Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Finally, a few words on All Your Yesterdays

The original All Yesterdays, with art by John Conway and the mighty Memo, caused enough of a stir last year to break free from its 'niche publishing' status and make it into the mainstream media - even into delightful tabloid newspapers normally filled with right-wing batshittery and celebrity boobs. Now - or rather, a month ago, but I've only just caught up - the dream team brings us the fruits of their All Yesterdays art contest, which inspired artists far and wide to produce fine works of palaeontological speculation. All Your Yesterdays might be choppier than the original - that's to be expected, given the number of artists involved - but it's free, damn it, free! And considerably chunkier, too.

John Conway's bubble-headed Allosaurus, as featured in All Your Yesterdays.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Royal Dinostamps

If you're a Briton (like me), then you'll no doubt have heard that the Royal Mail...was privatised recently, according to Prime Directive 2 of the inordinately wealthy neoliberal androids who run the country. But don't despair! Or rather, do despair, but also pay heed to this welcome distraction. For the Royal Mail also recently issued a new set of prehistoric animal-themed stamps, illustrated by John Sibbick. There are ten to collect, each one featuring a Mesozoic creature discovered in the UK (only six of them actually feature dinosaurs).

The rather, er, mixed reaction to these stamps in Social Media Land only made me more intrigued, so off I popped to the Royal Mail website to stuff a little more cash into the foul capitalists' pockets (by which I mean, I ordered a set).

Remember, all images are copyrighted. So don't go making hipster t-shirts out of them or anything. They'll find you.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Archosauria - Part 3

We've established by now that John McLoughlin's Archosauria was a beautifully bold, often highly prescient book, dedicated to overturning notions of dinosaurs as 'great fossil lizards' that were nature's way of killing time before those 'superior' mammals took over the place. McLoughlin illustrated feathered theropods and supercharged sauropods at a time when the number of people doing so could be counted on one hand. Given its boldness, it's surprising that Archosauria so infrequently oversteps the mark, but when McLoughlin goes too far, he has the decency to do so very memorably.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Archosauria - Part 2

While nothing could match the feathered theropods in terms of sheer prescience, there were illustrations of other animals in Archosauria that were groundbreaking in their own, perhaps more subtle ways (and now you know I'm not referring to the ceratopsians). McLoughlin may have been skimpy on the sauropodomorphs, but what he did provide was a tantalising glimpse into an exciting new era of palaeoart.

(Yes, I'm finally doing jump breaks.)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

And We Thought We Were Dinosaur Lovers (NSFW)

It seems like a classic "good news/bad news" story. The good news is that, for the first time in a while, the entire internet has been talking about dinosaurs. Tumblr blogs, Facebook, even Cracked--all have been devoting space to our favorite extinct animals.

The bad news is that...well...see for yourself.

The horror continues after the jump.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Archosauria - Part 1

It feels like I've been waiting an age for this one, but at long last, here it is - John McLoughlin's infamous Archosauria: Or, How I learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Dinosaur Renaissance. It's a book that's come to be known among dino-geek circles for a series of reconstructions, chiefly of ceratopsians, that (even at the time) were very odd indeed. However, that's not a fair perspective on this remarkable book, for Archosauria was, in most other respects, an incredibly prescient publication - far ahead of its time in giving a new look to the old dinosaur.

At a time (1979) when the predominant image of dinosaurs, for all the advances being made in palaeontology, was still that of the slothful, oversized, cold-blooded reptile - what McLoughlin dubs 'the great fossil lizard' - Archosauria is completely unabashed in its embracing of the Dinosaur Renaissance. The writing further exudes confidence in actively attacking the outdated, old-school interpretation of dinosaurs still being promoted by palaeontology's old guard, referred to by McLoughlin (rather sarcastically) as the "Grand Old Men" and (more viciously) "stodgy professors".

In fact, McLoughlin was willing to go further than many palaeoartists have dared until very recently. Even his Triassic theropods (such as the above Coelophysis) not only sport lean frames and active poses, but a covering of fuzz, too. All of the dinosaurs in Archosauria are presented in a fetching monochrome style, devoid of backdrops, making use of stippling and crosshatching. It would have been good to see a few more animals presented as part of a wider ecosystem, rather than as isolated, itemised 'specimens', but at least McLoughlin's work is distinctive, and devoid of bland meme-following.

Perhaps my favourite spread in this book pertains to the Late Jurassic theropod Ornitholestes (here synonymised with Coelurus, a position made more-or-less untenable by subsequent studies). It's obvious when McLoughlin has better reference material for an animal, and his Ornitholestes remains remarkably accurate, even agreeing rather well with Scott Hartman's far more recent skeletal. Check out the feathery coat, too - an impressively far-sighted decision, and handled very well.

What's most remarkable about McLoughlin's Ornitholestes is that it avoids many of the unfortunate tropes that still afflict feathered nonavian dinosaur reconstructions. This is particularly clear in the animal's 'portrait', where feathers are present almost to the snip of the snout, there are no unsightly scales, and a realistic amount of flesh is applied to the mouth and skull more broadly; this is no sunken-eyed haggard-o-saur. And hey, the eye's very pretty, too. By way of contrast, McLoughlin also provides a 'great fossil lizard' version of the dinosaurs he illustrates, as shown here in the form of a naked, upright Ornitholestes with legs that could advertise jeans for Topman.

Given how good his Ornitholestes is, it's very strange that McLoughlin should fumble with the most infamous 'feathered dinosaur' of all. There are much, much worse Archaeopteryx illustrations out there, of course, but this is still a pretty ugly creation, all frayed feathers and oddly proportioned forelimbs that come perilously close to 'Wings...but with hands!'.

Equally baffling is McLoughlin's failure to stick a single plume on his Dromaeosaurus, given how obviously birdlike dromaeosaurs were known to have been even at that time. Although stippling is used to wonderful effect here, this muscle-popping, indecently naked creature hasn't aged well. At least it's a dromaeosaur feeding on a prey item smaller than itself (rather than hurling itself kamikaze-style at some much bigger ornithopod), although what it's doing with that claw is anyone's guess. I'm also tempted to suppose that the head was based on Velociraptor, rather than Dromaeosaurus, given its relative shallowness; Deinonychus still tended to be given a rather allosaur-like head at that time.

Speaking of which, time hasn't been kind on McLoughlin's work on larger theropods (here lumped together as 'carnosaurs', as was the wont of people back in the day - the lazy gits). Particularly amusing is his restoration of the rauisuchian Teratosaurus as a 'primitive theropod'. Of course - and let's be fair, now - he wasn't anything like the first to do so, with many earlier illustrators restoring the animal as a creeping, hunched-over beast in the manner of Neave Parker's Megalosaurus. The animal was finally revealed to be a rather different type of archosaur in the mid 1980s. McLoughlin's Teratosaurus, in keeping with his (now orthodox, then still quite revolutionary) view of large theropods as sprightly, active creatures, is shown accelerating forward like Niki Lauda. It also has a rather bizarre, snake-like head, with the eye set far forward in its socket, and the mandible extending waaaaay back.

Moving swiftly back to the dinosaurs-that-really-were, McLoughlin's Allosaurus is an impressively lean and muscular predator, its tail held stiffly behind as it powers forward with a vengeance. While generally proportioned very well, McLoughlin ironically perpetuates a common mistake made by Zallinger-era illustrators in replacing his allosaur's horns with a convenient, rounded 'arch' over the eye, like a monitor lizard. A pet peeve of mine and a nitpick, I realise, but in the words of Ian Malcolm, "there it is". The allosaur also illustrates McLoughlin's habit of giving his theropods uncomfortably straight legs, although how much data was freely available on that sort of thing back in the late 1970s, I don't know.

Of all his 'carnosaurs', McLoughlin's Gorgosaurus is perhaps the most interesting in that it combines traits from both old and 'new' (i.e. more rigorous, post-Renaissance) restorations of the animal. The horizontal back, elevated tail and hugely meaty thighs all feel thoroughly modern. On the other hand, there's no escaping that rather strange-looking head and neck combo. The posture appears to have been borrowed from older, more upright restorations, while the skull shape appears to have been borrowed from, well, Tyrannosaurus; note the pronounced postorbital boss and lack of pointy part in front of the eye. This also seems to be an animal that scuttles along on the tips of its claws. Of course, regardless of any nitpicks, this is still a lovely drawing and yet another laudably forward-thinking vision of an animal formerly portrayed as a slowly shuffling hulk.

And animal formerly portrayed as a slowly shuffling hulk, or in McLoughlin's words, "a lumbering tripod whose long, flexible tail dragged behind him as he moved". Contrary to this outdated, reptilian picture, McLoughlin asks us to imagine an animal that was
"...A biped rather than a tripod; he came equipped with a long and rapid stride that enabled him to catch the swift herbivores that were his food while circumventing their fearsome spines, horns, and other defenses...every detail of the tyrannosaur frame argues for an active predatory life-style."
It's enough to make you want to punch the air with glee and scream "YEAH!" (preferably while staring madly into the eyes of a friend or loved one). The illustration gets the animal's proportions, particularly the head, a little off; Trish dubbed this one "Sharkface McDerpasaurus rex". In fact, the shrinkydink head's rather disappointing all round, which is especially odd given the beautifully drawn skull on the opposite page. Still, plaudits to McLoughlin for the animal's attractive stripy styling and his own kick-ass demeanour - it's a welcome change from other late '70s books that portray T. rex as a sad, toddling fatty with brittle teeth and arms like cruelly diminutive toothpicks.

Archosauria will return!