Monday, February 18, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Dinosaurs

William Stout! Now that I have your attention, please bear with me while I relay a little autobiography. The good stuff's coming, honest, but I need you to know where I'm coming from, see. (Note: while these have all been scanned from The New Dinosaurs, I have chosen to focus only the old material, as befits Vintage Dinosaur Art.)

Growing up in the cruel, desolate hinterlands of...England, an awful lot of important palaeoart passed me by as a child. My local library stocked a solitary Greg Paul book that I would borrow on occasion, but other than that the palaeoart of my formative years consisted partly of British artists like John Sibbick, but mostly of second-tier material published in the likes of Dinosaurs! (which frequently ripped off Sibbick). As such, I'm only just now catching up on the work of a great many artists who induce a warm, nostalgic feeling of fondness in the scientists and enthusiasts of my generation (and the generation before).

Mention William Stout to one of them, and they'll raise a hand to their forehead and swoon while frantically fanning themselves, like an Edwardian lady. However, coming to his work completely afresh, I must confess that my initial feeling was...revulsion.

Since I can already hear your grinding teeth and smoking nostrils from all the way over here, I should point out that on further examination I've been won over. Mostly. From a modern standpoint, I'm sure you can see why I found Stout's dinosaurs to be pure horrorshow at first. His '70s and '80s creations frequently make Eleanor Kish's rather skinny saurians look like the prize-winning pig at the fair. The Deinonychus in the above image are typical - little more than skeletons dressed in a waffer-theen layer of skin, with sunken skulls that apparently lack any muscles to speak of. The gnarly stylisation applied to many of his creatures does little to help their rather dessicated, almost decaying appearance. And just when I thought his dinosaurs were skeletal...along came his pterosaurs.

Good grief.

Having got all that out of my system, I can move on to explain how I've been converted. Mostly. Above all else, Stout was innovative. Even if the more extreme shrink-wrapping of his '70s and '80s creations would not be met with approval today, his unique style and experimentation in composition and depicting speculative animal behaviours certainly would. Taking his cue from the illustrators of the Golden Age, and with frequent nods to a more comic-book style, Stout's early work was bold and daring in a way that few other people were attempting at the time.

The above illustration, depicting a group of pterosaurs performing some impromptu dental work on a tyrannosaur, is typical of his approach not only in aesthetic style - how many other artists present palaeoart in a circular frame? - but also in daring to be novel in its depiction of symbiotic behaviour. Stout's work was very much a product of the Dinosaur Renaissance, and he clearly wasn't content with having his dinosaurs doddering around, occasionally stopping to bite and prod each other, as they had done in previous decades. He wanted them to be really alive - fighting, yes (see above), but with disease as well as each other, growing up in a hostile world, herding, and interacting with other animals in their environment. And taking a shit now and then.

There's probably a good reason why so few palaeoartists choose to depict dinosaurs passing waste, but again, it's a perfect demonstration of how Stout was breaking new ground, although not half as much as the following:

Depictions of diseased dinosaurs remain vanishingly rare, but this skin-sloughing Stout Triceratops dates from 1981. The animal shows good attention to anatomical detail (an area where Stout has sometimes been found lacking), but this piece is notable most of all for its stunning stylisation and use of black; the stark monchrome, the onset of darkness as the dying creature wheezes its last. It's unsettling, but intentionally and effectively so, and is definitely one of my favourite Stout pieces.

Stout's attention to composition is perhaps best displayed in this painting of a Camptosaurus sheltering from a storm behind a convenient, enormous boulder. Such a rock formation, extremely smooth and resembling a gigantic wedge of Goudse kaas, might seem a little silly, and perhaps it is (although I'd argue that far sillier formations exist in reality). However, what this piece does - a feat also achieved in the work of Doug Henderson and Ely Kish - is depict a reasonably sized dinosaur as being fragile and vulnerable to the forces of nature, and dwarfed by the ecosystem it inhabits. And all of this is without mentioning how beautifully the flying foliage and battered trees have been depicted.

So Stout's a talented artist. Clearly. In addition, the anatomical issues that afflict his dinosaurs (less so these days, it should be noted) are nowhere to be found in his illustrations of modern animals, and even prehistoric mammals. The above image shows the right half of a double-page spread, and while the packed assemblage of all these different species is somewhat fanciful (as is their overt resemblance to modern forms), they are each stunningly beautiful and add up to a jaw-dropping whole (I love the borders, too). Then there's the left half...

The Corythosaurus aren't actually terribly skinny - svelte, perhaps but there's nothing wrong with that, necessarily. That is, except for their heads of course, which appear alarmingly sunken - little more than skulls-with-eyeballs. This particular Stoutian quirk has persisted into his more recent work, even as his dinosaurs overall have bulked out, and in spite of his clearly excellent understanding of the anatomy of modern animals. It would be very interesting to speculate as to why, although it seems as if he has an occasional tendency to feed his dinosaurs through the Monsteriser, which while making them visually arresting subjects can also have some alarming, rather twisted-looking results... seen with these baby tyrannosaurs, which remind me of nothing so much as mummies. Which brings me back to where I started - feeling a little queasy about it all. However, it's important to take the long view with Stout. He's had a hugely important role to play in the development of palaeoart, particularly in terms of breaking ground through unusual stylisation and moving away from stereotyped, staid depictions of dinosaurs. In short, he helped make dinosaurs cool again.

I must admit - I'm still not a terribly big Stout fan. But I can see why so many people are, and he has a truly impressive catalogue of work to his name. Hopefully, the lovely bugs below will make for a fitting finale.


  1. This book has been a huge influence on me and my art - I would love to get my hands on a copy of the re-issue with the new artwork.

  2. I want to observe again, as an illustration nerd as much as a palaeo one, that the wonderful dying Triceratops is a wonderful nod towards Harry Clarke.

    1. I probably should've asked you again about that...

  3. Also, I want to add that I think this is a thoroughly fair assessment of Stout's work. I found myself looking afresh at the gnarly emaciated animals and recognising them thus when I had easily overlooked that aspect hitherto, simply because I had been so excited to discover a palaeo artist whose influences and affinities were close to mine. I knew of no other (in the palaeo world) who drew so strongly from Golden Age illustration.

  4. I will be the first to admit that I am a complete William Stout fanboy. I have bought many a comic book simply because William Stout drew the cover. I personally like the "gnarled" style he brings to his illustrations,especially present in his ink and water color paintings. That having been said,I think Stout draws better monsters than he does dinosaurs.Don't get me wrong,I think his dinosaurs a great,but in the same way I think E.C. Comics artists like Wally Wood and Al Williamson are great-they are both rich and detailed, but sometimes a bit removed from what is thought of as 'realistic".Stout has an exciting, graphic style that puts me in mind of early Heavy Metal magazine, and I can fully concede that that style seems to come first,while attention to science and anatomy seems to be more of an after thought. William Stouts dinosaurs are,in my opinion, best appreciated when they are doing battle with Tarzan or King Kong. Not exactly textbook material,but still an awful lot of fun.

  5. My biggest pre Greg Paul influence for paleo art, and certainly one of my biggest influences art wise. Certainly in a completely different league to Paul as well.

    If you get the chance check out Bill's more recent work, including some quite amazing museum murals.
    He's moved with the times and while he has a flair for the fanciful, he strives for accuracy too.

  6. @Marc Vincent

    Many thanks for taking my suggestion!

    BTW, you know what would be REALLY cool? If Stout's "The New Dinosaurs" was remade by Steve White the way Watson/Zallinger's "Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles" was remade by Bakker/Rey.

  7. This was one of my favorite books growing up. In retrospect the dinos are a bit, well, svelte. But some of it is really gorgeous. In particular I love his more formal elements. Like the background circle/vignette in the first illustration. I also remember being impressed by an illustration of a small herbivorous dino in the style of a Japanese watercolor. I'll have to dig this book out again.

  8. Hi Mark,
    I think you've given a pretty fair assessment of my work in The New Dinosaurs (published in 2000). Your valid concerns seem primarily focused on the center core of The New Dinosaurs, which is my original 1981 book The Dinosaurs–A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era (for The New Dinosaurs, I expanded my 1981 book with 32 new pages of pictures and text; 16 up front, 16 in the back of the book).

    The research for the book took about a year and a half (although I had been studying dinosaurs years prior pretty intensely from the moment Don Glut asked me to contribute to the updated version of his book, The Dinosaur Dictionary) with part of that spent in Europe (I tried to meet Burian in Prague but he was on vacation); the art was produced in a VERY concentrated nine months. New discoveries were being made (particularly in dinosaur anatomy and musculature) while I was creating the art. While trying to incorporate as much of what was being found as possible, that meant that my book is full of anatomical inconsistencies with some animals more accurate than others. I was the beneficiary of huge breakthroughs in paleobotany at the time as well (made possible by the study of prehistoric pollen), so many of the plants depicted were hitherto unknown in previous reconstructions.

    I've learned a lot since then (which I hope is obvious, especially to the museum goers who experience my mural work) and, thanks to the annual SVP meetings, my education is ongoing. Note my own revision of the book cover's Parasaurolophus above and compare it to the (very skeletal) vision of the same animal on the first edition's cover.

    I'd love to redo "Brothers and Sisters" now that we have quite a few representatives of tyrannosaur growth patterns (I gave all of these youngsters small adult heads rather than their differently formed juvenile heads).

    I consider the art in the 1981 version of my book to be hit and miss --- but, nevertheless, it was the best I could do at the time, knowing what I did back then. More than the pictures, I am proudest of the ideas I put forth in that book (my goal was to have an idea within every picture --- not just a portrait of the animal, something I wish I had done with my subsequent book, Dinosaur Discoveries), plus my accumulated presentation of what was going on in the paleontological world that was not reaching the public except in dribs and drabs, here and there. My desire was to collect all of these new and changing views of dinosaurs into one source for public consumption.

    The illustrations also reflect my passion for my artistic heroes from the Golden Age of Illustration. As Niroot pointed out, the dying Triceratops picture is an homage to Harry Clarke. Other influences throughout the book include N. C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Alphonse Mucha, Edward Detmold, Franklin Booth, Hokusai, Frank Frazetta, Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Charles R. Knight (of course), Zdenek Burian, Maxfield Parrish, William Heath Robinson, Abbott Thayer, Frederic Remington, Anton Seder, Antoine Louis Barye, John Bauer and Thomas Moran. I used all of these influences and worked in different styles throughout the book because I feared my reading audience might get bored with just one style over the course of the entire book (or that I might get bored repeating the same style over and over). Eventually, because of the book's deadline, I ran out of time and just had to create pictures in rapid succession; no time left for aping other artists' styles. What happened as a result took me by surprise. From that last concentrated output, my own style emerged.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Bill, and leaving such a highly informative and interesting comment. Like I said in the post, it's clear that you were doing the work, and the book is highly praiseworthy for the innovation (I really can't say that word enough!) and well-placed chutzpah on display.

  9. Hey, he is a comic book illustrator by trade and boy does he do a great job!

  10. William Stout is also a good entry point for Art Nouveau - his lettering and borders are very reminiscent of the Paris undeground signs, while some of his simpler drawings have something of Alphons Mucha's posters. Preiss/Stout's "The Dinosaurs" blew me away as a child, confirming everything that was vital and important about dinosaurs and got me into Art Nouveau at the same time.


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