches. All of these illustrations had an immense amount of character to them, and I think character is what's been missing from a lot of dinosaur art.
|Leaellynasaura copyright John Conway|
There's a huge opportunity sitting here for artists, and it's mostly been ignored. So much imagination already goes into paleoart; why not go even further, and create individualized creatures? Scars and bumps, behavioral quirks, even bits of expressive body language can go a long way toward characterizing an animal. There's something deeply immersive and realistic about this kind of reconstruction; it offers a harmonious blend of soft tissue speculation and behavioral imagination, and results in memorable art.
This kind of art doesn't have to be done in a photo-realistic manner, and I'd argue that it probably shouldn't. Excessive realism often ends up being a trap; it constricts us into thinking of extinct organisms in the drabbest, most conservative terms. Like stuffed museum specimens standing in barren dioramas, the results often feel lifeless, choked by their own detail, petrified by repeated cliche. Zoological illustration has a long tradition of abstraction, gesture drawing, loose sketches and mixed media, all of which seek to capture the idea of movement or character in ways unrelated to the direct and detailed. A lot of paleontological illustration shies away from this, and I can't help but wonder if more experimental styles wouldn't help break us out of the the current, endless cycle of memes.
|Giraffe style Barosaurus by Bakker, which begat...|
|...Giraffe style Barosaurus from Burian, which begat...|
|...whatever the hell this is.|
Over all, I found finishing All Yesterdays to be deeply frustrating, because it left me with an almost dizzying sense of possibility. I didn't want it to be over. I wanted more of a look into a world who's strangeness I'd taken for granted. So I did the only thing I could--I picked up a pencil...
Keep an eye out, dear readers. The LITC crew has a special announcement to make in the coming days, one that will make the more artistically inclined among you very, very happy! Stay tuned!