Monday, December 29, 2014

Vintage Dinosaur Art...Guide? How to Draw Dinosaurs

Merry cold snap, everyone! If you're stuck in the same rubbish hemisphere as me, you may well deem it a good time to hunker down and take up a new, indoor hobby. While gorging yourself on whatever highly calorific confectionery and ethanol-heavy beverages you've recently acquired is certainly an option, far healthier and more creative choices are available. Perhaps, as a fan of artwork depicting prehistoric animals, you'd like to consider creating your very own 'palaeontography' with which to attract baffling comments from sarcastic creationists and feather-haters on deviantArt. If so, this retro-tastic 1990 book from Usborne is here to help.

How to Draw Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life (authored by Marit Claridge, and illustrated by Val Biro, Philip Hood and John Shackell) is a richly-illustrated little book crammed with basic drawing advice for children. As the cover suggests, the styles range from the 'realistic' to the cartoonish, and it's a very entertaining mish-mash. Admittedly, there are far too many cavemen, which feels a little like cheating (we're not here for humans!) and which I've chosen to ignore because, well, we're all about dinosaurs here. In addition, there's precious little on the specific details of particular animals; the advice on offer tends to be broader, as befits the target audience. While this did frustrate me a little as a kid, things like accommodating for muscles and flesh, making sure the centre of gravity is in the right place, and giving your creations a suitable sense of mass are all fundamentally important to ensuring that your artwork does not end up on the Palaeofail tumblr.

By way of example, the above spread offers sage advice on restoring a creature's outline based on a skeletal diagram - note the large thigh muscles, which one didn't necessarily see in earlier 'serious' palaeoart (flatly contradicting the fossil evidence). The skull segues into oddly cartoonish territory, but I like the way that it gets kids looking at the bare bones as a foundation, and the plateosaur-like skeleton is an excellent choice (as it's a fairly basal, not overly-freaky or specialised animal). Given all this, it's a little disappointing that some of the advice given elsewhere is so retrograde.

Yes, it's a fat, grey, wrinkly Diplodocus, dragging its tail through a swamp - an image mirrored on the opposite page. Admittedly, this sort of depiction remained quite commonplace in popular books back in 1990, but it's still an unfortunate contrast with the far more dynamic and active cartoon dinosaurs (which have actually aged rather better, at least in that respect - but more on them shortly). Far more interesting than this bland, Zallingerian depiction is the playful experiment in perspective going on at the foot of the page. One can't help but wonder if Luis Rey was reading...

As is commonplace in 'how to draw' guides, the book makes much of breaking the animals down into simple, geometric shapes in order to correctly gauge their proportions. Again, the Ankylosaurus is intriguingly '70s-looking, and sports a 'Palaeoscincus'-style portmanteau of features from a handful of different ankylosaurs. The Stegosaurus, meanwhile, is perhaps taking the 'geometric breakdown' technique a little too far, what with its rather formless circular body and plates that look like a formation kite-flying display. Actually, it rather reminds me of good ol' Stegoslug from Blackgang Chine, not to mention the godawful, gawping fibreglass stegosaur that pops up at various other attractions. I'm rather fond of the spotty look, though. More spotty stegosaurs, please!

Palaeozoic animals aren't catered for, but Mesozoic non-dinosaurs make an appearance, at least. The only pterosaur given the 'serious' treatment is Pteranodon, and unfortunately it's a straight-up Burian knock-off (complete with greedy, dinky-crested clifftop baby).

The marine reptile scene is much more interesting, not only for being far more action-packed (copious volcanic activity! Moodily lit sky! Epic sea beastie battles!), but also for boasting a number of entertaining palaeoart tropes. Elasmosaurus duly shows off its Combat Craning Neck action, with Ichthyosaurus (anachronistically) standing in for the more usual mosasaur opponent. There is a mosasaur present here, mind you - it's just that it's having some time off from primordial battles to the death in order to munch a few fish. The crocodilian body armour on the mosasaur is rather odd, but it's not half as strange as the dinky Dunkleosteus lurking in the lower right-hand corner, presumably brought here by accident down the back of one of Nigel Marven's wetsuits during a CGI-laden time-travelling escapade.

As far as Cenozoic animals go, the usual mammoths, sabre-tooths, wooly rhinos and the like are all present. But they're all stinkin' mammals, which is why I'd much rather focus on the sole Cenozoic dinosaur present - the terrifying-looking enormo-bird Gastornis, here depicted in its traditional guise as a ruthless predator of small, cute things. It seems that artists often give this bird blue plumage, and I'd love to know where that meme originated; there's no particular reason that a giant carnivorous (or not - but it was long imagined as such) bird should be decked out in such a relatively exuberant colour. Whatever - I like that it's attacking a lizard here (rather than a proto-horse of some sort), and I'm also fond of the daft cartoon below. Which brings me neatly on to...

...The best part of this book -  the cartoons. In contrast to the staid and dull 'realistic' illustrations, the cartoons are lively and full of character, even poking fun at and subverting palaeoart tropes (see the 'timid T. rex' above). The wild-eyed, rampaging Triceratops is especially superb, appearing quite magnificently unhinged; the illustration also avoids leaning too much on making it resemble a mad bull, which would have been the lazier approach.

And finally...perhaps my favourite spread in the book features a parade of dinosaurs, all running from a grinning, crocodile-faced T. rex. There's an emphasis on giving each creature an immediately recognisable character, based on perceived traits of the real animals. The idea that Diplodocus 'had little defence' against large carnivores is balls, obviously, but its nervous, twitching eyes and bright pink hairy conk make it look amusingly dimwitted. I also like that the hadrosaur, just for once, is allowed to appear confident and swift, rather than as gormless theropod-fodder (shades of Niroot's 'Cretaceous tortoise and hare'). However, my absolute favourite is the ankylosaur, who is just as extremely cross as I always imagine those squat, spiky fellows to have been (admittedly, it's probably got a lot to do with the endless depictions of them giving tyrannosaurs a damn good thrashing). There's just something about that adorably frowny face. Can't someone please make a plushie version?

That's all for now. Except...I'd like you lot to draw some dinosaurs again, so I do declare that it's COMPETITION TIME!!!! Your task: draw me a 1990-style dinosaur. The sort of thing that wouldn't have looked out of place in Dinosaurs! magazine or any of the very many slightly lazy, Normanpedia-inspired books of the era. Naked maniraptors are allowed, of course, but are kinda obvious, so extra kudos will be given for trickier picks. The winner will receive a copy of How to Draw Dinosaurs, which I happen to have acquired recently for whatever reason (plus I'll throw a nice card in, as usual). Please enter by way of a comment. Cheers!


  1. Does it have to be a brand new pic? What if it's a week or two old?

    1. A week or two old as fine - as long as it isn't, you know, 20 years old ;)

  2. I had the 'Animals' book of that series when I was likkle, and it was the only drawing resource I had for years. I think it retarded my animal-drawing ability for all those years and more, too - all that "you must draw THIS red circle first! Just like this! Then THIS blue line!" And so on. Crippling.

    So, I was interested in the contest until I read what the prize was. ;)

    Also, that timid T. rex reminds me of someone a little more forthright.

  3. I purchased this for a little relative who was 6 at the time. It was quite a good little book! The crayon and watercolor technique on the cartoon dinos is particularly nice.

  4. I've just noticed that the sabretooth on the cover, otherwise derpy as it is, seems to have two pairs of upper canines.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Here's a retro spinosaurus. Not really 90s, more just retro. I figured, with all the hooplah surrounding Spino lately, I'd set the record definitively wrong.


    I know swamped hadrosaurs are completely wrong, but it's imagery I dearly love. The idea of these giant beasts lazily wading waist deep in misty swamps, like prehistoric swans just hits me right in the sweet spot.

  8. Here you go: old school reconstruction of Deinocheirus: proportionally small body and obligate murderer. Apologies for recycling an image I illustrated for my blog, but it kinda fits the brief.

  9. Excellent work, keep them coming. I forgot to mention here (and have only subsequently mentioned on Facebook) that January 31 is the deadline.

  10. I've tried commenting a couple times and I'm not sure if something's gone wrong or if there's a comment approval thing or something but if it's the latter I apologize for trying to comment repeatedly XP

    Anyway, you said that naked maniraptorans would be pretty obvious so I decided to throw you for a loop with a feathered maniraptoran.

    (sorry for the blog link; I don't really have a deviantart or anything like that to put it on XP)

    I've seen this pose used for all kinds of small dinosaurs in old books; maybe you guys know the origin of this meme? It's almost always chasing a dragonfly, too. (That said, I did try to draw this without consulting any such image so I wouldn't straight-up plagiarize one!)

    Other important features: Archaeopteryx with pebbly head and wings with hands, dry cracked earth underfoot, and a single cycad. Also if it had been colored the feathers would probably be blue and green because I swear I only ever saw depictions of Archaeopteryx as such.

    1. Oh, that explains my confusion; it was signing me into my old Blogger account which for some weird reason was named CommonSense? That's weird, and actually rather pretentious.

    2. That's a good one, thank you! Also, you've just been hired by a dinosaur toy company as their scientific consultant.

  11. Are you at LITC familiar with Usborne's The Incredible Dinosaur Expedition? The artwork is similar to this how-to guide. I have a copy from the '80s. Pretty good, as I recall - if not exactly concerned with accuracy.


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