I've admired Angela Connor's Paleo Portraits for a while, and her work has been discussed here previously (here and here). Her portraits are full of character, and in the same way that simple portraits of owls focus our attention differently than other photographs might, Angela's portraits are a way to experience these diverse, sadly extinct, animals in an intimate way. In addition to her palaeoart, Angela's body of work includes simple, engaging animations, sculpture, and fantasy illustration.
I interviewed Angela recently and I'm thrilled to share our conversation with you today.
What is your background as an artist?
I'm still very young and green, so for me, "background" kind of means creative childhood pastimes more than anything. I didn't grow up in an artsy place, but having an artist mom and getting to dabble in a lot of different media in summer workshops (drawing, painting, sculpture, and even one-offs like claymation) kept the creativity going. Plus at home we had lots of art supplies of all sorts and I loved combining them in different ways. In particular I liked making miniature animals with clay, wire, and glass beads, and of course drawing and painting were a way of life.
In high school I branched into a variety of digital stuff (digital painting, pixels, vector, 3D texturing, and web design) mostly inspired by seeing other kids on the 'net doing them and wanting to learn too. Then in college I studied graphic design for a while before changing majors to animation, where I learned that as well as 3D modeling/digital sculpture and other production-y things, but in the years after graduating I've found myself more drawn to painting, GIFs, and other odd experiments, and soon I'll be able to return to making physical crafts like I did as a kid, but now armed now with an adult brain, resources, and the existence of new tech like 3D printing.
What was the inspiration for doing the Paleo Portraits series?
I don't think there was any one thing in particular that inspired it, but rather a culmination of several factors. The void that graduating college tends to create kind of makes you start asking yourself the big "Who am I, really?" sorts of questions, and for me one of the things that happened as a result was rediscovering my fascination with the history of life on Earth. I know the collective of science-types I had found online by that point, particularly the LITC and TetZoo circles, played a huge part in reigniting that flame.
I also just wanted to challenge myself to do a series, because my art tends to be one-off pieces rather than cohesive sets of any sort. A bonus is that it's also a great way to study all these different animals (and find new ones I didn't know about before!) because some degree of research is required in order to make them not terrible or too inaccurate. Comparing the myriad shapes past animals took is also good practice for when I go to design my own creatures, and indeed, several of my most-admired creature designers started with, dabble in, or are at least inspired by paleontological reconstructions.
How do you choose what animals to feature for Paleo Portraits? You've covered an impressive diversity of taxa so far.
At first it started out just being ones Scott Hartman had skeletals of, but then it kind of mushroomed out further (but still only ones with acceptable reference). Looking up one animal often leads to a wiki-walk in which I find several more animals so there's actually kind of a backlog I'll go and pick from or just start a new one, chosen more on whim than anything else. Though if there is an event or a certain animal or group is seeing a lot of press or being discussed I will sometimes use that to inform my choice. And as for the diversity, that's part of the goal of the project, though my preferences definitely still are in evidence at this stage.
What are your early memories of dinosaur art, stories, or other media?
What exactly first sparked my interest in prehistoric life is lost to history, but I do remember having watched Jurassic Park as a wee little girl, and I can't even count how many times I saw The Land Before Time. I also remember We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story and the obscure, vaguely animated VHS version of Michael Berenstain's I ♥ Dinosaurs that got watched a lot. Later, when Walking with Dinosaurs first aired, I think I saw it at a friends' house and we got really into it.
As for books, I would have to go back to mom's and dig through the attic to find/remember any others, but the ones I can think of off the top of my head are Raptors!: The Nastiest Dinosaurs and AMNH's Book of Dinosaurs and Other Ancient Creatures. The latter of those was probably one of the first things that really introduced me to the world of prehistory beyond just the (mostly) Mesozoic rock stars, and was especially fascinating for that reason, though both books had very memorable art.
I don't think there's much outside of film/TV/books but when we got our first computer around '94-'95, (I think) it came with a bunch of these educational DOS games, one of which was called 3D Dinosaur Adventure. It's exceedingly dated now, but it blew my tiny child mind at the time and I played it to death. And, of course, we had quite a number of dinosaur toys and whatnot, in particular I remember the nice rubber models my brothers and I played with in the sandbox, and a JP raptor action figure that I actually have here in my apartment somewhere. Oh, and my favorite thing in the world when I was maybe 5 or 6 was a tiny black Dimetrodon I named "Creamy" that came in one of those novelty egg-shaped soaps.
Walking with Dinosaurs has received surprisingly few nods in the interviews I've done, but I also was very inspired by it. Even though it's a bit dated now, I still rewatch it from time to time. do you have any favorite bits that have stuck with you?
I was only maybe twelve at the time so perhaps that is why it stuck with me. I rewatch it occasionally myself, too, as well as the Beasts and Monsters ones that came after. Walking with Monsters may actually be my favorite because of how it steps through the periods by sort of following the one lineage via those "evolution takes over" sequences in between segments while showcasing what's going on around each new iteration and its place in the ecosystem. Plus, there are scant few good programs that portray Paleozoic things or stem-mammalian ancestry in general. My soft spot for synapsids came about perhaps because of that show. My favorite bit of Walking with Dinosaurs was probably New Blood because I love origins of things and Triassic critters in general.
You've done amazing work that melds palaeoart and fantasy art - as in your gorgeous, Microraptor-inspired Amaruuk. As more non-avian dinosaurs are revealed by research to be virtual chimaeras of birds and lizards, it seems a fertile area of exploration. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired this in your own work?
Theropods to me are basically just bird dragons, two of my favorite things mixed together into something way too cool to not make a mythical mascot creature out of (though originally she was supposed to be a creation deity, a mother of all life sort of thing). Plus the ideas of mythical creatures in many ancient cultures come in part from found fossils. Extrapolating from observations and weaving tales and images from that is so very human. I love fantasy and mythos as well as real world zoology/paleontology so combining them seems only natural. Though we have a lot more data now than ancient people did, it's still fun to use it to create deities and beasts of legend.
There is another thing, though. A lot of fantasy art seems to portray creatures from a "monster" angle (though they are still inspired by real animal anatomy and so forth, and some of my favorite fantasy artists are in fact paleo nerds), or when I tell people I make creature art they say "Oh, you mean like monsters?" but personally my approach is what could be called the Alan Grant way. They're not monsters, just animals. They just do what they do. Rather than going full "awesomebro" or exploring the dark depths of the human psyche, I mostly enjoy just building on nature. That plus a little mystical majesty and the ocassional dose of childlike wonder is generally how I like my fantasy, and all the de-monstering and All-Yesterdaysing that paleoart is trying to do right now has certainly had some level of influence. Plus, I'm a 26-year-old woman who goes giddy as a schoolgirl just finding a perfectly ordinary lizard outside. Part of me just wants to put that feeling into my art, too. Life is really amazing, and fusing myth and fantasy with reality kind of brings it out for me. Heck, my piece, Guard of the East Tower, literally is that. I saw a green anole on my windowsill and painted it through the lens of fantasy.
Monsters are certainly central to the genre, but is there any fantasy fiction/ media that you think does a better job than most in regards to portraying creatures more as animals as opposed to monsters?
The portrayal of fantasy creatures as animals versus as monsters really depends more on what kind of story is being told and where they fit into the narrative. If it's central to the plot like a big kaiju or anomalous marauding creature in what is otherwise our reality or enemies in a video game then those are almost always monsters (though the latter also tends to have plain animals as early-on foes). But it tickles me most when creatures exist to flesh out a whole fictional world with its own ecosystem, usually an alien planet like Pandora from Avatar (I admit I'm kind of under a rock with media so I'm sure there are more that I'm simply failing to think of). Part of me really wants to see something like the Star Trek universe delve into its own planets' evolutionary histories and exobiology. More than any media or franchise, though, when I think of treating fantasy creatures as animals, my mind goes to specific artists like Terryl Whitlatch, Brynn Metheney, and Tiffany Turrill. I can't not get fired up looking at their work!
Besides a personal interest (and a real knack for it IMO), do you hope to produce palaeoart in the usual, scientific-illustration-accompanying-research-manner?
Why, thank you! While at this point I know I am nowhere near the level of people who are masters of anatomy and have their noses in up-to-date literature, I'd love to be able to have an opportunity like that in the future. Something along those lines that I really want to get into practicing for in the coming months is model making, as I think it'd be great to produce reconstructions for museums and things of that nature. Outreach about the history of life on earth is really important to me, so it would be an honor to someday be able to help actual paleontologists show their findings to the world. In the meantime I think it's also good to inject what I've gleaned from being connected to this community into hobbies and regular-people stuff, and just kind of help to normalize new discoveries. After all, I am no scientist. I just follow them on Twitter and buy their shirts, haha.
All work in this post is © Angela Connor and used with her permission. Please check out her website and purchase her fine wares at Redbubble. You can directly support her work by pledging at her Patreon page. Follow her at Twitter, DeviantArt, ArtStation, and Facebook, and Newgrounds, too. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Angela!