Sunday, July 10, 2016

Recreating an Age of Reptiles: Marc's review

While recent years have seen a number of books that celebrate palaeoart for its own sake (rather than featuring it in a purely illustrative context), not enough of them feature explanations by the artists as to why they made this or that choice when restoring long-dead animals. Why that colour pattern? Why that crest of scales? Why that unusual plumage distribution? Informed speculation is an absolute necessity, but it doesn't mean that (good) palaeoartists are just pulling the lever on an extinct beastie fruit machine and cobbling together the results. Perhaps the best aspect of Mark Witton's new book, Recreating an Age of Reptiles (aka Rec-a-Rep), is that Mark consistently provides the informed thinking behind his speculative choices, as well as explaining the science that forms the foundation of all his art. It's easily one of the best palaeoart books in years, and not just because Mark's artwork is often very lovely.

Images copyright Mark Witton, used with permission. Remember, "there's a special circle of hell...located halfway up Satan's bottom" for art thievin' types. (And book pirates.)

Mark's also keen on busting tiresome palaeoart tropes, but not at the expense of producing art that lacks aesthetic appeal. For all his depictions of theropod dinosaurs lounging around, sauropods threatening each other with body language, and swimming pterosaurs, this was perhaps most evident for me in his chapter on Mesozoic synapsids. Traditionally depicted cowering at the scaly feet of their saurian overlords, Rec-a-Rep gives these animals a chance to take centre stage in a series of visually arresting images. The Early Jurassic cynodont Kayentatherium is shown tenderly carrying a juvenile back to its burrow, a behaviour inspired by the parental tendencies of modern mammals, while the 'dinosaur killer' Repenomamus is shown in an atypically peaceful context, rolling in the leaf litter while sporting a fetching stripy coat.

Mark acknowledges that the above piece, featuring the tiny Middle Jurassic Stereognathus, is more typical of art featuring Mesozoic synapsids; after all, it features tiny, vulnerable, superficially shrew-like animals emerging after dark, with vastly larger theropod dinosaurs lurking in the background. However, and as Mark points out, the piece is enhanced by the striking, high-contrast colouration of the Stereognathus, and the wonderful use of light and shadow. Mark explains that his approach is to try and make animals appear striking without resorting to garish colours; after all,
"...modern animals show that they can be attractive, intricate-looking species without brilliant or vibrant colours...Palaeoartists often default to bright, even garish colours to make their animals appear engaging, but it might be that high-contrast patterning is a better supported way to create arresting but believable restorations."

Mark discusses believability a great deal; the art of going beyond a restoration that is merely scientifically plausible, to something that looks like it could have been painted from life. He contends that as palaeoartists, we needn't worry about our work becoming outdated - it is enough that we provide an easily understood and appealing snapshot of the state of the science at the time the piece was made. It's a combination of these factors that has kept the work of the 'Old Masters' of palaeoart (Knight, Zallinger, Burian et al.) appealing even today. Mark makes an effort to present prehistoric animals in an 'everyday' context. The Sinornithoides in the above piece, excellently composed around a skeletal tree, are typical in that they aren't dramatically fighting or devouring anything. They also sport precisely the right amount of speculative decorative plumage and intriguing colouration to make them believable as living creatures, painted by an artist sitting in a deckchair in Early Cretaceous Mongolia.

Naturally, Mark is as influenced as everyone else by All Yesterdays (which is duly namechecked here), but unlike some artists he has not seen that book as an excuse to unleash all manner of brightly-coloured silliness, or dress dinosaurs up as modern animals (except for those pigeon-therizinosaurs, mind). Further, his homages to the Old Masters will be greatly appreciated by any fan of classic palaeoart, and show his appreciation for the genre's history as much as the cutting edge. His Machairoceratops piece (above) might seem thoroughly modern, with its gloriously spiny and studded ceratopsians, but Mark explains that these features are a tip of the hat to Charles Knight's 'Agathaumas'. While tributes like this are made explicit, I can't help but feel that Mark also unconsciously apes the 'Old Masters' in a number of other pieces, which have a strikingly retro air in terms of composition and technique (and believability), while also featuring up-to-date reconstructions.

I would point to his most recent Spinosaurus reconstruction (above) as perhaps the best example of this. The painterly quality of this piece - along with the ponderous appearance of the giant spinosaur - harken back to the palaeoart of old. (Of course, one can well imagine that Spinosaurus was indeed very ungainly when on land.) In Rec-a-Rep, this piece is used alongside an older Spinosaurus reconstruction to illustrate how quickly our views of prehistoric animals can change, and apparently unassailable restorations can be rendered obsolete. This is also, naturally, a chance to indulge in one of my favourite pieces in the book, depicting a Crystal Palace-style Iguanodon alongside some super-cute chubby babies. (Evil Richard Owen with pith helment and elephant rifle not included.)

So, yes, this is a gorgeous and very important book. It's significant in presenting an artist-scientist's stunning palaeoart alongside not only an exploration of the background and influences behind each piece, but also a discussion of palaeoart - its history, its issues, and its place in palaeontology and science outreach. But mostly it's about really great palaeoart, and how it's made. A real must for anyone who regularly enjoys Mark's art, writing, and palaeoart in general, past and present. And yes, there are azhdarchids, too.



    Well, I definitely plan on getting this book.

  2. I'm still waiting for it to arrive in the post. But it was an automatic must buy for me as soon as I knew it was finally out. It looks really beautiful. I love the idea it portrays a slightly broader view of Mesozoic life than is usually the norm. He was supposed to have launched it at the last TetZooCon I think. But it seemed to be held up by other work for awhile.

  3. Replies
    1. Mark's term for people who distribute the book without permission.

    2. Ah, so like movie pirates. Thanks.

  4. Hey it’s arrived now in the post. What a wonderful book. More sumptuous and bigger format than I was expecting. The images are wonderful of course but the text is also really great too. Although I’m actually only about half way through. It’s a surprisingly big read. Every image has an explanation and the reasoning behind it fully explained. As an example, I’m so glad sauropod’s can have raised necks again now.
    As with all the best recent and most exciting paleo art, these paintings depict something that feels like real animals rather than legendary fantasy monsters. It feels especially true just flicking through and seeing them in quick succession. It’s great to see all the paintings from the blog brought together at last and it really adds up into a substantial vision now.

    Seeing them from an animator perspective I love the sense of naturalistic movement in so many of the depictions. All of the poses just feel so natural and real. And there is a real sense of anatomy always underlying all the living forms. Nothing forced, awkward or overly dramatic as is so often the case. The pterosaurs in particular. I just can see them moving so clearly. As vividly depicted on the ground scampering and striding around, as they are shown as real masters in the air.

    There are also those lovely naturalistic depictions of Waterhouse Hawkins Crystal Palace dinosaurs at the end. Reinforcing what amazing creations they will always will be. Despite being so quickly superseded by the science. The best paleo art will always last the ages. For me especially, Harryhausen’s One Million Years BC and Disney’s Fantasia will always be tied I think as my favorite all times dinosaur films. Truly great and sincere art will always remain so.
    Anyway highly, highly recommended. Anyone into Paleo art or the Mesozoic in general would want this. Feels like a real genuine labour of love.


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