Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Vintageish Dinosaur Art: An Alphabet of Dinosaurs - Part 1

Yes, it's the first Vintageish Dinosaur Art post - because I've stretched David's name for this series quite far enough. Wayne Barlowe's paintings in An Alphabet of Dinosaurs are copyrighted 1995, while this UK edition of the book was published in 1997; perhaps a little too recent, even by my standards. Nevertheless, it's remarkable how much even books from the mid-to-late '90s have become dated from a scientific perspective, even if the artwork remains stunning - as it does here.

The cover stars a fighting pair of Deinonychus, tinged pink by a volcanic sunset. What's perhaps most remarkable about these animals (apart from being quite unabashedly naked, which was the style at the time) are the allosaur-like spiky hornlets in front of their eyes. They suggest that Barlowe was referencing one of the earlier reconstructions of Deinonychus, which restored its skull rather like that of a miniature allosaur; in more recent years, this idea has been discarded in favour of a sleeker skull more like that of other dromaeosaurs (except Dromaeosaurus itself, of course...that weirdo). As a cover image, it's perfect - exciting, action-packed, beautifully composed and lit, and with a suitably violent geographic feature in the background. Of course, any fears that Barlowe might succumb to palaeoart clich├ęs are quickly dispelled by taking a look inside.

Barlowe's greatest strength is that his approach to palaeoart is just so damn arty; it's all fantastic lighting and animals in naturalistic poses, as opposed to a series of plates featuring dinosaurs in nondescript, brightly lit scrubland kicking(/biting/clawing) seven shades out of each other. Looking at his sublimely moody Velociraptor, it's almost possible to see why people might resist depictions of them as feathered...almost. Of course, Barlowe's does have a few feathers - but they're limited to a small number of neck quills, Jurassic Park 3 style. They look very silly indeed now, but hey - for 1995, they're pretty progressive (for an animal that's not Megapnosaurus). The wrists are unfortunate, but of their time - rather like wearing a t-shirt tucked in to your extremely high-wasted jeans.

By this stage, the more astute reader will probably have noticed that I'm focussing on work that has dated scientifically (at least for this first post) - and time has been unkind on no painting more than this one, depicting the therizinosaur Erlikosaurus. Lacking skeletons that were even reasonably complete for many years, scientists speculated long and hard on what these freakish theropods might have been up to. Termite-licking was one of the better suggestions (among piscivory and Heartless Monster Carnivory), and hey, it's an activity that some of them may well have indulged in now and then, even if they were really more giant-sloth-like than anteater-like. (After all, even singing bears have been known to eat ants. You'd better believe it.)

In fact, I'd argue that the fact that this theropod is scalier than a skink's backside dates this image more than its chosen activity. Palaeoart students will also note that the head is shrink-wrapped to a degree that, were it replicated today, would lead to deviantArt users and prats with blogs lining up to sling poorly-thought-out insults. All the same, that's a neat colour scheme; I'm especially fond of the black shoulder bands.

In case you'd forgotten already - and I know how much you drink, no matter how hard you try and hide it from your family - the All Yesterdays team released a follow-up book this year, comprised of entrants to their All Your Yesterdays competition, and titled, er, All Your Yesterdays. One of the featured pieces, by Alvaro Rozalen, depicted the oviraptorosaur Citipati plucking a crab out of the sea, thus "continuing the debate" over what these theropods used their mouth-prongs for. I have no idea if Rozalen had seen this book, but it's fascinating to see the same idea pop up here, 18 years prior. What goes around, comes around, as they say.

Flexi-wrists and scaly covering aside, Barlowe's Oviraptor remains remarkably anatomically accurate, to the extent that it gains the same pitiful air as one of those featherless chickens, the result of genetic experimentation by cruel corporate meatmasters. (Maybe.) All the same, this is a lovely piece of work.

Which leads neatly on to one of my favourite pieces in the book - a painting of three Gallimimus running along a beach, flashing their dazzling colours, calling to each other and generally making squamates look rubbish. Barlowe is to be commended indeed for depicting these animals with a naturalistic grace and sense of movement that few palaeoartists can master - they may be outdated, but they remain convincing as real animals. It's a property that I can't help but feel is missing in much of today's rather sterile, computer-generated art. Wonderful stuff - and that's without mentioning the sky. Oh my, the sky. (I'm a sucker for a good cloudscape.) Bravo Barlowe.

One way to be sure that a dinosaur book is from the 1990s is to check for a prominent appearance by Nanotyrannus. This animal was all the rage back in the day, until someone pointed out that it might just have been a juvenile Tyrannosaurus, at which point it disappeared. Of course, there are those who still protest its validity, and thrilling battles between scientists over the fine points of the skull and which parts are fused to which parts persist until this very day. Barlowe winningly depicts the animal staring down the viewer "like a snake" - or so the caption would have it. It reminds me rather more of an owl, which seems fitting, given that both are theropods. The sparse background serves to draw the viewer further into the animal's gaze.

Sexy Rexy himself makes an appearance too, of course - how could he not? Although the painting remains quite beautiful, this is definitely one of the weaker pieces, continuing a long trend of excellent artists fluffing up Tyrannosaurus. While I like the hints of intraspecific conflict ("Hey, that's my joint!") - shades of Knight - the Jurassic Park-esque gangly arms and popping eyes are odd choices. As for the pink head...I can't say I'm a fan of that either, although purely on aesthetic grounds. All the same, props to Barlowe for not effing up the perspective at any point (note the forward-facing eye of the animal on the left, and the fact that the legs align nicely).

Is it Giraffatitan? Is it a block of flats with a frown? No, it's "Ultrasauros", the mighty sauropod that never was. At one stage, this chimeric beast was hailed as the greatest dinosaur of them all - so heavy that its footsteps could be felt in a different time zone, and so tall that Ranulph Fiennes would rather eat three of his toes than climb its neck. Alas, it was not to be. In spite of this, Barlowe's artwork serves just as well to highlight the impressive scale of any brachiosaur (except that stupid tiny one). Without including Sam Neill in a funny hat, this painting gives us a decent impression of what it would have been like to stand next to one of these dizzyingly lofty creatures, while the sunlit head adds to the general aura of godly awesomeness (without literally including an aura of godly awesomeness). And of course, we'll always have Sauroposeidon...

And finally...Quaesitosaurus, "dipping for water plants to eat, is lucky enough to come across some delicious freshwater mussels". How peculiar. But never mind that - notice Barlowe's skill in depicting convincing scaly skin folds (as opposed to the dreaded Elephantine Wrinkliness), coupled with an ever-so-thoughtful and well-executed depiction of the animal's nictitating membrane. The bivalve hoovering may be unconventional, but it's a quite lovely painting. And there are more to come!


  1. God, I loved the art in this book.

  2. My son and I are delighted to have this on out book shelf. Beautiful!

  3. I really wanted a copy of this book - my children used to get it out of the library, and the pictures (plus the choice of dinosaurs) were utterly entrancing. Thank you for reminding me of it.

  4. baby Chasmosaur..

  5. I pinched two of the pictures and painted them onto T shirts for my kids - they loved the book so much!

  6. The Nanotyrannus looks creepy...

  7. Good grief. I know naked maniraptorans are starting to look a bit goofy, but despite the excellent quality, the illustrations here - especially those pink Deinonychus, for me - really do bring home the resemblance to that bald chicken photo that does the rounds.

    Although, on the subject of pink Deinonychus...

    "...tinged pink by a volcanic sunset."

    If such strong pink colour all over (from our viewpoint) is caused by volcanoes and sunsets, shouldn't that light come from almost directly in front (i.e. from the same direction as our viewpoint) than from behind and to the left, respectively?

    "(After all, even singing bears have been known to eat ants. You'd better believe it.)"

    I wonder if therizinosaurs loved the way they tickle.

  8. Wow, these are just wonderful. There's so little Wayne Barlowe paleoart available on the web, but everything I've seen (no matter how outdated) I've just loved. Thank you for posting these!

  9. Oof, these are gorgeous, although the bizarro juvenile T-Rex definitely makes all the dayglo look oddly austere. Derp-a-saurus Rex, amirite?

  10. I remember seeing the velociraptor painting in a museum in North Dakota , it reminded me of Talon from the Primal Rage games.

  11. I have fond memories of this book back in first grade. It was my first exposure to truly colorful dinosaurs, and yes, that Nanotyrannus freaked me out

  12. Out of date, maybe, but this was one of my favourite dinosaur books growing up, and I still love it even now.


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