Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The First Life on Earth (Wonder Why book)

We return to the 1970s this week, with a book that encapsulates why it was such a wonderful decade for kids' dinosaur books. The First Life on Earth (1977, a Wonder Why Book of) is typical of so many children's books on prehistoric life in that it purports to offer a potted history of the evolution of animal life on Earth, while focussing disproportionately on dinosaurs. Of course, this is most certainly a Good Thing, as dinosaurs are the bestest animals ever and all us mammals should feel thoroughly inadequate. In addition, illustrator John Barber might employ the gigglesome palaeoart tropes of the period, but his technique is quite intriguing - his work rewards a closer look.

The cover is a nicely composed family portrait of archosaurian reptiles, with an intruding fish in the bottom left (and a dragonfly, of course). The tyrannosaur clearly hates having its photo taken, while the crocodile is, by contrast, quite the perma-grinning exhibitionist. Given their fixed sly grins and clear eagerness to sit still for photographs, it's surprising that no one has yet invented a crocodilian selfie stick. Gap in the market, there. Plus, they'd look far less hateful than humans do when they hold the things. Stupid mammals. But I digress significantly.

After a brief look at the rubbish blobby, simple organisms, marine invertebrates and scary placoderm fish that kicked off the first uneventful couple of billion years of life on Earth, the book gets to the good stuff: the DAWN OF TETRAPODS. Here, an enterprising, highly determined-looking fish is shown adorably employing its fins like stumpy legs to haul its way over the endless mud flats. An unlikely-looking fish, but a lovely illustration; the pink rock formations on the horizon are wonderful.

Quite fittingly, Plateosaurus is featured as the sole 'early dinosaur' among a range of other Triassic animals, including the crocodylomorph Saltoposuchus, here depicted as a Disney villain's sidekick. Meanwhile, the Crystal Palace-esque beastie at the top is an unusually gigantic Cynognathus. This piece is the first instance of Barber's strange tendency to illustrate bipedal dinosaurs with strongly downturned, pronated hands; one has to wonder where he got the idea from. All the same, one has to admire the vibrancy of the illustration, and in particular the glorious stripy mackerel-type pattern on the Plateosaurus. Rarely do basal sauropodomorphs look so fabulous.

By far my favourite spread in the book (so good, I actually went to the trouble of joining the two pages together) features a very depressed-looking Brontosaurus and a big-noggined Stegosaurus, enjoying peaceful co-existence at the watering hole, with nary an allosaur in sight. The animals are downright weird in places (although the stegosaur's damaged plate is a nice touch), but Barber's unusual technique here is quite fascinating; we don't usually get to see painterly palaeoart stylised like this. Given my concerning lack of knowledge on matters artistic, I turned to a Professional Illustrator of Books for their views on how Barber achieved such a distinctive style.
"There seems to be some kind of resist technique in the foliage...Alternatively, it could simply be a matter of pressing a sponge or cloth upon a patch of colour and lifting it to leave whatever impression has been made. It could have equally been done with a brush: pressed on the surface, twisted a bit, then lifted. Rather than painting it in strokes. Then once that has dried, the finer details are then worked in on top.
The sauropod's texture looks like a resist or interference technique, too. Its markings look as though the paint pigments have been allowed to granulate."
So there you go (thanks, Niroot). All I know is, it's really rather pretty; again, the patterns on the animals' skins are quite wonderful.

Unfortunately, I'm going to have to follow that quite delightful illustration with a pretty fugly Archaeopteryx. Behold its nekkid lizardy face and wing hands. Because wings...with hands...how would that even work? I love how it appears to be shrugging its shoulders. "Well, what are you gonna do?"

Larger theropods are represented by Gorgosaurus and Antrodemus (a now long-forgotten nomen dubium; basically, it's Allosaurus). Again, these display Barber's tendency to draw his bipedal dinosaurs with strongly downturned, oddly curling hands, which appear particularly bizarre on the Gorgosaurus - they just seem to be hanging there rather uselessly, more limp and ineffective than a pint of Boddington's. As is typical of the '70s, giant theropods are inevitably shown as very stocky and cumbersome-looking, not to mention a little unbalanced - as Christian Elridge pointed out over on our Facebook page, "[the Gorgosaurus] look like he's falling over backward", while the allosaur's legs only look suited to a slow, tail-dragging shuffle. No wonder it looks so gloomy.

Having said all that, the artistic technique remains very interesting here, particularly in the way that the foliage has been created. The animals themselves are also more brightly coloured and vibrantly patterned than any '70s dinosaur has a right to be. The juxtaposition of the glorious striped-'n'-spotty skin patterns with the lumpen, saggy frames of the frequently quite sad-looking '70s dinosaurs is remarkable in itself.

The book also deals with the end of the dinosaurs - as it must - but does so in a really odd way, with a life restoration of a 'pterodactyl' shown soaring over a fossil. Now, I'm not too up on my pterosaurs (which is why I tend to steer clear of the things), but as far as I can see this one isn't too bad for a '70s kids' book - there's even a layer of fuzz covering the body, and little evidence of the terrifying 'monsterisation' that afflicted contemporary ptero-art. The arms are incredibly bony, of course, but that was considered quite reasonable at the time, when pterosaurs were thought to have been constructed from cocktail sticks and tissue paper, and thus worryingly vulnerable to predatory dinosaurs, hailstones, strong gusts of wind and being looked at the wrong way.

And finally...a parade of prehistoric (and one or two modern) animals, with a truly Zallingerian heffalump of an Allosaurus taking pride of place (and yes, it's identified as Allosaurus here). Excellent skn texture, but the poor old dear appears to have lost its zimmer frame. The creatures aren't drawn to scale (hence the enormo-Edaphosaurus at left), but I do like the way the allosaur looms over the worried-looking Uintatherium. Yeah, you'd better hope he's not hungry...


  1. You are mistaken, Marc. Some of the higher-end pterosaurs were made of wire and silk, don't you know? ;)

  2. Those theropods are so obese and miserable looking, it's actually making me a bit depressed.

    Also, 'haul it's way'? That thing looks like it could win the London Marathon this weekend!

  3. Those poor sad sap theropods! The artist has a wonderful stippling technique though. I'm thoroughly impressed by it

  4. I'm kind of disappointed at the lack of a knock at the rather shocked look on the Gorgosaurus's face.

  5. Uh, "fugly"? Is that a Brit term?

    1. I don't think it's peculiar to Britain. It's just a contraction of 'fucking ugly'.

  6. The allosaurus is actually a rip off from the book "Dinosaurs and More Dinosaurs."

    It's a bad combination of the allosaurus (antrodemus) head and the gorgosaurus body, just in reverse.

  7. The allosaurus is actually a rip off from the book "Dinosaurs and More Dinosaurs."

    It's a bad combination of the allosaurus (antrodemus) head and the gorgosaurus body, just in reverse.


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