Monday, July 29, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Story of Dinosaurs

By the time the 1980s rolled around, the dead-eyed, acutely depressed palaeoart dinosaur had largely been forgotten. The sprightly scaly things skipping their way through the work of the most respected contemporary artists would soon render them obsolete. Therefore, I'm quite overjoyed to find this (young) children's book from 1982, in which the saurians are almost uniformly fat and frowning. Hooray!

Apparently part of a wider 'Now I Know' series (which can only be commended - knowing is half the battle, after all), the creatures in Story of Dinosaurs plod drearily around a rather washed-out, watercolour world, so tired of their monotonous lives that they hardly seem to pay any heed to looming predators or local geographical hazards. The text is very sparse - this is a book aimed at children learning to read - but this is basically a brief look at dinosaur diversity.

It becomes evident very quickly that the artist (Joel Snyder) had only a limited number of old-timey dinosaur books for reference. Just a few pages in, and we're greeted with a Neave Parker-esque hunchback theropod and sprawling, short-tailed ankylosaur, a malformed hadrosaur with abelisaur arms, and what I swear is a Euparkeria copied from...somewhere. But this is all as nothing next to the real giveaway, which is that all of the sauropods have bodies like zeppelins, legs like tree trunks and facial expressions evocative of total brain death.

Naturally, "Brontosaurus" is the fattest of all. That's expected - we've seen this sort of thing loads of times before. What's more surprising is that Brachiosaurus receives the same treatment.

This might just be the lardiest brachiosaur I've ever seen. Normally, the artist will attempt to highlight the fact that the animal's shoulders are higher than its hips, that being a distinctive feature and all. However, here the limbs are all but subsumed by an enormous, doughy mass, the sort of thing you'd normally find being dipped in garlic butter and served up as a starter. I do love its head, mind you.

"And what may we suppose that you are looking at?"

Fortunately, T. rex is somewhat less obese than it might have been. This is also far from the worst restoration I've seen in a book like this - the teeth are the right sort of shape, the jaws are the right sort of shape...ish. Naturally, Snyder follows the pre-Dino Renaissance tradition of ignoring the various bosses on theropod skulls, and instead giving the animal neat little eye arches because, you know, aesthetics. But hey...not too bad overall. In context. Yes.

There's very little in the way of theropod diversity in this book, so it's surprising to see this Bakkerian Deinonychus (complete with throat wattle) appear alongside Rexy. It is perhaps a mark of how the times were a-changin' in the early 1980s that this sprinting creature appears in a book filled with otherwise rather retro-looking art, and again, it could be worse, even if proportions are off and muscles appear a little puny. Note the inclusion of yet another smoking volcano in the background. (Is this meant to be the same volcano...?)

At one point in the Story, author David Eastman turns, inevitably, to dinosaurs that looked a little ridiculous. Unfortunately, Snyder illustrates Dimetrodon for what might well have been intended to be Spinosaurus. Although I like the composition, Snyder here falls foul of having so few references, and his Dimetrodon has ended up with a frog's head.

It certainly did. But did it have the mating habits of a duck? I think that such a scenario should be depicted in future. (Nah, only kidding - who'd draw an extinct dinosaur with a giant corkscrew penis?)

And finally...this! I posted this abomination on Facebook, and the best suggestion I received as to its intended identity was 'basal ornithischian' (1980s 'segnosaur' also cropped up, and was my initial idea). Whatever it is, it is at once really freakin' ugly and quite beautiful, like a vulturine guineafowl or spending a little too much on that excellent Belgian beer the pub had for one week only (Westmalle Dubbel, if you're interested). On the one hand, the patterning is quite exquisite; on the other, it's a grotesque, spindly-limbed chimera with a disdainful turtle head and the webbed fingers of that member of the British royal family that was secretly disposed of. This, friends, is why I keep buying these damn books.

But having said that...the next tome on my to-do list was actually lent to me by a certain Dr Hone (and many thanks to him), and I think it might be the nutty old dinosaur book to end them all. Do please stick around...


  1. I had little idea what else this book contained when you shared a preview of that last fascinating grotesque. I'm actually pleasantly surprised. I rather like the style. I think my favourites are the Brachiosaurus and the Deinonychus.

  2. I'm legitimately fascinated by the animal in the final image. I can't even imagine what they were going for there. Those creepy webbed hands...

  3. The artwork in this book reminds me of an artist named Roy Anderson who painted (among other things) pictures for a National Geographic article about dinosaurs. In fact, look at this picture:
    That pose looks very familiar. I actually thought Joel Snyder was the artist responsible for the National Geographic pictures mentioned above,but Google Image Search learned me a thing or two 'bout that.

    1. Wow. This is the wonderful thing about LITC readers. Someone somewhere is bound to recognise something.

      And a Herodontosaurus after all. Who would have supposed...

    2. Uh, Heterodontosaurus, rather.

  4. That last dino looks like it might have been based on Neave Parker's Hypsilophodon.

  5. That last dino looks like it might have been based on Neave Parker's Hypsilophodon.

  6. "No one ever saw a living dinosaur."

    And no one ever saw a fossil one that looked like that, either.

  7. These are copies of the National Geographic article on dinosaurs from August 1978. The paintings in the article are quite beautiful and one of my dinosaur illustration/painting influences when I was growing up.
    I scanned and uploaded them for David Orr a little while ago, was wondering if they'd turn up here. They're streets ahead of these versions.

    1. Trey Baldwin's also pointed this out (see above). I'd very much like to check out the originals now.

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  9. Hey, Marc, I think I have a strong contender for the book with the worst possible paleoart possible. Is there any way I could send it to you or at least give you some scans? It's a little new for Vintage Dinosaur art but I think it's bad enough to warrant a post.


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