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 The writing further exudes confidence in actively attacking the outdated, old-school interpretation of dinosaurs still being promoted by palaeontology's old guard, referred to by McLoughlin (rather sarcastically) as the "Grand Old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 finally...an 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!

20 comments:

  1. Another interesting and entertaining piece! I read this book when it was first published. I had read 'The Hot-blooded Dinosaurs' (which have some very interesting vintage images - hint, hint) and was familiar with the dinosaur renaissance. But I had never seen images of dinosaurs pushed past even Bakkerian boundaries. These animals aren't reptiles - and they're mammals or birds. They're something in between. I'm sure you'll look at O'Loughlin's Triceratops, which looks like it's been pushed into a sausage skin. I agree with you that he goes too far in fleshing out his dinos. There are no bony, horny or sharp bits. His art represents, I think, a trend from the 80s to avoid dinosaurs looking reptilian in any respect. Where are the scales in any of his illustrations, despite his knowledge that many species had scaly skin very similar to those of modern reptiles. Great job again. I always look forward to your Vintage Dinosaur Art posts.

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  2. Oh, yes! This book is fascinating and I cannot wait to see your reaction of Those Illustrations.

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  3. very interesting. maybe you should make a post with a collection of feathered dinosaur depictions in vintage art... I think I've seen a few too, for example in a German book called "Bildatlas der Dinosaurier".

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  4. Does anyone else think that T.rex's head looks a bit like a gorgonopsids?

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    1. I see your gorgonopsian, and raise you... cynodont. In particular, I thought that the Gorgosaurus' ("Gorgonopsisaurus") head was very Cynognathus-like, even down to what looks like a small earlobe.

      I must say, I hadn't realised that McLoughlin's use of dinofuzz was that extensive (both in terms of how frequently he depicted it, and how much of the animal was covered in it). Definitely ahead of his time there.

      The close-up of the Ornitholestes appears to depict the feathers as "frayed" scales, which I understand was the favoured pathway for the evolution of feathers before Richard Prum proposed his 5 stages starting from simple filaments.

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    2. Yes, McLoughlin does indeed go with the 'frayed scales' idea. But hey, it was 1979.

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  5. @Marc Vincent

    "all frayed feathers and oddly proportioned forelimbs that come perilously close to 'Wings...but with hands!'."

    I wouldn't say "Wings...but with hands" so much as "primaries on wrong finger" (Remember "Planet Dinosaur"?).

    "Although stippling is used to wonderful effect here, this muscle-popping, indecently naked creature hasn't aged well."

    In addition to X's "feathered dinosaur depictions in vintage art" idea, I think you should do a post about "muscle-popping" dinos in vintage art.

    "although what it's doing with that claw is anyone's guess."

    I think Trish's sketch sums it up best: http://www.flickr.com/photos/babbletrish/3475662349/

    -Hadiaz

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  6. The allosaurus illustration heavily reminds me of an image I saw somewhere when I was younger, but I can't put my finger on it. It was the same pose, but maybe colored, and it'd be interesting to know who copied whom. :) Do you by any chance know which artwork this could be?

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Oh dear, Nicole shouldn't leave herself logged in on my PC... :P Anyway, the pose reminds me a little of John Sibbick's Allosaurus attacking Diplodocus (which was much later), but other than that, I have no idea.

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    3. Yeah, it's reminiscent of... something. Can't quite place it either altho' I agree with Marc, it does have a Sibbick look about it. Given when it was published McLoughlin's is more likely to be the inspiration rather than the "homage".

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    4. Hmmm... I don't know. I can see the parallels, but I doubt it inspired Sibbick's piece.

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    5. It reminds me of the rainy-day Megalosaurus in GSPaul's PDotW ( http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/stevereads/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/dinosaurs-in-rain-and-snow.jpg ).

      -Hadiaz

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    6. I found it :) The pose was used in David Lambert's "A field guide to dinosaurs" from 1991. I scanned the page for reference (it's a German copy of the book): http://abload.de/img/allosaurusn7uo2.jpg
      Thanks for everyone trying to figure out where it was from :)

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    7. I really need to get hold of that book. Apparently there are a number of McLoughlin copies in it.

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    8. The German edition's on Amazon.de, starting at a few cents (and a new one, too): http://www.amazon.de/gp/offer-listing/3401042408/ref=dp_olp_0?ie=UTF8&condition=all

      If you ever need an illustration of the book scanned in until then, let me know :)

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  7. Gorgosaurus' head shape was probably based on the crushed holotype. As Paul (1988) says, "Some artists have innocently failed to account for this, and drawn A. Iibratus with a weird, sort of pig-like snout."

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  9. Notice that this is one of the very few times that Ornitholestes is NOT chasing an Archaeopteryx (or some such). Maybe it has to do with the use of the name Coelurus instead. But in the pic of Archaeopteryx itself IT is chasing something! (Was this a deliberate attempt at "Archie's Revenge"?)

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