Monday, July 14, 2014

Interview: Paleoartist Maija Karala

"Forest Green." A dandy paravian, © Maija Karala and used with her permission.

I'm always excited to see new work pop up in Maija Karala's DeviantArt gallery. A Finnish biologist and writer, her enthusiasm for biology also finds voice through her illustrations, which range from fleshed out scenes to charming sketches. I can't remember exactly when I began following Maija's illustrations, but I do remember being particularly struck by her Tarpan fending off a lion.

"Don't Mess With Tarpans." © Maija Karala and used with her permission.

Maija writes:
Here, a young cave lion is about to learn why one should be careful with tarpans. It's July somewhere close to the edge of the ice and the steppe-tundra is blooming. The plants depicted include Betula nana, Viscaria alpina, Rhododendron lapponicum, Orthilia secunda, Pedicularis sceptrum-carolinum and Dryas octopetala. Yes, the latter is the plant that was so common at the time at gave its name to the Dryas climatic periods.
It's a great example of the qualities I admire in much of her work: a sense of drama, subtle and naturalistic color, dedication to research, all wrapped up in an eminently approachable aesthetic. I was happy when Maija agreed to do an interview for Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs, so I could ask her more about how she works.

What is your background as an artist? Is it your profession or hobby?
For me, art is mostly a hobby. I make my living as a science writer, mostly writing for newspapers and magazines. I do paid illustrations whenever I get a chance, but it's not very often. I'd love to do more of it, but the fact that I always thought it as just a hobby now hinders me a bit. As I haven't really practised my skills systematically, I only became good at the things I like doing.

"Hamipterus." © Maija Karala and used with her permission.

Do you get many opportunities to cover paleontology in your science writing?
I get to cover paleontology fairly often, though not as often as I'd like. A few articles per year or so. On my blog (which is unfortunately in Finnish, but can be found at I do write a lot about paleontology and use my own illustrations as well.

Do you plan on continuing to do illustration as a hobby, or do you have professional aspirations?
I'm working to become a better artist, and I'd love to do more professional illustrations too. Though writing is probably still going to be my main occupation.

Was illustrating extinct animals always something you did or did you come to it later in life?
I drew dinosaurs as a kid, like everyone else, but stopped somewhere in my early teen years and only started again when I began my university studies, seven years ago (I studied biology). During the gap, I mostly drew fantasy creatures, dragons and elves and stuff. I think the main reason I started making paleoart was to find sort of a compromise between drawing fantasy creatures and being a science student. Illustrating extinct animals is firmly rooted in science, but also lets you use your imagination in a way not really possible with bioillustration.

"Eye Contact." Anurognathus ammoni, © Maija Karala and used with her permission.

At what point in an illustration do you focus on the eyes? It's often a striking element in your work, whether fantasy or paleoart.
I have never really thought about that. I do tend to think the eyes and expressions as the most important part of my drawings, as that's also what I pay the most attention when looking at live animals (or people, for that matter). Though I have no idea if everyone else does that too. After making a general sketch on what I want there to be and where, the eyes (or the facial areas in general) are usually the first thing I focus on.

You seem to be especially drawn to feathery theropods. Is this due to a bird interest or is there some aspect of their form that is especially fun to draw?
I think it's a bit of both. I like birds, sure. I also like drawing small and pretty animals. And feathers are always fun. Anyway, the main reason is probably that there's plenty of references and easily accessible knowledge available on feathered dinosaurs. It was an easy place to start back when I started making paleoart, and once I was familiar with them, it was also easy to continue.

Lately, I have been moving on to other critters as a part of trying to learn new things. My DeviantArt gallery is now starting to have more things like fossil mammals and non-dinosaurian archosaurs than feathered theropods on the first pages.

When illustrating an animal that has been covered by other illustrators, in what ways do you try to make it your own?
I always try to find other sources of inspiration besides other people's depictions of the same animal, sometimes actively avoiding looking at them when planning to make my own reconstruction. I often look up modern animals with somewhat similar ecology and use their soft tissues and behaviour as inspiration, but try never to directly copy anything. I mostly avoid using the most obvious colour themes or soft tissue ideas. That's not to say I never stumble on paleoart memes, but I do try to avoid it.

"The Feathered Yeti." Xiaotingia zhengi, © Maija Karala and used with her permission.

How much do comments on dA influence your work? For instance on your "Feathered Yeti," the comments get into some serious detail about integument. When posting work do you post with the expectation that you'll receive critique on areas you're not sure about?
To be honest, DeviantArt comments have probably been the most important thing pushing me to get better at making paleoart. These days I usually do my research before drawing, but especially earlier it was a great motivator to make embarrassing mistakes and get someone tell it to me. I'm pretty sure I never made the same mistake twice.

As I have mostly learned paleontology and anatomy on my own (for years, I had no paleontologically oriented friends nor any education on either subject), the criticism has been invaluable. I still greatly appreciate all the experts who go through the trouble to nitpick on amateur drawings.

"I Immediately Regret This Decision." Thalassodromeus attempting to eat Mirischia, © Maija Karala and used with her permission.

So, who are some of your favorite expert paleoartists? Is there a particular piece of advice or critique you received that has stuck with you?
I really like the works of people like Alain Bénéteau, Ville Sinkkonen, Carl Buell and Mauricio Anton, just to mention a few. My favourites are the people who can combine an expert understanding of science with truly beautiful art and get the animals to really come to life. I also really like Niroot's style. And John Conway's. And... ok, I'll stop here before the list becomes ridiculously long.

I don't think there's any particular piece of advice that has been especially memorable. It has been more about the general message that I need to know more. It's something I simply didn't get elsewhere for most of the time. As nobody I knew personally had the expertice to tell me the feet of my Quetzalcoatlus are wrong, most feedback was more like "oh, a nice dinosaur. What do you mean it isn't a dinosaur?".

Thank you to Maija for answering my questions - and patiently waiting for me to have time to put the post together! I hope you'll stop by her DeviantArt gallery and leave some support and constructive criticism on her illustrations. Also check out the recent post at i09 featuring Maija's Protoceratops/ Griffin illustration.

"Go Home, Evolution." Atopodentatus, © Maija Karala and used with her permission.


  1. Great interview. I admire Maija's work very much, too. The Anurognathus is one of my favourites of hers. Thank you both!

    (I'm honoured by the mention, Maija, thank you.)

  2. Her art is so pretty, and so accurate too


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