Monday, December 10, 2012

Artist Interview: Christian Masnaghetti

As you may well have heard, the official launch of John Conway and C.M. Kosemen's All Yesterdays took place last week. Marc Vincent has already written about the launch event, and I'll be following up with a review of the book later this week (as soon as I wrap up a very hectic semester). Today, I'm sharing an interview with Argentine industrial designer and artist Christian Masnaghetti, AKA ChrisMasna on DeviantArt. He is a member of what may be called the "All Yesterdays movement" in paleoart. As you'll read, he's a big admirer of John Conway. I certainly see Conway's influence in some of Masnaghetti's work; I asked him about this as well as his process, development as an artist, and views on a couple hot-button issues in contemporary paleontological illustration.

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Can you tell us about your artistic development? How did it coincide with an interest in paleontology?

Well, paleontology is, in part, the reason why I’m oriented to graphics. I have draws dinosaurs for as long as I can remember, copying them from books, TV, toys, etc. That trained my wrist and developed my artistic side during my childhood. While I’m 100% a digital artist now, pencils and watercolors were the tools I learned with. I bought my tablet in 2010, at the age of 20.

My interest in dinosaurs decreased during my last year of high school when I knew I was not going to study paleontology (economic reasons, I could not leave the home) and my first three years at the Uni. I decided to study Industrial Design in part because of my capacity to do decent drawings, but I almost stopped with dinosaurs during those years.

How has opening up your process to critique via DeviantArt worked out for you? Has it made specific contributions to your development?

In the (austral) summer of 2011, DeviantArt changed my life. I found a community of artists dedicated to palaeontography. I found people who shared my interest in dinosaurs. I took my tablet and started painting dinosaurs again. Now, finally, I could get a real feedback, and my paleo-education continued, supported now not only by books, but by DA friends and some blogs and forums, too.

I notice you've adopted the term "palaeontography," which has met with mixed reviews among the community. Care to share your thoughts on it?

I never liked the word paleoart, because art is the most subjective word of the dictionary. Representing ancient organisms according to scientific guidelines is much more than that. I can tell you I like Leonardo’s and but I dislike Picasso’s, but I can’t tell you that one piece of art is better than another, or that one piece is wrong. In art, the beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. With paleontological representations it is quite different. I can tell you that one piece is wrong, or worse than another, if the subject is reconstructed with grotesque errors. That’s why I started looking for another term to replace paleoart. So I ended up calling myself a paleoillustrator.

Some time later, I read on DeviantArt a statement from John Conway introducing the word palaeontography, and I felt that term needed to be spread. It’s a good name for our discipline. We are not just a bunch of guys who draw dinosaurs, we are a palaeontographers.

I can see some of Conway's influence in your work. Do you think that's a fair comparison?

Yes, Conway is one of the of those I follow (and envy). He developed a recognizable style, but I'm in my personal search yet.

Did your other experience with industrial design influence how you approach dinosaur art?

The career made me buy a tablet - my best decision ever - and made me learn 3D modelling. I made and used 3D models in some of my paintings (though the software I use is oriented to more mechanical, less organic work). And Industrial Design involves a bit of Graphic Design, in the communication to present a product to a client/buyer. I used that in my infographics.

Beyond the technical aspect of industrial design and the software skills, do any of the methods or techniques of industrial design translate to creating illustrations of living animals? Does the way you have to think in three dimensions give you any advantage when imagining an animal as it was in life?

No, not really. I guess I started thinking in three dimensions in my head prior to studying design.

What books or websites have you found most useful in your paleontology studies?

I'm reticent to name my books because they're getting old. Actually, part of my book collection is pretty 'vintage' (I feel very identified with some LITC posts). However, if I have to choose the most relevant book (collection) of my childhood, I'd say Dinosaurios, 104 magazines of pure awesomeness.

There are a lot of websitess, blogs, and forums which helped me: Wikipedia (obligatory), deviantArt,, The Bite Stuff, DinoGoss, Theropoda, Skeletal Drawing... and I'm sure I forget a few.

I've really enjoyed your dinosaur infographics. Can you tell us a bit about your process in developing these pieces?

Thanks! It's always nice to hear that, especially from another designer. I'm a fan of infographics. It's an attractive way to condense facts and make them easy to read and remember. It's surprising how rare dinosaur infographics are, so I decided to make them by myself.

I started making one around Velociraptor, in my opinion the most misinterpreted dinosaur ever (blame Jurassic Park and pop culture for that). The web needed it. Most of the comments/likes on DA (and the tumblrs, blogs, etc which shared it) are from people who does not belong to the dino-community, some of them didn't even know about feathered dinosaurs: mission accomplished!

I discovered things I didn't know thanks to the process, asking actual paleontologists for corrections/advice.

For my second infographic, I took Nima Sassani's research work and improved it visually, making a 3D Puertasaurus from his line art, and painting over it. You will see little references to my interests in the scale size, that's another way to mix actual and 'paleo' worlds. There is still a long list to do: Carnotaurus, then Tyrannosaurus, maybe Triceratops after that. Now I just need the time to do them!

Infographics are certainly are the sort of thing I'd like to see more institutions use to communicate the science of paleontology. Have you received any notice for these among museums or other centers of research?

Not yet. That would be great! I'm waiting.

I'd like to ask about a specific piece of art. Can you tell us about the process of creating your recent piece featuring dueling pachycephalosaurs on a mountainside? I love the way that it dramatically illustrates the hypothesis that they were primarily upland-inhabiting animals, as well as their inferred behavior, in a dramatic, elegant, and eye-catching way. How did it start, and how did it become the piece it is now?

Well, I spent some time watching in Youtube mountain-goats in battle for breeding rights, just for curiosity. Watching those living animals made me wonder if there was some parallel back in the Cretaceous, and minutes later I discovered myself doodling it on the border of my notepad. Although the habitat I propose here - thousands of meter high peaks - is unlikely, it is certainly an epic battlefield.

Like with almost every painting, I took a moment to imagine all the situation before start sketching. I try to see a scene in my head like a movie, and freeze a frame. Then it's time to put it down on paper/screen. That is always the most complicated part due to the corrections needed, every species implies research. But is the most interesting, too: for example, I wasn't aware (at least I didn't remember) of the insane width of Pachy's hips. You always discover something new doing this! Once you have the lineart done, it comes the fun part. Colouring is by far the more enjoyable thing of the whole process.

Regarding the color scheme, the first idea that come to my mind was the color of Pachycephalosaurus from Jurassic Park. JP has kick-ass designs, they are really well done IMO, and it was not going to be the first time I used them. But fan art is not a good idea when you want to become a serious paleontographer. While I was thinking of that, a wild Cubone appeared in my DA start screen, and that's the romantic story behind the color.

I'm not proud of something but I have to say it: for a millisecond I considered to equip their bodies with a dense layer of white fuzz...kinda hyper-conceptual thing, just to annoy some people.

Some great Renaissance artist said, "I don't finish my pictures, I abandon them." Another one said "You learn something new with every brushstroke." True and true. In this case, I learned a lot about rendering rock textures, and when I was satisfied with that, I just saved the file and uploaded it. Now I see I could 'finish' it, but it's always the same...

What recent paleontological discoveries have sparked your imagination?

Feathers! Feathers in big theropods, quills in ornithopods. To me, Yutyrannus and Sciurumimus are by far the most exciting discoveries of the last years (and Microraptor if we go back in time a little more). They opened my mind a lot. Things that were "ridiculous" to think when we were kids are "normal" now.

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Thank you for reading my interview with Christian Masnaghetti. All images used with his permission. Do visit his deviantArt gallery and share your feedback on his images' comments sections:


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