Monday, January 21, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: An Odyssey In Time: The Dinosaurs of North America

Taking a break from De Oerwereld, we return this week to an artist who's probably been a little under-appreciated. Eleanor 'Ely' Kish produced her most important work in the 1970s and early 1980s, and a great deal of it is gathered together in Dale Russell's hefty An Odyssey In Time: The Dinosaurs of North America. It's a beautiful book, and one that is truly brought to life (as Russell acknowledges) by Kish's stunning paintings, even if time has not been kind to the way that many of the animals have been restored.

Now don't get me wrong - I wish to make it very clear that I consider Kish's work to be truly masterful. This particularly applies to the reconstructed palaeoenvironments that the animals inhabit; not only did Kish take the task of including the correct flora very seriously, the worlds depicted in her work are frequently breathtaking in scale and detail. In short, they are utterly believable. Kish also paid keen attention to composition and technique, such that - as with all the best palaeoartists - her work stands proudly as art for its own sake, even without considering the palaeontological element.

All of that said, show someone a '70s or early '80s Kish dinosaur these days and the first thing they'll say is "Holy crap, that's skinny!". Kish's restorations represent one of the most extreme faces of what's come to be known as 'shrink-wrapping' in palaeoart - that is, the animals are little more than skeletons with dust sheets thrown over them. Indeed, the above piece - depicting an Apatosaurus pair crossing a mud flat - was even used by Darren Naish in his All Yesterdays presentation to exemplify the 'shrink-wrapping' style. It's easy, here, to appreciate the beauty of the landscape, and the skillful creation of moonlit reflections in the shallow waters of this peaceful delta - but, to modern eyes, the emaciated sauropods are jarring and horrific. 'Zombie dinosaurs', indeed.

Of course, it's always important to remember the era in which works were produced. Such ultra-skinny dinosaurs may well have been an over-reaction to the lumpen, lardy 'evolutionary failures' that had dominated palaeoart for decades; in Kish's case, it might also have been down to the scientific advice she was being given at the time (although I've only heard that one on rumour!). Whatever the case, it's perhaps most important to note the rigorous approach to restoration that Kish employed - an approach that contrasted with even the best of the 'classic' palaeoartists (although Burian did try, using what limited resources he had available to him). The skins of her dinosaurs might adhere too closely to their skeletons, but at least the skeletons themselves adhere closely to their real counterparts.

Naturally, there are cases in which one can justifiably portray a skeletal dinosaur - and I'm not only saying that as a cheap joke with regard to the Diplodo-corpses above. Scroll up a little, and you will notice that Kish's Massospondylus are tragic, doomed wanderers in a vast desertscape that is utterly barren, save for the faintest glimmer of water in the distance. The scene invites us to imagine these two desperate, starving dinosaurs wandering for days over the dunes in search of a water source. They might even then be too skinny (they do need room for their internal organs), but at least their painfully thin appearance makes sense to a contemporary viewer. Those corpses aren't bad either...

On other occasions, Kish's work has aged better than it might have scientifically because the animals are not the focus. Show the above painting to someone who isn't palaeontologically inclined, and they'll probably only notice the astonishing realism and beauty of the shoreline at first, in spite of the sauropods ("Pleurocoelus") milling around casually in the background. Kish broke new ground in making dinosaurs a component of a wider environment and ecosystem in her art.

The history of hadrosaurs in palaeoart isn't explored all that often (now there's an idea...), but their depiction has gone from tubby tripods, to more slimline bipeds/quadrupeds, to more fleshy and bulky quadrupeds and occasionally outright porkers. As one might expect, Kish's Corythosaurus represent the second stage in that evolution; they are so thin as to be near-unrecognisable next to today's much more massive-looking restorations, but represent a leap forward from the embarrassing, web-handed 'duckbills' of the previous generation. Dale Russell's influence on this beautiful bayou can be felt with the Troodon stage left, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain well-known model. The sharp-eyed will also spot a fragment of long-dead tyrannosaur hanging out in the bottom left.

Speaking of hadrosaurs, someone - like me - who grew up with the palaeoart of the 1990s would be hard-pressed to recognise these creatures as Maiasaura, such is the extent of the shrink-wrapping. One especially peculiar, but inevitable result of shrink-wrapping that Kish does not hide is that the pubic bones protrude to the extent that the animals could seemingly use them as crude stabbing weapons. Still, the painting makes wonderful use of light and shade, as does...

...Kish's depiction of two Dryptosaurus engaging in a mating ritual. These two might just be the nadir of the corpsetastic, Tim Burton, heroin chic approach to dinosaur restoration, but the scene behind them is a mind-kersploder. It's almost possible to feel the warmth of the setting sun, and to hear the cries of the flocking birds as they fly to their evening roost. The composition here, too, is uncommonly superb for a work of palaeoart. In spite of how unsettling I might find the wiry tyrannosauroids in the foreground (is anyone else reminded of the Jurassic Park Coelophysis toy?), this is one of my favourite pieces in the book, simply for its dazzling display of artistic skill.

Some dinosaurs, of course, are just too chunky to shrink-wrap, and Tyrannosaurus is surely one of them. Sure, you can choose to display every facet of its skull through the skin in ghoulish detail, but there's no getting away from its absurdly massive, beer keg chest and enormous hips and thighs. Here, again, we see Kish's skill in composition (and Niroot is quite envious of the well-executed palm tree). This is also one of the few Kish pieces to feature dinosaurs in 'action' poses - never mind the fact that T. rex is busy reducing Edmontosaurus to delicious, filleted meaty strips. They'd be finger lickin' good, if only it could lick its fingers.

The same principle can also be applied to ankylosaurs - the spiny walking coffee tables of the Mesozoic are simply too wide to be restored in a truly anorexic fashion. While the browsing Sauropelta are quite fetching in themselves, I again regret not being able to present the entire picture here, which is far more expansive and lovingly created than this detail suggests. I guess the only course of action is for you all to find a copy of the book...

Eleanor Kish, then. Come to ogle the super-skinny dinosaurs, but stay for the masterful artistry. We've covered Kish on three occasions before, and I may well return to An Odyssey In Time somewhere down the line - not only to feature more glorious Kish artwork, but because it also features that perennial favourite, the 'Dinosauroid' (nothing to do with Kish, I might add). As for next week...there'll be something completely different!


  1. I really do think more attention should be paid to Kish, and in the very light shone here. No modern eyes could miss the morphologocal flaws, to be sure, but don't let us overlook her technical and artistic mastery in the process. Excellent post.

  2. Kish was my first introduction to paleo art. I received a Kish calendar sometime in the mid '80s and ultimately cut it up and posted each image around my bedroom. I particularly remember her Saurolophus (not shown above) with its odd, almost forlorn expression.

  3. The book as a whole is great and I was actually just reading through my copy yesterday. I love Dale Russel's text as well and his overall ecosystem approach in this book. Unfortunately many of his ideas as well as the anatomy of the dinos has since fallen out of favor- but at the time there was nothing like this book and it was truly refreshing in its scope.

    1. I'll comment on at least some of Russell's writing if I post about this book again (which I almost certainly will).

  4. Ah, the JP Coelophysis. Memories.

  5. B-4 today, I thought Kish's dinos were the worst case of paleo shrink-wrapping I'd ever seen. & then I saw Stout's Quetzalcoalus in "The New Dinosaurs" (See "The Shadow"). Now that I think of it, I recommend that LITC review said book (among others) at some point. Sorry for all the recent recommendations, but they keep coming to me as good ideas.

  6. Didn't care for this book and the anorexic dinosaurs but I do love that the Ankylosaurus is hanging out on a beach with some specimens of Welwitschia mirabilis.


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