Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The AMNH's Book of Dinosaurs, Part 2 - James Robins

Over the years of writing these blog posts, I'd like to think that I've matured somewhat - that the vodka-fuelled gratuity of my late university years has mellowed into something more thoughtful and, dare I say it, nuanced. (Oh yes. I went there.) Sure, I'll still point out shonky dinosaur art, but with less savagery, and an acknowledgement that, by contemporary standards, it's often not so bad. Plus, illustrators gotta eat.

On the other hand, one is occasionally reminded that a few - a very few - palaeoartists over the years managed to make their jobbing contemporaries' work look more than a little embarrassing - maybe, even, deserving of the occasional pouring of scorn. One of those artists is James Robins.

While we've looked at Robins' work here before, I think it's always worth revisiting him. As an illustrator of dinosaur books, Robins often gets overlooked historically in favour of palaeoart's Big Names. This is a pity, because Robins' work was often well ahead of the curve, especially in the early '90s.  The worst palaeoart tropes of the previous decades were on the way out, but still lingered in every tail-dragging, rotund sauropod, freakish, dainty-handed dromaeosaur, and nonspecific tyrannosaur with zipper teeth. Robins' work stands out because, damn it, he actually paid attention to anatomical references. His highly precise approach contrasts sharply with Rothman's rather more, er, old-fashioned style - it might not quite be Ankylosaurus by modern standards, but that's still a pretty stylish-looking beast (above).

His Tenontosaurus, too, is far sleeker and more sprightly-looking than early '90s audiences were probably used to, especially since Sibbick's '80s version (from his endlessly copied illustrations for the Normanpedia) was far weightier and stodgier-looking, dragged tail and all. It also appears devoid of dromaeosaur hitchhikers...which is nice. The goat-like pupils are another neat touch, and harken back to the work of John McLoughlin.

If there's one unfortunate aspect of Robins' work for the AMNH book, it's that it's - typically for him - confined to 'spotter's guide'-type illustrations of animals against plain white backgrounds. Robins is perfectly capable of painting landscapes, but it seems that he was more often commissioned to produce this more diagrammatical work. But I'm grateful for what I can get. Robins' Protoceratops (above) is remarkable for the early '90s, an age when the animal tended to be stuck in a semi-sprawling 1970s timewarp.

Sadly, there aren't too many Robins theropods in the AMNH book; in addition to the excellent Oviraptor featured in the last post, we're also given this Coelophysis pair. Again, it's commendable for its fine details (down to the vestigial fingers) and overall modern look. Coelophysis often didn't fare too well in the early '90s - I'm still haunted by the freakish illustrations that appeared in Dinosaurs! The Jurassic Park toys were cool, though. Pipe-cleaner-o-saurus!

To compensate for the lack of theropods, we are granted an unusually diverse selection of Robins non-dinosaurs. For starters, here's the gharial-like phytosaur Rutiodon decked out in a very fetching stripy brick red colour scheme...

...Followed by the ichthyosaur Stenopterygius, famous for carelessly allowing its very new-not-quite-born babies to become hopelessly killed and fossilised. While not terribly exciting, it's a pleasing enough piece; Robins' penchant for fine line work is put to good effect. I like the red eye, too. It falls on the right side of the 'striking and reptilian/Halloween monster' divide.

His Eurhinodelphis is more monstrous-looking, but it's not Robins' fault - the creature really did have a nose like that. Ridiculous. That dappled light is quite lovely, though. Noteworthy here is the speculative incipient dorsal fin, which Robins illustrates with a rather unusual 'plateau' shape.

But never mind all that - how many readers had no idea that Robins did prehistoric mammals? Me too! It's always a pleasant surprise to learn that an artist's prehistoric animal repertoire is wider than you imagined. Quite few people seem to realise that, for example, Luis Rey does prehistoric mammals, too - and rather well. (And no, they're not brightly coloured).

And with that...ancient alpacas! Now there's a series for you, History Channel. Alien camelids descending on the earliest human civilisations, helping them construct the pyramids, the great Aztec cities, Atlantis, etc. etc., before getting grumpy, spitting at the poxy monkeys and zipping back off into space? Fantastic. It would also explain how camelids had such a significant role in the development of advanced civilisations in both Africa and the Americas (because they did, you know) THINK ABOUT IT.

What I meant to say was: here's Robins' illustration of the early camelid Stenomylus. It's an animal that seldom appears in popular dinosaur andotherprehistoricanimal books, perhaps due to its lack of large teeth, claws, size, or other sexy attributes. It was a wee camelid that lived in North America, lacked some features of modern camelids, and that's about it. But hey, Robins does a nice job - love those stripy pelts and (at the risk of flogging a dead camelid) superb small details. Stenomylus - and Robins - take a bow.

Next week - Doctor Who! No, not Peter Capaldi (well, maybe Peter Capaldi), but a 1976 book featuring dinosaurs and occasionally uncanny depictions of Tom Baker. I can't wait to share it.


  1. Wow! I am loving the art this week!

    And boy, I'm excited for next week's Vintage Dino Who...

  2. IS IT THE DR WHO CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE i actually really liked that one

  3. I especially like that sleek, active and boisterous look *Ankylosaurus*, even if I fear the animal might be too thin to be realistic.

  4. "Sure, I'll still point out shonky dinosaur art, but with less savagery, and an acknowledgement that, by contemporary standards, it's often not so bad."

    Good idea. Savagery should be saved for books that are 1) bad by contemporary standards, & 2) by ppl who should know better. My next couple of negative reviews are for books like that.


  5. I'm absolutely love James Robins' work. Thank you.

  6. Author credit? I didn't see one in either post.


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