Friday, December 14, 2012

The Paleoartistic Kaleidoscope of All Yesterdays

John Conway's Allosaurus and Camptosaurus, from the new book All Yesterdays.

This has been a wonderful year for Mesozoic publishing ventures. Paleontology enthusiasts are being treated to Dinosaur Art, the new edition of The Complete Dinosaur, the recently-published Field Guide of Mesozoic Birds by Matt Martyniuk, and of course, the collaboration between Darren Naish, John Conway, and C.M. Kosemen, All Yesterdays, featuring a meaty introduction from Naish and vital support from skeletal diagram master Scott Hartman. The team, web veterans all, have done a fine job of spreading the word, and reviews have sprung up across the web. It is available in ebook and print editions.

We've begun covering the book here, thanks to Marc and Niroot's attendance of last week's book launch event, and there is so much meat on this bone that we're not limiting ourselves to a single review. I'll kick things off by putting the book in context based on my personal experience. I plan on also writing from my perspective as an illustrator, though one who does not present my subjects in anything resembling a technical light. That will be a post for another day.

Reviews that have hit the web so far have been overwhelmingly positive, with notable pieces by Mark Witton, Emily Willoughby, Andrea Cau, Mike Taylor, and Brian Switek.

For readers unfamiliar with All Yesterdays, here's the skinny: in the face of the woeful lack of material the fossil record preserves, the intriguing glimpses into integument we've gained since the '80s, and the incredible diversity of soft tissue adornments and behaviors among extant animals, many of our artistic reconstructions of prehistoric animals may be far too conservative. Half of the book is dedicated to Conway and Kosemen's evidence-based speculations of Mesozoic fauna, with a second half devoted to showing what reconstructions of extant animals might look like if some future paleoartist took a too-conservative, skeleton-only approach.

Instead of being presented as a bold declaration of war on the establishment, Conway, Kosemen, and Naish see the book as rising out of a movement in paleontological illustration which has been building for a while (a point also made by Andrea Cau in his post linked above). This "All Yesterdays movement" (which I'll abbreviate AYM here) may not be the sole creation of these authors, but I think it's fair to say they they are its most important voices, if only for having the nerve to put the ideas to print (and e-print). To fully understand AYM, All Yesterdays is essential reading.

When I took part in the ScienceOnline 2011 panel discussion on science-art, I used Brian Engh's Sauroposeidon as an example of what has become the AYM. Sharing a work-in-progress of an illustration of the sauropod bearing a speculative display sac on its neck, with SV-POW blogger and sauropod expert Dr. Matt Wedel, Engh received this advice:
I think it rocks. But not nearly enough. Look up some pictures of prairie chickens, hooded seals, singing frogs, and everything else with inflatable display sacs. They don’t look like they just swallowed a stick of Mentos–they look like freeze-frames from half a millisecond after the the detonation of that bomb they swallowed. Real display sacs are so big and so colorful that no other animal could possibly mistake them for anything else. Therefore if you want to draw speculative display sacs they must be so big and colorful that none of the people who see the piece could possibly mistake them for anything else.
For Engh, this was a green light; he writes of having had a nagging feeling before consulting with Dr. Wedel.
When I look at illustrations of dinosaurs, even very technically good ones, I’m often left with the uneasy feeling that it just doesn’t ‘feel’ like a real animal. Its as if only two simple layers have been added to the still-recognizable skeleton – while living vertebrates often look nothing like their skeletons...
It's no secret that I am a devout admirer of Conway's work, and am thrilled to now have it in two different volumes - in print with Dinosaur Art, and the Kindle version of All Yesterdays. I'm also happy to have Kosemen's work; the two artists compliment each other by being as daring stylistically as they are in their anatomy. If only as a way to have this art available as a conversation piece, it would warrant a recommendation. It's the richness of the explanatory text which couches the restorations which makes it essential, for here the speculation is put into context, and there will likely be new information to even knowledgable readers; I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the shoulder joints and humeri of abelisaurs such as Carnotaurus, which allowed for much more range of motion than was possible in most large theropods. Both Conway and Kosemen take advantage of this to depict Carnotaurus in unique display postures. In other places, they write about the bizarre behaviors witnessed in extant animals, and the possibilities they may open up in dinosaurs, perhaps most outrageously in a pair of Morrison herbivores.

C.M. Kosemen's randy Stegosaurus and rather alarmed Haplocanthosaurus.

A more speculative approach to paleoart is a precarious enterprise, and All Yesterdays makes clear that speculation should be grounded in what has been observed in the natural world. As Naish writes in his introduction, "Science and speculation are happy bedfellows, so long as we remain grounded in our speculations, and so long as we state the core evidence we have in the first place." I see no reason to fear such speculation. Granted, it has the ability to drive us up the wall; just see the reaction to any given televised documentary. But one of the promising possibilities AYM presents is what could happen if other media truly embrace the approach. Imagine a documentary which does not present paleontological theory in narratives, as in Walking With Dinosaurs or its spin-offs. Instead, it could present a whole set of hypotheses and reconstructions, flipping the traditional script of talking heads serving the needs of narrative. Instead, narrative and reconstructions would demonstrate the living process of paleontological science, multiple hypotheses presented with their strengths and weaknesses in kaleidoscopic variety. Viewers would see science being done instead of stories which grant certain hypotheses, some tenuously supported in the paleontological community, the weight of fact.

I see AYM as an essentially modern phenomenon. Facilitating contact between illustrators, researchers, writers, and paleontologists around the world, the web has allowed a call-and-response culture in which one artist, blogger, or scientist can propose something and set off a chain of works and writings inspired by it; browsing work on the paleo-hotbed of deviantArt reveals a culture of constructive criticism and an iterative approach to reconstruction. An artist need not be isolated in his or her studio, referring only to literature and a limited number of advisors; conversations in cyberspace and the mutability of digital artistic processes allow for flexibility and fearlessness. All Yesterdays and the global constellation of artists who make up AYM have taken a bold step forward. It is a true paradigm shift. It will leave plenty of practitioners cold, as paradigm shifts must. But count me among those thrilled to live during this era of paleontological restoration, excited by the possibilities and eager for the conversation to continue.

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