Thursday, November 13, 2014

Vintage Dinosaur Art: A New Look at Dinosaurs, National Geographic, August 1978

Anyone who knows the slightest thing about the history of dinosaur science will tell you that the '60s and '70s constituted a pivotal period - the 'Dinosaur Renaissance', during which the old ideas about dinosaurs being 'great fossil lizards' (as John McLoughlin memorably put it) were overturned, and a new, more exciting picture emerged. In August 1978, National Geographic published an article by none other than John Ostrom, the man who named Deinonychus and helped lead this new wave in palaeontology. Accompanying the article were a series of paintings by Roy Andersen, and they provide a wonderful insight into how the palaeoart of the time still owed a great deal to the past, even as artists strove to capture something of the Renaissance.

The cover is quite resolutely old-school, and wouldn't have looked out of place back in the Zallinger days. Here is the great primordial struggle, rendered in moody, smoky hues, as one massive reptile looms out of the darkness and snatches another in its cruel, flesh-tearing jaws (as they no doubt would have put it back then). To modern eyes, the lumpen, saggy tyrannosaur looks completely bizarre; over on Facebook, Blake Ó Murchú dubbed this beast a "Mastiffasaurus", which seems fitting. On closer inspection, the hadrosaur is pretty weird, too - for one thing, it appears that its arms are growing out of its neck. Of course, all this means that this cover has instant vintage palaeoart appeal. It's really very evocative.

Inside, the article proper starts with a 'dinosaur parade', which is a bit like one of the ones used to promote PT Barnum's circuses, only the giant quadrupeds aren't decked out in glittering finery. My rubbish scanner wouldn't fit it all in, and I'm far too lazy to scan it in chunks, so here's a choice section. Again, the animals here look rather retro - there are tail-dragging sauropods, tail-dragging stegosaurs, and even our old friend, Dainty Limbed Hunchback Megalosaurus (straight out of a depressing-looking Neave Parker piece). However, there are hints of palaeontological progress here. The theropods, as a whole, are much more sprightly than the various herbivores; Allosaurus looks particularly lean 'n' mean in a fashion quite alien to the pot-bellied waddling fellows of earlier decades, while all the little fellows are breaking out into a jog. Which brings us neatly to the star of the show...

Deinonychus! In an adventure with scientists! This is a striking vision of the creature, in a highly Bakkerian sprinting posture, dapper dewlap in place, against a fierce red backdrop. Modern artists take note - this is how you do 'badass dinosaurs'. Even ignoring the poor sap getting mauled at stage left, this illustration is highly effective at conveying the perceived ferocity of this creature - and it's just a plain ol' lateral view, without any gaping maws, blood, or copious salivating. It helps, of course, that we are also provided with a skeletal reference, and a diagram depicting the movement arc of that famous claw. Great stuff.

When compared with Deinonychus, Sexy Rexy's portrayal initially comes across as disappointingly staid and conservative. On the other hand, while the posture certainly tends more towards the vertical, there's a definite sense of energy and movement here, most evident in the tail and legs. It reminds me very much of Burian's Tyrannosaurus, which while distinctly old-fashioned at first glance nevertheless boasted a long stride and an obviously burning desire to clamp its jaws around a juicy edmontosaur thigh. The head also shows an admirable attention to detail, unknown in a lot of 'classic' palaeoart. Again, the inclusion of the skull (seemingly belonging to AMNH 5027) is a nice touch. Oh, and there's a suitably Knightian encounter between Rexy and his eternal sparring partner Triceratops going on at the bottom there.

One of the finest illustrations of a fossil is this one of a Heterodontosaurus slab, featured alongside a life restoration of the animal. For all that it looks weird now (creepy needle fingers and cold, unduly tiny eyes!), this illustration of a horizontal-backed, fleet-footed ornithischian dinosaur with a straight, muscular tail serves as the perfect accompaniment to Ostrom's text, in which he points out that the animal's anatomy "[seems] to point toward endothermy" and an active lifestyle. Noteworthy for those tired of certain clichés in modern palaeoart is that both individuals have their mouths closed, with 'lips' covering their famous pointy teeth, which is quite unlike almost every single depiction of this animal since. I think Jaime Headden would approve (but I'll probably regret second-guessing him).

While there's naturally been a lot of fuss made about the spectacularly strange Deinocheirus recently (which, incidentally, is briefly mentioned in this article), let's not forget that even 'normal' ornithomimosaurs were pretty odd, too. Of course, retro palaeoart only serves to exaggerate their weirdness by giving them scaly hides and weedy limbs, as is the case with Andersen's egg-plundering stilt-walker. If you were wondering about the giant pelvis 'n' femur, it's related to the caption, which explains that birds "paradoxically" evolved from the 'lizard hipped', rather than the 'bird hipped' dinosaurs (while pointing out that birds were already well established by Struthiomimus' time).

Corythosaurus is next on the bill, and is used to illustrate the point pertaining to hadrosaurs being land browsers, rather than paddle-handed jokers partial to the odd swimming party. This illustration is a particularly good example of the 'transition' taking place in palaeoart at the time, and how much of it still recalled the vintage 'great fossil lizard' depictions. While the carriage of this Corythosaurus would be alien to an artist working in, say, the 1930s, the exceptionally dainty forelimbs and grumpy lizard lips are reminiscent of art from the bad old days. In fact, one could comment that the overall style of these pieces, that is to say the technique behind them, is rather retro - while some of the animals sport splashes of colour (see Heterodontosaurus above), the overall impression remains fairly murky and gloopy. And brown.

Which isn't to say that this piece is a throwback - far from it. But the next one is.

Alas, poor Bronto. For all that the other animals are given important updates (no matter how tentative they may seem), Apatosaurus still suffers the indignity of being lumped with a mismatched (and cross-looking) camarasaur head at one end, while its tail ploughs the ground behind it. While the animal's resolutely free from swampbound misery and being a defenceless flesh heap, it's still weird to see Marsh's error perpetuated in an article all about a new, more enlightened approach to dinosaur science. Not being horrifically fat is a significant enough change on its own, I guess.

At least Poor Bronto isn't pretty much a straight-up Burian rip-off, like this Stegosaurus. Come on Andersen, give us the Shiny Renaissance Future! Tail-dragging sluggard stegosaurs are so early twentieth century.

And finally...Triceratops. It's another blandly brown depiction that wouldn't have looked out of place in properly retro palaeoart, and is a far cry from the more radical depiction we might have expected. The skull, of course, is taken from the mounted specimen in the AMNH, on which the frill has largely been reconstructed. Curiously, the Triceratops at the foot of the page appear to have had their heads based on this mount, and subsequently look very Torosaurus-like, while the individual above has a more 'scalloped' and shorter frill. It's enough to make me wonder if the main illustration wasn't also 'inspired' by an earlier work, although I can't for the life of me think which one it might be. (Comments please guv!)

That's it...for now. I've avoided discussing Ostrom's article itself very much, famous and seminal though it is. Perhaps another time (especially if there's any demand for it. That's right, feed my monstrous ego). Coming up next (from me) - a book named after a cheesetastic Hammer film. Hurrah!


  1. Figures this site would piss all over one of the most beautiful and influential dinosaur themed magazines ever.

    1. Two things the matter here: a wholly unjustified ad hominem attack, and a failure to grasp either the intended tone or the very content of the words.

    2. I was worried about appearing too negative, because I do really enjoy this artwork. As I, er, said in the post, it's evocative, often very striking and could even teach today's artists a thing or two. There are a few flaws here and there, but I hope I managed to put them into the context of the period and not 'piss all over them' too much.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. You just can't criticize ANYTHING any more in the US without intolerant people calling you "a hater". However, I do think you sometimes go a bit overboard in the negative comments from a current viewpoint. Uncredited copying aside, Knight, Parker, Burian and such did the best that they could for the time that they were working in (for the most part, at least).

      And please realize that many people have to have the concept of sarcasm explained to them in every instance...

  2. Regarding the featured Triceratops, I'm not sure if this is what you had in mind but its toadiness reminded me of George Solonevich's Styracosaurus from "Dinosaurs and more Dinosaurs", here.

    There is a weird mix of old and new with a lot of these pics, which I suppose is simply a reflection of the paradigm shift that was occurring with regard to how dinosaurs were viewed (at least by dinosaur workers). The Brachiosaurs in the dinosaur parade appears to have its tail off the ground but has then had an ostrich's head grafted onto the end of its neck.

  3. What a stroll down memory lane! My grandparents had a small collection of Nat Geos and I'd always enjoy poring over the dino paintings when we visited. This one and the one with Koko the gorilla were my favs.

  4. The tyrannosaur in the cover image looks a bit like a monstrous toad with noodle arms, but it's got a great, flowing, liquid watercolour effect. Like ripples in a pond coalescing into an unusually specific shape.

    Roy Andersen seems to prefer painting native american peoples, if it's the same guy (google images and the linked article hint at it - similar glowing skies and glowing shadows, and "Course, I did space things and dinosaurs and everything else...") but I certainly wouldn't be sorry if he dipped a toe back into prehistoria with up-to-date info.

  5. I'm curious, who is responsible for the egg-eating ornithomimosaur meme? I know that was still in full force as recently as the early 90's when I was first getting into the subject....but there seems to be little/no fossil evidence for this. Thoughts?

  6. Lovely artwork. It strikes a sensitive balance between the sluggish lizards of the 60s and the gargantuan anorexic ballerinas that Bakker was so fond of. What is the creature that Deinonychus is dissecting in the background?

  7. Wow, sorry to be late to the party. This issue of Nat Geo has a very special place in my heart. Can't believe I've never covered it at SV-POW!

    This came out when I was three years old. Some relative who had a Nat Geo subscription passed it on to me. I did not know or care about dinosaurs before I saw this issue, and afterward they're all about all I cared about for a long time. Yes, this was my introduction to dinosaurs. I read the issue so many times that it fell apart, but other copies turned up.

    In the spring of 2000, John Ostrom came to Norman, Oklahoma, for the opening of our new museum building. I got to be his chauffeur for a week. I'd scored a near-mint copy of this issue at a used bookstore and he autographed it for me. I told him about how much this article had meant to me--how it had literally changed the course of my entire life--and he told me that he was happy to hear it, because age was slowing him down and now he had to live vicariously through young whippersnappers like me. Best compliment I ever got. And a fantastic week of getting to just basically hang out with John Ostrom. He was so excited and animated--if you weren't looking at him while he was talking, it was easy to forget that he wasn't in his 20s.

    Anyway, all of that art really takes me back. I love how the frill on the Corythosaurus looks inflated, like a mylar balloon or an overstuffed throw-pillow. I love the use of color in the backgrounds--many of them seem a bit downbeat, as if Anderson couldn't escape the looming axe of extinction even in a heavily pro-dinosaur article. I especially like how the Brontosaurus and Triceratops loom over the world like gods--heck, in the Bronto image you can see the curvature of the Earth! There is real soul in these images. Pile up all of the crap CGI dino-art in the world and it would still have to stand on a stool to kiss the bony finger of that Heterodontosaurus.

    Many thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  8. Replies


Trolls get baleted.